The Bridegroom Comes When You Least Expect. Be Prepared!
Pastor James Preus
Trinity Lutheran Church
"Watch, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour." Jesus himself tells us the theme of this parable. Watch! Be prepared! This is a message of urgency. Why so urgent? Because you don't know when Christ will return in judgment. St. Paul says, "the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night." (1 Thess. 5:2) And Jesus says, "But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into." (Matthew 24:43) So also, Christ will come when you do not expect, so you must always be prepared for his coming.
Jesus tells us a story to emphasize this urgency. The Bridegroom is Christ Jesus. He comes to take his bride. The ten virgins are Christians, well, at least in appearance. The foolish virgins are Christians in appearance only. Like virgins, they look pure. They go to church and receive the Sacrament. They are on the membership rolls. But they don't actually have faith in Christ. The wise virgins are the true Christians. Their wisdom is not that acquired at universities or even the prestigious time-earned University of Life. Their wisdom is the wisdom of the Holy Spirit. Their wisdom is faith, which trusts in Christ alone for eternal salvation.
The foolish virgins are foolish, because they didn't bring oil with their lamps. The wise virgins are wise, because they did bring oil. Oil symbolizes faith. Without oil the lamps are useless. You might as well not bring them. Oil is needed to brighten the path. If it is midnight and you have no oil, you have no light and no way to greet the Bridegroom when he comes. So also without faith you cannot even recognize Christ at his return.
What is faith? Faith is not only knowledge of God and who Jesus is, but it is a firm trust that God will do as he promises in Christ Jesus. By faith you believe that your sins are truly forgiven for the sake of Christ. By faith you believe that Christ returns not to condemn you, but to receive you as his own and give you eternal life.
The Bridegroom delays. The virgins fall asleep. There is much speculation as to what it means to fall asleep. To fall asleep can symbolize falling into a life of sin. To fall asleep can also mean to die. Jesus probably mentions that they fall asleep here to emphasize that they don't know when the Bridegroom is coming. The Bridegroom comes at midnight; an unexpected time to receive anyone. No one, neither the foolish nor the wise knew that the Bridegroom would arrive at that time. And yet, the wise are not caught off guard as St. Paul writes, "But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are children of the light." Although the sun's rays are banished, the wise virgins' lamps shine bright. They are prepared for the Bridegroom to come at any time. Their faith lights the way.
To have faith is to trust like a child. A child trusts that her parents will take care of her. She doesn't worry about where her food will come from, where she will sleep, if the heat will stay on, or if her father will come home, unless something terribly wrong happens. Normally I help put our children to bed, read them stories, say prayers and sing hymns with them. But when I have an evening meeting, Bible study, or Saturday night church I don't get back until after Theresa has put the kids to bed. But when I open the front door, I will hear from Clara's bedroom, "Daddies home!" Clara was waiting up in bed for me to come home. I go up, sing her a hymn and kiss her goodnight. But sometimes, I'm delayed and when I go to give Clara a good night kiss she is already asleep. She grew tired of waiting.
But Clara didn't stop trusting that I would come home. She fell asleep. She's two. But she fell asleep confident that her father would come home. She's not surprised to wake up in the morning to find me getting ready for the day. And so it is with those of faith. They trust that Christ will return. They don't know when. But they are confident he will return and love them as he promised he would. And as they wait they trust that Christ will continue to forgive their sins and protect them from every attack of the devil, just as a little child trusts that her parents will provide her with all she needs each day.
You must have oil or you won't be ready. You must have faith or you will be unprepared. But oil runs out. You must know where to get it. Where do you get faith?
"Faith comes from hearing and hearing through the word of Christ," so says St. Paul in Romans 10:17. Faith is a gift from God (Ephesians 2:10) The Holy Spirit creates faith through the proclamation of the Gospel. The Gospel is a special word. It tells you that God sent his Son Christ Jesus into the world to save sinners. (1 Tim. 1:15) It is by Jesus' death that all sins are taken away. Through this proclamation a terrified sinner is brought to reconciliation with God. God himself creates sincere trust in the hearts of people through the promise of God's love, forgiveness, and grace.
God's Word creates faith, but as I said, oil runs out. It burns. So you must know where to find more. When a Christian is baptized and brought to faith Satan, the world, and his sinful flesh work hard to burn out the oil of faith. They lead into temptation, cast doubts, and present attractive false gods before the Christian, anything that will run out the oil and snuff out the lamp.
So the Christian must continue to hear God's word, to fill up with that oil that lights the way. The Christian does this by hearing God's Word and receiving Christ's body and blood in faith for the forgiveness of sins. This is how the Christian prepares for that Day that will come as a thief, as the author to the Hebrews writes, "Do not neglect to meet together as is the habit of some, but encourage one another, and all the more as you see the Day drawing near." (Hebrews 10:25)
But the Christian doesn't hear God's Word and receive the Sacrament simply to be prepared, like a man dutifully filling up his tank with gas before driving a long distance. If you are a Christian, you want to hear God's Word. You yearn for Christ's body and blood in the Sacrament. The Psalmist writes, "Lead me in the path of your commandments, for I delight in it." (Psalm 119:35) The Christian loves God, wants to be with God. Like a little girl waiting for her daddy to come home and give her a kiss; or a wife waiting up for her husband to return and embrace her and tell her he loves her, so a Christian desires to be with God, to hear his word, to receive his grace. The proclamation of the Gospel not only creates faith, but faith desires to hear the proclamation of the Gospel.
The word for wise used in this text comes from the word to think. To be wise in the Holy Spirit means you want to learn the mysteries of God. You want to read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest God's teachings. Faith drives you to hear God's Word as often as you can. It makes you hungry for more knowledge of Christ, of God's love for you and his desire for you. Faith causes you to treat God's Word and Sacraments as a priceless treasure. It is what causes parents to bring their babies to be baptized, to talk to them about Jesus before they can even speak. A living faith causes you to confess your faith often, to discuss it with your family and friends, and to always desire to learn more.
If such a desire is weak in you, if you are bored with the Gospel or hate hearing it or talking about it, your oil may be low or even out. You need to hear God's Word or you will not be prepared.
When the Bridegroom arrived suddenly the foolish virgins were caught off guard. They had no oil. They asked the wise virgins to share. But no one can have faith for another. Each person must have his own faith. So the fools ran off to buy oil. But there was no time. This is how many people think. I don't need to go to church. It will always be there for me when I need it. They treat faith like Wikipedia. I don't need to know the answer. I can always look it up when I need it. But you can't. Christ will return like a thief in the night and there will be no time. You either have oil or you don't. You either have faith or you don't.
"Amen, I say to you, I do not know you," the Bridegroom will say to the foolish virgins from behind a locked door. "Amen." That is what we say at the end of a prayer to confess, "Yes, yes, it shall be so!" But here the Bridegroom says, "Yes, yes, I say to you, I do not know you." There is no worse sentence to hear. It is a proclamation of judgment. And it leaves no room for uncertainty. Those without faith will be shut out of the marriage feast. Rather they will be cast to the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.
But those who were ready went in with the Bridegroom to the marriage feast. What will it be like for them? St. John writes in Revelation 21, "And I saw the holy city, new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband. And I heard a loud voice from the throne saying, 'Behold, the dwelling place of God is with man. He will dwell with them, and they will be his people, and God himself will be with them as their God. He will wipe away every tear from their eyes, and death shall be no more, neither shall there be mourning, nor crying, nor pain anymore, for the former things have passed away.'" (2-4)
Christ Jesus is the Bridegroom. His holy bride is the Church, the community of saints washed clean by his blood. You are not simply attendants to this wedding following in the procession. You are the bride. Christ is your husband. And as a husband gives all that he has to his bride, so Christ gives all things to you. St. Paul writes, "If God gave us His Son, how then has He not also given us all things." (Romans 8:32) Christ gives all he has to his Church. He defeated sin, death, and the devil. So you have victory over these three tyrants. Christ has an eternal kingdom, so you too receive heaven as your home. Health, peace, gladness, they are all yours. Your tears will be wiped away, your mourning will be no more, and death will be a forgotten memory.
All this you can expect, although you don't know when to expect it. But with your flask filled with oil from God's Word you are as certain that Christ will come and give you all this and more as a little girl is certain her daddy will kiss her goodnight. With such faith you are prepared.