Jesus calls the five virgins, who brought lamps without oil foolish. Why? Well, lamps aren't much good without oil, are they? They're just nice to look at. Everything that runs needs fuel. When I was a teenager I used to drive a 14' Alumacraft boat with a 1969 Johnson two-stroke 9.5 hp outboard motor, across Gunflint Lake. I made hundreds of trips across that lake with that motor. Yet, one day when I was crossing the lake with my younger brothers the motor quit working. There was nothing wrong with the motor. It just ran out of gas. As I rowed the boat toward the gas-dock my Dad drove by in his boat with my Mom. He laughed at me and kept driving. And he should have laughed. I was foolish. You can't run a motor without gas.
Jesus calls the five virgins with oil in their lamps wise. They are the ones, who will be ready when the Bridegroom comes. They will enter the wedding hall and enjoy the banquet. They are wise, because they have oil that fuels their lamps. Daniel chapter 12 similarly prophesies, "And many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And those who are wise shall shine like the brightness of the sky above; and those who turn many to righteousness, like the stars forever and ever." (vss. 2-3)
So, what is the fuel that we need, so that we will shine like the wise in this prophecy? Certainly, Jesus isn't telling us to keep flasks of oil wherever we go. The oil we need to fuel up on is wisdom. Now, not the world's wisdom. No, this wisdom is faith. It is foolishness to the wise in this world. The Holy Spirit caused St. Paul to express it quite well:
For since, in the wisdom of God, the world did not know God through wisdom, it pleased God through the folly of what we preach to save those who believe. For Jews demand signs and Greeks seek wisdom, but we preach Christ crucified, a stumbling block to the Jews and folly to the Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men." (1 Corinthians 1:21-25)
Christ crucified, this is our fuel. We await the return of Christ with hope, because he died for our sins to reconcile us to God. Our certainty of salvation, our certainty of God's forgiveness and love, our certainty of an open gate into the heavenly banquet rests in these words, "Jesus crucified for me." This is why the children in Wednesday School have learned by heart this hymn:
On my heart imprint Your image, Blessed Jesus, King of grace,
That life's riches, cares, and pleasures Never may Your work erase;
Let the clear inscription be:
Jesus, crucified for me,
Is my life, my hope's foundation,
And my glory and salvation! (Thomas H. Kingo, LSB 422)
There is no other hope of salvation. Many people have lamps, that is, they have the appearance of religion. They are nice and do good works for people. They look no different than any other Christian. If you saw the women standing in a line with their clay lamps, you wouldn't be able to tell which one has oil in her lamps and which one doesn't, until the Bridegroom arrives and the lamps need to be lit. Though the virgins bang on the closed door with their oil-less lamps, the Lord will not open to them. The appearance of faith does not save. Good works do not save. Only faith in Jesus Christ alone saves.
This is an urgent message from our Lord. No one knows when Jesus will return. He will arrive like a thief in the night. And when he comes you will not have time to go and fill your lamps. And many have a false security that their lamps are full. They say, well, I have faith. But if they are asked simple questions like, "who is Jesus," or "what did he do for you" or even, "how do you know that you will go to heaven" they stare blankly like deer in the headlights. But this isn't something to play games with. Jesus said to those faithless virgins, "I do not know you." No worse words can be spoken to you by Christ on the day of his heavenly banquet. You must have oil now and you must constantly make sure that your oil has not run out.
Where do you get oil now so that you are ready? The Psalmist confesses to God, "Your word is a lamp to my feet and a light to my path." (Psalm 119:105) Romans 10 states, "Faith comes from hearing and hearing through the word of Christ." (vs. 17) 2 Timothy 3 states, "All Scripture is breathed out by God and profitable for teaching, for reproof, for correction, and for training in righteousness." (vs. 16) You fuel up by hearing the Word of God.
You hear things all the time. And you believe things all the time. We're growing in all types of wisdom every day. But are you hearing what God says? Are you gaining his wisdom? Or is the wisdom you're gaining from the world making God's wisdom seem foolish to you? Oil runs out. And faith dries up too. Unless you continue to fill it up by hearing God's Word, you will not retain your faith.
One of the most glaring signs that someone's faith is weakening is when they stop regularly going to church. Hebrews 10 states, "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." (vs. 25) It is in church that we hear God's Word the most. It is there where it is explained and taught, where the Law is distinguished from the Gospel. It is in church where Christ feeds you his very body and blood, which we confess strengthens our faith toward God and our love for one another. It is in church where we encourage one another. Yes, having fellow Christians stand with you, confess the Creed with you, sing the hymns with you, listen to God's Word with you, that is encouraging! Even the Bible says so! So, when you go to church, you don't just do it for yourself, you do it for your brothers and sisters in Christ, who need encouragement in the Lord.
Our Epistle lesson states, "For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing." (1 Thess. 5:9-11) How do you know that God has destined you to obtain salvation? By hearing the Gospel that Jesus died for you, so that you might live with him. This is what Scripture teaches us to believe and confess. This is how Scripture teaches us to encourage one another: by confessing Christ and him crucified. The Gospel, that you can confess to your husband or wife, your children and your friends, this is that fuel that lights your lamp.
Yet, people don't like hearing the Gospel. They think it's boring. "I already know it." Or they think it's embarrassing, someone might think you're religious or a "Jesus-freak." And many are simply offended by it. If Jesus died for your sins, that means you have something about yourself that is wrong, that needs to be fixed. It means that you need to repent of your sins and try to amend your life. That ticks people off. "Don't tell me I have to change my attitude or behavior. The Jesus I know wouldn't be so judgmental. The Jesus I know would accept me for who I am." And so many, to save their own pride, invent a false-Jesus, who doesn't care about your sins and they reject the Jesus covered in the blood which washes away their sins.
I suppose their made-up Jesus also would have let in the five foolish virgins for having pretty lamps without oil. But the Jesus, who actually exists says to the faithless virgins, "I do not know you." And this is what Jesus says to those who refuse to repent of their sins and believe the Gospel.
For many, the real Jesus seems mean. They'd prefer the imaginary Jesus. So, many are led astray by a teaching called Universalism, which states that everyone will go to heaven. But the true Jesus is much more merciful than anyone could imagine. Our Lord Jesus, although he was in the form of God did not seek equality with God a thing to be grasped, but humbled himself to the point of death on the cross. He took our sins from us. If you could actually see the full weight of your sins and the damage they do to your soul, you would be horrified. And Jesus took all sins and suffered more than anyone could ever know for them. And Jesus welcomes us into heaven purely through faith in him, Jesus rescued you from real danger. Universalism mocks Christ's crucifixion and denies the existence of danger.
And so, we cling to the real Jesus in faith. We trust in his forgiveness and mercy. We let him feed our souls and fill our lamps. The world calls us foolish. This faith is nonsense to them. But this faith is the wisdom that gives salvation. And with this faith, our lamps will be lit, so that we will enter the heavenly banquet when our Bridegroom Jesus comes. Amen.