I remember a conversation I had with my mom during my last year at the Seminary. At the end of that calendar year, her insurance would no longer cover me. I figured this wasn’t that big a deal. In six months I would get a Call and health insurance. Over the course of my life I’d been pretty healthy. What are the chances that in those six sans-health insurance months something catastrophic would happen? Besides, think of the money saved. Needless to say, Mom didn’t salute that idea.
Many try something similar. They don’t buy car insurance. They don’t buy health insurance. They don’t maintain their cars. They don’t buckle seat-belts. They don’t buy home-owners or renters insurance. They don’t put aside money just in case they lose their job. Maybe some of that many sits in this room. Sometimes you get burned. You break a bone or catch a weird virus in the time between insurance coverages. You happen to drive into a speed trap and have no proof of insurance. Maybe you’ve managed to coast your way through and never get burned, or, better, caught. But even though getting caught with your pants down like this comes with consequences – fines, tickets, hefty price tags, not having cable anymore – are any of those eternal?
Don’t for a minute think that God operates that way. Just to make that clear, Jesus tells a striking parable.
Ten women get ready for a wedding reception. They get dolled up, dressed up, made-up, and whatnot. Then they get their lamps ready because they’re not sitting at the reception hall having a drink, taking advantage of the wedding couples’ hospitality. These wedding attendants wait outside for the Groom to come so that they can escort Him to the reception.
At this point we make a division: Jesus separates the sheep from the goats. Jesus says some of these women were smart; some not. The smart ones didn’t just bring lamps; they brought extra oil. The foolish ones just brought lamps, not remembering that almost nothing happens on time at a wedding. This wedding was no exception. The Groom delayed His arrival. He didn’t just show up twenty minutes late. He arrived in the middle of the night.
Then the cry goes out, like Paul’s archangel voice, “The Groom’s here!” The women awake. They light their lamps. Or, at least five do. The five who brought their oil. The other five try, but no oil means no fire. With none to spare, the five prepared women suggest that the fools go buy more oil. They go. The Groom arrives. The five ready ladies go in and the Groom shuts the door.
When the five foolish women arrive all oiled up, they find the door locked. They knock and ask to be let in, but the Groom says, “I don’t know who you are. Go away.”
The fools made a bet. They bet that they had enough oil. They bet that the Groom would come quickly. They bet that the other, better prepared women might be able to spare them a square. They bet that the Groom would let them in, even though they failed to do the one thing in their job description. They lost that bet. For their disrespect, their unpreparedness, the Groom denied them entrance and treated them like strangers.
With a parable we can ask Luther’s question, “What does this mean?” Jesus made that clear. He summarized the parable. “Keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.” What day? What hour? Go back to the beginning of Matthew 24, where the disciples asked Jesus, “What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?” The rest of Matthew 24 and 25 answers that question. The day and the hour Jesus alerts us to is the last day, the last hour, the day on which your Lord Jesus Christ comes, the day of last judgment.
This parable talks of that time, the end time. Now. He warns us that the Christian Church really divides into two groups. There are those who are prepared, prudent, smart, and ready; and there are those who are not. In other words, there are those who are members of churches and really are members of the Church; and there are those who are members in name only. They carry the right identification with them. They mouth some of the right words. They know the secret handshake. But that’s all just a show. They’re foolishly unprepared.
Is your soul prepared? What does that mean? These women waited for the Groom. We wait for Christ. The Groom delayed His arrival for a significant amount of time. It’s been 2,000 years and counting. Is your soul prepared? Do you have your oil? Or are you counting on borrowing someone else’s oil?
Because you can’t, you know. When the Groom comes you’re on your own. No one else’s faith can save you: not your parents or Godparents or the Church’s. No saint’s merits overflow into your account. No virgin mother intercedes for you. No angels pave the way and remove obstacles. Either you have faith in Christ. Or you don’t. Jesus didn’t live and die and rise for that guy, who then paid it forward to a guy who paid it forward to a guy who paid it forward to you. Jesus lived and died and rose for you. He filled his lamp with your sins and then poured out all that oil in living and dying and rising again, for you. For you to grasp on to and hold on to and believe in. Either you have oil in your lamp. Or you don’t.
Yet we take too many uncalculated risks, don’t we? “He hasn’t come since then, why would He come today?” “I can always read my Bible and come to Bible class tomorrow?”(How does that work with your diet and exercising?) “I could stop committing this sin anytime; I’m just not going to do it today.” “I can start training my children in the way they should go later, it’s more important that they learn how to hunt or fish or dance or score goals right now.” What if Christ comes and He finds your life and the life of your family and children so meticulously planned in every area except one? What if He comes and sees your retirement plans, investment plans, employment plans, education plans, family plans, vacation plans, relaxation plans, home improvement plans, this-that-and-the-other-thing plans, but no Jesus plan?
He’ll come. He’ll lock the door. And there’ll be no appeal. What we don’t realize about this is how quickly and easily we run out of oil. We think we’ve got enough because we were confirmed years ago or because we listened to a sermon this week or got some gospel in Sunday School or Bible class, and didn’t sleep through much of it. But look at all the chances to oil up that we miss.
Did you read and comprehend the lessons today or try to figure out if the Gospel lesson you have to stand for is the longest one? Did you pay attention to the words of the hymns or just grin that it’s got a really great melody you like? Do you listen to what you sing in the liturgy and say in our prayers or just drift along until it’s done? Do you really get what happens at the altar when I say, “Given and shed for you for your forgiveness” or do you just come because the usher’s standing there waiting for you?
Do you get that each week Christ comes again bringing you the results of His death for you? He comes and forgives you again, forgives you because you need it, because I need it, because I keep losing the oil, dumping out the oil, and forgetting to put the oil in? Do you get that what you have in the Bible, in your Baptism, and in the Holy Supper is God filling you up with oil, giving you the oil you need, filling you up with Christ?
Do you get that that’s why we spend so much treasure and energy to provide Christian education: Sunday School, Bible class, Lutheran school? It’s not to cut you off from the world and brainwash you in the only right way to think or do math. It’s not because we have the market cornered on educating children or preparing people to be productive citizens. It’s not a clever way to generate revenue. God says we need lamps filled with oil, oil enough to last until death takes us or He comes again, and the only way we get that is from the Spirit daily and fully filling us with oil from the Word of God. So we bring the Word to young and old alike, to parents and children, grandparents, widows, elderly, singles, and college students, because through that Word the Spirit prepares us for life now and life eternal. That’s what the Church seeks, what we look forward to and hope for: to be saints triumphant.
In the Holy Christian Church, that’s exactly what our God does. Saints get to be triumphant saints – saints in heaven – because they’re prepared. Prepared by the Groom Himself, prepared by Christ. Look at His warnings. “I’m coming. Here are the signs. Here’s what you need.” Then look how He provides it. He gave His body into death for you. He still gives His body for your forgiveness and life. He poured out His blood upon the cross for you. He still pours out His blood for you, into you, for your forgiveness and life.
He provides the oil. He prepares you. For free. You don’t buy an indulgence. You don’t pay your priest to say a mass. You don’t say so many prayers to saint whoever-it-is. It’s just Jesus saying, “Come to me. You’re weary and burdened. I’ll give you rest. As much rest, as much oil, as you need.” Today we rejoice that the dead who die in Christ have this rest eternally and we ask Christ to preserve us in the faith, preserve us in Him, and keep us steadfast in the Word that prepares us and preserves us, so that we join the dead in Christ, the saints triumphant, at His wedding feast in heaven. Amen.