Monday, November 10, 2014

Sermon on Matthew 25:1-13, for the 22nd Sunday after Pentecost, "Meet the Bridegroom!"

Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. Today’s parable of the ten virgins calls the church to be ready for Christ’s second coming. The church is pictured as ten pure, young women invited to a wedding feast, and waiting with lamps for the Bridegroom and (it’s implied) the Bride to arrive for the feast to begin. Wedding celebrations are famous for delays, then as much as today. With all the preparations and joy, no one notices the time; the couple and the guests celebrating and savoring the moment. Though Jesus doesn’t describe the wedding customs, it may be that He had in mind a Middle Eastern custom of the bride and groom going on a long, slow, winding parade through the streets of town as everyone celebrated with them, before returning to the home for the wedding feast with the invited guests. In any case, the ten virgins were invited and waiting, and all fell asleep because the delay was so great.

This is a parable about preparation and readiness, about waiting and Christ’s coming again, as the Bridegroom who ushers His church into the eternal, heavenly wedding feast. We especially don’t want to miss the meaning of this parable, because the foolish virgins were left out of the feast, while the wise were ready and welcomed in. If we have ears to hear the parable, we will want to know whether we are ready and prepared, or not. And if we’re not ready, it’s a call to readiness; a call to fill our flasks with oil and watch because we do not know the day or the hour. And the climax of the parable is the coming of the Bridegroom and the ushering in of the celebration and the guests who are ready.

Notice that all ten women are identical in every way—they had accepted the invitation to the banquet, they brought their lamps, they all fell asleep during the wait. They differed only in one respect. The wise brought extra oil with them, anticipating a possible delay; and so were ready, while the foolish, who had no extra oil, were not. The Christian church is filled with people attracted by the promise of heaven, the wedding feast, and who want to be there, but not all will enter. Christ’s delay in coming is a challenge to every Christian. Will you continue to believe and wait? Will you watch and pray? Every believer is overcome at times by spiritual sleep—we might remember Jesus’ admonishing the disciples who prayed with Him in the Garden of Gethsemane, on the night of His betrayal. As they continued to fall asleep, He urged them to pray, saying, “The spirit is willing, but the flesh is weak.” All Christians suffer from the same weakness in the flesh that fights against our spirit. But it was not falling asleep that kept any of them out of the feast—as they all awoke when the cry came, “Here is the Bridegroom! Come out to meet Him!

What kept them out of the feast was that the foolish ran out of oil, and left to get more when the Bridegroom finally arrived. Our preparation, our readiness for Jesus’ return, is not something we can borrow from someone else, as we learn in the parable, but we all have to be ready ourselves. They are dreadful words that the foolish virgins hear, when they come back too late, and find the door to the feast has already been closed. They cry out “Lord, Lord, open to us!” and they hear the reply, “Truly, I say to you, I don’t know you.” No guest ever wants to hear these words and miss out on the wedding feast. And if we have ears to hear the parable, and watch and get ready accordingly, we will never have to. One of the hardest lessons of Jesus’ parable is that the kingdom of heaven has a door, and that the door will one day be closed. In a related passage, in Luke 13:24-25, Jesus says, “Strive to enter through the narrow door. For many, I tell you, will seek to enter and will not be able. When once the master of the house has risen and shut the door, and you begin to stand outside and to knock at the door, saying, ‘Lord, open to us,’ then he will answer you, ‘I do not know where you come from.’” After the master shuts the door, no one else will get in.

In both passages, and also in a related passage in Matthew 7, the Lord answers those who are shut out, “I don’t know you.” His knowing them is key to who gets in. In our parable, it’s apparently because they were not waiting and ready when He arrived, that He does not know them. In Luke 13 they claim to know of Him, but it does not sound like a personal knowledge or relationship, and He says they are workers of evil. In Matthew 7 those who are shut out are also described as workers of lawlessness, and those who did not do the will of our Father in heaven, though they claimed to do miracles in Jesus’ name. These, and yet another parallel passage in Luke 12 all show us the need to be ready to serve the Lord and do His will, and be ready at any time for His coming. Readiness includes a personal faith and trust in Jesus; you can’t get in on someone else’s “coattails.” Readiness means doing the will of our Father, as John 6:40 says: “For this is the will of my Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day.” Putting all these passages together, we understand that Jesus doesn’t know those who don’t know and believe in Him. He also doesn’t know those who claim His name but are workers of evil and ignore His Father’s will.

None of us wants to be found in this situation, and none of us wants to be shut out of the wedding feast. The joy of the celebration is too great to miss, and the invitation to the banquet is freely given to all who would receive it, as so many of Jesus’ other parables teach us. And there is a Way for us to enter into the banquet—and that Way and that Door is Jesus. The readiness for the banquet, having oil in our lamps, is not difficult or out of reach, but God has made His gifts of salvation freely available and accessible to all. The foolish virgins are sent off to the dealers to buy oil, which they are able to do—even after midnight—so accessibility was never the problem. It was neglect to be ready. And what is the cost of God’s gifts? Isaiah 55 tells us what the gifts of salvation cost to us, in the language of the marketplace: “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price. 2 Why do you spend your money for that which is not bread, and your labor for that which does not satisfy? Listen diligently to me, and eat what is good, and delight yourselves in rich food.” What does it cost to buy God’s gifts? They’re free! Without money, without price! They’re rich and satisfying gifts.  

You see, there is no reason that anyone should lack the gifts of salvation that God so freely gives. The Way and the Door to enter the banquet is Jesus Christ, and He has already paid the price for our admission in full. He paid the price on the cross, where Scripture tells us Jesus loved the church and gave Himself up for her (Eph. 5:25), so that He could cleanse the church and make her His own Bride. Jesus’ death on the cross is our forgiveness, our cleansing, our washing clean from the works of our weak flesh, and it is the renewal and life that gives us a willing spirit. We should remember Jesus’ promise that “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand” (John 10:27–28). Jesus knows those who believe in Him, and He will not let them go. 2 Timothy 2:19 echoes this: “But God’s firm foundation stands, bearing this seal: “The Lord knows those who are his,” and, “Let everyone who names the name of the Lord depart from iniquity.” We are Jesus’ sheep if we hear His voice and follow Him. He knows His sheep and His sheep know Him.

The way that we find out if we are among the chosen few, the wise; those who are known by Jesus and will be welcomed into the banquet—cannot be by looking to ourselves, or navel-gazing at our works or our faith. Though a watchful checking of our oil and of our flame may warn us of the signs of unreadiness, the signs of the weak flesh, or of oil running low. Is our faith weak or in doubt? Is our love lacking? Have we faltered in our hope and expectation of Jesus? God’s Law calls us to examination and finds us empty. But looking further inside ourselves is of no value, as we are not the source of the oil, but depend on an outside supply. The way that we know our place, and to whom we belong, and the way we know Him who knows us, is to look to Jesus. It’s to be known by Him (Galatians 4:9a). The way to have oil is to turn to Him. It’s to have our eyes focused on Jesus, the Living Water, the endless source of the Holy Spirit (John 7:37-39). With eyes fixed on Him, we are recipients, not self-producers, of the oil we need. With eyes fixed on Jesus we individually know and believe in the Bridegroom who is coming to bring us into His eternal celebration. And with oil supplied, with His free gifts of salvation poured into every watching and waiting heart, we’ll have lamps aglow and ready for His coming.

The waiting may be long, or it may be short. We do not know the day or the hour. But we know Him for whom we wait, and we prepare for the long haul, if He should be delayed. Remember that His seeming delay is a sign of His grace, as 2 Peter 3:9 tells us: “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” The Lord Jesus doesn’t want anyone to miss out on the celebration, but there will be a day when the door is closed, and many will not be ready. Even to the last hour of our life we can receive His invitation. Now is the day of salvation. Don’t be the one who dares to see how long you can drive on empty. Don’t decline God’s freely supplied gifts, and neglect the preparation He has called us to. Freely receive His gifts, hear His Word and promises that constantly teach us about Jesus and make us ready. Live daily in the washing of regeneration and renewal that baptism provides us—being washed as pure virgins in Jesus’ forgiveness. Come at His invitation to the foretaste of the feast to come, in the Supper of His body and His blood, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins. Be strengthened and renewed there in your confession as you proclaim His death until He comes. He is our Life and our supply, and with ready hearts we can rejoice and meet our heavenly Bridegroom with joy, to come into His everlasting feast. Do you know that some of the last words of Scripture are these? “The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let the one who hears say, “Come.” And let the one who is thirsty come; let the one who desires take the water of life without price” (Revelation 22:17) And Jesus says to us: “Surely I am coming soon.” And the church replies: “Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!” (Revelation 22:20b)

Sermon Talking Points

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  1. Read Matthew 25:1-13. What is the key message of this parable? What is the urgency of the parable, and how are we instructed to respond? Read Luke 12:35-48. How many similarities do you see in this parable(s)? Does it help your understanding of Matthew 25? How?
  2. Who is the bridegroom? Ephesians 5:23ff. What is the reason for His delay? 2 Peter 3:1-13, esp. vs. 9.
  3. The actions of the wise and foolish are identical in every way, even falling asleep during the wait; but differ only in one thing. What is it? How did that make the wise ready and prepared, even when they were awakened, and the foolish were not?
  4. Why could the wise not share their oil? What lesson does this teach us, in relation to our individual preparation for Jesus’ return? What are believers able to share with one another and what cannot be shared?
  5. The parable teaches that the kingdom of God has a door, and that the door will one day be shut. What (or who) is that door? John 10:7-9. When will it close? Matthew 25:10; Luke 13:22-30.
  6. Jesus “knows” the wise virgins who are ready and enter the banquet, but says, “Truly I say to you, I do not know you” to the foolish virgins who are shut out. What is the reason for this difference? 2 Timothy 2:19; Matthew 7:21-23. How are the gifts of salvation available? At great cost? Hard to obtain? Isaiah 55
  7. What is the joy of entering the wedding celebration? Who is the center of the celebration? Who is the unmentioned bride? Ephesians 5:23ff. Describe the goodness of being known by Jesus. John 10:14-15; 2 Timothy 2:19; Galatians 4:9a. Is this a reflection of our having deserved something or of the greatness of God’s Love?

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