Posted by: Johnold Strey | November 16, 2008

Sermon on Matthew 25:1-13

ARE YOU READY FOR JESUS’ RETURN?

Text: Matthew 25:1-13

Introduction

Life is full of deadlines.  When April 15 rolls around, the taxes have to be paid, or at very least you’ll need to file for an extension.  You have tasks for work that your supervisor expects will be done in a timely manner.  Your credit card bill arrives in the mail, and it needs to be paid on time lest you incur a late fee and interest charges.  Christmas is coming, and the presents you plan to purchase for your family ought to be purchased before December 25 shows up.

We are used to lives with deadlines.  And so we won’t have any difficulty relating to the mother of all deadlines that Jesus describes in the Gospel for today, the parable of the wise and foolish virgins.  Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25 is designed to get us thinking about that day in the future when he returns to bring all his saints home in triumph to heaven.  Of all the deadlines in our life, this is the one deadline for which we dare not be found unprepared!  Jesus doesn’t want to find us unprepared, and so we ought to ask ourselves a searching and important question as we study this parable.  The question God’s Word addresses to your hearts this morning is this: Are you ready for Jesus’ return?

Exposition

When I was a student at the seminary, our education professors regularly taught us to use illustrations in our teaching.  If people didn’t understand what we were saying by explaining it directly, sometimes an illustration from everyday life could communicate the point more clearly.

That’s what Jesus does in today’s Gospel.  Talk about the end of time and eternal life is hard for terminal human beings to understand.  So Jesus tells a story that relates the point in everyday terms.  The everyday terms Jesus uses aren’t from our contemporary world, but from the Jewish world that was contemporary to Jesus and his followers.  Jesus’ parable of the wise and foolish virgins keys off a common cultural custom among first century Jews.  When a couple became engaged, there was a legal betrothal ceremony that took place, officially uniting the couple as husband and wife.  But the couple did not live together as husband and wife right away.  Some set time later, there was a formal processional where the husband and his groomsmen left his house, arrived at the bride’s home, and led the bride and her bridesmaids to the groom’s home.  There was a banquet, and then the couple began their new lives together.  This was the custom Jesus used in his parable to illustrate his point and to get his listeners to ask themselves if they were ready for his return.

The ten virgins Jesus mentions in the parable would be the bridesmaids from our perspective.  When the groom arrived to bring his bride home, they were going to accompany the procession to the groom’s house.  Jesus said that half of them were wise and half were foolish, because half of them were prepared for a long night of waiting and the other half were not.  Five of them brought oil to keep their torches lit into the evening, but the other five didn’t bring any extra oil with them.

You can probably figure out that the ten virgins describe people who are waiting for the return of Jesus, the bridegroom in the parable.  But what about the oil-what does that stand for?  Theologians have speculated what Jesus had in mind.  Did the oil stand for the Word of God, or faith, or the Holy Spirit, or maybe all of the above?  We don’t know for sure, but what we can see from the start is that Jesus is concerned about people who think they are ready for his return, but really aren’t.  You can see the fatal consequences from a failure to prepare for Jesus’ return as you follow the five foolish virgins in the parable.

The bridegroom took a long time to arrive.  In fact, the arrival didn’t happen until the middle of the night.  And so the bridesmaids started to nod off like tired travelers trying to get sleep on an airplane.  Finally, the announcement sounded.  The groom was on his way!  The sleepy virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps.  Much like the burnt wick of a candle, their torches needed to have the burnt wicks removed.  Then they applied more oil to their torches and-voila-they had light again…except for half of them.  The foolish five forgot to bring extra oil, and the wise five couldn’t share their personal supply with the others because there wasn’t enough for everyone.  That point in the parable is a reminder that each person believes in Jesus for himself or herself.  You can’t believe for someone else.  A wife can’t believe for her husband.  A parent can’t believe for a child.  A person can’t believe for his friend or neighbor.  Each individual person needs to be ready for Jesus to return, and no one else can prepare another person for that day.

The foolish five lived to regret their decision.  I’m not sure where they expected to find oil sellers in the middle of the night, but their unprepared situation sent them to do just that.  And by the time they returned and arrived at the couple’s home, the door was locked.  The banquet had begun.  The places at the table were taken.  The latecomers had no room, and they had no one to blame but themselves.  “‘Sir, sir,’ they said, ‘open the door for us!’  But [the groom] replied, ‘I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.'” And with that, Jesus ends the story with this sober warning: “Therefore, keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.”

The way that Jesus told this story wasn’t exactly true-to-life.  The virgins or bridesmaids probably would have been waiting with the bride, not waiting someplace else to join the groom on the way to meet his bride.  The groom would not have been so late as to arrive in the middle of a dark night, and latecomers to the banquet would not have been locked out.  But Jesus didn’t tell this parable to give us insights into ancient Jewish culture.  Jesus told this parable to give us insights into our spiritual preparation for his return.  And here’s the question every person, yes, even every Christian needs to hear: Are you ready for Christ’s return?

I think one of the most interesting points of this parable is that it is really directed at Christians.  Jesus’ words aren’t aimed at the unbelieving world, but at people who say that they are ready for Jesus to return.  All ten virgins expected the groom to arrive, but not all ten were ready.  And the conclusion of the parable sounded a lot like something else Jesus said in an earlier section of Matthew’s Gospel: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven” (Matthew 7:21).

Application

Why would Jesus warn believers about being ready for his return when there are so many others in our world today who don’t believe in Jesus and are not ready for his return?  It’s not that Jesus isn’t concerned about the lost.  But in this specific section and in this specific parable, Jesus is concerned that the found do not become lost again.  He is concerned with the spiritual complacency and short-sightedness that says, “I know Jesus is my Savior.  I’m good to go.  I’ll coast my way into heaven.”

I will go so far as to say that this spiritual short-sightedness is alive and well!  Just consider the following.  In our church body, a church body that takes pride in the fact that we hold firmly and faithfully to all God’s Word has to say, we average about 44% of our confirmed membership in church on a given Sunday.  Among that 44% are some people who come weekly, some who come every other week, some who come monthly, and some who come even less.  And even though part of the 56% not in church may have a good reason — illness, homebound elderly members, travel out of town, family emergency, or a one-time schedule conflict — the better part of the group that isn’t here chooses convenience over Christ.  It may be Sunday brunch, it may be sleeping in, it may be a day at the beach, it may be projects around the home, it may be something altogether different, but what it really is, is spiritual short-sightedness.  Just as the foolish virgins weren’t prepared for a long night of waiting and watching, we can loose sight of the fact that we need to keep our faith well-fueled and burning brightly during the long waiting and watching that comes before Jesus’ return.  You don’t want to hear the bridegroom behind a locked door say, “I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.” But the spiritual complacency that fails to take advantage of every reasonably opportunity to connect to the Word of God is flirting with that very prospect.

Are you ready for his return?  Just hearing the question and thinking about an honest answer should put a lump in our throats.  The sinful spiritual complacency that shows up in various ways is more than enough proof of the sin that resides in our hearts and the sin that separates us from God.  We could never be ready for Christ’s return even on our best day.  And that is why he intervened for us.  We could never come face-to-face with God, but God in his grace came face-to-face with the human race in the person of his Son, Jesus Christ.  Jesus’ first order of business was to make us ready by removing sin from our record.  Jesus came face-to-face with Satan’s temptations in his life on this world, and he came face-to-face with hell’s punishments for our sin in his death on the cross.  And now, risen from the dead, Jesus declares to you that your sin has been buried in his tomb and you have risen to new spiritual life.  God has declared you holy and innocent in his eyes.  God has done everything make you right with him now so that you can stand righteous before him on the Last Day.

But God takes your spiritual preparation a step farther.  Not only did he send his Son to win your forgiveness, but he sends you his Spirit to sustain your faith.  His Holy Spirit adopted you in your baptism.  His Holy Spirit is at work in your heart as we gather around the Scriptures and gather around this altar.  His Holy Spirit is at work using the forgiveness applied to you through his holy Word and Holy Baptism and Holy Communion to sustain you as God’s holy son or daughter.  Even when you and I are tempted to get complacent with our spiritual preparation for Jesus’ return, God is never complacent about our preparation.  He wants to see you prepared, and that’s why he wants you here in worship and study every possible moment so that he can make you ready for his Son’s return.

Conclusion

I don’t know about the rest of you, but for better or worse, I’m one of those people who tends to not get things done far in advance.  After seven years of ministry, most sermons seem to get written on Saturday night.  There’s a veteran WELS pastor in Southern California I know who writes his sermons about six months in advance!  Now that’s preparation!  I doubt I’ll ever be that prepared!

Whether or not you prepare for your tasks well in advance or at the last minute, there is one thing you don’t want to wait to prepare for, and that’s Christ’s return.  Our worship today has us in mind of eternal life in heaven, and that’s something we don’t want to miss for any reason.  So be ready!  Be ready by coming here, to God’s house, so that he can continue to make you ready.  Then, when talk about eternity comes up, you don’t have to wonder or worry where you stand with God.  Then you will know that Jesus’ grace from his heart and the Holy Spirit’s work in your heart has made you ready for his return.  Amen.

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