Though fairly well known, this section of Holy Scripture is an odd one. Jesus has been talking to the people about the judgment which God has for sin, and his death and resurrection which must pay the penalty for that sin. He predicts not only his death and resurrection, but also tells his disciples what the time of the church will be like The language he uses to describe his coming death is some of the most vivid in all of Holy Scripture. “Abomination of desolation” coming of the son of man, tribulation, sun darkened, stars fall from heaven. In this short sermon, as in few other parts of Holy Scripture, we hear of the suffering that the church must undergo, and the temptation to fall away. We hear that Satan is constantly working to turn the people of God away from God’s word to their own hearts desire, turning away from the sure, certain and unbreakable word of God to the whims and desires of their own sinful nature.
And then he tells a couple of parables. Today’s Gospel reading is the first. The parable of the Ten virgins and the wedding banquet. It is fairly easy to understand in its basic details, and yet it puzzles us. The overall meaning is fairly simple – the wedding banquet is the feast of victory which waits for us in the kingdom of God. The bridegroom is – as always – Christ. The virgins are the Church. Five wise, five foolish. Here again we are surprised – it seems half of the church won’t go to heaven. How do we know that the five foolish virgins are also part of the church, people who come every Sunday and seem very holy, but in the end, don’t make the cut? Because, they are waiting for the bridegroom, Christ, to arrive. The world, with all it’s cares and pleasures and sin, doesn’t really care all that much about Christ’s return. It certainly isn’t waiting. It doesn’t even bother to come to church to hear about Christ, much less stand around waiting all night.
Eventually, the virgins fall asleep – Jesus spoke of death as a sleep – and not even in parables, he did that when standing in graveyards and staring at dead bodies. So now, in a parable, sleep is obviously the death of these people. Go to the cemetery and look – Christians aren’t spared from death. The crosses on tombstones testify to the great number of dead Christians. They testify to the sin that still afflicts us. Baptism makes us holy in the sight of our Lord, but the sin remains in our bodies every day in this world. Our sinful nature is constantly trying to move us away from God’s word to our own thoughts and lusts. Eventually, overcome by sin, our bodies will succumb to death. We sleep, we await the return of the bridegroom so that we will awaken.
But here is the most troubling and confusing section of all – not all the virgins – not all the church – has enough oil. Not all go to heaven. Only some. Only those who endure. Only those who bring enough oil. OK, so pastor, tell us what the oil is and then we will know what to do. We will know what we have to have. Is it giving a certain percentage, or a certain dollar amount to the church? Is it attendance at every service, or at least a certain percentage of them, because if it is, tell us the magic number when have we attended church enough? Is it being on boards or committees or helping to serve meals, or being part of this group and that board and going to conventions and all that other stuff?
Many pastors will tell you that whatever the oil is is unimportant. That it doesn’t matter what the oil is, as long as you endure. But then, in what must we endure? Is good works enough? Is it enough to believe in a god – any god, so long as we do it consistently. Is it enough to be faithful to whatever we think is important? Obviously not, or the five foolish virgins would be inside – they were faithful to their own foolishness. No, the oil is important, because it is what separates the wise from the foolish virgins. If it doesn’t matter what the oil is, then instead of the clear message of Christ crucified, instead of having a sure, certain and unchangeable word of truth, the message of Christianity becomes “To thine own self be true.” Of course, then we must discount Christ’s command that we “daily take up our cross and follow him.” Then we must utterly reject Christ’s call to be crucified with him, to put aside the lusts and desires of our body and mind, and to follow the narrow path that leads to salvation, to be ready to sacrifice all – even our own lives, rather than fall away from his Word. Then the message of Christianity becomes the same as the promise of the serpent in the Garden of Eden – you can be like God. Then we, like Eve, can be justified in rejecting God’s word and turning to ourselves for our own salvation. We can be like God, knowing good from evil, and more than that, deciding what is good and what is evil, with little or no regard for what God’s law actually says.
If we are to endure in what God tell us, and reject our own private and twisted interpretations and distortions of God’s word, instead of holding fast to the doctrine that has been delivered to us, then we know that the oil must be the Word of God.
As Lutheran’s that should have been obvious – Sola Scriptura – Scripture alone. To God’s word be faithful. There are three sola’s in the church. Three alones. The next one – Sola fide, Faith alone. Of course, faith it isn’t our work – it comes from God’s grace alone. There’s the third – Sola Gratia – grace alone. The three great solas of the reformation. We should have known if Jesus was telling a parable about the one thing needful, we could hardly do better than to fall back on the promise of Salvation by faith alone in the promises of Holy Scripture alone given by God’s grace alone. Faith, Scripture, Grace alone. But of course, the center of it all is the one who speaks in scripture, the one who gives faith in the promise, the one who is God’s grace enfleshed for you – Christ alone. That is where your salvation lies. Not in the promises you make. Not in the weakness and faithlessness of your fallen human nature. Rather, salvation is found in Christ alone.
The oil that Christ speaks of here is the “Oil of gladness, with which he has anointed you. It is the oil with which priests and kings were anointed in the old testament. It is our Lord consoling us as he promises in Isaiah, giving us beauty for ashes, The oil of joy for mourning, The garment of praise for the spirit of heaviness.
David sings about this oil, “Thy word is lamp unto my feet and a light unto my path.” This is the oil which we need to enter the kingdom of heaven, faith alone in the promises of God’s Word alone, given by God’s grace alone, all of this about Christ alone. Christ – the bridegroom – gives you everything you need to make it into his wedding feast. The oil which gives light to your path is the oil of God’s word. Faith comes by hearing that word of God. That’s why coming to church is so important – because your own sinful nature tries to tear you away from that word and promise of God. Your sinful nature tries to destroy what God has created. Saint Paul was so aware of the danger that he said, “But I discipline my body and keep it under control, lest after preaching to others I myself should be disqualified.” And that’s the Apostle Paul speaking. If even he knows how fragile and weak our faith is, how easy it is to get distracted and lead away from the truth, we must certainly be on our guard.
Satan stands at your ear all day every day whispering lies to you to try to get you to reject this word. It’s ok, go ahead and do it, God’s word isn’t really all that important, Oh my, look at what you’ve done, how can God forgive you for that? Just forget the whole church thing, it’s too hard with little kids, its too difficult to do the right thing, it’s easier to just go your own way rather than listening to all these rules that God puts in front of you to make your life difficult and ruin your fun. Satan wants to pull you away from God’s promise so that he can eternally devour your soul in hell. And your sinful self wants to help him do it. You want to walk away, because it is easier than enduring. It is easier than giving up the sinful pleasures which you so enjoy, whether they be pleasures of the flesh or the mind or the spirit. Whatever it is that makes it seem like too much trouble to take the time to learn and live by God’s word. And this parable points out in dramatic fashion that you are not immune. Your great and glorious faithfulness have not somehow made you immune from Satan’s attacks, anymore than your great steadfastness have guaranteed you can never fall away. If even mighty Peter could deny our Lord, then without God’s help, without constant vigilance you stand no chance at all. What hope then do you have? A 50/50 chance of making it successfully to heaven, even though you have spent all this time in the church? But you see, that is why you spend all this time in the church. To hear again that word of promise. To hear again the word of God that directs your path in this word. To hear again those precious, precious words, your sins are forgiven you. To be reconciled, once again, with Christ and with each other. Because if you look at it as working hard to make sure you are in the half that make it, you’ve already turned away from the source of your salvation, and to your self.
You come here to be reminded of, and to live out, your baptism – the washing with water and the word that drowned you, that killed your old Adam with all its sins and evil desires. But that was not something that you have done. It is something that Christ has done in you. You come so that you can continue to live each day in that same grace that drowned you in the water. So that, by daily contrition and repentance you drown the old Adam again. You come here so that you would turn away from your sin and believe the promise of Christ for you.
You come here to hear again the word of Christ, and to hear from Christ himself what your salvation cost you – his body and blood given into death, for you. He died for your sake. It was not cheap, and we can never pretend that our salvation is anything less than the most precious thing we have ever received : better than money, better than possessions, better than our family, better than anything in this world – because is cost the blood, it cost the life, of God himself.
He gave himself into death, and now the fruit, the benefits, the blessings of the that death are yours, given by him to you, so that you would not die in your sin, but that you would turn from your evil ways and live. Not a one time decision to follow Jesus, you couldn’t do that anyway. The Holy Spirit calls you by the Gospel. Rather, a daily renewing of your life in Christ. Constantly being in the Word and in prayer. Faithfully receiving the absolution that is offered here, and receiving the body of Jesus himself given into death for the remission of your sins. Jesus died so that you would be given forgiveness, life and salvation. So that you would hold fast in this word and promise of Christ all the days of your life. So that you would never turn away from the Word of God, but that, when your end has come, you hear the word of Christ, “Come into the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
May God grant to each of you such saving, steadfast enduring faith. May God grant that you remain in his word and faith until you die, that you do not run out of oil halfway to the goal, but that you would reach the kingdom of God, the feast of God, in all its fullness. That Christ would keep you in his word, and in his faith until you die, until you are raised, until you live forever – In Christ, and in Christ alone.