Grace, Mercy, and Peace to you from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ,
The word “parable” comes from a Greek word that means “putting things side by side”. Somebody said that a parable is a heavenly story with an earthly meaning. Somebody else said this: “a parable is one of those stories in the Bible that sounds like a pleasant yarn but keeps something up its sleeve that pops up and leaves you flat.” In other words, Jesus’ parables are meant to wake us up from complacency and get us to think.
When I was a seminary student, I learned that although our Lord’s parables have many details, most of them have one central point of comparison and one basic message they want to get across. I’ve never been very good at figuring out these central points, so if I want to get to the heart of Jesus’ stories, I need to consult the writings of experts, which I did. This morning’s parable is the same as the others: we need to do some thinking to get to the main points.
Jesus uses the parable of the wise and foolish virgins to help us be ready for his return. That’s its basic meaning. A day is coming when he will return in glory to claim his beloved people with all the love and joy with which a new husband claims his bride. He will bring his faithful children into eternal happiness. He will wipe away sin and death and every evil to such an extent that we won’t even remember the things that may trouble and vex us today. Instead, there will be gladness and rejoicing forever. The love God has for his people, which we now experience by faith, will be clear to us and visible and unmistakable.
The Lord commands us, meanwhile, to be ready. The word “readiness” suggests certain things to us. We get ready for winter by getting our heavy clothes in order and making sure the car is shipshape, if you have one. A student gets ready for exams by studying faithfully.
We get ready for the Lord’s second coming in a different way, not by taking external measures, but by trusting in Christ now, in his friendship, his goodness toward us, his promise that we are saved by God’s love through our faith in him. Somebody explained the details of the parable this way: the oil we need is God’s grace and the power of Christ and the flame the oil produces is faith together with the good works we perform today and tomorrow and the inner changes we undergo as the Holy Spirit works to transform her.
Faith in Jesus means more than agreement with certain facts, such as the ones we’ll recite in the Apostle’s Creed. It isn’t just carrying out the forms of religion or being active in the church. Faith is a living trust that Jesus is our friend and savior – that he died on the cross to win the forgiveness of sins for each one of us. Faith in Jesus means a profound certainty in our hearts, which only God can give, that Christ hears our prayers, that he’s present in our worship and in the sacraments, and that he has prepared a place for us in heaven. Faith in Jesus means assurance, confidence, that we ourselves are saved. If when we read the Bible or hear God’s Word spoken, we are convinced of Jesus’ friendship for us, then we have a good supply of oil and the flame of faith is burning. We’re ready for the second coming of Our Lord.
Let’s think about how this readiness works by imagining a few people in everyday situations. Nelson is an intelligent and searching person. He wants to know about salvation. He reads a wide assortment of material and talks to many people. He often hears the idea that he doesn’t need God for salvation because he can earn it on his own through good works and pushing himself to live by a strict code. But because he knows very well he isn’t perfect and is likely to make mistakes, he doesn’t take these ideas seriously. He knows that he needs help. He turns to the Bible where he learns that Jesus is his help and he comes to trust what Scripture says about the Lord. Nelson is ready for the second coming.
Mary Beth is a young lady from a strong Christian background. She goes to school and then to work, where she meets a variety of people whose faith isn’t so strong. They tease her and tell her she ought to get more fun out of life. Going to church every Sunday won’t do anything for her, because there is no evidence that Jesus will come back. Mary Beth says that it isn’t just a matter of going to church. It’s true that for people turn religion into a routine, but she herself has a strong personal trust that Jesus is her savior. He refreshes her and gives her energy. He removes her sins and fills her with confidence. Her lamp is filled with oil. She’s ready for the second coming of our Lord.
Warren is an older man. He’s had a wide experience of life and contact with hundreds of people. Many have done better than he in a worldly sense, and he has endured more than one heavy disappointment. Without his faith in God, he would be tempted to sink into despair and give up on life. He’d be inclined to blame himself for everything he thinks has gone wrong. But Warren is a Christian. He brings his troubles to the foot of the cross and he feeds on our Savior. Even while he knows the heaviness of life, he trusts in the mercies of Christ. He is ready for the second coming.
Hilda has had a long life. She knows what it means to be active and she’s had many joys. She’s also experienced a lot of sadness and frustration in recent years together with physical pain. People she loves have moved away or passed on to eternity. She’s tempted to wonder if life has meaning and purpose, but only tempted because she believes in her heart that Jesus walked the earth before her and that he passed through every sorrow that she’s now experiencing. She leans on Jesus’ companionship and his compassion for the wounded. She trusts that he died for her and that in his rising to new life again she herself gains new life. As she turns to Jesus, she discovers that her joy revives and she’s ready for the second coming.
We’ll take one more example. Priscilla is a new Christian. She has many questions and she isn’t sure that other Christians accept her. But she knows that Jesus is her savior and she has experienced his power to renew. She knows that Jesus’ blood washes away her sins and that she has a never-failing friend in our Lord. She is ready for his return.
These five people of faith are prepared for the second coming because by God’s grace they trust in Jesus now. They know he is their savior; their lives are safe in his hands. It would be easy to imagine five people of a different sort, who thought they were ready for Jesus’ return but actually were not because although they had the right lamps, they lacked the oil that brings faith. They went to church; they did good works, but their souls were elsewhere, focused on themselves and on the world rather than God’s will for them.
The Savior’s parable teaches several lessons. First, that automatic religion doesn’t do much for us. It’s possible to know all the teachings and to do good works and practice all the rituals, but to be dead inside. True religion comes from personal contact without Savior, who makes alive and who brings joy. People who look for a lively, strengthening faith will find it. They will be ready for Christ when he returns.
Secondly, borrowed faith doesn’t help. The foolish virgins believed that when the time came they could get oil from their friends. But their neighbors had none to give. They had just enough for themselves and nothing left over. It isn’t enough to say, as some might, though no one here this morning, I’m sure, “Well, my grandparents had lots of faith and I will attach myself to theirs.” We need our own relationship with the Savior.
Thirdly, God’s grace is abundant. He is very patient, slow to anger and quick to forgive. He continues to reach out his hand. But a time is coming when it will be too late. There will be no chances for sinners to repent and faith to be renewed. The Lord has included us among the wise. We ask him to keep us there and to build up our understanding of what it means to be ready for his return.
In the fourth place, Jesus points out that we do not know exactly when he will come back. It could be next month. There could very well be a long delay. We do not know. this is not a case, however, where ignorance is bliss. We are not to use our lack of knowledge as an excuse for laziness. We should regard each day as if that were the day of Christ’s return. When we think this way, we find that the Lord is bringing out the best in us. He motivates us to do good works – to spread the gospel, to help the needy, to visit the sick, to pray for ourselves and our neighbors, to read the Bible every day. We find then that we are not living by automatic religion or leaning on the prestige that previous generations built up. We are living by our own faith with plentiful supply of oil to fill the lamp when our Savior returns. What opportunities he has given us! What ways to be active as we get ready to receive him on the day of his second coming. In his name we rejoice. AMEN.
The peace of God that passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in the knowledge of Christ Jesus. AMEN.