by our seminarian, Jennifer Needham
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18; Matthew 25:1-13
I want to thank you all for allowing me to speak before you today, and I want to thank Pastor Ryman for the opportunity. As we enjoy a blast of cold air this weekend, I’m reminded of my days living in Ohio. I spent several years there, and still kind of think of it as home. They definitely get some cold weather. This time of year I always enjoyed going to Carriage Hill, which was a city park built around an old 1800s-era farm. The property has been preserved in its original state, and is actually still a working farm, staffed by volunteers and history buffs. Visitors could tour the place any time of year, but the best time to go was when the cold weather set in, because then they gave evening tours of the old farmhouse, barn, and other outbuildings, all by the light of lanterns.
This was authentic, of course, because when the original family built the house 150 years ago, there wasn’t electricity. One year, when I went on this tour, I remember trudging through the cold, pelting rain from the blacksmith’s shop to the farmhouse. The only light was from our group’s one lantern. Just one oil-lit lantern to shepherd 10 or so people through the cold and rainy night, through pitch blackness, to the farmhouse 100 yards or so away, with it’s candles aglow in the windows. So I remember thinking, rather uneasily, how dependent we were upon that oil lamp swinging a bit from our tour guide’s hand as he walked. I wished he’d quit swinging that thing around so much. I mean, wasn’t he going to spill some of that oil? Didn’t he know we need that lamp to make it across the field in the dark? Be careful with that thing!
And I remember making it to the farmhouse, and walking into the warm and candlelit living room and being so relieved. Thank goodness we had that lantern. No. Thank God for providing that gift of oil.
Grace to you, and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Let us pray.
Almighty God, We praise you for the abundant blessings you’ve bestowed upon us. Give us courage to stand among the forces of evil in this world and loudly proclaim the Good News of your saving grace. And please Lord, help me this morning to yield to you enough so that you can move, so that your Word works through me, and my words are nothing but ink on paper and the movement of air. In the name of Christ. Amen.
Well, let me tell you. Seminary is not as easy I was hoping it was going to be. I’m very much enjoying myself, and learning a lot, but easy is not a word I would use to describe it. When you attend seminary, you have to learn a whole new set of vocabulary, and one of latest additions to my vocabulary is the Greek word parousia. I like the sound of it. It sounds important, and significant, and maybe a little mysterious. And it means the presence, or the coming, of Christ. No wonder I like this word.
Well, what does parousia look like? Our 2nd reading today in First Thessalonians describes it pretty well:
“For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord” (1Thes 4:16-17).
Rising up in the clouds. With Jesus. So we will always be with him. Count me in; I don’t want to miss that! I want to be ready for that.
Only half of the virgins in today’s Gospel reading were ready (Mt 25:1-13). All ten of them waited for the bridegroom to come, so the marriage feast, the celebration, could begin. Back in those days, weddings were a big deal, and the festivities and feasting could last for a whole week! The groom and his friends would arrive at the bride’s house to get her. And they would then accompany the bride and her friends and the whole group would process by torchlight through the streets to the home the bridegroom had prepared for his bride. These were Herodian oil lamps that they carried, presumably named after King Herod. They’re made of clay, and contain two openings, one for the wick, and one for the oil to be poured in. Once lit, they can sit on a table, or they can be attached to a pole or stick, to form a torch. And it’s believed these oil-lit lamps, or torches, are what’s discussed in this parable.
While they’re certainly not in widespread use anymore, I researched them online and discovered that Amazon sells them. For 13 bucks, and free shipping with Amazon Prime, you too can be the proud owner of a Herodian oil lamp. It might be the perfect Christmas gift for the Lutheran who has everything! Pastor Ryman is going to get at least a dozen of these for Christmas now, just watch.
Back to the story… The virgins in this story were waiting at the bridegroom’s home, excited for the celebration to come, hoping to join the group as everyone entered. But the bridegroom was delayed, and didn’t get there until quite late. When the virgins heard he was about to arrive, five of the ten realized they didn’t have any oil in their lamps, and hurried off to buy some. While they were gone, the bridegroom came, entered, and closed the door behind him. Those foolish virgins missed their chance to enter and enjoy the marriage feast.
Now, you can’t understand this parable without understanding the symbolism behind it. In chapter 9 of the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus is asked why his disciples do not fast, and he answers that there is no need for them to fast while their bridegroom is still with them, but that when the bridegroom is taken from them, then they will fast. He’s referring to himself as the bridegroom, and we can safely assume that holds true in this parable as well.
John the Baptist is speaking of Jesus when he says, “The one who has the bride is the bridegroom. The friend of the bridegroom, who stands and hears him, rejoices greatly at the bridegroom’s voice. Therefore this joy of mine is now complete (John 3:29). So we can see in multiple places in the Bible that Jesus is the bridegroom.
The virgins in the story represent us, the church on earth, Jesus’ bride. We see many references throughout scripture to the Church as the bride of Christ. In the Book of Ephesians, the apostle Paul explains that husbands should love their wives as Christ loves his wife, the church (Eph 5:25-27).
Paul also wrote in 2 Corinthians that the Church is the Bride of Christ when he said, “For I feel a divine jealousy for you, since I betrothed you to one husband, to present you as a pure virgin to Christ” (2 Cor 11:2).
Other references to this marriage relationship between God and His chosen people are found, for example, in the Book of Isaiah, where it is written, ‘For your Maker is your husband, the Lord of hosts is his name (Isaiah 54:5). The Bible consistently says the Bride of Christ is the Church.
In addition, the Book of Revelation is full of imagery of the marriage feast of the Lamb, where the faithful believers of the Church will enjoy the party to end all parties, the celebration in heaven of the marriage of Christ and his bride.
If we head back to the story of the ten virgins again, and put this all together, we can see that the church on earth, the virgins, is waiting for its bridegroom, Jesus, to come. That makes this a parousia. The church on earth is waiting for the presence of Christ to come among them. And in this story at least, not everyone was ready.
The text doesn’t explain why they weren’t ready, why the wicks on their lamps were not trimmed, and why they hadn’t bought enough oil to keep their lamps burning all night. We can only guess.
They might have been too busy teaching Sunday school, doing charity work, serving on the Altar Guild, and singing in the church choir every Sunday for the past 20 years. It’s easy to be consumed with great causes, and good works, and neglect our faith.
Perhaps the good things of life were the undoing of their faith; things like wealth, power, or success. The joys of raising children, the pleasures of retirement, or the burden of affluence. Maybe it was health problems that kept them immobile in their faith… Not necessarily anything sudden, but chronic ailments, a long series of doctors appointments, tests, surgeries, and…worry eating them alive.
Or they might have been too preoccupied with work, trying to earn that elusive promotion to make it a little easier to keep food on the table, make the car payment, and keep the house a little warmer in the winter. That’s understandable, isn’t it? These are important things to everyday living; somebody has to pay the bills, and who has time for much else? We know how stressful life is, how setbacks are common, and one step forward can be followed by two steps back. I don’t have to tell you…life is hard, and it can be very difficult to prepare for the bridegroom by buying oil for your lamp.
But the oil in this parable is simply faith, and it has been given to you freely, through the grace of God. It’s a gift of faith, given by faith. You don’t have to earn it. In fact, you can’t earn it. It flows through the Body of Christ, through Word and Sacrament, through prayer, Bible study, love among neighbors, and the sharing of the Gospel. As Christians, we live that faith, and our lives are saturated with it. The exercise of our faith sharpens our faith so our lamps will not run out of oil. And so we pray, “Lord, increase our faith” (Luke 17:5). Fill our lamps.
Those 5 foolish virgins who made the midnight trip to the store for lamp oil don’t realize this isn’t the kind of oil you can buy. This is the life-giving oil of salvation. This is eternal life. And although they asked the wise virgins to share oil with them, remember that the lost cannot be saved without having their own faith. After all, someone else can’t believe for you.
The virgins with empty lamps also knocked at the door, begging in despair to be let in. But they didn’t really want to see the bridegroom. They didn’t really want to know Jesus. Think about it; they just wanted to go to the party.
The foolish have no faith. But you do, and your faith has set you free. You are free from bondage to sin. You are free from the devil. And you are free from death itself, because when the bridegroom comes, you will rise up into the clouds, to meet the Lord in the air and be with him forever. “Blessed are those who are invited to the marriage supper of the Lamb” (Rev 19:9).
The certainty of the ending should give us peace, and patience, while we wait. While none of us know the exact day or hour, Our Lord Jesus Christ is coming again. The parousia will happen, and we will rise together in the clouds to meet the Lord and enjoy the marriage feast, a lavish banquet, a glorious celebration, unimaginably better than any wedding here on earth, and it’s been prepared for you in heaven. Your lamp is full. You have been saved by the oil of faith, in the name of Christ.