✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
“Everybody wants to go to heaven, but nobody wants to go now.” Those are the words of a country song that was popular a few years ago. And it says something uncomfortably true for many people. “Sure I want eternal life in the world to come, but I’m not yet ready to let go of life in this world, not until I’ve done this or experienced that or been present at a big upcoming family event. Maybe after that.” I would suggest this is one way you can diagnose the false gods that are in your life. Whatever it is that you’re looking forward to or have your heart set on more than the return of Christ is vying to become an idol in your life. Even good gifts of God like marriage and family or vacation trips or sporting events or sharing good times with friends can become the stuff of our idolatry when we love them more than the One who is the Giver and the Creator.
It’s worth pondering the question, “Why exactly is it that you want to go to heaven? What’s going to make it so great?” Actually, the Bible never really talks about “going to heaven” as the primary goal of the Christian. To be sure, God’s Word clearly teaches that the souls of those who die in the faith go to be with the Lord. But there is still more that God has prepared and planned. The truth of Scripture is expressed in the Creed, when we say that we look for the “resurrection of the body and the life of the world to come.” Our real hope is tangible, fleshly, and focused on the Last Day. On that final day, we won’t be going to heaven, heaven will be coming to us. With the return of Christ, heaven and earth will be rejoined and all creation will be made new through Him.
So with that in mind, let me ask the question again a little differently: why do you want to have your share in the resurrection of the body to eternal life? The answer may seem obvious: we don’t want to suffer the torment of hell, and we do want to experience that good existence which is spoken of in passages like today’s Old Testament reading. “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth . . . No more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress. . . The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox.” Notice there that eternity is described in bodily terms, a new creation. * It will be a world where no family is ever gathered around a coffin again, a world where even in the animal kingdom there will be no more blood-red teeth or claws. God’s plan for this creation will not be delayed forever. It will become what He intended it to be in the beginning: a world without fear, without sin, without death.
But is even that really our ultimate goal, simply to have a pleasant place to exist for eternity? What is it that truly makes the life of the world to come so good? It is this–and this is what we often forget–there we will be in communion with God Himself and will live forever in the overflow of His lovingkindness. As it is written in Revelation, “Behold, the tabernacle of God is with men. . . God Himself will be with them and be their God.” Why do Christians want to go to heaven? To be with Jesus, that’s why. Being together with Him, sharing in the life of the Redeemer makes all the difference. Only through Him is anything truly good and right. In Him is perfect peace and contentment and gladness. If your idea of heaven isn’t centered in life with Christ, if it’s primarily about a place that fulfills all your own personal pleasures and dreams, you’re missing the point. What makes eternal life to be real life is the presence of your Creator and Savior and Lord.
So it’s no wonder, then, that the final prayer in the Bible and the constant prayer of the church is “Come, Lord Jesus!” That is our faith’s greatest desire, to be with Him, in an even greater way than we desire to be with loved ones for the holidays that we haven’t seen for a long time. When the sorrows and the fears of this world press hard against us, and we don’t know if we can hold up much longer, we pray: “Come, Lord Jesus!” When change and decay in all around we see, and it seems as if the very foundations are being shaken, we pray: “Come, Lord Jesus!” When we feel the devastating effects of our own sinful flesh, we pray: “Come, Lord Jesus! Come quickly to deliver us!” Or as the Psalmist prayed, “My soul longs, yes, even faints for the courts of the Lord; My heart and my flesh cry out for the living God.” (Psalm 84:2)
By faith we long for that Day, but we know that it will not be a day of joy for everyone. There are those who are unprepared for it, who really don’t welcome it. Many would see Jesus’ return as an unwelcome disturbance of their plans, who love this world and don’t want to let go of it. For them that Day will come like a thief in the night bringing sudden destruction, and there will be no escape. To meet that day without faith in the Savior and love for being with Him is to meet it as a Day of Doom.
What makes the wise virgins truly wise in this parable is that nothing was more important to them than being with the Bridegroom. Everything else was secondary. It was all about Him. For the foolish, being with the Bridegroom was just another thing to squeeze in with the other priorities of life if possible. And so the wise were well prepared, while the foolish were unprepared.
Having faith in the Savior and wanting to be with Him is the main point of today’s Gospel parable. Those who were wise staked everything on Him. The lamp’s flame represents faith. The lamp itself is the Word of God, as it is written, “Your Word is a lamp to my feet” (Psalm 119:105). The oil in the lamp is the Holy Spirit who works through the Word and the Sacraments to create and sustain faith in Christ and keep the flame of faith burning brightly. Because the foolish virgins gave little attention to the Word of God and the Sacraments, their flames went out. And they ended up being shut of the wedding feast, shut out of life in the new creation forever, even hearing the Lord say those awful words, “I do not know you.” That’s a description of hell right there–hearing Jesus say that He doesn’t know you and that you can’t be with Him; all that’s left is weeping and gnashing of teeth. And there’s nothing that the wise can do for them on the Last Day. One person’s oil cannot be given to another. No one can believe for another.
The five foolish ones did not endure in the faith to the end. They thought the bare minimum was enough; but tragically, it wasn’t. It didn’t have to be that way. For God eagerly and gladly supplies everything necessary–oil in abundance, free of charge, no strings attached, all paid for and provided by Christ. After all, there is not one soul for whom God’s Son did not shed His blood. There is not one human life whose sins were not atoned for on Golgotha’s wood. There is not one human being whose death wasn’t destroyed by the resurrection of Jesus Christ. All of you are forgiven and redeemed entirely for the sake of Christ.
Your heavenly Father longs to be with you. Much more than our desire for God is His desire for us. That’s really the whole point of being at church, isn’t it?–to be with God and He with you, concretely, tangibly, in the flesh. He delights in you through Jesus and wants you to be with Him. Christ shares in your humanity so that you may share in His divine glory. By His external, preached Word and Spirit, God keeps you in the faith, lamps burning brightly all the way through to the end.
To the world it may seem unnecessary and even silly, but the extra oil of the wise is a reminder that faith never thinks in the way of having the bare minimum, any more than you would want to spend the least amount of time possible with someone you love. Why wouldn’t we want to receive communion every week? Being with Christ in divine service and being with Christ in eternity go together, and the cause of joy is the same in both cases–His presence, His mercy. This is what makes the wise so single-minded: You know that the One who is coming is the true, heavenly Groom who is perfect love in the flesh, the One who “gave Himself up for His beloved church, that He might sanctify and cleanse her with the washing of water and the word, that He might present her to Himself a glorious church, . . . that she should be holy and without blemish” (Eph. 5:26-27).
We eagerly watch for the Last Day, for when St. Paul wrote to the Thessalonians, he told them that God did not destine them for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that whether we are awake or asleep, we might live with Him. That holds true for you too who believe and are baptized. You are not destined for wrath; you are destined for life with Christ. The Introit proclaims, “The ransomed of the Lord shall return and come to Zion with singing, with everlasting joy on their heads . . . and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.” And Christ declares in the Old Testament reading, “I will joy in My people.” That’s heaven, the Lord rejoicing in you. Anyone who thinks that’s going to be boring, or that something else might be more important or exciting simply doesn’t have a clue. The Lord’s passion and desire for you is that you may live with Him in everlasting righteousness, innocence, and blessedness.
“Behold the Bridegroom is coming; go out to meet Him!” Go out with the brightly burning lamps of faith in the present darkness of this world. Be filled by the Holy Spirit with Jesus’ words and body and blood. Possess these life-giving gifts in abundance from the Lord. And as you go out to meet Jesus here in divine service week by week, then it will be no surprise at all but a most natural and joyous thing when you go out to meet Him on the Last Day. The hymn sings it well:
Zion hears the watchmen singing
And all her heart with joy is springing;
She wakes, she rises from her gloom.
For her Lord comes down all-glorious,
The strong in grace, in truth victorious.
Her star is ris’n, her light has come.
Now come, Thou blessed One!
Lord Jesus, God’s own Son!
We enter all
The wedding hall
To eat the Supper at Thy call.
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
(With thanks to the Rev. William Weedon whose words on this text were borrowed in a couple of paragraphs)