I Thessalonians 5:1-11; Matthew 25:1-13
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
We heard it last week from St. Peter. We hear it again today from St. Paul. “The day of the Lord comes as a thief in the night.” Our Lord Himself says the same thing in the book of Revelation, “Behold, I am coming as a thief.” That’s certainly an odd sort of image to associate with our Savior Jesus, isn’t it. But there is something for us to learn from the fact that our Lord comes to us like a bandit, a criminal.
Thievery is something we would more readily associate with the devil. For Satan is indeed the thief and swindler of humanity. He came to us in the garden like a con-man, flattering with his tongue, smooth-talking. He told our first parents that they were missing out on a great deal that God was keeping to Himself. If they would just eat of the forbidden fruit, then they would be like God themselves. Turning them from God’s words to his own deceitful words, the devil robbed them blind. Enticing them to try to be like God, he stole away their humanity and the glory in which they were created. He pilfered their very lives.
That’s why you sons of Adam and daughters of Eve find yourselves in your present fallen state. The truth is that we are now less than human, a disfigured shadow of what we were created to be. We can sometimes feel that in our very souls, that things just aren’t right. This inhumanity shows itself in our relationships with others–in anger and disrespect and lusts and jealousies and petty grudges and gossip. And it shows itself in our relationship with God, too. Instead of being human, creatures under a Creator, and honoring Him above all things, we would rather be like God, running our own lives, doing things our own way, following our own ideas. The result for us is the same as it was for Adam, “Dust you are, and to dust you shall return.” We’ve been robbed by the serpent; we’ve been mugged and left to die.
But just as God often punishes one thief by another thief in this world, so that the robber ends up losing what he stole, so also God punishes the devil by sending His Son as a thief. The Son of God became the Son of man for that very purpose, to steal and snatch back our lost humanity from the evil one and to restore us to fellowship with God again.
Just think of how our Lord entered into this world. Was it with great fanfare? No, He came like a thief–quietly, hidden in the shadows, with nobody but some shepherds noticing His arrival. Jesus came on the scene under cover, secretly, like a holy burglar, to win back for you what the devil stole away.
Our Lord already began to do that in the very act of becoming man. By taking on your body and soul, Jesus redeemed and cleansed your humanity with His divine holiness. God has greatly exalted you by becoming not an angel or any other creature but a true man, your blood brother. He partook fully of your humanity so that in Him you might become truly human again.
Jesus was born like a thief, and He also died as one. For He was crucified between two robbers. And in fact that’s what He was. Not only did He come to rob the devil of his victory over you, He accomplished that by robbing you of your sin. He stole away from you every uncleanness, every damnable failure to love, along with every hurtful and evil thing that has been done to you. He robbed you of it all, took it as His own, and demolished it in His death. It was through the tree in the garden that Satan conquered man, and so it was also by a tree, the holy cross, that Christ conquered Satan and reconciled man to God again. It was by death that Satan stole away man’s glory; and so it is by the death of Christ and His resurrection to life again that the glory of man is recaptured and that your humanity is restored.
And today’s Epistle tells us that there’s one more thing our Lord is going to do like a thief. He’s going to come back to this world suddenly and unexpectedly. A robber doesn’t announce when he’s coming. He tries to catch people unawares. In fact Jesus once said, “If the master of the house had known what hour the thief would come, he would have watched and not allowed his house to be broken into. Therefore you also be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”
If you found out that sometime tonight someone was going to try to break into your house and steal all your valuables, you’d take steps to make sure that didn’t happen, right? You’d be awake and standing watch around the clock. That way you’d be prepared to “greet” the thief upon his arrival. Well, the same sort of thing is true with the day of the Lord. Jesus has said that He’s coming back. He will return to judge the living and the dead. We don’t know when it’s going to be. Only God does. But He has said, “Surely, I am coming soon.” We are given to watch for Christ’s return as diligently as if we were watching for a thief coming to our house. We are to be ready and prepared for Jesus’ arrival; for it could be at any time. When you least expect it, expect it.
We need to be on guard, then, against being lulled into a sense of complacency while we wait. This is what Paul speaks of in the Epistle, “For when they say, ‘Peace and safety!’ then sudden destruction comes upon them, as labor pains upon a pregnant woman. And they shall not escape.” Beware of that worldly way of thinking which lives for the moment without a view to Jesus’ return. “Everything’s just fine. Why should I be preoccupied with the coming of the Lord? I’ve got things to do, places to go, people to see.”
That is precisely the attitude of the five foolish virgins in the Gospel. They thought they had their bases covered. They had a little oil in their lamps. Why overdo it? Why burden yourself with too much oil? Lighten up! Live a little!
The lamps in the parable are the Word of Christ. For the Psalmist says, “Your Word is a lamp to my feet.” The oil in the lamps is the Holy Spirit, who creates and sustains the flame of faith in Christ. To be like the foolish is to fail to give proper attention to Christ’s Word and the working of the Holy Spirit. It is to ignore the Lord’s preaching and the Lord’s Supper, or merely to go through the motions. When these instruments of the Holy Spirit are neglected, the flame of faith is in danger of going out. The foolish thought they had their spiritual life all together. But they were not prepared for a delay; they weren’t ready to watch for the long haul. And then the call finally comes at midnight; time has run out. And the foolish are left in a panic, scrambling to get oil, banging on a locked door saying “Lord, Lord, open to us!” and hearing the awful words, “I don’t know you.”
We should remember that we know neither when Christ is returning, nor when the day of our own death is coming. Therefore, the Psalmist prays, “Lord make me to know my end, and what is the measure of my days, that I may know how frail I am. My age is as nothing before you; certainly every man at his best state is but vapor.”
On your own you are nothing but a dark mist. But Christ has enlightened you with the gift of His Spirit in the waters of baptism. That’s why Paul says in the epistle, “You, brethren, are not in darkness, so that this Day should overtake you as a thief. You are all sons of light and sons of the day.” For you have been united with Christ, who is the Son of light. Therefore, “let us who are of the day be sober, putting on the breastplate of faith and love, and as a helmet the hope of salvation.”
That is the way of the five wise virgins. Those who are wise act as if there is nothing so important as the arrival of the bridegroom. As they tend to their daily callings and enjoy the good gifts of creation, they do so always with an eye toward Jesus’ return. That’s what they’re really living for and watching for. And so they don’t want to cut it close when it comes to the oil in their lamps. They want to have “oil enough and more” as the hymn says. And so they “devote themselves to the apostles’ doctrine and fellowship, to the breaking of bread and to the prayers.” The wise seek to heed the words of St. Paul in Colossians, “Set your minds on things above, not on things on the earth. For you died, and your life is hidden with Christ in God. When Christ who is our life appears, then you also will appear with Him in glory.”
The wise probably seemed way over-prepared, lugging around those extra jars of oil along with their lamps. But in the end their wisdom was vindicated as they joined in the bridegroom’s procession and entered into the wedding hall. So also Christians may appear to be overdoing it, going to divine service each week, meditating on God’s Word, praying and watching for Christ’s return, when they could be doing other things. But in the end, such wisdom will be vindicated, when our Bridegroom returns to bring us into the new heavens and the new earth in which there is no more sorrow or crying or pain or death, but only perfect joy in God’s presence. “For God did not appoint us to wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, that whether we wake or sleep, we should live together with Him.”
Brothers and sisters of Christ, God has granted you to be among those who are wise. For the Holy Spirit has made you wise unto salvation through Gospel of Christ the crucified. “Assuredly,” the Lord says, “I know you in your baptism. I have forgiven you and redeemed you and claimed you as my own.” Jesus is the One who day by day and week by week gives you His Word and Spirit, plenty of oil to burn for a lifetime of watching for His return. You are ready for the wedding feast on the Last Day because Christ prepares you for it by giving you a foretaste of that feast each week in Holy Communion. The Gospel cry rings out again in this place today, “Behold, the bridegroom is coming! Go out to meet Him at His holy altar!” We will not be surprised or caught off guard at Jesus’ second coming because we’ve long been in the habit of going out to meet him in His divine service.
The Lord will come like a thief in the night. Let us watch and be ready that we may rejoice in that day.
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠