Trinity 27, Last Sunday of the Church Year
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit ✠
If you pay close attention, you’ll notice that Scripture begins and ends with a marriage. The creation account can be rightly understood as wedding preparations. God even hangs the lights in the heavens for the event, and then, like a father of the bride, He literally walks Eve to Adam and presents her to him as they are joined together in the one flesh union of husband and wife. Those preparations that God did are reflected in many ways in our own wedding planning. And especially in today’s Gospel, they point us to the great wedding feast that will take place on the Last Day, when the union of Jesus the Groom and His Elect Lady, the holy Church is celebrated with all of creation, and the consummation of all things comes to pass.
What we do with wedding planning on a small scale with earthly marriages, the Holy Spirit summons the whole Church to do on a much bigger scale. The joyful events that will come at the close of this age is what we are given to be focusing on and preparing for as a matter of highest priority. We are called to watch and be ready at all times, for unlike most weddings, we don’t have an exact calendar date to shoot for; we know neither the day nor the hour in which our Lord is returning.
Now, as we heard last week, some will mock this notion of Jesus’ return as the stuff of fairy tales, a too-good-to-be-true delusion for weak and foolish minds. But we know from Scripture that in the Lord’s delay is His mercy. He doesn’t want any to perish or miss out on the gladness but for all to come to repentance and faith and be saved. He wants all to experience what the Old Testament reading speaks of, the new creation in which there is no more sickness or sorrow or pain. “The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox.... They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain, says the Lord.” To many that sounds like fantasy and nothing more. But we know it’s real and true, and that it’s even better than any human words can describe it.
Isaiah expresses very clearly that God’s original plan for this creation has not been set aside. God made this world to be a place of security and peace, where there was no death and no fear, where humanity reigned over God’s world as His vice-rulers, where human beings could walk through the darkness of the night without anxiety or fear. We’ve made it something else, something dark and terrible. We’ve turned this beautiful world God gave us into a horrible hunting ground and cosmic cemetery, where death reigns. But the Prophet Isaiah announces to us today that God’s work with this world isn’t done until He has created it anew – new heavens and a new earth where joy fills everything, because the source of sadness and grief – death and sin – will be banished forever, having been conquered in the death and resurrection of Jesus.
And the joy of that future is described, again, as a wedding. In the days before His appearing and the great festivities to come, He speaks of His Church camping out in this age, like people waiting for the chance to get once-in-a-lifetime tickets to a concert or sporting event. The church waits with joy for that moment to break in when Jesus will return in glory and lead His people home, and there will be light and laughter, dancing and singing, celebration and feasting forever–a new age where the love of God for His Bride, for His people, is all in all. Who would not look forward to that?
The fact is, according to today’s Gospel, that some are not looking forward to that in any serious way. They’re not prepared to wait for a long time, or they just don’t think it’s worth it. And so they are distracted and turn aside to other things. These are the foolish in Jesus’ parable. The five foolish virgins think they can make it through to that day with what they already have in their lamps. Not so. They need the extra reserves of oil. They need what God constantly supplies through the preaching of the Gospel and the celebration of the Supper. That’s where you get the “oil” which is the Holy Spirit Himself, who is yours in the lamp of the Word. He is the One who will see you safely through to that joyous day by sustaining in you the flame of your faith in Jesus Christ.
The foolish at first appear to be the ones who are wise and more “balanced” in their approach to life. They’re not so “extreme” as to be preoccupied with the bridegroom’s coming, carrying around extra oil. The foolish think: “Why overdo it? I know about Jesus, I pray sometimes, I don’t need the Church; I went through Sunday School as a kid. I was confirmed.” They make the horrible mistake of trying to get by with a limited supply of oil. It won’t work for the long haul. For we are all cracked vessels. The oil leaks out through the cracks of our sin. It needs to be regularly replenished through the Word and the Sacraments, lest the flame of our faith go out. In the end, the foolish lose out on the wedding feast they had been waiting for. “The door was shut.” And when they come late, asking for admittance, all they hear are those horrible words: “I do not know you.”
When our Lord says to us, “Watch therefore!” He is not urging us to try to calculate the time of His return. In fact it’s probably good for us that we don’t know, so that we don’t become complacent and turn our attention away from Him and fall away from the faith, thinking we’ll always have time to repent later. No, when our Lord urges us to watch, He is simply urging us to camp ourselves out by the spiritual flasks of the Church, Jesus’ words and body and blood. That is where the oil of the Holy Spirit is that fills us and keeps our faith burning brightly until the day of Christ’s return. To live our lives devoted to them–that is how you watch; that is how you are counted among the wise.
The flasks of the Church are truly full to overflowing, for they are supplied from the Lord Jesus Himself, who fills them to the brim with His Spirit and His life. This is the life He came from heaven to give us, that He brought into our very flesh and blood in Mary’s womb. This is the life He died on the cross to pour out for us and into us: the gift of forgiveness, the Life of the Trinity, the Peace and Joy and Love that the Holy Spirit gives and that the Holy Spirit is. It’s all there for us richly in the flasks of grace.
But remember, no one else can camp out at the flasks of the church for you, like someone waiting in line to buy tickets for you. No one else can receive the Spirit for you, and so no one can believe for you. The wise cannot give their flasks to the foolish. Each must have his own. So it’s not a matter of your mother being in church or your sister or your father or your brother or your spouse. It’s a matter of you being where the flasks are full, filling your lamp to keep it burning bright.
Thanks be to God that the Church’s jars cannot run dry. For her supply flows from the Blessed Trinity. You will never exhaust the oil that God has placed into your Baptism, into the preaching of Christ crucified and risen, into the absolution spoken over you, into the life-giving body and blood of Christ. “My cup overflows!” says the Psalmist, and it truly does.
And here’s one final point that you cannot miss today. The Blessed Trinity has made ready for every one of you to be at the glorious feast on the Last Day, to share in the new world where death will be gone and tears a thing of the past. Your place at the table is prepared; there is a card with your name on it reserving your spot. Remember, Jesus speaks these words of today’s Gospel during Holy Week, just hours before He will taste the fullness of the darkness of this world, bearing our guilt in His own flesh on the cross. For He knew that in so doing He would bring forgiveness to destroy sin, and life everlasting to destroy death. In his resurrection the new age has begun. In Jesus it’s all been prepared for you.
It was in that utter confidence that St. Paul could write to the Thessalonians and to us: “God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we should live together with him.” What marvelous words those are! Do you grasp what they are saying? God has not appointed a single one of you for wrath and judgment but for salvation in Jesus Christ. And if God has appointed it, then it’s real and true and sure.
Brothers and sisters of Christ, believe that Gospel Word firmly, fully, and even fanatically. Go overboard when it comes to your flasks of oil. Camp out by the rich vessels of grace, longing for the joy of the Last Day and the return of our Savior Jesus. For already today, the Gospel cry rings out, “Behold, the bridegroom is coming! Go out to meet Him at His holy altar!” You will not be surprised or caught off guard at Jesus’ second coming because you have long been in the habit of going out to meet him here in His divine service.
“Therefore, let us not sleep as others do, but let us watch and be sober” as we eagerly look forward to the consummation of this age and the great wedding feast.
✠ In the name of the Father and of the Son of the Holy Spirit ✠
(With thanks to William Weedon)