During the last few months, our Gospel readings have contained many healings, many stories of forgiving sins. In these readings we also see Jesus teaching His disciples about the Kingdom of God, or the Kingdom of Heaven, as Saint Matthew calls it. And He teaches through parables, and through His gracious miracles of healing and forgiveness. He promises forgiveness of sins and eternal life for all who believe in Him. Many come to faith through hearing His Word.
In today’s text He tells a parable about His return in glory, after He has died, been raised from the dead, and ascended into heaven. He says that He will come at a time when no one expects Him, like a thief in the night. He doesn’t say that He will come soon. He just says He will return to call His Bride, the Church, to His wedding feast in the new heavens and new earth, where there will be rejoicing forever. He has prepared the new Jerusalem to be a city of joy. As Isaiah describes it in our Old Testament text, there will be no more weeping, nor the cry of distress, no death of child or old person. People will plant vineyards and trees and eat of their fruit with the happiness that Adam and Eve had in their labor in the first garden. Nature will be peaceful. The wolf and lamb will graze together. It will be wonderful.
When will it come? We don’t know. But the parable implies that some of us may be asleep when He comes. What does this mean? It could mean that we in the church, both wise and unwise, may feel a lack of urgency in looking for the Christ’s return. After all, it has been almost two thousand years since He ascended into heaven. But more likely this being asleep points to those who have died. Jesus calls death a falling asleep as He called the death of Jairus’ daughter and the death of Lazarus. The wise virgins in our parable have fallen asleep with oil for their lamps and when the bridegroom’s procession comes to take the bride to the groom’s home they join in and enter his feast. But the unwise virgins, who fell asleep without any extra oil, seeing their lamps sputtering out, look about to get oil from the wise virgins, who have none to spare.
Jesus is giving us a warning here. The warning is that we must not presume on God’s grace. It is possible for the baptized to become unwise and weak in faith to the point where it sputters out before we die. We, who have been baptized must not be like the unwise virgins, going through life without filling our lamps of faith with the oil of God’s grace, His Word and Sacraments so that His light may shine forth in us as a burning flame. God has an inexhaustible supply of the oil of gladness, His grace, from which He poured out richly on us first in our Baptisms. Therefore, a good way to keep our spiritual lamps of faith filled with that oil is by remembering our Baptisms daily, as Luther suggested in the Small Catechism, so that the Old, rebellious Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires, and that a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever. Without remembrance of our Baptisms, our lamp may dry up.
Another way we refill our lamps, strengthening our faith, is by attending worship regularly, so that we may be replenished with the healing oil of God’s grace given in the absolution of sins, the hearing of His Word, the receiving of forgiveness in the body and blood of Jesus in the Supper. We also store up oil by daily calling upon God in prayer, in praise and thanksgiving, and leaning upon Him in our times of need.
And it’s important that we use the right oil in our lamps. That’s why we are so concerned about true doctrine, true teaching in our church. Wrong teaching sows doubt and doubt can extinguish a flame.
Some of you might know that I was in the National Guard here in Kansas. I served in the headquarters of a tank battalion. When we were in the field for training, I would often run the radios on the night shift. One very rainy night the First Sergeant suggested that I go get some fuel for the generator that ran our radios. He told me I could find a five-gallon can on one of the trucks parked around us. So I went out and found a can, brought it to the generator and filled it up. A few minutes later, the generator didn’t sound right. It was running erratically and sputtering. Finally it quit altogether. The First Sergeant asked me, “Wingfield! What did you put in the generator?” I told him what I had done. It turned out that I had put in diesel fuel. We had to drain the engine completely. The motor sergeant never let me forget that incident. Every time we had trouble with the generator he would ask me, “Did you put diesel in it?”
The point of the story is that the wrong fuel can stop and even damage an engine. Wrong teaching, wrong doctrine is like wrong fuel. It can damage faith. So we make sure to fill our lamps with the pure teaching of Scripture and our confessions, so that our faith may remain strong.
We cannot however give that faith to another person. Would that we could. How many people do you know that you wish you could just fill with the joy and peace in Christ that you have? You can share the Word. You can share your story. You can share your love. But you can’t share your faith, as much as you would like, even if it were possible to give your eternal life for a loved one. St. Paul expresses this desire that his family by blood, the Jewish people, might believe in Jesus Christ. He says in Romans 9:1-3, “I am speaking the truth in Christ—I am not lying; my conscience bears me witness in the Holy Spirit— that I have great sorrow and unceasing anguish in my heart. For I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers, my kinsmen according to the flesh.” But Saint Paul could not give his faith to his Jewish brothers, he could only speak the Word to them and pray that they would believe it.
I have people close to me, and perhaps you do too, into whom I wish I could just pour the faith I have. But it doesn’t work that way. Faith comes through hearing the Word through which the Holy Spirit works faith in whom He will. The Holy Spirit does the pouring. Our calling as Christians is to love God and serve our neighbor in love, proclaiming the Word of the Gospel to them, the light shining in a dark world, letting words of praise and thanks pour out of us.
If you are concerned if the oil in your lamp might be getting low, that’s a good sign. That’s what Christ calls watchfulness, being prepared for the Last Day, your own and when Jesus returns. This means that you have listened to Christ’s urging and do not take your faith for granted. You check your oil regularly. You keep your lamp filled. If you are not concerned, you might want to do a check up. Do not be like the motorist a hundred miles from a gas station and have the oil light come on. Look at your lamp. Do you let weeks go by without attending church or Bible class? Do you rarely read the scriptures? Do you trust in your 401k more than in God’s daily bread? If so, then your oil might be a little low.
Another way to check your oil is to look at the fruits of faith in your life. You can’t give your faith to another, but you can give the fruits of your faith to another. You can give to your church your tithes and offerings as a sign of your trust in God to provide for you. He who has given His only Son to die for you, will also provide for your needs of body and soul. If you can’t trust Him enough to provide for you by giving a portion of your treasure back to Him, then how can you trust His promise to give you eternal life in the new Jerusalem? These signs of doubt in God’s promises are the low oil indicator of faith.
But God has an inexhaustible supply of the oil of gladness, the oil of healing, the oil of faith, which He has poured out on you richly. It is free, as the prophet Isaiah says in chapter 55 of his book:“Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat!” The waters of your Baptism were free for you and the oil of gladness, of renewed faith is free, too, there for the taking. God has showed you where it may that oil of gladness may be found, in His Word and Sacrament, and how you may check to see if your lamp is full, by looking at the fruits of faith in your life, your acts of love to your neighbor and worship of your God.
You who have been baptized and believe will be saved, as Saint Mark says in chapter 16 of his Gospel. Have no doubt of that. God has promised that in your baptism and in His Word. Doubt is unbelief, a sign of low oil. If you cannot say with certainty that you will go to heaven, your oil is low. Come, fill up your lamps with the Gospel assurances of salvation for all who believe. If you think your sins are too great to be forgiven, come and hear the words of forgiveness 70 time 70 times 70 again. For the Lord Jesus Christ, true God and true man, won that forgiveness for you 2000 years ago on the cross of Calvary, when His flame was extinguished. But God the Father, by the power of the Holy Spirit relit that flame, rose Him from the grave and took Him to be with Him in heaven, where He reigns and is preparing a feast for you and me in the New Jerusalem, where there will be no need of our lamps anymore, for the light of the God will shine forever. From Revelation, chapter 21, “And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light, and its lamp is the Lamb. (Rev. 21: 23). The night of sleep will be over and the glorious day of life will dawn for the faithful, those who kept their lamps filled to the last day, “And night will be no more. They will need no light of lamp or sun, for the Lord God will be their light, and they will reign forever and ever. (Rev. 22:5).
May your lamps be always full until the coming of our Lord, brothers and sisters, until His Advent.
Preached at Calvary Lutheran Church, Wellington, Kansas, November 23, 2014