Keeping watch is part of everyone's life. Parents watch for a child to be delivered. Children watch for death to come to their ailing parent. Investors watch the stock market; politicians watch the polls. Christians watch for the Lord to return. Does keeping watch mean always staying awake? Is that what Jesus wants to encourage us to do, to be always on the edge of our seat thinking the very next minute could be our last?
Try this the next time you can't sleep. Try to make yourself stay away. Lay there thinking you'll not even let your eyelids close. What you'll find is that your eyelids start to get heavy, and you have to fight to keep them open. The more you try to make yourself stay awake the sleepier you become. Forcing yourself to stay awake usually has the opposite effect.
It's near impossible to make yourself stay awake except for short periods of time. That's why the military seldom goes beyond 4 hours at a time for guard duty. Telling someone he must stay awake for the whole night is to command failure. So, do you think that's what our Lord says here?
Go ahead and try then. Every time you see a sun rise remember that the Lord will return from the East. Every time you hear a loud sound think it might be the last trumpet. Every time you hear of war, earthquakes, disease and false doctrine remember that these are the birth pangs indicating that the birth of the new heaven and earth are close. Try to make yourself do this and one of two things will result. Either you'll find yourself downtown marching around with a sign that says, "The End Is Near!", or you will be constantly kicking yourself because you can't stay awake.
Friends, by telling the parable of the 10 virgins Jesus can't be teaching us that keeping watch means always staying awake. The parable clearly says that all 10 virgins waiting for the bridegroom to return slept. Actually, it's more picturesque than that. The Greek shows them all literally "nodding off." You know how it was. They all intended to stay awake till the groom returned. They all tried to keep themselves awake, but not one of them could. They all nodded off. This parable plainly teaches that it's impossible to keep watch by constantly staying awake.
Jesus even highlights this point. Jesus closes this text by saying that if you think you can stay awake you're wrong because you are in a "worse" situation than the 10 virgins waiting for the groom to return. They at least knew the day he was suppose to come. The only thing they didn't know was the exact hour. But they even had some idea of that because the text says he delayed. They could only know the groom was delayed if they had an idea of the time he was suppose to be there. But we have no idea of when the Lord is going to come for us. We not only don't know the hour and day, we don't even know the month or year. So how are we going to stay awake?
This text can't teach that keeping watch is the same thing as staying awake. This would conflict with what Jesus says elsewhere about His return. He says that He comes at a time we don't expect Him. If this is so, then Jesus doesn't foresee us living minute by minute eyes peeled open. In fact, several times Jesus tells us He comes like a thief in the night. He says that if a homeowner did know when the thief was coming he would be on the alert right then and not let the thief break in. Since we, like the homeowner, do not know the when of our "thief's" arrival, we can no more be on constant alert than the homeowner could be.
What this text does teach us is that keeping watch means being prepared for Jesus's arrival. But do notice, all of the virgins in the text thought they were prepared. All confidently went out to meet the bridegroom certain that they were prepared. All could let themselves drift off to sleep because all believed they were all ready for the groom's return and could just jump up at the last minute ready to greet Him. All 10 virgins, all those in the church believe they are ready for Jesus to return. But 5 were wise in their belief; 5 were foolish. This text asks you to consider, which are you?
You need to ask yourself this question now, today, on this Last Sunday of the Church Year because it might be too late tonight, or even today, or even in 30 minutes. We just don't know when Jesus will return for us, do we? And that's the point. Since Jesus does indeed come like a thief in the night last minute preparations are foolish - as the 5 virgins found out. It's too late to lock the door once the thief walks in.
But dear friends it is so easy to be prepared! It is not, as this text is so often presented, a matter of being constantly thinking about the end of the world, constantly expecting a thief to break in. That sort of preparation leads to paranoia, doesn't it? It leads to constantly checking to see if you really did lock the door, constantly looking into your heart to see if you're really ready for Jesus to come for you. Friends, constant preoccupation with self or what you have to do never leads to anything good spiritually.
This text teaches that it is easy to keep watch, that is, be prepared for Jesus to return. How does it teach this? By the olive oil. Olive oil was not a scarce substance. Olive oil was not a precious substance. Everyone who cooked, had lamps, or had a medicine kit had olive oil. It was not a difficult task to meet the groom when he came with his bride. It was just a matter of having your lamb and oil. The foolish virgins took no oil. They didn't just forget to take extra oil; they took none says the text. None but the little bit that splashed around from the last time they used the lamp.
How foolish it is to pick up a lamp and not notice it's empty. How foolish it is not to fill the lamp with oil. How foolish it to see the five other virgins carrying extra oil and not think, "Hey, I might need some too." How foolish to think you're prepared for something when you're not.
That's the way to approach this. How can sinners be prepared to meet the Lord? What gets sinners into the wedding reception of the Lord? It can't be being awake, constantly expecting His return because as we have seen none of the 10 did that. It has to be something that prepares us no matter what hour, no matter what day He comes. So being prepared cannot be a matter of having enough faith since we must always confess with that father in Scripture, 'Lord I believe; help my unbelief." Our faith is plagued by doubts, fears, worries. Nor can our preparation be a matter of never sinning. Then who among us would ever be prepared at anytime? What can make us prepared for what we can't possibly be prepared for? Only God.
God has MEANS of preparing sinners to meet Him. He clothes them in Baptism. By means of Baptism He puts Christ over them. In Baptism, sinners can walk through heaven's gates. In Baptism sinners are welcomed into the wedding reception. God can no more keep a baptized sinner out of heaven then He can His own Son.
God prepares sinners for heaven by forgiving their sins. Forgiveness is the only way sinners can be righteous, holy, fit for heaven. Sinners can't be fit for heaven by trying not to sin or by doing good works to offset their wicked ones. No, sinners can only be fit for heaven if God, for Christ's sake, sends their sins away from them. By the Absolution, our sins are sent as far away from us as east is from west.
God prepares sinners for heaven by giving them the Body and Blood of His Son. Our own body and blood only deserve wrath and punishment. Our own body and blood can only bring forth God's judgment on the Last Day. But the Body and Blood of Christ are holy and precious. When the Body and Blood of Christ approach heaven's gates, what cry goes up? "Lift up your heads ye mighty gates, behold the King of glory waits." The heavens must receive the Body and Blood of Christ Scripture teaches. And it must receive those who are filled with His forgiving Body and His Blood from eating and drinking at His table.
Being prepared is easy. Baptism is more plentiful than olive oil; wherever water is, it's for all nations. Absolution knows no sin that it can't forgive. And Christ's Body and Blood were given and shed for all on the cross. But some of you are bothered. You have not heard enough of that good Lutheran Word "faith" or "believing." Let me try to show you why you haven't.
The foolish virgins believed they were all ready to meet the bridegroom; they weren't. The foolish virgins believed they could get what was needed to enter heaven from those entering it; they were wrong. The foolish virgins believed that Jesus should open the gates of heaven once they were closed; they believed wrongly. The foolish virgins had plenty of believing going on, plenty of trusting going on. But their faith was rooted in their own opinions.
What is needed isn't some abstract believing going on but faith rooted in the things of God. God promises that Baptism saves us. We are prepared for heaven when we take God at His Word and claim to be children of heaven only because we've been baptized. God promises that the Words of man can actually forgive our sins. We are prepared for heaven when we hang our salvation entirely on the forgiving words spoken to us by a man in the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. God promises that the Body and Blood of Christ are present in Communion for the purpose of forgiving our sins. We're prepared for heaven when we receive the Holy Communion as the unconditional guarantee of our forgiveness and salvation.
Keeping watch is easy; it's a matter of always being prepared for Jesus to return. It's not a matter of sitting on the edge of your seat expecting Jesus at any moment; it's a matter of sitting in the baptismal font covered by Christ's holiness. Being prepared isn't a matter of living with your ear pressed to the door waiting for the "Thief," it's a matter of having your ear pressed to the Words of Absolution and hearing, "Be of good cheer; your sins are all forgiven you." Being prepared isn't a matter of having your eyes focussed on the horizon for Christ; it's a matter of having your eyes focused on Christ in the Holy Communion where He promises to be meet you for salvation.
Because we don't know the day or the hour Jesus will return, because we are told plainly that we can't know this, the when of Jesus' return is not to be our focus. Our focus is to be on the Who. The virgins according to the text don't go out to keep watch; no they go out to meet the groom. Meeting the groom is the point here. The groom, not the oil, got the 5 wise virgins into the wedding receptions. And what got the 5 foolish virgins locked out, according to the text, was not their lack of oil but not being known by the groom. You see the groom is everything in this text. Those who meet Him are saved; those who don't aren't. Well Jesus tells us we can meet Him now right up till the Last Day in the Water, Words, Bread and Wine of Baptism, Absolution, and Holy Communion. To run off looking for something else other than these things or to look inside ourselves in order to be prepared would be just plain foolishness. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Last Sunday in the Church Year (11-21-99) Matthew 25: 1-13