At the climax of the movie “Top Gun,” Tom Cruise’s character Pete Mitchell – call sign “Maverick” – sits strapped into the cockpit of a F-14 Tomcat fighter aboard a U.S. aircraft carrier. The order goes out to “Launch the Alert 5 fighter!” and immediately Maverick is shown saluting the catapult officer as the F-14 shoots off the carrier.
The circumstances in the movie under which the launch takes place are not plausible. The Alert 5 status is, on the other hand, very real. A plane on Alert 5 status must be ready to catapult off the deck of the carrier within five minutes of the order being given to launch.
The plane sits right at the catapult, fully armed and fueled with the crew strapped in the cockpit. The launch crew is all present, ready to do their jobs. Starting up an airplane for launch is not like turning on a car. There are many things that have to be initialized and checked before the plane can be launched. There is a scene depicting this with a FA-18 Hornet at the beginning of the movie “Behind Enemy Lines.” From the moment the order is given, there is furious activity until the plane screams off of the carrier deck.
Alert 5 aircraft are poised on the deck, ready to protect the carrier battle group. Although planes will be out on Combat Air Patrol providing protection, circumstances can sometimes prevent them from intercepting a threat. The Alert 5 aircraft are on constant standby – ready to launch within five minutes in order to respond. They are needed if, say, a Bear comes calling – a Russian TU-95 four engine long range bomber.
The Alert 5 aircraft is always ready for the arrival of anything that is unexpected. In our Gospel lesson for the Last Sunday of the church year, Jesus tells a parable that teaches us we need to be always ready for his return because it will take place at time we do not expect. We are to be alert and ready. And so we must ask what it means to be expectant and ready for Jesus’ return.
Our Gospel lesson takes place during Holy Week. The disciples had been pointing out to Jesus the magnificent buildings of the temple complex. And they were impressive. Herod the Great had expended tremendous resources to build a structure that was one of the marvels of the ancient world.
Yet in response, Jesus spoke these chilling words: “You see all these, do you not? Truly, I say to you, there will not be left here one stone upon another that will not be thrown down.”
When they had crossed over to the other side of the valley and sat down on the Mount of Olives opposite the temple, the disciples asked him privately, saying, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?”
Jesus then began to talk about two different things. First, he spoke about the coming destruction of the temple that would take place in 70 A.D. at the hands of the Romans. In this discussion our Lord emphasized that they would know when this was about to happen. He said, “So when you see the abomination of desolation spoken of by the prophet Daniel, standing in the holy place, then let those who are in Judea flee to the mountains.” And in the midst of this statement, Matthew adds the parenthetical comment “let the reader understand.” Clearly, this was something that the believers of Jesus’ time were expected to recognize.
But then, when Jesus talks about his return in glory he says, “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” Jesus emphasizes that the day of his return will be unexpected. He says, “Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect.”
In order to illustrate the need to be ready, Jesus tells the parable of the ten virgins. Five are described as wise, because they brought extra oil for lamps, while five are called foolish because they did not. They were waiting for the bridegroom to come to the wedding celebration, but he was delayed until the middle of the night. As they waited, they become drowsy and fell asleep.
Then suddenly – unexpectedly – there was a cry: “Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” Roused, the virgins prepared their lamps, but the ones who had not brought extra oil realized that their lamps were going out. They asked the wise virgins to share the extra oil, but they pointed out that there would be enough.
While the foolish virgins were going to buy oil, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But the bridegroom answered, “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.” Then Jesus concluded by saying, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
When you stop and think about it, there is an irony here. Jesus is making the point that we are to watch and be ready for his return. He does this by telling a parable about virgins who were waiting and then all fell asleep. The difference between the foolish and wise virgins is, of course, that the wise ones where prepared. They brought extra oil. And so at the moment when the bridegroom arrived, their lamps were burning.
Jesus says to keep watch and be ready for his return. So how do we do that? Are we supposed to gather in a field and wait there continually in prayer looking up to the sky? Are we to stop doing everything else because we want to focused only on Jesus’ impending return?
Matthew’s Gospel says no. Instead we are to be living a life of faith in Jesus Christ. First, this means that we believe in Jesus as the One who died on the cross in order to give his life as the ransom for our sins, and then rose from the dead. It means that we live as those who know that because of Jesus, we have received the kingdom of God – the reign of God that frees us from Satan, sin and death.
Jesus says that the wise virgins have brought extra oil so that their lamp is burning when the bridegroom arrived. When hearing these words, it’s hard not to think of Jesus’ statement at the beginning of the Sermon on the Mount: “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven.”
Jesus speaks in the parable about wise virgins. Just before our text, he has spoken of a faithful and wise servant as he said, “Who then is the faithful and wise servant, whom his master has set over his household, to give them their food at the proper time? Blessed is that servant whom his master will find so doing when he comes.” The wise servant who is prepared for his masters’ unexpected return is the one who is faithfully doing the things that the master has entrusted him to do.
Immediately after our text Jesus tells the parable of the talents in which servants are entrusted different amounts of money by a master who is going on a journey. When he returns he checks to see what they have done with it. Those who have worked faithfully with it are all told the same thing: “Well done, good and faithful servant. You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.”
It soon becomes clear that being ready for Jesus’ return – being prepared – is a matter of faithfully living in the ways that Jesus and the apostles have set forth in God’s word. It is to live in the ways that Jesus has shown us by his own sacrificial death. As Jesus said, “You know that the rulers of the Gentiles lord it over them, and their great ones exercise authority over them. It shall not be so among you. But whoever would be great among you must be your servant, and whoever would be first among you must be your slave, even as the Son of Man came not to be served but to serve, and to give his life as a ransom for many.”
Being prepared for Jesus’ return means caring for your husband or wife, son or daughter and putting their needs ahead of your own. Being prepared for Jesus’ return means forgiving the sins of others, just as your heavenly Father forgives you because of Jesus. Being prepared for Jesus’ return means caring for the needs of those we meet in our lives – even when this entails sacrifice and inconvenience for us. It means being Jesus to our neighbor, as we share the mercy and love our Lord has already given to us.
And we do this knowing that Jesus will return at a time we do not expect. We are prepared and keeping watch when we seek to live in a way we would want Jesus to find us living. We don’t want to be like the youths who are supposed to be doing homework, but instead are watching videos on their phones – only to have the door open unannounced by a parent as they hastily try to pretend like they have been doing homework all along. We are keeping watch when we live knowing that Jesus will return unexpectedly and so we keep our lamp burning and shining in this world.
This is a flame that springs from water for it is the Holy Spirit who gave us rebirth in the water of Holy Baptism. It is a flame what is produced and sustained by God’s Word as it is preached, read and studied. It is a flame that is fed by the body and blood of Jesus Christ, given and shed for us, that we receive in the Sacrament of the Altar. Through these means Jesus sustains us so that we can let his light shine before others until that day when for a final time we cry, “Blessed is he who comes in the name of the Lord!”