When will it be over? Isn’t that the question we are all asking? When will this whole COVID thing finally be over? Back in the spring we had the big lock down – the shelter in place order. Of course, we learned that what that really meant was that lots of people went shopping at Home Depot, Menards and Lowes to get the stuff they needed to do all of those projects they now had time to do at home.
We’ve worn masks and done social distancing, and only gradually seen a return of some elements of normal life as the Governor and the State of Illinois give us permission. Yet after all of that, what has it gotten us? On Tuesday this past week Gov. Pritzker announced that due to “exponential growth” in COVID-19 cases and hospitalizations, Illinois would be moving back to “Tier 3” Restrictions on Friday. The Governor said that, “This is not a stay-at-home order,” but he did add that he was not ruling out that possibility down the line if the second surge isn’t tamed. Good times.
Of course there has been some encouraging news recently about a vaccine. We’ve heard reports about a vaccine that is safe and 90% effective. I certainly pray that that this is all true. But I have to say, while I am not a doctor, and I have never played one on TV, I just don’t feel super comfortable with idea of a vaccine that we all know has been rushed as quickly as possible. I mean, do you really want to be the first people they actually use this thing on?
When will the pandemic be done? We can’t say for sure. And what will things look like when we conclude that it is “done”? We don’t know about that one either. How much of life will be normal again? How much of life will be different? We just don’t know.
Today is the Last Sunday of the Church Year. The church year and the lectionary – the assigned Scripture readings – are meant to teach us the faith. And so every year at the end of the church year we hear about the end – about the Last Day and the return of Jesus Christ. Certainly we hear about this during the rest of the year as well, because you cannot read God’s Word without constantly encountering it. But on this Sunday all of the Scripture readings deal with the Last Day, and all of the hymns do as well.
As we consider our Gospel lesson for today, we learn three things that I want to focus upon. First, we learn that we don’t know when our Lord Jesus will return. Second, we learn that we do know what things will be like when he does. And third, we learn about what we are to be doing in the present.
This morning our Lord Jesus teaches about his return using a parable. He begins by saying, “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom.” The parable describes the practice of young women waiting to escort the bridegroom into the wedding feast. They needed lamps that would be lit to accompany him in to the great celebration.
We learn in the parable that the bridegroom was delayed, and it became late in the evening. The ten virgins all became drowsy and fell asleep. Now to many of us that may sound strange. After all, who gets drowsy and falls asleep at 10:00 or 11:00 in the evening? But remember, in the ancient world, for the most part, the sun determined when you were up and doing things. At dawn – when the sun first came up and there was light – the work day started. It basically continued all day until the sun went down and there was no more light. Yes there were lamps that burned olive oil and gave off light. But they didn’t provide that much illumination, and olive oil cost money. In a world before electric lights, you got up at dawn and you went to bed not long after sundown.
The arrival of the bridegroom had delayed long beyond when he was expected, and the virgins had fallen asleep. But then we learn that at midnight there was a cry, “Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” Suddenly, unexpectedly he was there! When the bridegroom came, the virgins who were ready – more on that a little later - went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut.
Jesus teaches us this morning that his return will be sudden and unexpected. As the Lord says at the end of our text: “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” But in this parable he also teaches, what we have found to be true – it may take longer for it to occur that we think or want. Our Lord teaches us to be ready for the long haul. And after two thousand years, that is what it has turned out to be.
However, we know that Christ’s return will happen. We know it will happen because God the Father sent his Son into this world as he was conceived by the Holy Spirit and born of the virgin Mary. We know it will happen because on Good Friday, Jesus Christ the Son of God, died in our place on the cross as he received the judgment – the damnation we deserve. We know it will happen because on the third day – on Easter – God raised Jesus from the dead. It is the risen Lord Jesus who made the New Testament Church come into existence. We know that it will happen because Jesus was exalted when he ascended. Peter tells us that Jesus Christ is the One “who has gone into heaven and is at the right hand of God, with angels, authorities, and powers having been subjected to him.” And we know it will happen because our risen and exalted Lord has declared that he will return. He says it this morning.
And we also know what things will be like when our Lord returns. By his death Jesus has redeemed you – he has freed you from sin. By his resurrection he has defeated death, and has begun the resurrection that will be yours when he returns on the Last Day. He will raise and transform your body so that it can never die again. And he will transform creation itself. God says through Isaiah in our Old Testament lesson this morning, “For behold, I create new heavens and a new earth, and the former things shall not be remembered or come into mind.” He says, “The wolf and the lamb shall graze together; the lion shall eat straw like the ox, and dust shall be the serpent's food. They shall not hurt or destroy in all my holy mountain.” It will be a life of joy in God’s presence, for after all, in the parable Jesus describes the future salvation as a wedding feast.
We know what will happen. We don’t know when it will happen, and yes, as Jesus describes in the parable today we find ourselves waiting for it. So it is important to listen to our Lord as he teaches us about what we are to do as we wait. There are ten virgins in the parable this morning. They are all waiting for the bridegroom. This is an important detail that we often overlook. The people around us in the world who do not believe in Christ are not expecting his return. They think the idea is silly and could care less. So all ten virgins in this parable describe believers.
We learn that five were wise and five were foolish. The foolish were not prepared. The did not bring flasks with oil. When the bridegroom arrived their lamps were going out, and they did not have enough oil. The foolish asked the wise to share, but this was simply not possible. There wasn’t enough to go around. While the foolish virgins were away buying more oil, the the bridegroom came, and those who were ready – those who were wise - went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut. Later the other virgins came also, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” Notice that they are calling Jesus, “Lord.” They are people who had at some point and in some way claimed to be Christian. Yet the Lord replied, “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.”
Five virgins were wise. Five were ready. How is one ready for the Lord’s return? How does one keep watch? It is by keeping our life focused on Jesus Christ. We do this first by repenting and confessing our sins. We must listen to God’s law as it reveals the sin that is present. The world does not want to hear this, but because you are God’s child you know that you need to. And as the law reveals your sin – the ways you love other things more than God; the ways you love yourself more than your neighbor – you confess before God that yes, you are sinner who has sinned in this way. You confess and ask for forgiveness for Jesus’ sake.
Because the old Adam will always be causing sin, to be focused on Christ is to receive our Lords Means of Grace continually. We need to hear his Word. We need to believe God’s promises about our baptism. We need to hear his words of forgiveness in Holy Absolution. And we need our Lord who locates himself bodily in our midst in the Sacrament of the Altar where he gives you his true body and blood given and shed for you for the forgiveness of your sins. You are ready for the Lord’s second coming on the Last Day by weekly receiving his body and blood as he comes to us in the Sacrament. Through these means we receive forgiveness. Through these means Christ’s Spirit strengthens us in faith to face the challenges of living as God’s children in a sinful, fallen world.
Remember that in the parable of the sower, the seeds that fell on rocky ground, where they did not have much soil, immediately sprang up but when the sun rose they were scorched. And since they had no root, they withered away. The seed that fell among the thorns grew, until the thorns choked them.
When Jesus explained this, he said, “As for what was sown on rocky ground, this is the one who hears the word and immediately receives it with joy, yet he has no root in himself, but endures for a while, and when tribulation or persecution arises on account of the word, immediately he falls away.” Only as we are focused on Jesus – only as we receive his Means of Grace continually are we able remain believers in the face of tribulation and persecution caused by faith in Jesus and the life God’s Word teaches.
Our Lord went on to add: “As for what was sown among thorns, this is the one who hears the word, but the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches choke the word, and it proves unfruitful.” Only as we are focused on Christ, recognizing our sin and our need for his forgiveness, can we find protection from the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches. It is not enough to begin as a Christian. We must live in Christ – we must live focused on Christ – so that we finish as a Christian. Only in that way are we wise. Only in that way are we ready.
When we are focused on Jesus Christ, then we are ready. We confess our sin. We receive Christ’s Word as he gives it to us in his various ways through the Means of Grace. When we are doing this, Christ’s Spirit will cause us to stand in faith against the persecution and tribulation; against the cares of the world and the deceitfulness of riches. We will be regularly hearing about our Lord’s return – just like you are this morning! We will be prepared, ready and keeping watch so that when our Lord returns we will rejoice and say, “Blessed his he who comes in the name of the Lord.”