Sermon for the 26th Sunday after Pentecost (November 9, 2008)
“Check Your Oil” (Matthew 25:1-13)
My first car was a 1970 Ford Maverick. My folks bought it brand new. It became mine in 1982. I paid them $300 for it. Candy apple red. Red and black plaid upholstery. Foam rubber stuffing coming out at the top of the back seat. AM radio. To turn on the air conditioning you just rolled down the window.
And it burned oil really fast. I had to make sure there were always at least a couple of extra quarts in the trunk, just in case. It got to the point that before I started the car, no matter where I was, I made sure to check the oil. I would pop open the hood, grab an old rag or paper towel, maybe an extra napkin from Jack in the Box that was on the floor, pull out the dipstick, and see how much was there. If it was low, I would get my funnel and throw a quart in.
I never did get stuck without any oil. But if I had, it would have been disastrous.
Running out of oil was disastrous for five of the women in today’s Gospel reading. They were part of a wedding party for a friend of theirs. It was their job to wait for the groom to arrive. Then, they would travel to get the bride at her home. There, the bride would be lifted up on a litter and be carried in a festive procession after sunset to the place of the wedding feast.
They had one problem. They were unprepared. They did not expect the groom to be so long in coming. They all got drowsy and fell asleep. Their lamps burned and burned and burned while waiting for the groom who, for some reason, was delayed. But they forgot to bring along flasks in which to carry extra oil to keep feeding their flames. At midnight, they were roused from their sleep. The groom was on his way. Line up. Pick up your torches. Go out to meet him as he approaches. But the flames of those foolish females were fizzling out. They asked the wise women for some of their extra oil, but were refused. There would not be enough for everyone. The only option would be for the foolish ones to go find an oil dealer and buy some for themselves. But would there even be anyone open for business at this time of night?
While they were gone to find more oil, the bridegroom arrived. The wise women who were well-prepared went with the groom and into the home where the wedding feast was being held. Some time later, the other women returned, but it was too late. The door was shut. They could not enter. Now, you’d think to yourself that this would be no big deal. Let them in, right? So they were unprepared. What’s the big deal? I mean, after all, the original intent was for them to be in the wedding festivities, right? They went with the bride to her bachelorette party (if they had those in those days, which I doubt), they bought their dresses at Nordstrom’s, went to the wedding rehearsal, got their hair all gussied up at the salon ... they did all they were supposed to do ... except make sure that they had enough oil. But their being unprepared to take part in the procession must have terribly offended the groom ... so much so that when the women called out, “Lord, lord, open to us,” he acted as if he didn’t even know them. How devastating. How disastrous. They should have checked their oil.
Our Lord Jesus ends this parable with this solemn warning, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” This whole section of Matthew’s Gospel deals with Christ’s return on the Last Day and the Final Judgment. Jesus wants us to watch for his return. He wants us to be prepared, because he has not given us the exact time or date on which he will be coming back. But we know from other parts of Scripture, such as today’s Epistle reading from 1 Thessalonians 4, that our Lord’s Second Coming will be sudden and it will be very public: “The Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God.” (1 Thess. 4:16)
So have you checked your oil? In the Bible, anointing with oil sometimes signified being filled with the Holy Spirit. God continually pours his gifts into our hearts and fill us up through the means of grace ... Baptism, the Lord’s Supper, Absolution, the Word of the Gospel. You might call them the “funnels” through which God pours his Holy Spirit into our hearts. He fills us with faith in Christ. He anoints us with grace and favor. He lavishes us with forgiveness now and the guarantee of salvation in the life to come.
So how’s your oil? Are you making use of God’s means of grace so that your lamp of faith will be full when Jesus, the Bridegroom, returns, and the eternal wedding feast begins? Or will you have to make a last ditch effort to get filled up when it looks as if he’s on his way? If so, then it will be too late. You cannot rely on the faith of others to get you into the banquet hall. Not your parents. Not your grandparents. Not your casual acquaintance with the other members of the church. Not your name on the membership roll. And if you try to get filled up at the last minute, it will be too late. The doors will be shut. And no matter how much you cry out, “Lord, Lord” .... the Bridegroom will act as if he never knew you.
But even when our lamps are filled – even those of us who have been anointed with the Holy Spirit in Baptism, those of us who have been given the gift of faith in Christ – sometimes we get lazy and complacent. We get sleepy like the women in the parable. The Bridegroom is delayed. It’s late. It’s been 2,000 years. I’m tired. Maybe I can just rest a little, not be so concerned with the way I live, the things I do and say, not make such a big deal out of being a Christian. I’ll have time to shape myself up before Jesus comes back again. But will you have time? The trumpet call could sound at any moment. I’m afraid that much of the Church today has fallen asleep. Instead of listening for the trumpet call of God, the Church has listened to the siren song of accommodation and compromise. We often live just as the rest of the unbelieving world lives. You’d be hard pressed to see any difference in the way some Christians live compared to unbelievers. We are afraid to boldly proclaim Christ as the only way to heaven. We hesistate to speak up loudly over the threats upon the lives of the unborn. We are more worried about the state of the economy than the state of our souls. We act as if we really don’t trust God to take care of us.
Whether we have drifted off to sleep, or whether we have failed to be faithful in our use of Word and Sacrament so that God can “top us off” with the oil of the Holy Spirit and faith ... either way, we must repent. We must repent and turn to our Savior who never grew lazy or complacent as he lived here under the Law, totally obedient to God the Father’s will, always watchful for ways to help and heal and give hope to those in need. In the Garden of Gethsemane, Jesus told the disciples who were with him to stay awake, to watch and pray. They didn’t. They fell asleep. But Jesus stayed awake, praying in preparation for his impending passion. He was arrested and forced to stay awake all night long, dragged between Caiaphas and the Council and Pilate, beaten and mocked and finally nailed to the cross. And there at the cross, Jesus faced the judgment that you and I deserve. With the weight of the world’s sin upon him, Jesus suffered God’s wrath over sin in our place. Having finished his work, he finally was able to “sleep” ... not in a soft, cozy bed, but in a rock-hewn tomb. But three days later, he woke from the sleep of death, publicly declaring his victory over sin, death, and the devil. After visibly appearing to his followers for forty days, he then ascended into heaven to take his place at the right hand of the Father, with all rule and authority over all creation. He removed his visible presence from us, but that does not mean he is no longer present. Remember how he promised, “Behold, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” (Matt. 28:20) Jesus is with us even now. Jesus will be with us today as he gives us his Body and Blood. But one day he will come again in glory, every eye will see him (Rev. 1:6), and he will judge the world with justice and righteousness. Those who believed in him will rise to eternal life. Those who rejected God’s love and mercy in Christ will rise to eternal damnation.
Through the death and resurrection of Jesus, our sins are forgiven. When we hear this Good News, and as we pass through the waters of Holy Baptism, you and I are awakened from our slumber of spiritual death and given new life. Now, we can be watchful and ready for the end of the age. We don’t need to fear the final judgment, because Jesus has been judged in our place. The just and righteous demands of God’s Law were met for us in Christ. And when the end of the age is finally here – whenever that day may be, whether tomorrow or next week or next year or perhaps even before my sermon is finished – when Jesus returns on the Last Day, and that great eternal marriage feast begins, the doors will not be shut to us. Our lamps will be burning brightly, but not because you and I have earned the oil or were able to purchase it with our good works. No, our lamps will be burning brightly because God has graciously given us an ample supply in Word and Sacrament. And we, the Church – the Bride of Christ – will meet our Bridegroom who is coming in the clouds. “The dead in Christ will rise first. Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. Therefore, encourage one another with these words.” (1 Thess. 4:17)
And always remember to check your oil.