Jesus’ parable of the Ten Virgins presents us with two messages. One comes directly from the Words of Jesus and the other comes from context, as the Church applies this Parable and puts it together with the Introit, the Collect, and the hymns. What Our Lord tells us about is the visible Church on the Last Day. What He presents is sobering. There should be some fear in our hearts as we hear the most damning of words from Jesus: “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.” But we know that there is also joy in this return of Christ. The thrilling cry means our salvation has finally come. In this Parable we are sent into our lives with readiness and joy.
First, readiness. This is not the first time Jesus has revealed the sad truth of the Visible Church, the Church we know here on earth. We heard about it a few weeks ago when the King gave a wedding feast for his son and a man was cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth because he did not have a wedding garment. As we read that Parable in light of Holy Scripture, we found that the wedding garment is code for faith. We were reminded that only God knows who has faith and who doesn’t. We cannot judge that. We can make assumptions based on outward, visible behavior, but we can never be the final judge of that. This Parable of the Ten Virgins reveals the same truth. If the five wise virgins knew that the five foolish virgins were without oil, they would have helped them while there was still time. They would have set them straight: “Get your oil. Don’t be caught without it when it’s time to have it!” But they didn’t know. They saw the lamps, but couldn’t see inside.
All that is to say, coming to church isn’t enough. The man without the wedding garment and the five foolish virgins blend in. They aren’t glaringly obvious. They come to church, give their offerings, do some good works, but there is no faith. They don’t believe. They’re going through the motions.
So we sit back and think: Oh, I’m okay. I do all that, too, but I believe. I’m not just going through the motions. But here’s where it all changes: remember that in the Parable they all fell asleep. That is, they all sinned. None of them were ready. The five foolish could have started out with oil, but they exhausted the supply. What does that mean? It means they were not mindful of their actions. The night came and they did not live as children of the day, as St. Paul explained it to the Thessalonians. They thought they could sin with impunity. “I still go to church, so it’s okay if I let my eyes wander and lust over someone not my spouse. I still go to church, so it’s okay if I’m a gossip. I still go to church, so it’s okay if I neglect the Word the rest of the week. I’ll hear it on Sunday.” Don’t think you’re in the clear if I didn’t talk about one of your favorite sins. Remember what we said together a little bit ago at the start of the service: If we say we have no sin we deceive ourselves and the truth is not in us. It’s possible for each one of us to fall away, to become a foolish virgin, looking like good people while our hidden lives reveal that the faith means nothing to us. Repent, let us not sleep but let us keep awake and be sober. Our Lord will return when we least expect it.
But, do not fear. The second lesson of today’s Gospel is comfort and joy. Remember how St. Paul closed our Epistle today:” God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through Our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us.” He knows that we sin so easily and constantly. He knows that we are powerless to free ourselves from its bonds and to remove its stain. So He came to earth. His first coming was not a coming down all-glorious, but in humility. He came to die, to endure the physical and spiritual punishment for every one of your sins. He has absolved you from your offenses by His cross and burial, His resurrection and ascension. And He gives it to you so freely at every turn. Not just by the Pastor’s declaration that all your sins are forgiven, but by the blest Baptismal waters that were poured over you, by the Body and Blood of Jesus given to you to eat and to drink.
That’s why so many parts of today’s service are so joyous. Recall those words you just sang: “Zion hears the watchmen singing, and all her heart with joy is springing, she wakes, she rises from her gloom.” Our Lord knows how perilous these last days are, how fickle we can be. Remember what He said two weeks ago: “If those days had not been cut short, no human being would be saved. But for the sake of the elect those days will be cut short.” So He does not tarry. He is not slack concerning His promise. He will close this age, bring an end to sin and death, and usher in the new heavens and the new earth. He will not leave you to contend with sin and the devil forever.
On that day He will save you from the threatening peril of your sin by His bountiful goodness. But until that day He will not leave you helpless. He does not say to you “be vigilant” without giving you His aid. Because He knows how easy it is for us to fail, He makes your salvation His top priority. He gives you the Holy Spirit who keeps you in the faith. He works through conscience and the Word to let you know when you’re getting too comfortable with sin. When someone speaks God’s Word to you, especially a Word of Law that condemns you and your thoughts or actions and you feel angry, that’s the Holy Sprit at work, revealing sin, calling you to repentance, to reexamine your life. That’s a wonderful gift of God, something that may not be pleasant when you’re going through it, but is good for your eternal life.
That day of Jesus’ return is not something for you to fear. In fact, each Sunday is a dress rehearsal of sorts. The Lord comes to you and you receive Him joyfully. In the Holy Communion you are given that foretaste of what awaits. Not physical food, but an unshakable connection to your Lord. Just as you see Jesus face to face in His Body and Blood here, you will see him face to face in your own flesh in heaven. You are reminded that one day He will take you with Him to the marriage feast which has no end. So, be ready. Your salvation is nearer now than when you first believed.
Why does the Pastor preach? Scripture explains that the role of preaching the Word of God is how saving faith is created: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17). The Augsburg Confession, seeing this connection between the Preaching Office and saving faith, summarizes Scripture on the Office of the Holy Ministry in this way: “To obtain [saving, justifying] faith, God instituted the Office of Preaching, giving the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (AC V 1-3). The whole reason the Pastor preaches is so saving faith can be created, so we know that “we have a gracious God” who loves us and has saved us from our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.