Lutheran preaching is at times quite perplexing to outsiders. It’s because, to them, we’re stuck on repeat. Each sermon has the same elements: Law and Gospel, a call to repentance and an assurance of God’s forgiveness in Christ. There’s certainly moral instruction, an encouragement to live by way of God’s Law, but most Lutheran preachers aren’t telling you how to be better Christians by your own actions. We approach each sermon as if we’re dealing with new converts, people who need to be called to repentance. It’s because we are. Both preacher and hearers alike need to be called to repentance week in and week out. It’s part of how we are kept in the faith, by being told we’re straying.
Today’s Gospel answers the question of why we preach the way we do. Our faith always needs to be reoriented, and our eyes focused on the right thing. We see this in the virgins in today’s Parable. It’s not that five were morally good and five were morally bad. Jesus doesn’t talk in terms of bad and good, law-abiding and not. He talks about wise and foolish. Wisdom is shorthand for faith—the beginning of wisdom is the fear of the Lord, as the Proverb says. The foolish don’t have faith. They didn’t believe Jesus, the divine Bridegroom, would really come like He said. They believed for a short time, but they changed their minds because of His delay. Even though the wise also fell asleep, they still believed He would come.
The Lord sends a cry to wake up the wise. If it weren’t for this cry, there would be no hope. We wouldn’t be awakened in time. This cry to wake up is the call to repentance. We all—wise and foolish—fall asleep, that is, fall into sin. The Church issues the call to wake up, to repent. The wise hear it, realize their failures, repent, and are forgiven. They ask for grace to do what God asks. The foolish hear it, wake up, and see that Jesus isn’t here yet, and go back to sleep, they go back to sinful ways and figure they’ll stay awake when Jesus really is on His way. They forget that His return isn’t planned, but comes when it’s least expected.
That’s why our preaching, our liturgy point to our sin week after week. We don’t shy away from that message as if our forgiveness is past tense, something over and done with. We fall asleep daily. We take advantage of and cheapen God’s grace by living how we want to live, forgetting that faith, that fear of God, shows itself in how we live. God doesn’t call us to be only Sunday morning Christians, leading wildly different lives here versus the rest of the week. That’s why we need to repent and be absolved, we need to hear God’s Word and receive the Sacrament not only to be forgiven, but to have our faith strengthened. Christ, in His mercy, causes the cry of “wake up, repent” to go out so we aren’t lulled into complacency. The Lord is coming. Be prepared!
But this is not just a call to repentance. It’s a call to rejoice. Soon this evil, dying world will be gone. Soon our sin will be a thing of the past. The watchmen crying on the heights can retire, they can rest. When Christ comes, even though it’s like a thief in the night, He comes with glorious gifts! He is coming to resurrect the dead, to usher in the new heavens and the new earth. When the Bridegroom comes and takes us with Him, He is taking us to all those incomprehensible joys Isaiah spoke of. No more weeping and distress. The curse from Eden will be gone. No more toil, no more eating by the sweat of our brow. No more torments by the serpent with his siren song of “Did God really say…” No more death. No more anticipation destroyed by sin’s awful effects. The perfect harmony of Eden will be restored, and will be ours for eternity.
The end is nothing to fear. The end is something to embrace, to look to with longing eyes. That’s why today’s hymns and liturgy have winding through them the golden thread of joy. It’s not the Dies Irae, “Day of Wrath, O Day of Mourning.” Zion hears the watchmen singing and all her heart with joy is springing! She wakes, she rises from her gloom. The Church Year ends today exactly how it started on the First Sunday in Advent last December 2nd: Christ is coming to you, lowly and having salvation. He is coming for your redemption, to set you free!
There is no better way to end the Church Year than these words from Jesus to you, His beloved. In his cantata for the last Sunday of the Church Year, based on the hymn just sung, Johann Sebastian Bach elaborated on today’s theme. In the third-to-last movement, Bach puts these words on the lips of Jesus. They are words of Law and Gospel. To the heart troubled by its own sin, by the punishment deserved, Jesus speaks words of love and grace. Following the end of stanza two of the hymn, “We enter all the wedding hall to eat the Supper at Thy call,” Jesus sings:
“So come within to Me, thou Mine elected bride! I have Myself to thee eternally betrothed. I will upon My heart, upon My arm like as a seal engrave thee and to thy troubled eye bring pleasure. Forget, O spirit, now the fear, the pain which thou hadst to suffer. Upon My left hand shalt thou rest, and this My right hand shall embrace thee.”
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.