Matthew 25:1-13 (ESV)
1 Jesus said: “Then the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. 2 Five of them were foolish, and five were wise. 3 For when the foolish took their lamps, they took no oil with them, 4 but the wise took flasks of oil with their lamps.5 As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. 6 But at midnight there was a cry, ‘Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.’7 Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. 8 And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ 9 But the wise answered, saying, ‘Since there will not be enough for us and for you, go rather to the dealers and buy for yourselves.’ 10 And while they were going to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut.11 Afterwards the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’12 But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.’13 Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.
Dear Heavenly Father, send your Holy Spirit on us so that we may be prepared for the coming of our bridegroom, Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.
Imagine an excited child as he or she waits for the arrival of a special guest.
The child is very chatty, happy, and can’t sit still; constantly looking out the windows to see the special guest arrive.
But in this case the guest didn’t arrive quickly. In fact, the guest is very late.
Over time you see your child’s excitement slowly fade. Their happiness turns to frustration and then to sadness, anger, or even apathy as they care less and less about who’s coming.
The special gifts and stories they want to share with the guest are eventually left crumpled and rejected as they leave behind the windows to do something else. They become distracted and distant. What was once of highest importance has now changed.
By the time the guest arrives, the original welcome which was planned has changed into something different. What the child had expected wasn’t matched by the reality of what happened.
I wonder how many Christians end up in a similar situation when we’re often told Jesus could return at any moment, but he keeps delaying his return?
So, perhaps in your own watching and waiting for your Lord’s return, have you lost interest and become distracted with other worldly things? Have you lost the excitement of what it would mean for your Lord to return? Are you prepared for his imminent, yet delayed return, and what might this constant state of preparedness look like?
You see, we live in a strange time where we expect Jesus’ imminent and immediate return, yet we also expect him to be delayed. The trouble is, we don’t know how much longer he’ll be delayed. Living in this awkward time between the ‘right now’ and the ‘not yet’ may easily lead us to become apathetic to the return of the bridegroom; our Lord Jesus Christ.
For example, he could come right now……ok, so he didn’t, or he could come sometime before Christmas, or even in another 20 years time. He could and might come at any time, but he might take a lot longer than we realise or expect.
While we may expect to see him coming in glory on that great and glorious day, for most of us (or even all of us), his coming may more than likely be timed with our own death, which we also don’t know the time of. This means the moment of our last breath is when Jesus comes for us. Will we be prepared?
Of course, we’d like to think we’ll be prepared, or at least have enough time to prepare our lives and faith for that last breath, but as we’re constantly reminded in the news, our life may be cut short by an act of terrorism, a car accident, a worksite tragedy, a fire, flood, or an act of stupidity by someone else. None of us know the day or hour of our death. We don’t know the day of our Lord’s return. And in this constant state of not knowing the time, will we be prepared?
But you might ask how are we supposed to prepare for this unknown time? What are our preparations to look like? How do we know if we’re truly ready or not?
Well, it may help to look more carefully at the parable Jesus gives us.
In this case, we note there are ten girls of marrying age, presumably virgins. Five were classed as foolish or stupid, while the other five were called wise or sensible.
But, what was the difference between them? Well, since they all fell asleep, there’s no difference there. All of them had their lamps, which in this case was most likely a stick with a rag on it which was soaked in oil.
This lamp would normally be good for a single burn of around 15 minutes. Once that was exhausted, you’d need to re-soak the rag to make it burn longer. And it’s here where we have a difference. Half of them didn’t carry the extra oil for another burn, while the other half had enough oil for an extra burn for when the bridegroom came later than first expected.
Perhaps then, if we were to take this parable literally, we should all carry some extra oil in our pockets! Or, perhaps we should always carry a torch, or make sure we know how to turn on the torch app on our phones, or even carry one of those solar-come-wind-up torches so we don’t need to worry about batteries. But I don’t think this is what Jesus meant!
So, what did Jesus mean? What is this oil Jesus is talking about?
Well, he doesn’t say, which has led many commentators to speculate what this oil is.
Some suggest it’s faith, since you can’t pass your own faith onto others and you need faith to enter heaven. Certainly this may have some merit, but as we know the foolish girls went to buy more oil, and if this oil is to represent faith, we also know you can’t buy any more faith, so I’m not sure this is what Jesus meant.
Some have suggested the oil is the Holy Spirit. And certainly, this too has some merit, because oil was used for anointing and even used in connection with baptism and the reception of the Holy Spirit. But again, you can’t buy more Holy Spirit.
Some have even suggested the oil is good works. If this is the case, then I’d hate to lie on my death-bed worrying if I’ve been good enough. Instead, I think we’d all like to approach our final breath in the peace and comfort knowing we’re saved by grace and not by our good works.
So, if we’re to rely on understanding what the oil means for our preparations, we have a problem, because it’s ambiguous. We don’t know for sure what Jesus really meant by the oil. Unlike a number of other parables, he never explained this one.
So, perhaps the answer isn’t in the oil, but in the sensible preparations. The stupid girls only anticipated a short wait. They weren’t prepared for a long wait, which meant they couldn’t keep their lamps alight. But the sensible girls were prepared for a short wait and a long wait. They were the ones who were always prepared.
Perhaps then our preparation is simple – we’re to look for and anticipate Christ’s imminent return to be delayed. He could come at any moment, yet he may take longer than we expect.
This means we’re to stay alert and prepared always, not just for a short wait while like the stupid girls. We should be prepared for a short or long wait like the sensible girls because we don’t know the day or the hour.
And how do we do this?
We’re to keep our excited and eager faith alive in the oil and light of God’s Word, after all, God’s Word is lamp to our feet and a light for our path.
By constantly hearing his Words of challenge and comfort, and as he tells us of our failures and forgiveness, we receive the oil of his Holy Spirit which helps prepare us and keep our faith alight. Similarly, as we immerse ourselves in his gracious sacraments of forgiveness and love, our flagging and fragile faith is sustained during those dark hours of trouble and grief. Waiting until the last moment to top up our faith at the end may come too late.
In his way we’re prepared to live in this constant anticipation of our Lord’s coming – both his eventual coming on the Day of the Lord, but also in his coming right here and now through his Word and holy gifts of grace in our divine worship as we gather together in his holy name.
As we keep on looking forward to each of his comings; that is, in his daily comings in our home devotions and in his weekly comings through Word and Sacrament in our corporate worship, as well as in his final coming on the Day of the Lord, we’re less likely to become apathetic as we wait. As we continue our faithful practices of worship, payer and daily devotions, we’ll be prepared.
In this way we’re to live every day and every moment in the light of God’s Word and truth. We live anticipating Jesus will return right now but also that he may delay his return a bit longer.
Therefore, what we do right now has to be one of preparation, of living as a child of God eagerly awaiting his return. But this preparation doesn’t just last an hour, a day, a week, or a year. This type of constant preparation lasts until he comes again.
So, what is the way you prepare for his coming?
Your preparation is to keep hearing the Word of God and keep receiving his holy gifts, in the expectation he will return – either in a short while or a longer one. You may see him come in triumph on the clouds, or you may see him come to take you home with him when you draw your last breath, whenever that may be.
But you also expect he’ll recognise you. Expect him to take you into his heavenly banquet to celebrate the wedding feast that won’t end. Expect that he will come back, and that he will take with him all who are prepared by his Holy Spirit, who gives the gift of faith which believes he will return. This faith helps you live your life in eager anticipation of his imminent, yet delayed, return – you just don’t know the day or the hour.
Until then, may…
…the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guard your hearts and minds as you wait for your bridegroom, Jesus Christ, to return. Amen.