25. November 2012
Last Sunday in the Church Year
St. Matthew 25:1-13
Recently two books were released that sought to answer the question of what happens after judgment day. In one book a little boy recalled his near death experience. His father named the book “Heaven is Real.” I understand it had all the typical features: a light at the end of the tunnel, a feeling of calm, white clothing, and such. In another book “Love Wins” author Rob Bell agreed with the little boy about heaven but rejected hell. While Bell has much to say about heaven and God’s love he couldn’t abide by the idea of a place of weeping and gnashing, fire and brimstone.
Both authors implicitly reject the precise thing that Jesus affirms. You also affirm this ting when you confess: “from whence He will come to judge the living and the dead.” The little boy “died” and went straightway to heaven. Do not pass go. Do not collect $200. And Rob Bell denies the final judgment but giving only one possible verdict—heaven. What happened to the universal confession of the church and the explicit teaching of Jesus about the final judgment? St. Matthew spends chapters recalling Christ’s Word on the topic.
Why the fear of judgment? Why the skepticism about Jesus’ teaching of heaven and hell? It seems to the wise of this world utterly foolish. Why would God create life and then judge that life to an eternity of hell? If God loves the world—indeed, us—so much, why would he damn anyone. The young boy who claims to have met death didn’t talk about judgment because he likely never heard about it. Rob Bell doesn’t talk about judgment because he can’t handle a God who doesn’t meet his expectations.
The parable of the wise and foolish virgins sets the wisdom of the world in stark contrast to the wisdom of God. There is reality and there is unreality. The gift of faith allows you to see what is truly real. Rejecting this gift means you continue to live in the unreal. This world would tell you to judge yourself by a flexible scale. Everything is about being the best we can be, doing well enough, trying hard, and striving for excellence. Such gauges of performance are unreal. They lack any kind of absolute standard.
The reality is this: there is an absolute standard established by God and it is unattainable by prudence. For many Christians their life is about getting all the Jesus ducks in a row. Baptized? Check. Sunday School? Check. Confirmed? Check. Fairly regular attendance? Check. Money in the plate? Check. Christian funeral? Check. And when the marriage feast comes around they think they’ve got it all together. Seems like they’ve taken care of the whole list of Christian duties, marked off the list just like Jesus wants it to be.
These figurative five are wise according to the religion of this world. They’ve risen to the challenge, received their share of good and ill, showed up to the party prepared. Some friends came too, another five outrageous. For some inexplicable reason they come with extra jugs of oil “just in case.” Just in case of what? Everybody knows the party is tonight. Why have so much extra oil? What could go wrong, they ask? Whatever. Let’s party and wait for the bridegroom.
The whatever is the point of the parable. Whatever could go wrong does. As the bridegroom was delayed, they all became drowsy and slept. But at midnight there was a cry, “Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” This world is never so predicable. The unexpected happens. The bridegroom is late. Funny that? God late to His own party? There’s God’s wisdom at work and its utter foolishness to us. The eternal God can’t even show up on time. Why are we surprised? You yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.
There is another problem. Whose fault is it that only half of the virgins are prepared? Ancients tried to answer this question. It was called theodicy, the perennial why-some-and-not-others. It’s the bridegroom who can’t even show up on time. The foolish virgins were completely prepared with enough oil to burn until the party. They did it all just right but the bridegroom had to muck it up.
All through the Scriptures we wise people end up in a mess: Job, Peter, Judas. Whose fault is it that Job suffered or Peter denied or even Judas betrayed? It is God’s. They were chosen and God even sent suffering their way. Ouch. That’s not the God we want but He’s the God we’ve got. And He’s stuck with us. In the final analysis, it’s the way God is doing things. We suffer. We deny. We betray. And we answer with Job in the midst of his suffering: Though He slay me, yet will I trust Him (Job 13:15).
When its all said and done there’s no point in using the wisdom of this world to figure out the ways of God. We’ll look at God choosing foolish means of a pastor, or water, or bread and wine, or even just simple words and scoff. Ha! Ha! That could never be enough. I’ve got to fill my lamps, follow the orders, do the right thing, and then—and only then— will I be ready.
It turns out that all our self-wrought preparation will be wasted when the time comes. Whether wise or foolish, we’ll be sound asleep. But at midnight there was a cry, “Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” The cry will ring out. Those questions about when Jesus will come, what is happening in the meantime, and even what we must do are immaterial to the feast. The question we ought to be concerned with is faith.
The Father has reconciled us to Himself in Jesus. He did it, not us. This means we’re restored to a trusting relationship. We don’t have to figure God out but only know that’s He’s got it figured out. We don’t need to know when He’s coming back but only that He is coming. We don’t need to know why we suffer but only that He sends suffering for our good. That’s faith—to trust in the Holy Trinity explicitly even in the face of things we cannot understand. Faith, after all, comes by hearing and hearing by the Word of God. Faith does not come by experiencing or simply knowing, but by believing and trusting.
This is the God we’ve got and we’re stuck with Him. He will deliver on His promise to draw all to Himself. We are reconciled to God no matter what our sins. The doubter, the denier, and even the betrayer all received the call to faith. It’s a gift, no questions asked, given without answering our questions. God’s way of doing things is silly and outrageous. It’s also worth celebrating—and we will during Advent. Come, Lord Jesus! O Come, O Come, Emmanuel!
There’s no denying the judgment outlined in today’s parable and the rest of Scripture. Heaven and hell are real. We don’t have to like it or even agree with it. It is God’s way of doing things. Some will deny the reality in the midst of this unreal world. Some will waste their whole life trying to prepare themselves for the day. Many will try to jump through all the right religion hoops. In the end, at the final judgment, it’s not really up to those who wait but up to God. He’ll be late, things won’t go as they’ve planned, and only the faithful will be able to say: “Oh, well.” That’s God’s way and it’s wise.
God has fudged everything in His favor. We’re not in the dark. Now is the long dark teatime for our soul. We belong to the light. We wait and celebrate the divine blessedness of His way of saving. Despite the world, despite his delay, even despite our suffering, we trust we are not destined for wrath but to receive salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ who died for us. Yeah, its messy business. Dying and rising isn’t so pretty. Such it is for a God who works in history. He’s delivering the package and he’s given the trust, a lamp and more worth. Look, He comes on clouds descending—eventually. And at midnight—the cry!
In holy name of + Jesus. Amen.
Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
Grace Lutheran Church