The following prepared sermon text and sermon audio (the link opens a new tab) were preached at Amherst Presbyterian Church. I dressed for Advent since the theme of today’s Scripture passage is the theme of Advent. The other Scripture passage used in worship also fits the theme: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18. Some of my views on how to understand this passage have changed since one old sermon here. Another time I preached this passage is available here. Although I didn’t mention some of the observations made in this second sermon, I still stand behind them as helpful. Next Sunday, we will continue in Matthew 25. Text in strikethrough are there for organizational purposes–those points are articulated later in italics.
Be Prepared (Sermon Audio)
In preparation for today’s sermon I learned about The Advent Project. The project’s goal is to convince churches to expand the season of Advent from four to seven Sundays and to provide the liturgical resources for this. Thus today would be the First Sunday of Advent. The idea has several things going for it. For one, the season of Advent used to be almost seven weeks. For another, the season of Advent has largely been swallowed up by Christmas. Churches often want to start singing Christmas hymns four Sundays before Christmas. We have basically surrendered to our American culture in doing so. Our society keeps moving up cultural Christmas celebrations, which no longer begin the day after Thanksgiving but now the day after Halloween. Maybe you even noticed many Christmas decorations were up even before Halloween this year. Christmas music is already playing on the radio. So the hope is that starting the season of Advent earlier will allow the church to push back against the culture and recover the whole purpose of Advent. That purpose is to be prepared for the Second Coming of our Messiah. Unfortunately, our preparations to celebrate the birth of Jesus Christ have largely eclipsed the purpose of Advent to prepare for His return. But the most convincing reason for observing seven Sundays of Advent in a church that follows the Lectionary is the Lectionary readings themselves. The theme of Advent and the theme of our Gospel reading today are the same: Be prepared for Christ to come again. The parable I’m preaching today and the parable I’m preaching next Sunday both aim to warn us to be ready for His Second Coming and are preceded and followed by Jesus talking about it. Indeed, the reading for today also fits a common Advent emphasis on wisdom. It is the wise person who is prepared. That’s why the Boy Scout motto is “Be Prepared.” In order to be prepared to go camping, for example, you need to have the right clothes, especially extra socks in case they get wet, the right shoes or boots, the right gear, food, flashlights, and a variety of other things – but most especially duct tape because it can fix almost anything. Someone who is well prepared will even pack extra batteries for their flashlight. It isn’t wise to bring flashlights with batteries that won’t make it through the night unless you packed extra batteries. Jesus said something similar. Jesus said:
Matthew 25:1-13 (ESV)
Jesus gave you this parable about ten virgins waiting for the delayed bridegroom to warn you to always be prepared for Him to come again.
The conclusion Jesus draws for us from this story is that you should “watch” because you don’t know the day nor hour—by which He means the day and hour when He will come again. He recently drew this same conclusion using other examples. Take a look at Matthew 24:36-44. Before I read it, let me point out the structure. Jesus begins with reference to the day and hour that no one knows. Then after the example of the days of Noah being like the two men in the field and the two women grinding at the mill, Jesus draws a similar conclusion with reference to the day your Lord is coming. And then again after the example of the master of a house who doesn’t know when the thief will come He draws a similar conclusion with reference to the hour you don’t expect. So Jesus said, “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only. For as were the days of Noah, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day when Noah entered the ark, and they were unaware until the flood came and swept them all away, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two men will be in the field; one will be taken and one left. Two women will be grinding at the mill; one will be taken and one left. Therefore, stay awake, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But know this, that if the master of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an hour you do not expect” (Matthew 24:36-44). So the two conclusions that Jesus drew from these examples was that we need to “stay awake,” which He explains as meaning “be ready.” Likewise, Jesus ends today’s parable saying, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (Matthew 25:13). So “stay awake” means “be ready” and be ready means ‘keep watch.’ In other words, these are all different ways of saying, “be prepared.” One way Matthew encourages you to connect the first parable in Matthew 25 to these examples in Matthew 24 is scrambling the conclusions. The example of the days of Noah and the two men in the field and the two women grinding at the mill would best be concluded by saying, “keep watch.” Instead it says, “stay awake,” which would be the best way to conclude the example with the thief in the night. The example with the thief is instead concluded with “be ready.” “Be ready” is the best way to conclude today’s parable but it instead says to “watch.” In other words, the first one has the conclusion best for the second, the second has the conclusion best for the third, and the third has the conclusion best for the first. It seems then that Matthew has scrambled or rotated these conclusions on purpose. The translation in the bulletin obscures this by saying “keep awake” instead of “watch” after the parable where all ten virgins fall asleep. But I trust that the translators did this to help you make the connection between this parable and the earlier examples. Thus the conclusion Jesus drew from the parable was to watch but that means to be prepared. (But before we unpack the parable, I want to make a couple more observations about the related passage in Matthew 24. Jesus’ example of the days of Noah is instructive because it shows something I was arguing last Sunday. Most American Christians read about the two men in the field and the two women grinding at the mill and when the Son of Man comes one will be taken and one left and conclude that you don’t want to be left behind. But we read last Sunday, “Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth” (Matthew 5:5). Noah was an example of this. Noah was meek and he and his family inherited the earth. They went into the ark and shut the door while the people outside the ark who were going about their lives were taken away. That’s why we also read in the parable of the ten virgins that “the door was shut” (Matthew 25:10). Jesus says, “Those who were ready went in with him to the marriage feast, and the door was shut.” Thus your take-away from this parable is to be ready and some of the details will help you reinforce that take-away.)
You can simplify this parable to say that Jesus is like the delayed bridegroom who arrives to find that only half of the virgins are ready to come into the wedding feast before the door was shut. You don’t need to pay attention to the ways that the foolish and wise virgins in the parable are alike. They are all unmarried young women. They all became drowsy and slept. They all brought lamps. Thus, for example, we don’t need to make much of the fact that the five wise virgins in this parable couldn’t stay awake. Instead, we need to pay attention to the one difference between the foolish and wise virgins. That is, the foolish virgins did not take extra oil for their lamps but the wise virgins did. So the point is that the wise virgins were prepared but the foolish virgins were not. Not being prepared was unthinkable in that culture. The Jewish custom of the bridegroom arriving at an unexpected time for his bride added to the anticipation and suspense. The bride was to be ready whenever her bridegroom arrived. This image does not translate into our culture well. Today it is unthinkable for the groom to be late. If he were delayed, the bride might think that the groom does not think the wedding is important or isn’t coming at all. But the Jewish custom illustrates our situation. All Christians together are the bride of Christ. (My apologies to the men.) We have been betrothed to our bridegroom Jesus Christ. And our bridegroom is arriving at an unexpected time. So He can tell us, “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour” (25:13). It is unthinkable for us to be unprepared. (That said, the ten virgins are invited guests like the Parable of the Wedding Feast (Matthew 22:1-14). These virgins are attendants to the bride and thus could point to the religious leaders. Their lack of preparation is also inexcusable. But while there are lots of details in this parable that we can take too far, we can further describe what being prepared means.)
You’re prepared if Christ knows you and you can have assurance of that if you do God’s will.
[You’re prepared for Christ to come again if He knows you.] Jesus’ parable ends with the bridegroom saying he doesn’t know the five foolish virgins. It reads, “Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, lord, open to us.’ But he answered, ‘Truly, I say to you, I do not know you’” (25:11-12). The five foolish virgins thought the bridegroom knew them. But if he knew them then they would’ve been prepared for his arrival. Does Jesus know you? Does He have a relationship with you? Do you know Him? Advent is a season of self-examination. The Day is coming. Are you ready? Jesus said in His Sermon on the Mount, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven. On that day many will say to me, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many mighty works in your name?’ And then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; depart from me, you workers of lawlessness’” (Matthew 7:15-23). The parallel between these passages is obvious. The virgins in the parable say, “Lord, lord, open to us” and the bridegroom refused to open the door. Likewise, Jesus said in the Sermon, “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven.” Moreover, the bridegroom in the parable says, “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.” Likewise, Jesus said in the Sermon, “And then I will declare to them, ‘I never knew you.’” Therefore, you’re prepared for Christ to come again if He knows you. (But that raises the obvious question: How can I be assured that Christ knows me?)
You can have assurance that Christ knows you if you do God’s will. In those verses we read from the Sermon, Jesus promises that the one who does the will of His Heavenly Father shall enter the kingdom of heaven. Of course, Jesus is the one who did His Heavenly Father’s will and brought the kingdom of heaven to us. Nevertheless, if Christ knows you then you will be able to do what He says. He never knew many who prophesied in His name and cast out demons in His name and did many mighty works in His name but who didn’t do God’s will. Christ didn’t know them so they didn’t do God’s will. The parable gives us a way to visualize this. It portrays those prepared for the bridegroom as letting their light shine. After all, the wise virgins had enough oil for their lamps. Just before those words we mentioned a moment ago in the Sermon, Jesus said, “Beware of false prophets, who come to you in sheep’s clothing but inwardly are ravenous wolves. You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit. A healthy tree cannot bear bad fruit, nor can a diseased tree bear good fruit. Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire. Thus you will recognize them by their fruits (Matthew 7:15-20). This theme of bearing good fruit has been common in many of these passages in Matthew that we’ve looked at these last several Sundays. To bear good fruit is another metaphor that means the same thing as to let your light shine. Both metaphors get at the idea that your heart will be revealed in your actions. Earlier in the Sermon on the Mount Jesus said, “You are the light of the world. A city set on a hill cannot be hidden. Nor do people light a lamp and put it under a basket, but on a stand, and it gives light to all in the house. In the same way, let your light shine before others, so that they may see your good works and give glory to your Father who is in heaven” (Matthew 5:14-16). Indeed, the Christian motto is “be prepared.” But we are not talking about carrying extra batteries for your flashlight or flasks of oil for your old-fashioned lamps. Yet oil in Scripture often represents the Holy Spirit—thus this gives us a good illustration. We are talking about being filled with the Spirit of Christ, who assures us of our being in relationship with Christ by faith, and then shining the light of Jesus so that we can have even more assurance of our being in relationship with Christ. Such good works then are evidence of who is in your heart by faith. Make no mistake—you cannot do enough good works apart from Christ to prepare you for the final judgment. We’re not talking about doing good works in order to be saved but rather doing good works in order to have more assurance that Christ knows you and that Christ will say so at the final judgment. Indeed, even the best of our good works are tainted with sin but works that are pleasing in the sight of God are those that arise from hearts where Christ lives. Therefore, you are prepared for Christ to come again if Jesus knows you and if Jesus knows you then you will shine the light of Jesus to the world. And may our attitude always be: may all the glory go to our Father who is in heaven. Amen.