Last Sunday of the Church Year
In the Name of the Father and of the +Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Strictly speaking, eschatology is about the four last things: death, judgment, hell, and heaven. All four are played out in the parable of the ten virgins. The virgins’ falling asleep is death. They all fail to keep watch, to stay pure. The wages of sin is death and the virgins are sinners so they die. When they awake they face judgment. The judgment is based on whether or not they have oil. The oil is faith or the Holy Spirit or good works as evidence of one or both of those. I don’t think we need to pin it to just one of those things. They are all wrapped up together. Where the Holy Spirit dwells He gives faith and where there is faith there are good works. In any case, heaven is in with the Bridegroom. Hell is out, apart from Him.
No matter how clear the Bible is on these things, our fallen flesh is easily confused and conflicted by our own self-interest. In general, we’ve thought quite a bit about our own immediate fate upon death, but we haven’t thought much about judgment day or the resurrection of the body. For the most part our thinking has been pretty shallow and rather temporal. We’ve mainly thought of heaven as a sort of candy land, dreamed up by Saturday morning animators.
This parable’s focus, however, is not on the bliss that comes from perfect union with God, but upon the judgment and separation from God of those who don’t have faith, the Holy Spirit, and the good works that show they have faith and the Holy Spirit. No one ever chooses this parable as a funeral text.
We ought to fear God’s wrath and we mainly don’t, or we don’t much. We fear our neighbors. We don’t want them to think poorly of us, to know how messy our closets are or how wasteful we are, or to steal from us. We fear the opinion of our children. Some of us fear the financial cliff or a bully or genetically engineered wheat. But we’ve got God under control. He is safe, harmless, like the chicken pox or polio. Once He was dangerous, but that is ancient history. We’ve overcome, tamed Him. We inoculate ourselves with some flakey Christmas specials and Precious Moments figurines and figure everything will be OK. God is a lot likes us and he gets us.
In light of that latent paganism which lies within us all, let us remember that five virgins are shut out: not half the world, but half the church. “I do not know you,” says the Lord. He doesn’t say, “I never knew you,” because once He did. But then, when it counts, He doesn’t. He doesn’t know them because they don’t know Him. They’ve fallen away, become apostates. They’ve left the Church, gone after other gods who went by the Name of the true God, but who had no wrath, no teeth. That nice god seemed so nice, so non-judgmental, so accepting. He didn’t require oil. You could believe what you wanted, what was convenient. He didn’t care about behavior. He knew you were good, deep down, somewhere, and so it didn’t matter if you cheated on your wife or neglected your children or lied to your boss. He knew you didn’t mean it, that that wasn’t the real you. And so he led you away from God, away from the Truth, and let your oil run out until it was too late and then, shut out from the banquet hall, you discover, to your horror, that he has teeth alright, but they are the wrong kind. He was a wolf in grandma’s pajamas and you didn’t want to notice how big his eyes and teeth were while he flattered you. But in the end he will put those teeth to use.
The end is coming. We are all dying. On top of that, all of the signs that Our Lord predicted about the end have already come. The apostasy, which might be the most significant sign, began when the Lord’s disciples failed him during His passion. The earthquake and the signs in the heavens happened at the crucifixion. And since that time, these signs have only escalated. Indeed, it seems that our shut-ins were right all along: the world is going to Hell in a hand basket. And it is getting harder and harder to believe that there isn’t an actual increase in natural disasters. I don’t really know whether there are more frequent or more intense earthquakes and other terrors, I don’t know how to measure such things, but it certainly seems as though there are. Whether there are or not, there is no doubt that apostasy, falling away, is on the rise. The Christian church on earth, in America, is smaller every day.
This is nothing new. The apostles faced terrible apostasy in the early church, requiring the writing of letters that we still read every week. Our creeds are the result of more apostasy, Trinitarian and Christological errors. The Church was rent in sunder, East away from West, by the apostasy of the bishop in Rome insisting that he be supreme. And then, a later bishop in Rome’s apostasy, bears the lion’s share of the guilt for the Reformation and the continual division and split of the Church. On and on it goes. The Church on earth is not getting more united, contrary to all ecumenical fantasies, and we should not expect it to. Proclaiming unity where this is disunity and division over doctrine and practice is the devil’s work. The Church is getting more and more divided. This is a sign of the end. “For the time is coming,” says St. Paul, “when people will not endure sound teaching, but having itching ears they will accumulate for themselves teachers to suit their own passions, and will turn away from listening to the truth and wander off into myths.”
But we do not mourn as those without hope. We rejoice. Let the end come, by all means, come, Lord Jesus, come quickly. And even as all the signs of the end have already occurred, so also there is a sense in which three of these four last things, death, judgment, and heaven, have already occurred for you, though they are not yet fully consummated. You have died to sin and the old man in Holy Baptism. That Holy Gift has joined you to the death and resurrection of the Christ where you have been judged innocent and He has been judged guilty in your place. You have been delivered to heaven on earth when you have been joined with Him, the angels, archangels, and the whole company of heaven in the Holy hors’ d’oeuvres of Holy Communion.
What then of Hell? Hell is all around us. That is why this place feels so wrong, why we mourn, why we wait. But there is great comfort for us in today’s Epistle. St. Paul admonishes us to not sleep but to keep watch. Then he says, “God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that whether we are awake or asleep we might live with Him.”
Those wise virgins fell asleep, the same as the fools. They were not saved because they were good or better than the others. They were not good. They were not better. But they believed and trusted, nonetheless, that the Bridegroom was coming for them. They believed and trusted that He was good and merciful and would bring them in. So He did. So He will also for you – whether you are awake or asleep, whether you are good or bad, He has not destined you for wrath but for Himself. He has set a bound to everything – nations, earthquakes, family squabbles. Come, home, to the Altar – to your Lord and your God. Here find nourishment for the wait and a foretaste of the Feast to come.
In Jesus’ Name. Amen.