December 21, 2012, marked the end of the first “Great Cycle” of the Maya Long Count calendar. Which meant in the minds of many, that December 21, 2012 was also going to be the end of the world – a cataclysmic collision with the dark planet Nibiru or giant solar flares that would wipe out life on earth or… And people prepared, some of them. Except…it’s November 12, 2023 – over a decade later. Whether it’s the Mayan Long Count calendar crisis or Nostradamus’ or any of thousands of others, plenty of human worries and predictions show us that what Jesus said is true: “[Y]ou do not know the day or the hour.”
Jesus does say there is urgency regarding the End. The Kingdom of God is upon us. The largely invisible rule of God in human hearts by faith is soon going to be evident for all to see in the most final way. But no one knows when that will be. So, he tells us to watch. Jesus’ parable this morning shows us one aspect of what that watching means. It puts on display the wisdom of the watchful.
Jesus sets it up this way: God’s ruling activity is like ten virgins – in Jesus’ day, they were like the welcoming party of beautiful young ladies who would bring the groom to meet his bride. Five wise / five foolish… “The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps.” You can see it at the end. The cry rang out, the virgins woke up, and lit up their lamps…but half the lamps ominously flickered and failed. The virgins were all adorned with lamps at hand; they looked ready, but the proof was in the results. The fools didn’t bring the essential fuel to carry out their mission, and worse, they missed the wedding. Jesus is saying that the wise watcher is prepared, and “prepared” means being more than just made-up.
I say that because that word where the virgins “trim” their lamps? It’s the word in the gospels and epistles for stuff that looks good – things that are adorned and beautiful. It’s from where our word “cosmetics” comes. Getting “made-up”, so to speak, is one way women often prepare or ready themselves for the day – foundation, mascara, eyes-shadow, lipstick, etc. And, on the man-side of things, that word is also used for gettin’ stuff in order. We prepare, say, for going to a wedding: knowing you’ve got cash for tips, directions, and the time the shindig starts. With mascara or your money clip, you “trim your lamps,” or adorn your lives so as to say, “We’re ready” for this or that.
The question is: are we properly prepared or do we just look like it? There are all manner of ways to “trim” our lives so that we look and feel like we’re prepared, aren’t there? Think about how much “wisdom” is out there that promises to make you a good wife or a responsible father. How many books will build proper money-management or the keys to a solid career? Even of our spirituality: showing up for three Sundays out of four, having a Bible on the shelf at home, and a prayer at dinner… How many are they, these opportunities for you and me? And by them, are we properly prepared? They can be part of wisdom… but they can also be as foolish as lipstick on a pig – if we begin to think of readiness by our own measures, our own work, and God’s wisdom as a foolishness that won’t prepare us… if we hunt after the outward appearance but miss the essentials…
Don’t you find it interesting how Paul talks about readiness for the end? In our second reading – he even says it’s going to be intense and people are going to be saying, “Oh everything’s alright…” or “Here’s how you make everything alright,” and then the end will come – totally unexpected – no escape. Except…he’s not saying you should be afraid. In fact, he puts you in the special, really ready category of “awake”. By what means? “Putting on faith and love like a breastplate and the hope of salvation like a helmet”. If we expanded Paul’s words it might be that your trust in God and his love for you in Christ, or the truth that God has rescued you to be his own from your own sin and death, that’s the protective barrier around your vitality and thoughts and dreams and hopes. You’re ready when you wrap yourself up in God’s promised salvation.
Though we might feel like we need a slew of other things, the one way to be ready for the bridegroom is having that store of the gospel at the ready. Reading and digesting his Word “keeps you full” on Jesus’ holiness for your sins’ forgiveness. Preparedness is filling up with the gospel in the water of baptism, where by water and Word we were buried and raised with Jesus by faith in God’s power, to conquer death and live eternally just like him. If we want to be ready, we remember that in communion we participate in our Lord’s body and blood in a feast that brings forgiveness and the strength in faith to participate together as his body, the Church. In his Word & Sacraments, our God fills us with readiness to enter his wedding feast. In this way, we’re more than just made-up to look nice with activity and plans and outward things. Instead, we’re truly wise: resting on the power of God alone for salvation.
And that simplifies things as we watch for the end even so that we can be sleeping soundly because we’re set. Now I know Paul just told us to be awake, but did you notice that aspect of the parable? Did you notice that both the wise and the foolish fall asleep? But you don’t hear from Jesus any rebuke about sleepiness, only about readiness. The virgins don’t know when the bridegroom’s coming. The bridegroom comes in the middle of the night, but he could have come three days later for all they knew. Naturally they fall asleep.
Let’s face it though, THE END feels a little different than prepping for a wedding, right? When I shared our second reading with someone in the hospital this week and I said that our Lord’s kingdom is coming – who knows when – the guy in the bed on the other side of the curtain blurted out, “You could die on your drive home, pastor!” True, thank you… He’s right. Our Lord’s Kingdom coming, when you or I finally see with our own eyes his mighty rule… It might be on I-94 in a car crash. It might be in our sleep unexpected and unfelt. It might be in a glorious flash, at the last trumpet this afternoon with a million, million angels and the dead rising left and right. Either way, you won’t know it until it’s here. That could be unsettling depending. Keep you awake at night kind of thing.
There have been plenty of studies about how to sleep well – it’s a thing people struggle with. Some tactics to get a good night’s sleep include exercise, read a book, don’t worry about all the chores every day, list your to-do’s to get them out of your head. There are others too but a common theme among them is something like this: do whatever you can to get rid of worry for the day coming or about the day past.
That’s the way you and I “sleep soundly” too. Those prepared with the good news of the Savior Jesus Christ can face even a Last Day on “who knows when” unworried. Call it the “fuel” that lights the fire – God’s light we carry into every dark time, to drive away our own dark sins, to drive away the shadows of fear about our own abilities or this world’s happenings or God’s unknowable timing. It takes everything off our list – everything has been done – everything is in hand – you’re in his hands too… this is his gospel promise. Which means, for those who know it, there is no last-minute shopping spree to find what they’re lacking. There is nothing to worry over. They can sleep soundly and wake up ready because they have what they need.
But remember Paul’s word, how simple it is: “[Christ] died for us so that, whether we are awake or asleep (and let’s add, driving or working, old or young, busy or bored…), we may live together with him.” No matter what. Of course, Jesus’ point includes that we’re so confident that we freely live. We do seek out active, planned, amazing ways to “adorn” our lives to God’s glory. To excel at being godly men and good students and faithful friends. We “make the teaching about God our Savior attractive (Ti 2:10)”, a trimmed and beautiful thing to the world. We can stretch and do it because we have God’s gospel grace. No matter the day or hour, we’re set.
That’s all built into the picture Jesus paints anyway, isn’t it? It’s a wedding. Many times those are almost magical moments, when you see two people look each other in the eye and pledge themselves for the other for life before friends, family, and God. There’s anticipation in the waiting. It brings a smile to your face. At the groom’s wedding banquet, the work is done by Christ, the cost of this lavish feast was his lifeblood. He pledged his life and gave it for love of his bride, the Church. Love like that is a joy to behold and a blessing to share. To that triumph of love he’s invited you. It isn’t far off. Bring your oil, trim your lamps – gear up to walk him into the gala with joy. Until he comes, sleep soundly and live boldly confident that you’re set in his salvation. Wise like this, watch, because you may not know the day or the hour, but you can’t wait until it comes. Amen.