Sermon notes 11-08-20 Patience, Preparation, Encouragement Pastor David King
1 Thessalonians 4:13-18: 13 But we do not want you to be uninformed, brothers, about those who are asleep, that you may not grieve as others do who have no hope. 14 For since we believe that Jesus died and rose again, even so, through Jesus, God will bring with him those who have fallen asleep. 15 For this we declare to you by a word from the Lord, that we who are alive, who are left until the coming of the Lord, will not precede those who have fallen asleep. 16 For the Lord himself will descend from heaven with a cry of command, with the voice of an archangel, and with the sound of the trumpet of God. And the dead in Christ will rise first. 17 Then we who are alive, who are left, will be caught up together with them in the clouds to meet the Lord in the air, and so we will always be with the Lord. 18 Therefore encourage one another with these words. (ESV)
Matthew 25:1-13: “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 Afterward 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. (ESV)
The Scriptures Barbara read for us could in some ways be seen as the prequel to last week when we celebrated All Saints Day, and we commemorated the saints in our lives and our church family who have gone on to that great communion of saints in the presence of the Lord. Our Scriptures today could be the prequel to that because on All Saints’ Day we claim the promise of our future communion with the saints, but today we’re reminded that we are not there yet; we are still waiting to be a part of that communion. And sometimes we wonder just how long we will have to wait.
Waiting is not something any of us likes to do, but we have all been forced to do a lot of it this year: we’ve waited to visit loved ones, waited for things to open back up, waited for test results, we’re waiting for a vaccine, waiting for this pandemic to be over, waiting to see what life will be like when it is over. It was very fitting that we had to wait several days last week for the presidential election results, and now, we are in for yet more waiting to see which party will have control of the Senate.
Those are all things (along with many others) that we have been waiting for this year, but our Scriptures remind us of something that Christians have been waiting for … for 2000 years. It’s the event that will end all waiting for all time, namely, the Second Coming of Jesus Christ.
You may have noticed that both of our Scripture passages this morning are about Jesus coming again. One is an encouraging message from Paul for those who were afraid that Jesus had not come soon enough to save their loved ones who had died. The other passage is one of Jesus’ parables that serves as a warning to those who might not be prepared for him when he comes sooner than they might expect. So, as we take a closer look at these Scriptures this morning, I invite each of us to reflect on how we feel about Jesus coming again, and to think about how we ought to live our lives while we are waiting.
It seems to me that how we feel about Jesus coming again—that is, whether He might come too soon for us, or not soon enough—depends a lot on what is happening in our lives. When things are going well for us and life seems good, we might be okay with Jesus delaying his coming. But when trouble or suffering or difficulty or tragedy strikes, then we are likely to long for Jesus’ imminent return. This year has given us plenty of reasons to ask, ‘What more has to happen, Lord, before you return?’ ‘How much longer will you wait?’ ‘How much longer must we wait?’
These are not new questions; they are questions not only for these present times. In every generation since Christ ascended to heaven, Christians have looked for him to come again, and have asked, how much longer, Lord? But we might back up and ask, where did Christians get this notion anyway, that Jesus will come again?
Well, we got it from him. He said it himself; he clearly promised it numerous times in the Gospels. He promised it perhaps no more clearly than in John 14:3 when he said; I will come again and will take you to myself, that where I am you may be also. Ever since Jesus said those words, Christians have waited for his return.
The earliest Christians, including the Thessalonians in Paul’s letter, believed that Jesus would come again in their lifetimes. So, when Christians began dying before Christ returned, those who were still living feared that their loved ones who had died had missed out on the Second Coming, and would be lost to death forever. Paul wrote to assure the Thessalonians that their loved ones who had died, or in his words, fallen asleep, would be awakened from the grave to be with Christ at his Second Coming and they too would share in the blessings of resurrection.
We see in our passage from Matthew’s Gospel today that even before Jesus died and rose again, his followers were asking questions about the timing of his Second Coming. In fact, that’s what led Jesus to tell this parable of the ten virgins. Just a few verses earlier, in Matthew 24:3, Jesus’ disciples had said to him, “Tell us … what will be the sign of your coming?” Jesus responded with a long answer that included warnings and parables, all with the same basic message: that no one but the Father knows the day or the hour of Jesus’ coming, so be ready, or be prepared, at all times.
In the parable of the ten virgins, Jesus tells about a bridegroom whose coming to the marriage feast is delayed. The bridegroom in the parable represents Jesus; the wedding feast represents his Second Coming. The virgins, of whom five are said to be wise and five to be foolish, are distinguished by how well prepared they are for His coming. Their preparation is represented by lamp oil. The five wise virgins took oil with their lamps, but the foolish ones did not.
I read a commentary on this passage that suggests that the lamp oil in the parable represents the faith of the wise virgins. They had faith that the bridegroom would come, but they were prepared for his coming to be delayed. Equipped with their faith (represented by the lamp oil), the wise virgins were prepared to wait, as long as necessary, for the bridegroom to arrive.
This understanding that the lamp oil represents the faith of the five virgins helps me to overcome a problem I have always had with this parable. I don’t know about you, but it has always bothered me that the wise virgins did not share their oil with the five foolish ones. But when we think of the oil as representing faith, we realize faith is not something that is transferrable from one person to another. We are not able to loan our faith to anyone else, nor are we able to borrow anyone else’s faith. The only way we can acquire faith is by the power of the Holy Spirit. The Spirit equips us with faith and hope and belief that Jesus will come again as he promised, so that we too, like the five wise virgins, are able to wait as long as necessary for his coming.
So we come to the question, how are we to live our lives while we are waiting? Jesus concluded his parable with these rather ominous words: 13 Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour. Some Christians, especially over the last couple of centuries, have endeavored to try and figure out the day and the hour that Jesus will come again. But friends, when Jesus says “you know neither the day nor the hour” of His coming, He means that we cannot know, we are unable to know when He will come again. In fact, Jesus says in Matthew 24:36: “But concerning that day and hour no one knows, not even the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but the Father only.” Yet there are many prominent theologians who have made claims of figuring it out. Some of these guys are people who I otherwise admire and respect, but they lose me when they make bold claims such as, “Jesus will come again in my lifetime.” I want to ask, Really? You know this, even though the angels in heaven and Jesus Himself do not know it?
There have been too many times when Christians have made very public predictions of a day and hour when Jesus would come again, and every time so far, those predictions have proven to be false. When that happens, often in very public ways, it doesn’t help the cause of Christianity. So, given the words of Jesus that we cannot know when he will come again, it is not only pointless, it is also reckless to try and identify when he will come.
It is very tempting for us to look at the condition of our world and think that the coming of Jesus must be imminent. And it very well may be. But we should be very careful about assuming His coming is imminent, for at least two reasons. One is, we need to remember that Christians have anticipated Jesus’ return, and felt it was imminent, in every generation since he ascended into heaven. There has always been more than enough suffering and turmoil and tragedy in the world to make believers ask the question, “How much longer, Lord?”
The other reason not to assume His return is imminent has directly to do with how we live our lives until Jesus comes again. To illustrate, let me ask you, if you felt you knew for certain that Jesus’ Second Coming will be at noon today, would you try to do anything between now and noon to correct injustice or feed the hungry or shelter the homeless or provide for the needy? No, what would be the point, if Jesus is going to come and fix all those problems once and for all, in just a couple of hours from now? In much the same way, if we assume that the coming of Jesus is imminent, we will not be motivated to make this a better world.
Last week I shared a quote from C.S. Lewis who addressed the criticism that we (Christians) are trying to ‘escape’ from the duty of making a happy world here and now into dreams of a happy world elsewhere. Lewis argued that in spite of this criticism, we ought not shy away from dreaming of a happy world elsewhere–namely, heaven–and of course Lewis was right. The hope of heaven is essential to our faith. But there is also room for criticism of Christians if we regard this world as a lost cause and don’t do anything about trying to make it a better world until Christ comes again.
Brothers and sisters, the belief in Jesus’ Second Coming is every bit as important to our faith, and it is as fully woven into the fabric of Christianity as is our belief in the Communion of Saints. We believe Jesus is coming again because he said he would.
How then can we be prepared for his coming? Not by listening to false prophets who try to predict what Jesus himself said cannot be known, that is; the timing of his coming. Not by hunkering down and withdrawing from the world until he comes. But rather, by letting our light shine and living in faith according to the values of Christ’s kingdom until he comes to establish it for good. Jesus teaches us that the bridegroom’s delay does not mean He will not come. Jesus will return, to end all waiting for all time. May we be ready for it, whether it is at noon today or in another 2000 years. Whenever He comes, may Jesus find us doing what he would have us to do; that is, continuing in deeds of mercy, forgiveness and peace, loving God and our neighbors, and engaging in study and prayer, so that we are able to keep our lamps shining with good works that give glory to God.
In the name of the Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.
 Lindsay P. Armstrong, Feasting on the Word, Year A, Volume 4: (Louisville, Westminster John Knox Press, 2011), 287.