Sermon for the Twenty-Fourth Sunday after Pentecost – November12, 2023
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
Let’s go to a wedding, shall we? It’s a wedding in ancient Israel, so some things are going to be different from what we are used to. However, many things will be the same. There will be a bride and a groom. There will be bridesmaids. There will be a celebration. There will be food! Best of all, there will be joy and there will be hope for the future. Isn’t every wedding, no matter the time or place, an occasion of joyful hope for the future as bride and groom promise themselves to one another for the rest of their lives?
So, there are many similarities to weddings in our own time, but some things are very different. For instance, in ancient Israel marriages were arranged by families. This is not to say that there was no love involved. In the Bible we hear how deeply Jacob loved Rachel. The Song of Songs is a whole book of the Bible filled with some of the most romantic love poetry you will ever read. But in these arranged marriages, feelings weren’t the first priority. Loving feelings often developed over time. The first priority was the arrangement between families. As soon as the marriage was arranged, the couple was betrothed, which, legally speaking, was as binding as marriage itself.
This state of betrothal could continue for weeks or even months until the wedding day.
The couple would continue to live separately until the groom had prepared a place for them to live. Once that place was ready, then it was time for the wedding.
Weddings began at sundown. As the sun set on the evening of the wedding, the groom would make his way in grand procession from his father’s house to the house of his bride. While he was on his way the bridesmaids would tend to the bride. Then when the groom arrived, these bridesmaids would accompany the bride to her husband at the door, and all of them together would continue to parade to the place he had prepared for them.
There were no streetlights in those days, and so the most important responsibility the bridesmaids had was to have lamps ready to light their way. They would dance in celebration on the way to the wedding feast, their lamps bobbing and weaving with their gyrations, making brilliant streaks along the dark parade route. It was quite a spectacle! Once they arrived at the place the groom had prepared, there would be feasting for days. Their relationship would be consummated at last, and they would begin life together as husband and wife.
Jesus uses this imagery of a wedding in ancient Israel to describe the Kingdom of Heaven, the Kingdom of God. He wasn’t the first to do so. The Old Testament is filled with this imagery. Hosea describes God as a faithful husband. The prophet Isaiah wrote: “As a young man marries a young woman, so will your Maker marry you; as a bridegroom rejoices over his bride, so will your God rejoice over you.” The aforementioned Song of Songs has long been interpreted in part as an allegory of the relationship between God and his people.
Jesus wasn’t the first, and he didn’t just use this imagery once. We heard a parable a few weeks ago about the Kingdom of God being like a wedding feast. One of the most beloved passages from the gospels is rooted in this imagery, as we hear Jesus in John 14 saying, “I am going to prepare a place for you, and if I go to prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I am, there you may be also.” This is wedding procession language! Christ promises to come to us to take us to himself. Christ is the groom and his church is the bride and he promises a day when he will take us to the place he has prepared for us, where, as we sang on Reformation Sunday, he will consummate the relationship between himself and his church, bringing to completion this intimate and permanent union.
This language might raise some eyebrows. I know I’m veering towards PG-13 territory. But this imagery is an enormous and important part of the biblical witness. There is nothing scandalous or dirty about it. Only in our perverse and porn-sick generation is this seen as anything other than beautiful and holy. The clearly symbolic language of this holy union points to the permanent closeness of Christ and his people.
Jesus wasn’t the first to use this imagery, and he wasn’t the last either. St. Paul refers to the relationship of Christ and his church as akin to that of husband and wife, their one flesh relationship mysteriously reflecting the closeness of Christ and his bride. In the book of Revelation, St. John does too, describing Christ’s ultimate return as the marriage supper of the Lamb and describing the new kingdom, the new Jerusalem, as being like a bride adorned for her husband.
All of this helps to place our parable for today in both its biblical and cultural context. Jesus is talking about his return. He describes this return as being like a wedding party. “It will be like this,” Jesus says. “Ten bridesmaids took their lamps and went to meet the groom. Five were foolish and five were wise.”
Remember, the main duty of the bridesmaids was to light the way for the parade back to the place the groom had prepared. The foolish bridesmaids, probably under the influence of too many White Claws or wine coolers, didn’t bring any oil with them. And when the groom was delayed, not coming until midnight, they didn’t have enough oil. You had one job, right? Be prepared with the lamps. Be prepared to celebrate. But they weren’t.
The wise bridesmaids, on the other hand, were. They had flasks of oil with them. They were prepared for any delay. And when the groom finally arrived, their lamps were burning bright in anticipation of his arrival. These five wise bridesmaids lit the way for the bride and groom while the five foolish bridesmaids raced off to try to buy some in the middle of the night. But it was too late. When they finally made it to the wedding party, the door was already shut. “Lord, lord, open to us!” they pleaded. But the groom replied, “Truly I tell you, I do not know you.”
It is a troubling way to end the parable. Whether this represents Jesus’ final word to those who “run out of oil” or is merely a character designed by Jesus to get our attention, I cannot say. But either way, the point is clear. As we await the coming of Christ, we need oil in our lamps. As we await the coming of Christ, we need to keep awake, for we know neither the day nor the hour.
Martin Luther, in a sermon he preached on this parable, said that the oil represents faith, while the light from the lamp represents our good works. As Jesus said, “Let your light so shine before others, that they would see your good works and glorify your Father in heaven.” We hear these words when we are baptized. The oil of faith, poured into us in Holy Baptism as gift of the Holy Spirit, is what saves us, but this faith imperfectly but inevitably burns brightly with good works which give glory to God.
This oil is topped off throughout our lives by the hearing of God’s Word. It is topped off by receiving the Lord’s Supper. It is topped off by being connected to the body of Christ in worship and fellowship and service. This oil of faith is sustained and strengthened by diligently making use of the means of grace given in Word and Sacrament.
Except when it isn’t, right? We know how our failure to stay topped off leaves us dry and flickering. We know how our neglect, our lack of diligence in matters of faith leaves us dim. We see it also among friends and loved ones who drift from these means of grace our Lord gives us. We see how their oil gets lower and lower and lower as they come to worship less and less often.
This is why the pandemic has been so devastating to churches. It cut the supply line for our lamps. By keeping people away from church for so long, many peoples’ oil ran devastatingly low. For many it seems to have run out entirely. Some estimates are that a quarter to a third of what were marginally active Christians are gone, probably at this point for good. Their oil ran out.
The pandemic was only hastening trends that were already well underway. And as western civilization continues to reject its heritage, its foundation, running on the fading fumes of the past, we see the light of good works that glorify God growing more and more dim and the world becoming more and more dark.
A foolish bridesmaid, whether through foolishness or carelessness or neglect, lets the light go out altogether. A foolish bridesmaid doesn’t account for the possibility that the groom might take longer to come than we’d hoped, longer than we’d like. And so the foolish bridesmaid falls first into a hurried, desperate angst, and then into despair.
But that isn’t you. You are a wise bridesmaid. For you have come here today to get topped off. You have come to have your lamp filled with the gifts Christ Jesus freely gives us. Through his Word and his Supper and his people he fills you up with faith in him. And that faith shines! It shines with peace. It shines with hope. It shines with love. It shines with the light of good works that give glory to your Father in heaven.
“The kingdom of heaven will be like this…” Jesus says. And then he describes an ancient near eastern wedding. You are invited to this wedding. In fact, you are part of the wedding party! You are bridesmaids and groomsmen in the marriage feast of the lamb! Collectively, as the church, we are also the bride! Christ is coming to take us to the place he has prepared for us, so that where he is, there we may be also. He is coming to take his bride the church to himself, drawing us into a relationship that is intimate and permanent, a union that is joyful and eternal.
Keep awake and watch for the groom. Keep your lamps lit. He is coming for us. Do not slide into apathy or indifference as you wait. Do not give in to despair and hopelessness. Do not let the growing darkness of this world keep you from letting your light shine. For it is in the darkness that your light is needed more than ever.
In the meantime, we wait, knowing neither the day nor the hour. In the meantime, we keep our eye on our gracious bridegroom, who sneaks in among us even now, giving us a foretaste of the wedding feast to come, and in so doing keeps our lamps full.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church