Wise and Foolish
St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 2nd Sunday in Advent, December 5, 2021
“Ten virgins, took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom. And five of them were wise, and five were foolish.”
THE SEASON OF ADVENT tells us Someone great is coming. As the Jewish Messiah has already come to His people and fulfilled His mission of salvation, the perfect sacrifice for the whole world, our future arrival will be His return to set things in order, to rule and reign, to destroy evil forever, and to judge every soul. We will be chosen for heaven, or left behind to a lake of eternal fire. Our first two candles mean death and judgment. It’s a serious time of year.
Jesus thought it serious enough that He gave three examples of how our souls are weighed by God. St. Matthew, in chapter 25, lays out three parables that describe the ones acceptable to Him, and those who fail. Our yearly round of Sunday lessons doesn’t have the first of these, so I will make this lesson about that parable. It is called the Wise and Foolish Virgins. The next two weeks we’ll study the Parable of the Talents, and the Sheep and the Goats.
Jesus taught mostly in parables. He explained, saying parables would separate people who wanted to learn from those who were just shopping, just skimming, who thought they already knew. Serious people would discern the inner message of a parable, while those just a little curious thought His lessons were about seeds or big dinners or just weeds. The parable today hides its meaning under symbols so we must work to dig it out. Let’s hear it, then delve into its mysteries together.
“Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom. And five of them were wise, and five were foolish. They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them: But the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. While the bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and slept. And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him. Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said unto the wise, Give us of your oil; for our lamps are gone out. But the wise answered, saying, Not so; lest there be not enough for us and you: but go ye rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves. And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage: and the door was shut. Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us. But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, I know you not. Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh.”
Jewish weddings in Christ’s time were elaborate affairs, involving whole towns, extended families, households celebrating for days. We hear of Jesus’ first miracle at such a wedding where the host miscalculated how much wine it would take for so many guests. He made good wine out of mere water. Jesus blessed weddings, calling Himself our bridegroom, and us His bride. He alludes to a day when His return will usher in a great wedding between His Church and Himself, followed by a fantastic feast. We await that day.
This feasting and celebration culminates as the bridegroom, at a moment of his choosing, goes from his family home to the doors of his bride to claim his new wife to himself. If it comes at night, a group of maidens rise with their lamps to lead the couple to their new home through dark streets. They must be ready at any moment, because the groom’s timing is never told ahead of time.
Here we find two categories of maids, wise and foolish. The basis of that separation is a separate vessel filled with extra lamp oil. This is like having gas in your tank for a drive on the desert, or Noah taking care to seal up the planking of the Ark, for a water voyage that he was sure would come one day. It’s preparedness. It requires something of us and the first thing it requires is that we know what’s coming.
Check the Bible commentaries and you’ll find the experts disagree about the virgins and their oil. Some get hung up on the fact all of them were waiting for the bridegroom, so they’re all saved by faith and can’t really be later denied at the door. They all fell asleep, so wakefulness can’t be a problem. Some debate whether the oil is faith, or is it the Holy Spirit? I think that solving all these mysteries may be a diversion. We’re not presented with a coded message by Jesus; we are given a snapshot of character. Who is ready for the Lord’s return, and who is not, and why?
It’s almost the end of the year of our Lord, 2021, about 2,000 years since His death. All this time the world has waited. Things get worse, and they get better. Humans learn from nature, from science, from other cultures, from their successes and their failures, but have we learned anything more from our Emmanuel, God with us? What has He told us lately? Is there now room for doubt? Might this all have been a dream of the ancients, holding us back, making a mockery of us among the people of the world? Was it true? Is it still true?
And how do we get God’s approval? We resist spiritual disciplines, the pressing in toward God in fanatical prayer and self-sacrifice, because only hypocrites think they gather God’s approval by their works. We can set salvation on the lowest shelf, and create doctrines that comfort us, saying you need only confess Him once out loud and you’re saved, you’re safe. He’s done the heavy lifting. It’s pride to think I can add anything to that. Praise God. I’m safe.
The world, and even the Church, can talk us out of pressing up toward Him by faith and hope and desire for His presence and fellowship. The world tries to talk us out of a fervent faith. And if we listen, we falter. All the Christmas music on the radio is Santa, snowmen, reindeer and the Grinch. Our main Post Office in Chico this year didn’t even order the Madonna and Child stamps to sell. You can get Kwanza and Chanukah and holy Snowflakes, but not the baby Jesus. Now, don’t get mad. That’s the world. But its siren song will always call us away from Jesus. And it’s cold in the sheepfold, and at the foot of the manger. And it’s getting late.
So, you forget it’s going to take time, and you don’t calculate how you’re going to make it. That’s the spare oil. The long haul, the reason they wrote down the Gospel, and left off simply telling it firsthand. The Apostles were dying off, leaving for distant lands. The Church needed a testimony from them that would live beyond them. Four accounts collected eyewitness sights and sounds. We have them still. We read it frequently to keep it before us and kindle faith in our hearts again. We walk this road of the Ordo Kalendar, our Church Year, from Advent Sunday to Thanksgiving, each year and remind ourselves what happened and why it’s important to your soul and to mine.
That’s the oil. You remember the great story. You repeat it. You take it in, this antidote to a world trying to get you to forget, to give it up, to go to sleep and after sleeping you wake up…
A pagan. One of Christianity’s debates is over salvation: what it is and if you can lose it. For those who believe God takes you over, transforms you into a new creature indelibly marked for heaven, they say you can’t lose it. God will keep you forever. That view came with John Calvin and a whole system of salvation as answering only the needs of those chosen from before all time, a random selection by God of only those His Son would die for. We don’t hold with Calvin’s system, but believe we are all available for God’s mercy, that He lays His story out for all people, and every man, woman and child can choose Him or not. Our choosing Him can be for all our lives, or it may be a shallow and temporary thing which we can give up. He doesn’t trap us or abduct us, but gives Himself to us as a man asks a woman to marry Him. The wedding has not yet happened. She may change her mind. You may change your mind, or forget, or let it slip away.
Our country is populated by many people who remember going to church in their youth. Today they say, “I believe in God. I’m spiritual, just not religious.” Their opinion of church people has been colored by the worst of us. But the matter of church attendance isn’t really the crux. The God that many say they believe in is a diffused ideal of general benevolence, devoid of any real Savior or what He did, or taught, or suffered for them, or warned them all about. The oil in such former Christians is depleted. The dark night is coming on. They’ve become pagans by default, spiritual but not in the Holy Spirit. The parable has a dark ending for them, if they don’t awaken soon and realize their peril.
The alarm is given. Wake up! The bridegroom is coming! Trim your lamps and join the wedding march! He’s arrived at midnight. Luke’s Gospel today tells of signs in the heavens that will scare the daylights out of all those living then. The Son of man coming in clouds, and it’s too late to get ready. You’re ready or you’re not. Time to buy oil? Sorry.
When the judgment of all humankind has come, there will be no excuses. We will be inside the doors or we will be out. Knocking and asking for God to change the verdict will only have a horrible phrase repeated to us, “Go away. I don’t know you.” None of us should ever hear those words.
His word stands forever. Don’t listen to the world. Don’t be discouraged by the Happy Holidays and Season’s Greetings you hear instead of a Merry Christmas. Just tell them Merry Christmas and smile. It’s important that we aren’t soured or changed by this world. Keep the Christmas spirit bright. They may not realize it, but they’re celebrating the birth of God’s Son. Bless them.
He came with a heavy burden, and a hard task to perform. He did it brilliantly, and gave us a legacy we still have today, so long after He departed, with a promise to return. His depiction of the judgment need not frighten us, but ought to get us serious. This world is temporary. His world is forever. Light your lamps and keep them burning. Heaven and earth shall pass away: but my words shall not pass away.