Lenten Midweek Service 4, April 3, 2019 (Matthew 25:1-13) – “Sleeping on the Job”

“The Wise and Foolish Virgins” (1859), by Edward Burne-Jones (1833-1898).

This sermon was originally preached as the fourth part of a Lenten sermon series at Living Savior Lutheran Church, Fairfax Station, Virginia, focusing on “Holy Sleep,” looking at the ways sleep is discussed in the Bible and how God works through it or uses it.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you, from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Have you ever fallen asleep on the job?  When either from lack of sleep, fatigue, or pure boredom you’ve found yourself nodding off at your desk, only to wake up and realize that you either let something slide or missed something important?  I remember having trouble staying awake as a teaching assistant during my early morning class sections because I consistently fell asleep between 2 and 3 AM and had to be in the classroom at 8 AM every day.  There were many mornings where I had to really fight to stay awake and on top of things, and sometimes sleep would still get the better of me for just a few seconds, even if I was chugging coffee. Falling asleep on the job, drifting off when I needed to be paying attention.  Has this ever happened to you?

Gif by Moziru.

This is what happens to the ten young women or virgins in Jesus’ parable in Matthew’s Gospel this evening.  The bridegroom was on his way to the wedding banquet and they had one job to do: be ready to meet him when he comes.  They knew he could arrive at any time, even late into the evening, and so these ten young women had to be prepared to meet him and usher him into the banquet hall.  They set themselves up outside the house and waited for him, and in the event that it got dark, they brought along olive oil-burning lamps, perhaps like this one, to let them see his coming.

“Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins” (1899), by William John Wainwright (1855-1931). Birmingham Museum and Art Gallery.

Now, in this parable, half of these young women didn’t think about how long it might take for the bridegroom to arrive, so they grabbed their lamps and ran off to the meeting place without bringing enough oil to keep them burning in the event that the bridegroom was delayed.  They just figured they had enough and weren’t terribly worried. The others might share, right? Jesus says that they were “foolish,” or perhaps more pointedly, according to the Greek, “stupid.” The other five virgins, on the other hand, thought ahead. Jesus says that they were “prudent,” or “wise.”  They remembered to bring extra oil with them in the event that the bridegroom came later than they expected.

And so they lit their lamps and waited, for a long while.  The bridegroom was running later than expected, and they all fell asleep and their lamps burned down, perhaps some went out.  All ten of them. Not a single one of these women stayed awake while waiting for the bridegroom. They all fell asleep on the job.  Only when someone shouted to them that he was coming did they wake up and trim and relight their lamps. Only now, the foolish virgins realized that their lamps were sputtering and going out.  What to do?! Could they ask their friends to borrow some of their fuel? No, because then there wouldn’t have been enough oil and everyone’s lamps would go out, and how could any one of them greet the bridegroom properly?  That wouldn’t be showing him the proper respect he deserved. The five foolish ones had to go find some oil somewhere else, so it was off to the shops, even at this late hour.

“The Wise Virgins” (1886-1894), by James Tissot (1836-1902). The Brooklyn Museum.

But while they were gone, the bridegroom came, and he took those prudent women into the banquet with him and shut the door, leaving the foolish virgins outside.  And they called to him to let them in, but he replied that he knew them not, and did not allow them to join in the wedding feast. Therefore, says Jesus, his hearers should keep watch, because no one knows when the Son of Man shall come.

Parables are, by nature, a difficult genre of biblical literature to interpret, and this one is no exception; that is to say, there are multiple  ways that we can interpret this parable. On the face of it, we could say that this parable is just about sitting up and watching for the coming of the Son of Man, but that doesn’t really tell us much about what the kingdom of God is like.  Of more interest is the oil. Why is it so important? Is it even oil? What is going on here, if this is all a parable about what it will be like when the Son of Man comes?

This parable reminds me of something that happened when I was in the Boy Scouts.  One spring, my troop went on a two-day hiking trip out west of here in the Shenandoahs on a trail known as Little Devil’s Stair.  I was our patrol’s grubmaster, and so to make life easier for everyone, I gave all the boys in our patrol my own version of an MRE or C-ration, which contained all the food they’d need for the entire weekend.  Some peanut butter and jelly sandwiches, cup noodles, jerky, GORP, instant oatmeal, and other things. But after being on the trail for only about two hours on the first day, a bunch of the boys in my patrol had already eaten half their rations (and a few had eaten everything that didn’t have to be cooked!).  While the Boy Scouts’ motto is Be Prepared, these guys weren’t thinking about that terribly hard.  And while it is true that they weren’t shut out of any sort of wedding feast, they were forced to go hungry for a good part of the trip when they would have been otherwise satisfied had they been wise about their snacking.

Not just for Eagle Scouts!

The oil is kind of like the food in those ration packets.  Just as that food was necessary to give the boys energy while being out on the trail in the woods for two days, the oil the virgins— that is to say, those who trust in Christ and wait for him— had for their lamps was necessary for their being ready for Christ the Bridegroom’s arrival, regardless of when he would come, either while they were awake (alive) or asleep (dead).  As Dr. Jeffrey Gibbs at Concordia Seminary writes in his commentary on Matthew, the virgins didn’t know when the bridegroom would arrive. When he did, it would be sudden, and they wouldn’t have time to get ready for his arrival. They just had to be prepared, so that even if they had fallen asleep while waiting, they could be ready and on the ball when he came. And since this is a parable, the oil isn’t really oil.  Instead, it’s whatever is needed to be prepared for when Christ returns in his glory.

Which leads to another question: are we prepared for Christ’s return?  Are we ready? Have we been phronimoi, “wise,” in our preparation for his coming so that we will be ready for him whether he comes while we still live or when we have died and are raised up?  Do we have what we need to honor our Bridegroom when he comes? That depends on what we mean by “prepared.” Dr. Gibbs again:

…[D]epending on a person’s situation and spiritual need, the oil may stand now for this Christian truth, now for that important reality.  Repentance is obviously needed if one is to be ready to welcome Christ Jesus when he returns, and so is true and humble faith. Perseverance and courage will be the needed gifts at times, and many will be the times when humility will keep me ever watching.  Willingness to suffer for the name of Christ and to deny myself (16:24) are key. Sorrowful awareness of the world’s brokenness and a longing for God’s name to be hallowed on the earth (6:9)– these, too, can be the oil, ever ready in our vessels. And the list can go on.  Whatever it takes to be ready to receive and honor the King when he comes— the parable teaches us to desire those things.” (1323-1324)

“Die klugen und die törichten Jungfrauen” (1813), by Peter von Cornelius (1783-1867). Museum Kunstpalast.

My brothers and sisters in Christ, are we ready for the King when he comes, or will we be caught, having become complacent with the world around us, not having done any kind of preparation for his coming?  Have we lost sight of who we are in Christ? Have we forgotten what Christ came to do and how that is mirrored in our life together in the church; that is to say, are we focused on preaching, teaching, and healing one-another?  Have we neglected his word and sacraments? Have we become comfortable in our sins? Have we become unwilling to change and repent from the evils, large and small, that we do, actively overlooking the logs in our own eyes while we search for specks in the eyes of others?  Have we ceased desiring God’s justice and become complacent with sin’s injustice in the world? Have we ceased to think on “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable,” excellent, or praiseworthy (Philippians 4:8)?  Are we just giving God lip-service? When our King and Bridegroom comes, there will be no time to do these things if we have fallen asleep— which is to say, if we have died or have been caught unawares.  Jesus is pretty clear about this. Those who neglect any kind of preparation for his coming will be like the seeds that fell on the sandy ground— their faith will have no root. Their light will have no oil with which to burn.  There will be no fuel with which to relight their lamps, no fresh wicks to trim. They will cry “Lord, Lord!” but he will not know them. The door will be closed.

This parable serves as a wake-up call to us.  “Take heed unless you fall.” But as with all things, there is hope for us if we fear that we may be unready and unprepared.  Indeed, being “ready” requires constant practice of the above, and we can do none of the myriad things that serve as oil to our lamps without faith in Christ our Savior and the help of the Holy Spirit.  Christ died and rose again to break the bonds of sin, death, and hell that once bound us and made us entirely unworthy to enter into his kingdom, and when we trust that his death and resurrection was indeed for us and that he has saved us from our sins, he sends us the Holy Spirit to teach us and guide us in the way we should live, to lead us to the sacraments, those fruit which “make my soul to thrive [and] keep my dying faith alive” (to paraphrase the Apple Tree Carol).  To drive us to repentance and to hear and receive God’s absolution. To hear and meditate on his word and receive comfort from it. To do good works for our neighbors and to lift one-another up when we stumble. To see the hurt and the pain in the world, and to pray to God, yearning for his justice and mercy. To be courageous in our faith when faced with adversity. To think on “whatever is true, whatever is honorable, whatever is just, whatever is pure, whatever is lovely, whatever is commendable.”  To “call on our Lord in every trouble, to pray, praise, and give him thanks” (SC).

Only Christ can give us the oil we need to keep our lamps trimmed and burning as we watch for his final coming.  When we trust in him, seeing what he has done and believing in the promise he gives, then he fills our oil bottles with whatever we need to be ready for his coming and guides us in our preparation, so that even if the sleep of death overtakes us in our wait for his arrival— even if we fall asleep on the job— we will be ready when he comes and will join him in his wedding feast.  When we trust him, he won’t bar us from the banquet hall. Amen!

Lenten Midweek Sermon 1, March 13, 2019 (Psalm 4:8, Job 7:11-16) – “Sleeping in Heavenly Peace?”

“Job and his Tormentors” (1540-1550), either Jan Mandijn (ca. 1500-1560) or Pieter Huys (1519-1581). Musée de la Chartreuse de Douai.

This sermon was originally preached at Living Savior Lutheran Church in Fairfax Station, Virginia.

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.

Silent night, holy night,
All is calm, all is bright,
Sleep in heavenly peace
Sleep in heavenly peace.

“Vicar,” you ask, “why the heck are you reciting some lines from a Christmas carol in Lent?  The time for that was months ago. What’s the big idea?”

Well, I’m not going to preach on Joseph Mohr and Franz Gruber’s Christmas hymn, but I do want to think about the idea of sleeping in heavenly peace.  Apparently the baby Jesus got to if this 19th Century carol is to be believed (though I imagine that a cattle shed is not terribly conducive to a peaceful first night, but what do I know?), but can we ever experience such a sleep?  How many of us have a tough time even getting normal sleep at night? [Show of hands.] I know I often do. I ruined my sleep schedule in graduate school with a potent combination of late nights, early mornings, and massive quantities of caffeine.  And though I’ve tried getting back on track, I often find myself up and awake at 2 AM. Sometimes I find myself awake with racing thoughts, other times it’s a leg cramp. Sometimes it’s just too warm in the bed. Maybe you have the same troubles sometimes.  Maybe you have trouble falling asleep because you keep hearing every little noise at night, or your mattress doesn’t support you properly, or your pillow cocks your head at a weird angle, and your neck and body start to ache. Maybe you wake up in the middle of the night with the dog’s foot jammed in your throat and can’t fall back to sleep.  It happens.

“In the Middle of the Night.” Rupert Fawcett, “Off the Leash.”

And of course, making it harder to sleep, we now have screens in bed.  Our phones and tablets are constantly by our sides, and if what sleep scientists say is correct, the blue light generated by those screens keeps us awake by stimulating our brains to produce cortisol, which our brains use to feed our wakefulness.  It makes it harder for us to get our minds turned off so we can actually fall asleep and sleep through the night. It seems we don’t necessarily get to sleep in a lot of peace any more, let alone in heavenly peace.

“Job” (1880) by Leon Bonnat (1833-1922).

Which leads to our main reading tonight from the book of Job.  Job was not at peace, not at all. He was the unwitting subject of a wager between God and Satan— God had held up Job as the prime example of a blameless and faithful servant, and Satan bet God that, were God to allow him to oppress Job, Job would curse God and sin against him because Satan believed that Job feared God not because of God’s righteousness, but because God had blessed Job with many things and a good life.  “Job’s only worshiping you in order to get stuff!” was the thrust of Satan’s argument. God, knowing that this was not the case, took up the wager and allowed Satan to harass Job and his family. At this point in the book, Job has still proven that he worships and fears God and has not sinned in anything he has said (though he will overstep himself later when trying to justify himself before God). But here, Job is lamenting his estate.  His children are dead, his land in ruins, his livestock dead or carried off by bandits, and his body wracked by boils and illness. He just wants his suffering to end— he doesn’t know why it’s happened, but he cries out to God, asking God to leave off his suffering and to show him his offense. He cries out,

“Hiob – aus der Tiefe rufe ich zu DIR” (2015?) by Andreas Neumann-Nochten. Wikimedia Commons.

11   “Therefore I will not restrain my mouth;
     I will speak in the anguish of my spirit;
     I will complain in the bitterness of my soul.
12 Am I the sea, or a sea monster,
     that you set a guard over me?
13 When I say, ‘My bed will comfort me,
     my couch will ease my complaint,’
14 then you scare me with dreams
     and terrify me with visions,
15 so that I would choose strangling
     and death rather than my bones.
16 I loathe my life; I would not live forever.
   Leave me alone, for my days are a breath. (7:11-16, ESV)

Job cannot find temporal rest for his afflictions. He thinks that his suffering will end when he lays down to sleep, that he may find some rest from his suffering.  But he does not find any. Though he is a righteous man in the eyes of God, he is still subject to the dangers of living in a sinful world ruled by Satan. Why can he not find any rest?  Why is his sleep tormented, and why does God allow it? Why can he not find temporal peace even though he fears God?

If you want a great musical re-telling of the story of Job, I can’t think of a better one than this by the band Seatrain from 1971. I first heard this when I bought a 45 RPM record that had “Song of Job” on the A side and “Waiting for Elijah” on the B side from a little stationery and tsotchke shop in Richmond, Virginia called “Mongrel” when I was in college.

This is a question we often ask ourselves— why does God allow suffering?  Why does God allow us to experience pain and tragedy and fear? Why are we beset day after day by physical and spiritual pains and assaults?  Why are we subject to illness and pain and death? Why are people constantly under the threat of war and economic distress? Does God care? Is he with us?  Why can’t we find peace? Why do we not experience this “heavenly” peace? Why do we still feel the sting of sin in the world and in our own flesh? Why do we still sin?  Why hasn’t God taken all that away?

Of course, we’ll never get the answer we want to this question.  God is God. You are not.  (Read your Bible, read it a lot–you’ll often hear Dr. Joel Okamoto say this at Concordia Seminary.)  When we ask the question “why” with regard to suffering, we seek to try to know something that God has not told us.  We seek to understand his hidden will, what Luther calls the Deus absconditus or “hidden God.”  And when we do that, we start projecting ideas of what we think God is like onto him.  We make him look the way we want him to. And it’s very easy to create an image of God that is merely based on one of his attributes— his justice or his all-goodness or his wrath or his divine love.  Of course, that’s not God— it’s a terrible idol based on him. This is the pitfall Job himself eventually falls into when he begins to fear that his death is imminent (it’s not). He sees God in his justice and his wrath, and comes to believe that what God has been putting him through is unjust and that God himself is not treating him the way a just God should.  He asserts his innocence and says that he does not deserve the lot he has been given.

“Job and his Friends” (1869) by Ilya Repin (1844-1930), Государственный Русский музей.

But in his anger and pain, Job fails to fully realize that even in suffering one should trust in God’s mercy, because God is indeed merciful and has said so.  God is God, Job is not, and when in the midst of suffering, Job should trust God and draw near to him rather than curse him. Job cannot see the whole of God’s plan.  In his limited frame of reference, Job cannot see how God works all things to his good purpose, and that rather than try to rationalize what God is doing (like Job’s friends who try to “help” him)—  saying that God must be doing x for y reason— Job should trust God in his wisdom.   This is what God desires of his children and what Job ultimately learns.  God rules an immense creation full of beauty and complexity far beyond the ken of mortal man, and though suffering is now part of the fabric of this creation due to mankind’s sin, God is still in control of all of it.  And Job learns that God is still gracious and merciful, even when we don’t necessarily perceive it, so we should trust him when the sinful world starts bearing down on us, when we cannot find rest from our afflictions, when we ourselves struggle with our sins.  He is not like other gods who are fickle and capricious, who will, on a whim, abandon those who call on them to destruction. He will ultimately bring those who trust and fear him rest and peace, and even if that peace is not physically experienced in this life, those who trust him can rest knowing that they will experience it with him.

King David understood this, that God delivers those who trust and fear him and gives them peace in their suffering.  He writes in Psalm 4:

1  Answer me when I call, O God of my righteousness!
     You have given me relief when I was in distress.
     Be gracious to me and hear my prayer!

2 O men, how long shall my honor be turned into shame?
     How long will you love vain words and seek after lies? Selah

3 But know that the LORD has set apart the godly for himself;
     the LORD hears when I call to him.

4 Be angry, and do not sin;
     ponder in your own hearts on your beds, and be silent. Selah

5 Offer right sacrifices,
     and put your trust in the LORD.

6 There are many who say, “Who will show us some good?
     Lift up the light of your face upon us, O LORD!”

7 You have put more joy in my heart
     than they have when their grain and wine abound.

8       In peace I will both lie down and sleep;
     for you alone, O LORD, make me dwell in safety. (Psalm 4, ESV)

“Crucifix in a Classroom at Concordia Seminary” (2017) by Nils Niemeier.

David trusts God’s purposes without seeking to understand his ways.  He knows that if he trusts in God and relies upon his mercy, God will deliver him.  And we have that greater assurance now in the saving work of Jesus Christ on the cross.  We can look to the cross and see God at work. We can see his mercy. We do not have to try to divine the work of the “hidden God” here— here is God revealed to us (the Deus revelatus), his love for us shown to us most plainly in its starkness here.  Job hints at this (“I know that my Redeemer lives”), but now we see the finished work.  For God so loved us that he took on human flesh, lived the sinless life we could not, and then died in our stead, taking all of our sin and its punishment upon himself here.  Knowing this, seeing this, you and I need not despair or fear those nights when we can find no rest or peace. On the cross, God draws near to us and forgives all our sins and takes away their consequence.  Here, he gives us something to trust in— himself! When we trust in his work, we know that we can indeed lie down and sleep in peace, because even though the world rages around us and sin may harass us, the Lord ultimately keeps us safe and delivers us from them.  He rescues us when we call on him, though we may need to deal with the world for a while. It is he who ultimately makes us to dwell in safety. And if our consciences are burdened with guilt and our sins convict us, he invites us to run to him and confess our sins.  He will restore us. Trusting in that in spite of what the world and our sinful flesh tell us, as his redeemed and trusting children, he does make us to lie down and sleep in heavenly peace.