AUTHOR’S NOTE: Some weeks ago, our church — All Saints Lutheran Church in Hamburg, NY — was looking for a couple of members to fill in for our pastor as he took some well-deserved vacation. I had always been curious about what it’s like to step into a pulpit and deliver a sermon? On Sunday, November 9th, 2014, I found out. Here’s what I said, based on the following scripture:
The Parable of the Ten Virgins (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.’ Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps. 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.”
(open with prayer)
Please be seated.
Hmmm. So THAT’s what it looks like from up here. Nice view…
Before I begin, special thanks to those who knew it would be me standing before you this morning, and, inexplicably, came to church anyway. I will reward your faith: I have to leave in about 10 minutes for Noah’s hockey practice so, if nothing else, I will be brief.
Someone once said - and I don’t know who - “Be careful what you wish for, you may get it.” Every now & then, I’ve wondered what it would be like to stand in a pulpit and deliver a sermon.
Serves me right…
The lesson behind our scripture reading boils down to two words which are near & dear to any Boy Scout: “Be prepared.” For a Scout, that ideally means a way of life, always expecting the unexpected. On a camping trip, that means being ready to deal with come what may; a bee sting, a broken ankle, a heavy rainstorm - bears trying to steal your Hershey Bars - anything that might conceivably pop up out there in the wilderness, without a Walmart in sight. When I became a firefighter and EMT, being prepared took on a new seriousness. My lofty new life motto became this: “Pee when you can.” Because you never know when this little black box (show pager) is going to go off…and once it does, you don’t know when you may next see a rest room. My basic EMT tools travel with me in the family minivan, never far away in case I need them - and that has paid dividends more than once. And if, for some reason, I find myself without those tools, I feel naked - like a teenager who lost their cellphone. Survival itself is suddenly called into question. Ah yes, our smart phones, without which we apparently can no longer be smart…Without which we cannot possibly let all of our electronic friends know the crucial details of our day - like where we went for lunch…what we had for lunch…show everyone a picture of our lunch…whether we liked our lunch…and whether we liked those with whom we ate that lunch…why, it’s enough to make you lose your lunch. Lose your phone these days and you might as well just curl up under the dining room table and wait for the official end of the world, because, for all intents and purposes, yours has ended.
Speaking of the end of the world…let’s talk about that, because our Gospel reading today touches on nothing less. Overly dramatic? Let’s take a look. If we take the Holy Bible at its word, then, even if we don’t like to ponder it, we know it’s going to come to that. For my generation, an apocalyptic finale feels old hat. Cuban Missile Crisis at age 3, duck and cover drills in kindergarten…and decades of living with the Cold War which, now and then, actually got pretty hot. True story: My dad worked at a company designing military aircraft simulators. He carried a company-issued ax in his car. If the Rooskies invaded, he was to rush to work and destroy sensitive hardware. You could call him the original ‘computer hacker.’ Anyway, it’s hard to argue these days against the reality that our world is teetering on the brink of an unprecedented abyss.
And I believe Satan doesn’t want us to focus on prophecy for one big reason: It tells of his loss, and Jesus’ victory. The battle is already won, even though it has yet to completely play out before our eyes. But God sure seems to want us to pay close attention; after all, an estimated 1/4 of the entire Bible is devoted to prophecy. It’s THAT important to God, so it should be that important to us.
When the topic of Bible prophecy comes up, many understandably wonder: Just where are we on the prophetic timeline? Over the years, some - who I would call ‘for profit prophets’ - have claimed special insight as to the timing and particulars of major prophetic events…this despite the fact that Matthew 25:13 clearly warns; “Watch, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.” Must’ve missed that little tidbit during all of their alleged Bible study.
But we do know this much: Most prophetic scholars agree that nothing else needs to happen prior to the sequence of events leading to Christ’s return. Theologically, I’ll tread carefully here, since the ECLA has its own ideas on topics such as The Rapture of the Church, The Tribulation and Christ’s Return. But from my own study over the years, it sure seems as if we’re there…that the general end-times sequence of events could be upon us without further warning. In Matthew 24, Jesus carefully outlines what to look for when the time is near: False prophets coming in his name. No shortage of those over the years, including the recent rapid rise of mainstream false religions - I’ll let you fill in the names. Wars and rumors of wars? Can anyone remember a time more full of those than right now? The Lord says “Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom.” Russia is sabre-rattling again, and don’t forget Iran, China and North Korea, ISIS, etcetera, etcetera. Continuing with Matthew: “And there will be famines, pestilences and earthquakes in various places.” Is that the case now? You bet it is. According to the UN’s World Food Program, 842 million people are going hungry to one degree or another. That’s roughly 1 in 8 people on Earth going to bed hungry every night. Current world epidemics? Of course, ebola is the big headline grabber, but there’s also MERSA, Avian Influenza, malaria, dengue fever and others, each killing thousands. You want increasing Earthquakes? If it seems like there are more, that’s because there are. The US Geological Survey says there were 12 magnitude 7 or higher quakes globally from 1863 to 1900 - a period of 38 years. From 1977 to now, another 38-year period, the number of such powerful quakes is at 164…an increase of more than 13 fold. Be prepared.
But don’t obsess over timing. Have faith that God’s timing is perfect. He knows when it’s time for events to unfold and prophecy to be fulfilled. I believe He’d like to intervene sooner than later, but in His compassion, is holding off as long as possible to allow all who can be saved to be saved.
So, with good reason to believe that Christ’s return could literally happen at any time, the question for the here & now is: What do we, as believers, do with that knowledge? Some days, it’s tempting to just ride it out; coast to the Big Day. But scripture warns against that. In Matthew 24:46, Jesus says: “Blessed is that servant whom, when his master comes, will be found faithful.” Think of a farmer with a storm approaching and a lot of hay still to be harvested. That’s not a time of rest; it’s a time to hustle and harvest all you can before the storm hits and it’s too late. Knowledge of Bible prophecy and the world’s coming storms should serve as a powerful motivator to us all.
Prophecy should also serve as a great comfort. Now wait a minute…Take comfort in the coming end of the world as we know it? Strangely enough, yes! As long as we’re secure in our salvation, what do we have we to fear? And we could all use a dose of comfort and courage, because it’s easy to get discouraged in this world. Anti-depression medicine is being consumed at a record rate. 1 in 10 Americans take one now…and for women in their 40s and 50s, that number is 1 in 4. While antidepressant meds are sometimes a good and necessary thing, truth is they’re usually a short-term fix for the long-term root problem of anxiety. Proverbs 12:25 says “Anxiety in the heart of a man causes depression, but a good word makes it glad.” I’m only an EMT, but the best prescription would seem to be Less mediCATION, and more mediTATION, because ultimately, there IS no other answer to our problems but God’s Son and God’s Word.
Make no mistake: Between current events and prophetic events yet to come, there are some mighty scary items on the agenda. You may have noticed: It’s not getting any easier to be a Christian in this world, or this country that was once ‘One Nation, Under God.’ Care to guess how many Christians are being martyred annually these days? 170,000. That’s roughly 3 times the entire population of the Town of Hamburg. And that number will almost certainly rise.
The world may seem out of control. But we know better, don’t we? No matter how bleak, it’s NEVER out of God’s control. When we trust Him with our lives through the saving grace of Christ, we become part of that future plan…and The Good News is we already know how it turns out in the end. (Pssst: Jesus wins!) Feels good, doesn’t it?
So let’s watch and listen…and, even as we see the storm coming, let’s be comforted in knowing we have shelter, and let’s have concern, compassion and a sense of urgency for those who do not yet know the safe haven we have in Jesus.
Work hard. Be prepared. The Bridegroom is coming. When we truly buy into that, it changes how we live our lives - for the better. Everything happening in the world today is heading somewhere, and it’s not a good place. Even so, the Lord God is in charge now, too, not just later.
One day, every knee will bow, and every tongue will confess that Jesus is Lord. Be prepared. There are no second chances here. NOW is the time.
1st John 3:2-3 urges us to live pure lives in light of prophecy. We don’t want to be embarrassed or ashamed at what we were doing when He comes back.
No matter how down you feel, look up and take heart, for your redemption draws near.
Jesus said “I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last…”
That’s A to Z….and we’re running out of letters.
“Watch, therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour.”
And all God’s people said…’Amen.’
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