Keeping Watch

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Since this is Remembrance Sunday, I want to begin by reading a poem by the war poet, Siegfried Sassoon. It’s about his experience of men being mown down in trench warfare; and it’s called, ‘Attack’:

At dawn the ridge emerges massed and dun
In the wild purple of the glow’ring sun,
Smouldering through spouts of drifting smoke that shroud
The menacing scarred slope; and, one by one,
Tanks creep and topple forward to the wire.
The barrage roars and lifts. Then, clumsily bowed
With bombs and guns and shovels and battle-gear,
Men jostle and climb to meet the bristling fire.
Lines of grey, muttering faces, masked with fear,
They leave their trenches, going over the top,
While time ticks blank and busy on their wrists,
And hope, with furtive eyes and grappling fists,
Flounders in mud. O, Jesus, make it stop!

But 2,000 years of man’s inhumanity to man has passed since Jesus’ first coming, and he has not come back to make it stop – which leaves many people doubting that he ever will – or that he’s even there.

But Christians believe otherwise. We don’t pretend to understand fully why God created a universe in which there would be so much suffering. In part, that’s to do with the unique degree of freedom he created us humans to have – including freedom to ignore our Creator. But we don’t pretend to understand fully. Instead, we trust what God has revealed and live with mystery over the great deal that he hasn’t. And above all, he revealed himself when 2,000 years ago, his Son become human in the person of Jesus. And those of us who profess faith in Jesus believe that he will answer Siegfried Sassoon’s prayer – that he will come again and ‘make it stop’. And we believe that because of a fact and a promise. The fact is that Jesus rose from the dead – to put it beyond reasonable doubt that he was and is God, and is alive in heaven today even though we can’t see him. And the promise is his own teaching that, as we say in the creed, ‘he will come again to judge the living and the dead.’ And that part of his teaching is what we’ve been looking at in these morning sermons on Matthew’s Gospel.

Jesus is teaching about ‘the day’ he comes again to wrap up history. So look back to Matthew 24 verses 42 and 44:

“ ‘Therefore keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come… So you also must be ready... ”

And in this part of his teaching, Jesus is interested in one thing and one thing only: that is, whether you and I really will be ready for his second coming. Because it’s all very well to say, ‘Jesus, make it stop!’ – i.e. ‘God, why don’t you step in and sort out everything that’s wrong in the world?’ But the fact is: he will. And according to the Bible, what is fundamentally wrong in this world is people living as they please, out of relationship with God. That’s the fundamental wrong which underlies the suffering in this world. And, to be straight about it, the Bible says that if you’re still part of that wrong – still on the wrong side – when Jesus comes again, he will ‘make it stop’ – by setting up a new creation, free of sin; and by shutting you out of it so that you won’t spoil it by your refusal to recognise God. And that’s the fate which Jesus describes at the end of last week’s passage. Look at Matthew 24.51:

“He will cut him to pieces and assign him a place with the hypocrites, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

And in those words Jesus is describing the eternal, conscious misery and regret of hell. And Jesus taught that if in this life, we refuse his offer of forgiveness and a new start in relationship with him, then in the next life, Matthew 24.51 will be our experience: the eternal, conscious misery and regret of the absence of God, and therefore the absence of good. ‘At least my friends will be there, too,’ someone once said to me, flippantly. To which the answer is: they may be, but they won’t be friends any more – because in the absence of God, there is nothing good. No friendship, no love.

In his book The Problem of Pain, C.S.Lewis wrote a chapter on hell. Read what he says at the end of it:

“In all discussions of hell, we should keep steadily before our eyes the possible damnation not of our enemies nor of our friends... but of ourselves. This chapter is not about your wife or son, nor about Nero or Judas Iscariot; it is about you and me.”

And the same should be said about what we’re going to see in this chapter of Matthew’s Gospel. I don’t like talking about hell, and you won’t like reading. But Jesus taught about it at length – because it is real, and because he doesn’t want any of us to go there. So for our eternal good, we need to heed every word he said. This morning we move on to a parable which Jesus told as a challenge to each of us who thinks he or she is ready for his second coming. And the challenge is this: Are you really? Because there is no bigger misjudgement we can possibly make than to believe we are when in fact we’re not. So my first heading is simply…


Firstly, THE PARABLE

What does it say? Let’s try first of all simply to understand Jesus’ story. Matthew 25.1:

“ ‘At that time [i.e. the time Jesus comes again] the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.”

So Jesus is using the picture of a wedding day to talk about the day he comes again. Only weddings in his day were different from the ones we know. We come to a church building like this for the ceremony, then on to a hotel or sometimes back to the bride’s parents’ place, for the reception. In Jesus’ day, you all went to the bride’s parent’s place for the ceremony. Then after the ceremony, everyone would head off to the bridegroom’s house for the reception, while the bridegroom would stay put at his new in-laws’ place thrashing out practicalities like how much money he might get from them. And just like in our culture, the bride is notorious for being late for the ceremony, in that culture the bridegroom was notorious for being late to the reception. He’d always arrive after nightfall and when they were tipped off that he was on his way, the guests would tear themselves away from the buffet and free drinks and dancing, they’d light lamps and come out to form a kind of torch lit procession to see him home. So that’s the background here: ‘ten virgins [ten of the single female guests] took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.’ And at first glance, they all look equally ready to meet the bridegroom – they’re all equally dressed up, equally excited, equally expecting him to come. They all look the same, when in fact, right from the start, there’s a fundamental difference between them. Read on, verses 2 to 12:

“Five of them were foolish and five were wise. The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them. The wise, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps. [Now at this point, the difference isn’t apparent to anyone. But what will make it apparent is: the passage of time and the coming of the bridegroom.] The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep. [And as they do so, the oil in their lamps burns down to nothing, and they all go out. Meanwhile, back at the in-laws’, the bridegroom is still thrashing out terms and conditions late into the evening, but finally, verse 6:]
‘At midnight the cry rang out: “Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!”
[And suddenly that fundamental difference no-one could have seen at the start becomes painfully clear. Verse 7:]
‘Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps. The foolish ones said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.”
‘ “No,” they replied, “there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.”
‘But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were
ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.
‘Later the others also came. “Sir! Sir!” they said. “Open the door for us!”
‘But he replied, “I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.”

So that’s the parable. That’s what it says.


Second, THE POINT

The next question is: what’s the point? What is Jesus saying to us?

Clearly, the bridegroom stands for Jesus – he’s talking about himself and his second coming. And for the record, in the Old Testament (OT), God speaks of himself as the bridegroom of his people. So this is one of many places where Jesus applies to himself an OT title for God. So people who say that Jesus never actually claimed to be God are simply blind to all the ways he did.

So the bridegroom stands for Jesus returning. And the virgins? They stand for people who profess faith in Jesus, for members of this church, for us. Which is why this parable is so sobering. Just look back to Matthew 24.37-39 (Jesus speaking):

“As it was in the days of Noah, so it will be at the coming of the Son of Man [Jesus]. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. That is how it will be at the coming of the Son of Man.”

Now that’s describing those who’ve never heard the gospel. And it’s not optimistic. And the shock of Jesus’ coming again will be awful enough for them. But chapter 25 is directed at those of us who’ve not only heard the gospel, but think we’ve responded and that we’re ready for Jesus’ return. And what’s so sobering here is the warning that some people in that category are in fact not ready, and the shock for them on the day of judgement would be the worst of all. So to those of us who think we’re ready, this parable asks us, ‘Are you really?

And it begins in verse 2 with a picture of ten of us – ten Christians (as far as the eye can see). And like the ten virgins, at first glance, those of us who’d call ourselves Christians all look equally Christian. We’ve all equally made some profession of faith in Jesus – maybe after an invitation service here, or a Christianity Explored course, or a Christian camp. We’ve all equally been baptised and maybe confirmed. We all equally come to church on a Sunday and, we’re all equally involved in the activities of this church – from Monday Group to Home Group; whatever it is. And we’re all equally expecting Jesus to come. We all equally say in the creed, ‘... he will come again to judge the living and the dead’, and we all equally believe we’ll be OK when he does. When in fact, Jesus is warning that there may be a fundamental difference between us. It may not be apparent to anyone right now, but what will make it apparent is the passage of time and his coming again. Look again at verse 5:

“The bridegroom was a long time in coming... ”

Christian people often worry that the passing of 2,000 years since Jesus’ first coming somehow casts a question-mark over the credibility of his promise to come again. But Matthew 25.5 is just one of several in this part of Jesus’ teaching which shows that he never taught or implied that it would be soon. And remember that elsewhere in the Bible God tells us that for him ‘a day is like a thousand years and a thousand years are like a day.’ (2 Peter 3.8) So from the Lord Jesus’ point of view, it’s as if he’s only been away for a weekend.

“The bridegroom was a long time in coming... ” And that’s why countless believers over the past 2,000 years have lived and died and not seen Jesus come again in their lifetime. Which has meant that discipleship for them has not just been a quick jog round the block; it’s been a life-long marathon. And there are brothers and sisters in our church family who’ve been trusting and following Christ for 40, 50, 60, plus years. And if the Lord Jesus continues to be a long time in coming, that’ll be the experience of many more of us here. Discipleship will be a long haul. And one main point of the parable is this: Time will reveal where we stand with Jesus. I.e. it’ll show up whether our initial profession of faith in Jesus was genuine. And the evidence that it was genuine is that we keep going in obvious faith and obedience – just like the lamps of the wise virgins kept going. Whereas if someone professes Christ, but then doesn’t keep going in obvious faith and obedience – just like the lamps of the foolish virgins didn’t keep going – that calls their genuineness entirely into question.

Now the Bible both disturbs and comforts – depending on what we need at the time (and that will be different for different people here this morning). So on the comfort side, let me say: the Bible teaches that genuine believers cannot and will not fall away. That’s because genuine faith and obedience is the result of God’s work in us by his Spirit. And what God starts, he finishes. So that the apostle Paul could write to the Philippians that he’s...

“… confident of this, that he who began a good work in you will carry it on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.” (Philippians 1.6)

I.e. a genuine believer will keep going all the way to heaven, because God will keep him or her going. But, you can only take comfort from that if there’s evidence in your life that you are a genuine believer. And the only evidence that we are genuine is that we’re keeping going in obvious faith and obedience, today. The evidence is not that we can point to a past conversion experience, or past baptism or confirmation, or a past time when we were keen members of a Christian Union, or helped out on summer camps, or whatever. The only evidence we’re genuine is present faith and obedience. As one writer put it, ‘The only evidence of past conversion is present convertedness.’

Now with some people, it’s tragically easy to see that they’re like the foolish virgins – that they don’t keep going in obvious faith and obedience. For example, someone I knew professed faith, got baptised, joined a church and for about a year, appeared to make a good start as a Christian. But he then fell for a girl who wasn’t a Christian; they started sleeping together; he moved in with her; we saw less and less of him at church; and finally when a Christian friend challenged him gently, this guy said, ‘Tanya is my God now.’ (Not her real name.)

But for others, it’s not at all obvious – either to others or even to themselves – that they’re like the foolish virgins. And that’s why Jesus tells this disturbing parable – because nothing is lost if we’re disturbed, and therefore examine ourselves, and discover that all is well, spiritually. But everything is lost if we think all is well when it’s not, and we meet Christ in that condition. The point is, as one writer puts it, ‘People don’t just fall away from professing Christ into obvious sin. They can equally fall away into religiousness.’ So it’s entirely possible to think of yourself as a Christian and be involved in church and do a lot of the things Christians do, while underneath there’s no real relationship with Jesus – no faith in him for forgiveness, no conscious obedience to him, at all. For example, my old headmaster wrote an autobiography in which he talked about the kind of school chapel services he liked. He wrote, ‘I loved revelling in the ritual and the music. But all the time, although I didn’t recognise all the symptoms, my own faith was slipping away.’

And Jesus told this parable so that if we’re not really in relationship with him, we do recognise the symptoms while there’s still time to take action. Because when he comes again, that opportunity is over. So the other main point of the parable is this: The second coming will seal where we stand with Jesus. Time will reveal where we stand with Jesus, and the second coming will seal where we stand with Jesus. Look down again to verses 6 to 9 of the parable:

“ ‘At midnight the cry rang out: “Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!”
‘Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps.
[And in that moment, half of them realise they’re not ready as they thought they were. Verse 8:] The foolish ones said to the wise, “Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.”
‘ “No,” they replied, “there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.” ”

Now that sounds selfish. But it’s not. Remember we’re in the world of a parable, and the parable is there to make a point. And the point of that bit is: that on the day of judgement none of us who’s in relationship with Jesus will be able to help anyone else who isn’t. Because the opportunity to accept or reject relationship with Christ will then be over. And on the day of judgement, each of us will be entirely on our own before Christ, and wherever we stood in relation to him in this life will be sealed forever as where we will stand with him in the next – inside his kingdom, or outside. And there’ll be no second chances to sort that out – so, for example, Roman Catholic teaching about purgatory and prayers for the dead is utterly false and utterly dangerous. There are no second chances after this life, as verses 10-12 describe:

“ ‘But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.
‘Later the others also came. “Sir! Sir!” they said. “Open the door for us!”
‘But he replied, “I tell you the truth, I don't know you.” ”

I.e. ‘I don’t recognise you as someone who’s been in relationship with me up until now. I don’t recognise you as someone who’s wanted relationship with me. So why would I let you in here – when at the heart of it, heaven simply is relationship with me and my Father? If that’s not what you want, you’d only spoil it – and in fact, you’d hate it.’

So the point of the parable is this: Time will reveal where we stand with Jesus; and the second coming will seal where we stand with Jesus.


Third, THE PUNCHLINE


Which the Oxford English Dictionary defines as ‘The final line of a speech where the point is made forcefully.’ And here it is verse 13:

“ ‘Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.”

What does that mean? Above all, we’re each to keep watch over ourselves: we’re to keep asking ourselves, ‘Is there evidence of obvious faith and obedience in me today?’ And I promise I won’t do this, but on the door on the way out, I’d like to ask each of you individually, ‘Are you trusting in Jesus and his death for the forgiveness of your sins? And are you trying, albeit imperfectly, to obey him in grateful response?’ Now for some of us, our answer to that would be ‘No’. And if that’s you, can I urge you in view of what we’ve seen this morning, to turn to Christ? And if you’re not clear how to do that, please take away and read a copy of this booklet Why Jesus? (available on the Welcome Desk at the back). It explains how we can come into relationship with Christ and be sure where we stand with him. And in view of what we’ve seen this morning, nothing would be a better use of your time than to read that. Then, for those of us for whom the answer is ‘Yes’, we need to keep watching ourselves that we don’t drift away from either faith or obedience. For example, we need to watch that we don’t drift away from trusting in Jesus’ death to make us right with God to trusting in something else (like our own goodness or performance). And we need to keep watching ourselves in areas like sex and money and ambition and jobs and promotion – that we don’t put our own desires and dreams above the clear will of Christ and drift from him that way.

But we’re also to keep watch over others. We need to keep watch for our fellow-believers, realising when, for whatever reason, they’re struggling and drifting – and need our help and encouragement to keep going. But don’t we also need to keep watch for the many, many, many people around us who don’t yet know Christ? We need to pray for them to come under the sound of the gospel. We need to try as best we can to speak to them, and to invite them to things where they’ll hear something of the gospel. And we need to do that not just with the mindset that ‘it would be nice for them’, but with the mindset that, outside relationship with Christ, they are on their way to hell – just as we once were.


A NOTE ON INTERPRETING THIS PASSAGE

This is the kind of parable where the danger is to try to read too much into every detail. For example, many commentaries and sermons make suggestions as to what the ‘oil’ and the ‘sleep’ stand for. But not every detail in a parable was necessarily intended to be ‘decoded’ in that way. Here are a few points about interpreting this one:

• In this sermon I said that the bridegroom clearly stands for Jesus. The context of Matthew 24-25 (about the second coming of Jesus) by itself makes it clear that the ‘bridegroom... coming’ is just another way of talking about the coming of Jesus. But we can add to that the fact that Jesus has already called himself ‘the bridegroom’ in Matthew 9.15.

• Various commentators/preachers make much of the fact that the virgins ‘fell asleep’. (1) Some say the ‘sleep’ stands for lapsing in discipleship – so that the wise as well as the foolish were at fault (and so that the wise were ultimately saved despite a terrible lapse in discipleship). But there’s no criticism in the story of any of the virgins for falling asleep, as if it stood for a lapse. I think the detail of their falling asleep is simply in there to emphasise that ‘the bridegroom was a long time in coming’, and that nothing more need or should be read into it. (2) Some say the ‘sleep’ stands for death (as in 1 Thessalonians 4.13-18). On that view, all the virgins stand for professing Christians who’ve died before Jesus’ second coming and ‘slept in death’ until they were raised from the dead at Jesus’ second coming. But, again, it’s not clear that Jesus intended any more than that the detail of their falling asleep simply emphasises that ‘the bridegroom was a long time in coming.’

• What about the oil? Some commentators say it stands for the good works (or obedience) of the genuine Christian – or for the Holy Spirit, whose work in us enables our faith-and-obedience. There’s something to be said for those suggestions, since the oil is clearly to do with what is different about the wise virgins. But they’re probably a bit too specific. If we step right back from the details and ask, ‘What is the fundamental difference between the wise and foolish virgins?’, the answer is: the wise virgins were continually ready to meet the bridegroom, because they had oil right from the start – whereas the foolish virgins were not continually ready to meet the bridegroom (despite appearances), because they lacked oil right from the start. That leads me to think that the wise virgins stand for those whose profession of faith at the start was genuine, as revealed by the fact that their faith and obedience continues; whereas the foolish virgins stand for those whose profession of faith at the start was not genuine, as revealed by the fact that their apparent faith-and-obedience doesn’t continue.

• This ties in with what Jesus has just said in Matthew 24.10-13:

“At that time many will turn away from the faith and will betray and hate each other, and many false prophets will appear and deceive many people. Because of the increase of wickedness, the love of most will grow cold, but he who stands firm to the end will be saved.”

I.e. there will be two kinds of people: firstly, there will be those who profess faith (i.e. say they’re Christians), but who then go back on that profession of faith (for example, under pressure of suffering, or because of the allure of the ‘wickedness’ of the world around them – the same two reasons Jesus gives in the parable of the sower in Matthew 13.20-22); and secondly there will be those who ‘stand firm to the end’ – i.e. whose faith-and-obedience continues, revealing that their initial profession of faith was genuine.

• The passage raises the question, ‘Can a Christian fall away?’ The answer is: it depends what you mean by ‘a Christian’. If you mean, ‘A genuine believer in Christ,’ then the answer is ‘No, a genuine believer cannot and will not fall away.’ But if you mean, ‘Someone professing faith in Christ’, then the answer is, ‘Yes: someone who makes a profession of faith in Christ may go back on it and ‘fall away’ from that initial profession of faith.’ The apostle John describes some such people in 1 John 2.19:

“They went out from us [i.e. they fell away from professing faith and left the church John was writing about], but they did not really belong to us. For if they had belonged to us, they would have remained with us; but their going showed that none of them belonged to us.”

So John draws the conclusion not that genuine Christians have fallen away from Christ; but that the fact these people have fallen away permanently from their initial profession of faith shows that they were not genuine believers in the first place. And, as I said in the sermon, genuine believers cannot and will not fall away because genuine faith-and-obedience is ultimately due to the work of the Holy Spirit in a believer, and as Philippians 1.6 says, “God will carry [that work] on to completion until the day of Christ Jesus.”

The truth that God will sustain a genuine believer in faith-and-obedience to the end is often called the doctrine of the preservation of the saints. The truth that genuine believers who are thus sustained by God will continue in faith-and-obedience to the end is often called the doctrine of the perseverance of the saints. The doctrine of the preservation of the saints is meant to be a comfort, so that we can say to ourselves, ‘My faith won’t fail under all the pressures of suffering, temptation, etc, because God won’t let it fail – he will keep me’. But it’s not meant to make us complacent – saying to ourselves, ‘Since God will keep me, I don’t need to be careful to keep myself – for example, keep myself using the means of grace – the Bible, prayer, fellowship, etc.’ God uses means to do what he’s promised to do. And this parable itself is a means to helping us persevere in genuine faith-and-obedience, because it makes us examine ourselves for evidence of faith-and-obedience and tells us in its punch line to keep watch on ourselves.

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