What a beautiful hymn is “Wake, Awake, for Night Is Flying” (LSB 516). It was written by Philipp Nicolai, a Lutheran pastor in Germany. At the time he wrote it his parishioners, his family and friends, were suffering and dying from the plague. Between July of 1597 and January of 1598, about six months, Pastor Nicolai buried 1400 of his own parishioners; over 300 parishioners in the month of July alone.
It’s worth considering that amid so much sadness and devastation, he didn’t give us some sad and depressing dirge to sing. Pastor Nicolai wrote “Wake, Awake, for Night Is Flying,” maybe the most sublime and perfect hymn in our whole hymnal! It’s a hymn overflowing with joy and confidence in the Lord’s promises. It combines the imagery of watchmen on the walls of Jerusalem from Isaiah, which was read this morning, with the parable of the ten virgins from the Gospel that we just heard. In the first stanza the watchmen on the walls of Jerusalem, normally called to alert to danger, announce the coming of the Lord as an occasion for joy and singing.
In the second stanza, the whole city of Jerusalem is roused to meet the Bridegroom at His coming. We see the connection between the coming of the Lord, receiving Him in the Lord’s Supper, and participating in the end-time banquet in heaven – before the Lamb in His eternal kingdom.
In the final stanza of “Wake, Awake,” Pastor Nicolai holds before us the vision from the Book of Revelation to describe the joy and celebration of all God’s people both now and eternally. The worship we have here on earth joins with the saints and angels praising God. And it’s not just about some future hope here, it recognizes the present celebration now happening as the heavenly and earthly spheres combine into one song.
In this beautiful hymn, Pastor Nicolai reminds us that Christ, our heavenly Bridegroom, will return just as He’s promised, and at the same time He comes to be with us each week in the Divine Service, and we rejoice in His presence.
It wouldn’t be a bad idea on this final Sunday of the church year to listen to J. S. Bach’s sacred cantata based upon this hymn. You could listen to it this afternoon on youtube. You can google the English translation and just listen. It’s probably 20 minutes. You could do that – even you. Bach didn’t compose it for music snobs or the performance hall, he wrote it for Christians – for ordinary Lutheran folks to find consolation in our Lord’s coming.
This morning Jesus says the kingdom of heaven is like ten virgins who took their lamps and went to meet the bridegroom. The bridegroom is Jesus of course, coming to take His bride. The bride is the church. The virgins they are the Christians, or those who call themselves Christians. Five of the virgins were foolish and five were wise. When the foolish took their lamps, they made a critical mistake, because they failed to take an adequate supply of oil. But the wise carried with them flasks of oil to keep their lamps burning – eager to meet the bridegroom.
But the bridegroom was delayed. So all ten became drowsy, they nodded off, and fell asleep. But then at midnight there was a loud cry: “Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him.” This cry, this announcement, is the preaching of the Gospel. It is the watchman on Jerusalem walls announcing the coming Christ. It is Philipp Nicolai preaching to his congregation, consoling them in the midst of a pandemic, and keeping their eyes fixed on Christ. The cry, “Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet Him,” is the preaching of St. John the Baptist, who identifies himself solely as the friend of the bridegroom. That cry, announcing the coming of the day of the Lord, is the preaching of the Apostle Paul to the Thessalonians this morning. The day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. But you are children of the light, children of the day. So stay awake. Go out to meet Him.
The cry, “Here is the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!” is the preaching of every Lutheran pastor to his people. After all, what is a pastor except an officiant, conducting the wedding service every Sunday between Christ, and His bride, the church?
Our text says, “Then all those virgins rose and trimmed their lamps.” The wise ran out to meet him. But the foolish whose flames were flickering and growing dim, missed out, and the door was shut. So they came begging, saying, “Lord, lord, open to us.” But it was too late. The bridegroom answered them, “Truly, I say to you, I do not know you.”
This parable is a parable about the church and those who want to be called Christians. It’s a wake-up call for every Christian to be watchful and ready. Jesus said: “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but the one who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.”
And what’s the will of the Father in heaven? Jesus says it’s that you believe in Him whom He has sent, that is, in His Son, our bridegroom and our Savior, Jesus Christ. The foolish didn’t believe. They didn’t think He was really coming. They thought things would always carry on just as they had. They neglected the holy things. They failed to camp out by the rich vessels of God’s grace in His preaching and holy sacraments.
The foolish ones were spiritual do-it-yourselfers. But the flame of faith will not burn long when separated from the means of grace and apart from the fellowship of Christ’s church, and the light will inevitably be snuffed out.
But the wise virgins were different. The Bible says that the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, and knowledge of the holy one is understanding. Their whole life is lived out waiting for Him. They live by His mercy and grace. They live in the forgiveness of sins.
And like you and I, they know they need it. Because we too have a tendency to nod off, become bored or indifferent to the holy things of God, and fail to order our lives in continual watchfulness for His coming. Our love is lacking. And so praise be to God, there is forgiveness for that too.
But what needs to be understood is that no amount of preparation, no preparedness on our own part, can save. All ten, both wise and foolish, nod off and fall asleep. But only five were faithful. Only five kept their lamps burning, their eyes focused on Christ and their ears open to the voice of their Good Shepherd when He called.
And this, dear Christians, is our foremost earthly vocation, our holy calling. To listen to the voice of our Good Shepherd.
Folks, no matter how depleted your faith may be today, you’ve come to the right place, because here the grace of Jesus will fill you to overflowing with a single Word! So come and fill your lamps with oil!
Lamps in the Bible were fueled by simple wicks in olive oil. Oil gotten out of olives by taking them from the olive tree and crushing and squeezing them. But the oil in the lamp of a Christian, the oil in your lamp, comes from the tree of the holy cross. Because on that tree, the Son of God was crushed for your sins. And out of His crucified body flowed blood and water. This is the oil that fuels our lamps. This is the oil that gives us light, and it is none other than Christ Himself. This holy light burns within us now. It will burn brightly at the hour of our death, and also at the midnight hour when Christ comes again.
Again, no preparedness on our part will do it. I hope you see it. Because when Jesus comes again on the Last Day and wakes us from the sleep of death, we trim our lamps and they burn brightly because of Him and what He has given us. It is Jesus we are waiting for, and it is Jesus Himself who provides the oil that we need for faith to burn brightly and so enter into the wedding feast when He comes again. What a burning love the bridegroom has for you that He has rescued you from the wrath to come! It is a love that forgives you and warns you. It is a love that readies you, and fixes all your attention on Him, who is your life and your salvation. In the name of Jesus. Amen.
* * *
OFFERINGS TO LMC
Please remember your gifts to LMC. There are a few options for giving:
- You can mail your weekly offerings to the church.
- You can also do an online bill pay through your bank account, which can recur each month. Your bank then sends LMC a check with your offering. There is no cost to you or LMC for this.
- You can set up online giving through an App called Tithe.ly. There is a small fee associated with this transaction. You may find this option at www.lmcusc.org/give.