Do You Have Oil in Your Lamp?

If you are not familiar with Jesus’ parable in Matthew 25 of the Ten Virgins, then the title of this article would be confusing. Jesus tells a story where 10 bridesmaids are waiting the coming of the bridegroom. It is a picture of waiting for Jesus’ return and Judgment Day, but it might as well also be a story of waiting for our death.

In the story, five of the bridesmaids run out of oil for their lamps, because they did not adequately plan for the long delay. What does the oil represent? It is God who gets through to us and gives us a connection to Jesus that we call faith. This connection can be weak or strong, demonstrating its presence with trust and good works or barely discernable from those without faith. It is also comparable to a living thing–like a plant. Stronger is obviously better. So to grow or even to just survive, faith requires the input of God like a plant needs water. This input comes through exposure to God’s Word and through the gift of Jesus’ body and blood in the Lord’s Supper.

Jesus instructs all of his people to have certain practices: worship, prayer, confession of sins, reading the Bible and regular participation in the Lord’s Supper. These practices not only keep “oil in our lamps”, they bring us into a more personal interaction with God, and prepare us for our life’s God-given purpose.

That said, these practices, which I call the practices of a disciple, are a way to not only prepare for life but to prepare for our death. Life is relatively short, but in the midst of troubling times it can seem to drag on for a long time. During these times it is easy to lose our zeal for God, then lose our basic feeling of being connected to God, next to drift away from critical practices and run low or out of “oil”.

One of my big concerns as a pastor is how the Covid-19 pandemic will impact people’s discipleship practices. Will be become both physically and spiritually soft during this pandemic because we acquire a habit of doing nothing?

If we continue to walk with God through all situations, we will have oil to spare. People who die with oil to spare, approach their immediate death with joy and expectation. They leave a marvelous example for those they leave behind and give a reason for happiness in the midst of loss.

Having oil in your lamp is one part of our preparation. Being active in pursuing our God given purpose is what I will cover in my next blog.

Living With Hope Amid Hopelessness

Most people can avoid facing their mortality for quite awhile.  Sadly, this robs them of really feeling the need for Jesus; and consequently robs them of the joys of living with a God-given purpose among other things.  Still, avoidance is the coping mechanism of choice.  You learn it from your parents and it sort of works.

Death, in whatever form it presents to you, eventually penetrates the denial coping mechanism.  Whether war, or pandemic, or just getting old, the fact that our physical life will and must come to end corners you.  Now what?  Even worse, sometimes the luster so comes off of living that we despair of life and just want to die, not really sure of what comes next. Covid-19 can hit you either way.  You see loved ones dying and it is all out desperation to not allow it.  Even if the person has dementia and terrible health otherwise, we can’t let them go if we are not prepared.  On the flip side, social isolation might become the new normal.  The joys we once depended on might become too dangerous.  Depression slips in.

I have tried in this blog to paint a picture of what the Bible shares about life after death.  Some of it is frightening.  You want to avoid Sheol and Hell at all costs.  Some is absolutely beautiful.  Heaven and the New Earth will be the phases of our existence where we begin to truly live.  Rather than deny the reality of death, live knowing that our current existence can be made meaningful and even joyful by what comes next.

But is it real?  Think of all the worldviews and what they say about death and life after death.  Think about their explanation of the world, humanity, our history, our consciousness and the spiritual world.  What proof can they offer for their view?  What holes exist?  Do they sink the ship?

The Christian worldview has history (especially surrounding Jesus), archaeology, prophecy, the complexity and order of life, a coherent view of consciousness,  eyewitnesses of miraculous events (with reasonable credibility), including resurrections from the dead.  It also has corroborating evidence from Near Death Experiences.  Ultimately, it has the ongoing witness of the Holy Spirit to those who do not close their minds.

Every other worldview seems fatally flawed and unlikely if not impossible to me. I can understand why the adherents of other worldviews hold to those views; but culture, willful ignorance, wanting what you want regardless of proof, and resistance to the idea of God are pretty foolish reasons not to examine everything with an open mind when there is so much at stake for you personally.

Christianity is more than wishful thinking that can help you through tough times.  It is an explanation of this life that works.  I’m not saying that there are not unanswered questions, but they are not huge.  When you understand what the Bible is communicating you have hope.  Not “I hope so”, but a certainty of things you can’t see yet; and a certainty that you have been shown the way to life that endures in happiness forever.

Can You Tell a Person’s Destiny?

Knowing what happened to somebody who died, or knowing what will likely happen to somebody when they die are two pieces of information we can greatly desire.  Sometimes you want to know because you care.  Sometimes you want to know because you want to minister to them appropriately.  Sometimes that knowledge would help you to grieve.

But can you know?  Jesus urges us not to judge in Matthew 7:1.  This command is especially relevant here, because there are many factors that could lead to the wrong conclusion.  Here are a few:

One cannot determine a person’s eternal destiny based on how they died.  It is common to view a peaceful death that is well anticipated as a superior sign over a violent, unexpected death.  But the cause of death says nothing about a person’s eternal destiny.  Jesus confronted this popular misperception when a tower that was under construction collapsed.  People concluded that the workers who died must have been worse “sinners” than others.  Jesus put us all in the same boat.

Nor can we conclude anything based on experiences as one dies.  Some have visions of Heaven.  Some express nothing at all.  My own mother had the experience of “falling” as she was dying.  Sheol isn’t actually down and Heaven is actually up.  So experiences of going up or down are just caused by the failing of the brain.  In my next blog entry, I plan to start to address Near Death Experiences.  While both experiences of Sheol and experiences of Heaven occur, also in the mix are intentional deceptions by Satan.

One cannot make an absolute judgment based on behavior.  When we are connected to Jesus and saved from our sins the Holy Spirit does change us for the good.  This change of qualities and increase in love should be observable.  But even saved people continue to struggle with sinful nature.  As such, the progress of our sanctification (being made into somebody good in our actions) can be slowed with periods of digression along the way.  Don’t get sucked into the “good enough” evaluation.  We are not saved by our deeds.  We are saved by Christ’s deeds.  While good works are valuable, they are neither the source of salvation nor a trustworthy way to evaluate whether somebody is saved.

One cannot make an absolute judgment based on whether a person’s faith is unwavering.  Ephesians 2:8 says we are saved by grace through faith.  This sentence uses the word “faith” to describe a connection that God makes between us and Jesus.  That type of “faith” can produce the “faith” that is certainty in what is unseen but promised by God.

Many solid disciples of Jesus can have frightening doubts as they approach death.  It is common.  You are not saved by your certainty.  You are saved by Jesus.  So do not get sucked into the “faith enough” evaluation either.  Comfort a dying person who is afraid.  Don’t beat them into believing better as if that were possible to do.

In the end, judgment is God’s business alone. Our ministry to the dying should be one of sharing and reaffirming God’s promises of grace.  Our “self-evaluation” can be this simple three-question quiz: 1.  Did Jesus really die and rise again?  Yes or no. 2.  Did God promise eternal life to all who call on Jesus?  Yes or no. 3  Is God a liar?   If you can answer yes, yes, no, it is because God chose you and gave you those answers.

Any other circumstantial evidence should kept at arm’s length.  It probably doesn’t mean anything.

Faith Enough?

If questioned, many people would agree that Heaven is real.  Many of those would also agree that they believe that Jesus is their Savior and that we are saved by faith not by works.

A problem can exist in our understanding of what “faith” is?  Is “faith” synonymous with “trust” or “confidence”.  If so, how much “faith” is enough?  There is a reason why God takes into His hands almost every element of our salvation.  If we are left in charge, we mess it up.

I’ve been with many faithful people who have become suddenly terrified when they found out that they were in the process of dying.  New things are scary, right?  We don’t practice dying.  Do their doubts and fears constitute a lack of saving faith?

I’ve met many others from non-Lutheran denominations that have participated in many altar calls.   Each time they were convicted that they hadn’t truly believed in the past.  Do they believe enough now?

I would contend that the Bible uses the word “faith” in more than one way.   Sometimes “faith” does mean “trust” or something close to that.  That is where you get the definition-like verse Hebrews 11:1

Now faith is being sure of what we hope for and certain of what we do not see.  This is what the ancients were commended for.

In the remainder of that chapter, that is what “faith” means.  It can also mean something like “religion”, as in 1 Timothy 4:1, “in later times some will abandon the faith.”  But when Paul says  in Ephesians 2:8, “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith–and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God, so that no one can boast”, does “faith” mean either of these?

Remove the church-speak and here is the Bible’s message.  We are saved by what Jesus did.  He lived as a representative of the human race and kept God’s law for us all.  On the cross, He experienced the punishment for sin for us by being forsaken by His Father. Next, Jesus working through the Holy Spirit creates a connection between you and Himself.  This connection is not cognitive.  It is something harder to explain, something deeper.  This is what Ephesians 2:8 is calling “faith”.  This connection can only be made by God.  It is “not of yourself”.  It is a “gift of God”.  So when Paul says you are saved through “faith” and James says, “what good is it..if a man claims to have faith but has no deeds”, they are not creating a dichotomy between what you think versus what you do; they are showing the difference between what God does and the proof that God has done it.  Follow me?

You are saved by what God has done for you.  Jesus is the cause.  Being saved produces certain signs, at least usually.  Confidence and trust are signs.  Good deeds are signs.  These are the effects of being saved by God.  Effects are nice.  They build confidence.  They give a good witness.  But they do not save you.  Jesus saves you. So if you are facing death and you have fears or are a little uncertain, this does not mean you don’t have faith enough to be saved.  Less than stellar proof of being connected to Jesus has many causes:  mental health, our sinful nature, blood sugar level, intelligence or lack thereof and more.  If you beleive the Gospel, live like you do.  God knows who are His.  Your certainty must come not from whether you have faith enough but rather on Jesus being enough.