Sermon for Second to Last Sunday after Trinity
Matthew 25:31-46 + Daniel 7:9-14 + 2 Peter 3:3-14
For all intents and purposes, it looks like this world is spinning out of control. It looks like wickedness has won the day and like righteousness has lost, like the unbelievers are being rewarded for their wickedness, while the saints are being punished for their righteousness. It looks like Jesus has forgotten his promise to return, his promise to come to the help of his servants, his promise to judge the earth. Does it look like that to you? It’s supposed to. God has told you ahead of time that it would look this way. Never forget that.
But just as Peter prophesied, just as the Prophet Daniel prophesied, just as Jesus himself prophesied, the Day will come when the Son of Man will come in glory with all his angels and sit on his glorious throne. And there will be shocking revelations at the final judgment.
Before him will be gathered all the nations. And here is where shock and horror will truly overtake the scoffers, where everyone who did not know the Father of Jesus and worship Him through the Lord Jesus Christ will finally know what a terrifying thing it is to fall into the hands of the Living God. Here’s where the spotlight goes out and reaches into the darkest corners of the night where people thought they were safe – safe to do the evil things they want to do, safe to worship whichever god or gods they wanted, safe to believe whatever they wanted, safe to simply not think about God at all. Everyone appears before the glorious throne of King Jesus – those who loved him and those who hated him and those who were indifferent toward him.
But see, this is not a trial. There will be no plaintiff and no defendant, no arguments in favor of or against, no witnesses, no lawyers. This Judge knows all. He won’t be lining people up to see where they belong – on the right or on the left. He won’t be giving people an opportunity to explain themselves, or to argue with him why they really should be among the saved. No, he already has all the facts entered into evidence; he already knows those who are His. And the moment he comes, as his very first act, he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. The verdicts for all people will have already been entered, the sentences already determined.
What will be the basis for those verdicts and when are they entered? Jesus doesn’t tell us here, but he tells us elsewhere.
He expects that we’ll remember what he said to Nicodemus in John 3, “For God so loved the world, that he gave his only Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have eternal life…Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only Son of God.” Jesus expects that we’ll hear and believe the Apostle Paul’s words to the Romans, “Therefore, since we have been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ.” And “There is therefore now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus.”
Faith in Christ – faith alone! – places us among the sheep at the Final Judgment. So why does Jesus speak not a word about faith here, but only of the lack of works of mercy on the part of unbelievers? Why speak only of the works of mercy performed by believers for fellow believers? Because while Jesus can see faith, he shows the rest of us the fruits of faith. As Jesus says elsewhere, “A tree is known by its fruit.” Is this a shocking revelation to you?
It will be to the unbelieving world, because none of the good deeds people relied on will be remembered at the Final Judgment. Everything that doesn’t come from faith is sin in God’s eyes. What is the reaction of the goats after Jesus reads his list of accusations against them? “What do you mean we didn’t feed you, clothe you, visit you, care for you? When did we not serve you? We didn’t even see you!” They’re shocked when all that is remembered about them is all the good they didn’t do, how they didn’t love Jesus or his little brothers, the saints. “Whatever you didn’t do for the least of these brothers of mine, you didn’t do for me.”
And yes, there is shock and terror here also for the hypocritical Christians throughout the ages, for those who once tasted the grace of Jesus and then spit it back out. Because what will they say on that day? I didn’t know? “Jesus, I didn’t know you wanted me caring for my fellow Christians. I thought you would be happy that I was in church once in awhile, that I took the mandatory twice a year communion to keep the pastor off my back. I thought you were fine with it, Jesus, if I spoke crudely and rudely, if I didn’t visit my fellow members when they needed a friend or pray for them or feed them or clothe them or love them. I thought all you wanted was for me to belong to a church, and that it didn’t matter if I actually listened to my pastor or not, or treated him and my fellow members with love and respect and kindness. Isn’t it enough that I ‘believed’ in you, Jesus?”
“Oh,” Jesus will reply, “is that what you call ‘believing in me’? You see, I was watching. Yes, I saw the faith you once had, the forgiveness of sins I once gave to you, the grace that I lavished on you. I was there to hold you, to comfort you and to strengthen your faith and to sustain it against all temptation and attack. I offered my body and blood on the cross, and then I offered it to you week in and week out in the Sacrament. But then I watched you become more interested in other things. I sent my servants to you, calling out to you through them, pleading with you to remain in me, then to return to me, and you didn’t listen. I watched your faith die. And even though you hid your dead faith from the rest of my children, I looked on as you turned into a worse reprobate than you were before, worse than many unbelievers in this world who take care of their own and show more mercy to their fellow unbelievers than you cared to show to my holy people. That was me you turned away from. That was me you ignored. It was me you didn’t care about. It was me you were too busy to help.”
See the final judgment, swift and severe. Eternal punishment, punishment that was not originally prepared for human beings, but for the devil and his angels, but punishment that the wicked have fully earned for themselves.
This parable is a call to repentance before it’s too late. But more than that. There is great comfort in this prophetic parable of Jesus, great comfort and relief for those who cling to Jesus in faith.
Because what is the reaction of the sheep after Jesus reads the long list of works of mercy and love that they did for him in this life? It’s a shocking revelation to them! “What do you mean we served you in all these ways, Jesus? When did we do all these good works you’re giving us credit for?”
And isn’t that the case for believers in Jesus? They do works of mercy and love, especially for fellow believers, and yet they are shocked when given credit for it, because they didn’t do these things for credit. They didn’t even let their right hand know what their left hand was doing most of the time. They weren’t focused on their works. On the contrary, the sheep are fully aware that they deserve God’s wrath and condemnation at the Final Judgment. But long before the Day of Judgment, the sheep have heard their Shepherd’s voice calling out to them, “I lay down my life for the sheep.” The sheep trust in their Shepherd who loved them and gave himself for them. They know him. They want to be where their Shepherd is.
They want to be like their Shepherd, but the sheep see themselves in a different light, as those who don’t do the good they want to do, but no, the evil they don’t want to do, this they keep on doing. Even their best works are tainted by sin. But none of that evil is mentioned by the King at the Final Judgment. The sheep are shocked that Jesus would pass by all their sins and focus only on the works of mercy they did that were relatively few and far between compared with Jesus’ own works of mercy and his life of perfect, self-less love.
But then, that’s why the sheep are able to stand in the judgment – because Jesus’ life of perfect obedience, his life of mercy and love covers their sins. And even though it was Jesus working through them to do all the deeds of love and mercy they did, he still praises them for it. Isn’t that grace upon grace? What a shocking revelation!
So a visit to the home or the nursing home of a fellow Christian who needs care or friendship, cleaning up after others here at church or attending or helping to prepare a funeral service, every kind word spoken, every patient ear lent, every morsel of food given or prepared, every bit of help given to the little children, from welcoming them at the baptismal font to assisting in their Christian training and upbringing – all the love and mercy that God’s people show to one another – it does not go unnoticed by Jesus. Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
This is what it is to live, not under law, but under grace. This is the freedom of God’s people, the freedom to serve and to love without fear and without compulsion as we wait for the Day of Judgment to arrive. And when it does, when Jesus comes, he will give to you and to me and to all who have longed for his appearing everything we have hoped for and more. Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. Heaven itself and our eternal reward in the presence of God – Father, Son and Holy Spirit – that will be the most shocking – and wonderful! – revelation of all. Amen.