The blessed and the cursed

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Sermon for the Second to Last Sunday after Trinity

Isaiah 40:9-11  +  2 Thessalonians 1:3-10  +  Matthew 25:31-46

Starting last week already we began to focus in earnest on the Second Coming of Christ, and we’ll continue to focus on that Scriptural theme all the way through the Advent season. Several things will happen in connection with Christ’s coming: all human activity on earth will come to an end when the Son of Man comes in His glory, with His holy angels, and is seated on the throne of His glory; all the dead will be raised; all people will be convened before Christ to be judged; this present earth will be destroyed by fire; the new heavens and the new earth will be created. Today’s Gospel focuses on the judgment part.

The judgment part—it’s a good thing Jesus tells us about it, isn’t it? Otherwise we would be left to wonder what will happen, and that might leave us feeling either unnecessarily afraid or mistakenly secure. As it is, the Scripture tells us ahead of time all we need to know about Judgment Day so that we may approach it rightly and think about it productively.

What will this judgment be like? Right away there will be a separation of believers and unbelievers, the righteous and the wicked. Now everyone lives together. Everyone dies, together, too. That’s the way it’s supposed to be. But finally, on that day, the separation will occur, even as God already sees and knows exactly who the sheep are, and who are the goats. As Paul says, “The Lord knows those who are His.”

Jesus addresses first the group on His right, the sheep, the righteous. Who are they? Where did they come from? They’re all sinners, after all, who have disobeyed God’s holy Law and deserve to be condemned. You heard the answer on All Saints Day from Rev. 7: These are the ones who have washed their robes and made them white in the blood of the Lamb. How do people get onto the right hand of the King as sheep? By being washed of their sins by the blood of Christ, the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. By being baptized into His name. By the forgiveness of sins which they received from God now, during this life. As St. Peter says in Acts 10: Jesus commanded us to preach to the people, and to testify that it is Jesus who was ordained by God to be Judge of the living and the dead. To Him all the prophets witness that, through His name, whoever believes in Him will receive remission of sins. How did the group on the right get there? They believed in Jesus for the remission of sins. They were justified by faith alone in Christ alone, and they continued to believe in Christ right up to the end of their earthly lives. Only believers in Christ will be standing on the King’s right.

For them, there will not be a single word of rebuke, not a single charge laid to their account, not a single moment of terror. Only the joyful words of the King: Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world! Indeed, how could there be any charge against these Christians? As Paul says to the Romans: Who shall bring a charge against God’s elect? It is God who justifies. Who is he who condemns? It is Christ who died, and furthermore is also risen, who is even at the right hand of God, who also makes intercession for us. This same Jesus who died, this same Jesus who rose again, this same Jesus who now reigns at the right hand of God and makes intercession for His people will be the Judge on the Day of Judgment. We already know Him as our Savior and our Advocate before God. He will not change on Judgment Day.

Then, after hearing nothing about their sins, after hearing only the blessed verdict already pronounced, the saints will also hear the King announce before all the evidence of their faith, the deeds of love that God worked through them during their life. In this parable, Jesus focuses entirely on deeds of compassion that Christians did for fellow Christians in this life, because they were fellow Christians: I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me. And inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me. The brothers of Christ are not all people; they are Christians.

Jesus said similar things earlier in Matthew’s Gospel as He spoke to His apostles: He who receives you receives Me, and he who receives Me receives Him who sent Me. He who receives a prophet in the name of a prophet shall receive a prophet’s reward. And he who receives a righteous man in the name of a righteous man shall receive a righteous man’s reward. And whoever gives one of these little ones only a cup of cold water in the name of a disciple, assuredly, I say to you, he shall by no means lose his reward.

Now, Jesus could have mentioned all the works of love and obedience that flow from faith: “You prayed to Me for help. You loved preaching and My Word. You took care of your pastor, whom I sent to you. You honored your father and mother, you honored marriage, you helped your neighbor to keep his property and income, you spoke up for your neighbor when others were lying about him. You were content with the life I gave you. You bore the cross patiently and suffered for My name’s sake.” All these things are also works that God highly values. But Jesus chose to mention those works of compassion done for fellow Christians in order to emphasize this truth: everyone, down to the littlest child or the poorest beggar, who bears the name “Christian”—every baptized believer—is precious to Christ and will be acknowledged by Christ on the Last Day.

Then, after the saints are acknowledged and welcomed into their heavenly inheritance, the King will address the unbelievers: Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels. The judgment will be swift. There will be no arguing with the King, no one defending himself on that day. The sentence will be an eternal, never-ending curse. Hellfire, which was originally only prepared for the devil and his angels, but which these unbelievers will also suffer, since they refused to be saved by the world’s Savior. As Jesus said in John 3: He who believes in God’s Son is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.  It was through sin and unbelief that the goats got to be among the cursed on the King’s left.

We already saw how the King will reveal the good deeds of believers on the Last Day, which are the evidence of their faith. So, too, He will reveal the wicked deeds of the unbelievers, the evidence of their unbelief, especially the ways in which they failed to serve the people of Christ. Isn’t this remarkable? Everyone thinks of great and terrible sins like murder, adultery, rape, terrorism, stealing, as sins for which people will be condemned on Judgment Day. But Jesus mentions none of those in this parable—not because they aren’t deserving of condemnation, but because no one even thinks about “little” sins like failing to show compassion to Christians in need. And yet the King has those sins foremost in His mind.

Now, what is the purpose of Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats and this description of the last judgment? It serves to comfort believers in Christ. Isn’t it comforting to know that faith in Christ so completely covers our sins that not one of those sins of which we are now ashamed will be mentioned on the Last Day, while all the deeds of love that God has accomplished through us will be acknowledged and rewarded? Such knowledge should make us all the more eager to persevere in faith amid all the hardships of this life, and to spur us on to love our fellow saints in the world, from the littlest to the greatest, and to show compassion to one another at every opportunity, because in serving one another, we are serving Christ Himself.

Jesus’ parable also serves as a warning to all the impenitent, to repent now, before it’s too late, to seek God’s forgiveness in Christ alone in this life, because it will be too late on the Day of Judgment. All the good deeds that people think they have done will be shown to be worthless on the Last Day, because only the deeds of love done by believers will be acknowledged and accepted by the King.

Without faith it is impossible to please God. But where there is faith in Christ, there is the forgiveness of sins. There is joy and peace and safety before God’s judgment. And there, too, will follow deeds of love, compassion and obedience. In the words of St. John: Beloved, let us love one another, for love is of God; and everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. He who does not love does not know God, for God is love. In this the love of God was manifested toward us, that God has sent His only begotten Son into the world, that we might live through Him. In this is love, not that we loved God, but that He loved us and sent His Son to be the propitiation for our sins. Beloved, if God so loved us, we also ought to love one another. So may it be, until the Son of Man comes in His glory. Amen.

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