Sermon for Second to Last Sunday of the Church Year
Daniel 7:9-14 + 2 Peter 3:3-14 + Matthew 25:31-46
Everyone knows that the day of judgment is coming. God has hardwired it into the fabric of our souls as part of the conscience He has written into our hearts. The day of judgment is coming. Wouldn’t you like to know beforehand how things are going to be?
Jesus tells you today in the Gospel. He prepares us so that we know ahead of time just what to expect on that day when the Son of Man comes to judge the living and the dead. He wants us to know how the judgment will go and what the outcome will be in order to spur us on to live as Christians in this world as the Day of the Lord approaches.
What will it be like? First, Jesus says, When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. You have to catch the irony in what Jesus was teaching His disciples. He said these words during Holy Week when the contrast couldn’t be greater between the Son of Man coming in glory, and the Son of Man facing the greater shame than any man has ever faced—the shame and humiliation of the crucifixion, and all of the wicked details that surrounded it. The Son of Man came first in humility, and the world mocked Him and rejected Him, even as the world still mocks and rejects and places a cross on the shoulders of God’s people. But after all the shame and disgrace and suffering, the Son of Man would come out victorious on Easter Sunday, and He will come in all His glory on the Day of Judgment.
When He comes, it will not be to investigate anything. It will not be to determine who has been naughty and who has been nice. He knows already who are the sheep and who are the goats, who are the righteous and who are the unrighteous. He knows already whom He has justified—as Paul says, the one who believes in Jesus. And He knows already who stands condemned—the one who does not believe in Jesus, who does not rely entirely on Jesus Christ, crucified for our sins and raised to life for our justification. The Lord knows those who are His and has marked His believers with a seal that, for the moment, only He can see. It says, “Holy to the Lord.”
So when He comes, it won’t be for investigating. It will be for separating—separating the sheep from the goats. Right now, up until that very day, sheep and goats remain unseparated in this world, living side by side, suffering similar catastrophes, engaging in similar activities like going to school, working, getting married, having kids, waking and sleeping and all the other human activities that there are. But on that day everyone will see who are the saints and who are the wicked as they are separated one from another and placed into two groups.
In the same way, those who have died before that day all appear to be unseparated now. Graveyards do not distinguish between believer and unbeliever, sheep and goat. All the dead are lumped together and their bodies decay together, buried under the earth. But on that day, they will all be resurrected. Again, not for determining where they should go—their souls have already been separated and waiting for this great day, either in heaven (for those who fell asleep in faith) or in hell (for those who died in unbelief). They will all be raised and visibly separated one from another, believers in one group with all the other believers who have ever lived, and unbelievers in one group with all the goats.
And how will it go on that day, when all of mankind has been visibly separated into two groups? First, the King will speak to those on His right, to the sheep. Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. There’s that word again, “Inherit!” And in that word we learn so much. The kingdom of heaven, the new heavens and the new earth—the new creation—is an inheritance, not a payment for service. You don’t earn your place there. You inherit your place there. And who are they who inherit? They are sons and daughters of the King, born again by water and Spirit, born into His kingdom through faith in Christ Jesus as the Holy Spirit calls us by the Gospel and teaches us to rely on Christ alone for grace and mercy and life.
And see, the kingdom has been prepared for the sheep from the foundation of the world. God has known His elect from eternity. He planned everything in the history of the world to have His Gospel preached to the elect, to put them in contact with the Means of Grace and to work powerfully through those means to bring them to faith and to preserve them in the faith unto life everlasting. Nothing about this inheritance is earned by us. It was earned by Christ for us. And on that day, we will see with our eyes what we hope for now.
At the same time, Christ will say to those on His left, Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
The Judge will list some of the works of service done by His believing people in this life, and He will accuse the wicked of not doing these same works. “You fed me and gave me something to drink when I was hungry and thirsty, you welcomed me when I came to you as a stranger, you clothed me when I needed clothes and visited me when I was sick and in prison.” When did we see you in need, Lord? When did we help You?, the righteous will ask. Or, when didn’t we help you?, the wicked will ask. Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me. Who is He talking about? “These brothers of mine.” It goes back to the inheritance, doesn’t it? Christians inherit the kingdom of heaven because we have been made brothers and sisters of Christ through Baptism and faith in Him. Jesus is talking about helping Christians in need—serving them because they are Christians—brothers and sisters of Christ Jesus.
There are many good works that God has commanded. Jesus lists only these from the 5th Commandment—helping our neighbor with his bodily needs. Why do you think? Maybe because these are works that lots of people do, believers and unbelievers alike. There are plenty of unbelievers who do works of charity and who help one another in need. And yet on the day of judgment, none of those works will help them, because their works don’t come from faith in Christ, and their service isn’t done for Christians out of love for Christ. Only believers will be praised on the Day of Judgment, and their works will be recognized.
Jesus said to His disciples on the night He was betrayed, “By this all men will know that you are my disciples, if you love one another.” See how Jesus spurs us on to faith in Him and to love for each other as Christians.
And why not? God has given us all things, and all these things will pass away and be destroyed by fire. As Peter says, Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be set on fire and dissolved, and the heavenly bodies will melt as they burn! But according to his promise we are waiting for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace.
The day is coming and Jesus has warned us ahead of time. He’s painted this picture for us so that unbelievers have no excuse on that day. Here they have been warned, at least those who hear these words of Jesus. Now is the time for repentance, not later.
He’s painted this picture for Christians so that we should not live as unwise, but as wise, for the days are evil, and the great day of separation will surely come. The only way to be counted among the righteous is through faith in Christ Jesus. And that faith is a living, active thing. That faith in Christ urges us each day to serve our fellow Christians in love. So take Jesus’ words here in the Gospel as comfort that, for as difficult as things are in this life, for as useless as our faith appears to be now, it will go well for those who believe in Christ in the end. And take Jesus’ words as an encouragement for you to live as Christians, to serve one another in love, or as the writer to the Hebrews says, to keep on meeting together, encouraging one another, and all the more as you see the day approaching. Amen.