Sermon for Trinity 26
Isaiah 40:9-11 + 2 Thessalonians 1:3-10 + Matthew 25:31-46
Today the Holy Spirit confronts us with an image of the future of our planet and our human race. It’s the image of Christ returning in glory to make a final and eternal separation between the saved and the damned, believers and unbelievers. It’s a fixed image of what’s coming for every human being who has ever lived and who ever will live before that Day. No one can escape it, and nothing can change it.
Jesus tells us what’s coming, especially to comfort His believers, but also to warn us, to spur us on to works of love, and to leave unbelievers without excuse when the Son of Man comes in His glory.
When the Son of Man comes in His glory… That’s the first comfort for believers in Christ. Jesus, the Son of Man, will, indeed come in glory. The picture He gives of Himself, coming down on the clouds and great glory, surrounded by the great company of holy angels, sitting on His glorious throne—He gave this picture to His disciples during Holy Week. In just two days they would see Him standing before human judges, Jewish and Roman, wicked judges who would sit on their thrones and pervert justice and condemn the innocent Son of God to death on a cross. Similar things would happen to Jesus’ disciples. But Jesus assures them, it won’t always be that way.
We, too, do not see Christ in glory now. His disciples beheld Him risen from the dead, but we haven’t. To us it looks as if He has no glory, and neither shall we. But it will not always be this way. Even now, Christ reigns from the right hand of God and His will is done, but His reign is secret and hidden and must be believed, not seen. One day it will be seen. As Isaiah cried out for joy in the Lesson today, Say to the cities of Judah, “Behold your God!” Behold, the Lord God shall come with a strong hand, And His arm shall rule for Him; Behold, His reward is with Him, And His work before Him. That prophecy of Isaiah already began to be fulfilled when Christ came the first time. Its culmination waits for the time when the Son of Man comes in His glory.
The second comfort for believers is that it is the very same Son of Man, Christ crucified for us, who will be sitting on the throne of Judgment, no other. No other god, no other prophet, no sinful human judge who might make a mistake or judge with partiality. It is the very same kind and merciful Jesus whom we have come to know in the Gospels, in whom we believe, who will be judging the earth. The very One who gave His life for us, and has called us into Himself through Holy Baptism, and who feeds us even now with His body and blood for the forgiveness of sins; the very One who right now, in the words of Absolution, speaks the sentence of forgiveness upon you—He will be our Judge. And will He who does not change change His mind when He comes? Far be it! The judgment you hear now in the Word is the only judgment there is. He who believes in Him 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.
The third comfort for believers is that the King will separate the sheep from the goats. He will need no help. He will make no inquiries, nor will He be interrogating anyone on that day. The judgment is determined during this life. Those who persevere till the end in faith are the sheep. Those who are found unbelieving at the end are the goats. And when I say, “believing” and “unbelieving,” I don’t just mean those who “believe” that Jesus is the Son of God. The demons believe that, and shudder. To believe in Christ is to cling to Him alone for forgiveness and salvation. To believe in Christ is to rely on Him and His cross to make things right with God. To believe in Christ is to use Him as the Mediator between God and man, and to plead His merits in God’s court of Law. There are many who speak highly of Jesus and call themselves Christians, but secretly despise His Word and cling to their sins or to their works rather than to Him. The herd of goats on the Last Day will include everyone who was not baptized into Christ. It will also include many who were baptized into Christ, but who fell away from the faith of their Baptism.
The fourth comfort for believers is that, as the King turns to His right on that Day, He will have no stinging accusations or shameful observations, only words of praise and commendation for His sheep. It’s not that the sheep committed no sins in this life. On the contrary, believers, too, are by nature sinful and unclean. They are miserable sinners—every one of them. But the sheep are sinners who have been called to repentance in this life by the Word of God, who no longer sin willfully and stubbornly against God’s commandments, but now hate the sins in which they used to live and that still cling to their flesh. All the sins of those who believe in Christ have been swallowed up in the blood of Christ and buried in the tomb of Christ. Their sins have been intentionally forgotten, even by the Judge Himself. They will never be remembered again.
What will be remembered by the King are the works of love done by believers in Christ for the brothers and sisters of Christ. The Lord is serious about the necessity of works of love on the part of His people. That’s also how St. Paul spoke to the Thessalonians in today’s Epistle: We are bound to thank God always for you, brethren, as it is fitting, because your faith grows exceedingly, and the love of every one of you all abounds toward each other. The fact that the King will mention these works of love, the fact that the King will be so pleased by these works of love on the Last Day should spur us on to even greater devotion to one another.
At the same time, it should serve as a warning to the false Christians who imagine that they don’t need to worry about serving their neighbor or helping their neighbor in need. God expects that His love will be reflected in the lives of His children. Knowing this, hearing these words from Jesus about what works He will praise on the Last Day, no Christian, no believer would dare to say, “I’m not concerned about how my Lord wants me to live or how He wants me to treat my neighbor.” Only the reprobate—only the unbelievers would say such things.
Now, of the works of love that Jesus says will be remembered on the Last Day, He only speaks here about works of love prescribed the Fifth Commandment—helping and being a friend to our neighbor in every bodily need. He certainly could mention the works of love prescribed by the other commandments as well. It’s not as if God doesn’t care about the other commandments, like the honoring of His name, His Word, His Sacraments, parents, marriage, our neighbor’s good reputation, etc. He most certainly does care about those things and will certainly reward the works of love done by His people according to those commandments as well.
But as Luther points out, these Fifth Commandment works of showing love to the needy are the ones that even the pagans do for one another. The heathen do similar and better works of charity and bodily help for their own. It’s not the works that save. It’s faith in Christ that saves. The unbelievers don’t do their works for love of Christ, or for His Christians who bear His name. To serve a Christian, no matter how small, no matter how insignificant, is to serve Christ. That’s another comfort for the Christian. Our works of love done to the smallest, least important believer are done to Christ. He receives it as a service to Him when you serve a fellow Christian, when you support your pastor and his family, when you take care of the needs of little children, when you spend hours in the hospital with the elderly. There is no insignificant act of love in the Kingdom of Christ. It’s all service done to Christ, and He remembers it.
The sixth comfort for Christians in this Gospel is, at the same time, a stern warning for the unbelievers. All the sins and crimes of the unbelievers will be remembered, and justice will be done for all the harm that has been done against God’s children in this world. Jesus doesn’t even bother mentioning the unbelievers who have persecuted His sheep or committed vile, immoral acts. Those are obvious things for which they will be condemned. But even this will be held against them: that they failed to help the least of these brothers of Jesus in need. And they’ll think, wait! I did plenty of good! How can you say I didn’t do these things? And Jesus will say, “You didn’t do them for Me.” Their condemnation is just and right, as Paul said to the Thessalonians: It is a righteous thing with God to repay with tribulation those who trouble you, and to give you who are troubled rest with us when the Lord Jesus is revealed from heaven with His mighty angels, in flaming fire taking vengeance on those who do not know God, and on those who do not obey the gospel of our Lord Jesus Christ. These shall be punished with everlasting destruction from the presence of the Lord and from the glory of His power, when He comes, in that Day.
Now we call out to all men with this warning, so that they may escape their destruction by repenting and turning to Christ for forgiveness before it’s too late. But on that day, no more warnings will be issued, and time for forgiveness will be past.
The seventh comfort for believers is that, as Paul said to the Thessalonians, in that day Jesus will be glorified in His saints and admired among all those who believe, because our testimony among you was believed. For all the glory that Jesus already possesses, Paul says that He will be glorified also in His saints—in us who believe in Him and have been counted as holy through faith in the Holy One. We will get to glorify Him in person, and give thanks to Him for loving us and giving Himself for us so that we might live with Him in eternal righteousness, innocence and blessedness.
The eighth comfort for believers is that blessed invitation from the King: Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. And the righteous will go away into eternal life.
All this will come to pass when the Son of Man comes in His glory. Jesus doesn’t tell us this just so that we know how it will be, but to spur us on before that day to repentance and faith and to works of love. What could be more urgent for us than walking in daily repentance and faith that clings to Christ alone? What could be more beneficial than spending our time diligently seeing to the needs of our neighbor and especially our brothers and sisters in Christ? When the Son of Man comes in His glory, then we, too, shall appear with Him in glory. Set your mind on such things! Amen.