Monday, November 21, 2011

Proper 29 of Series A (Matthew 25:31-46)

“Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’” Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and our Savior Jesus Christ, Amen. The text for our sermon this last Sunday of the Church Year comes from the Gospel lesson read a few moments ago from the twenty-fifth chapter of the Gospel according to Saint Matthew. Dear friends in Christ, who is your neighbor? When we talk about our lives in this world as Christians, this is the most important question to answer. Just who is it that I am to serve? Who is my neighbor? In our text for today, Jesus gives us the answer. Our neighbor is the one in need. The hungry one is our neighbor, the thirsty one too. The stranger is our neighbor, along with the one who has no clothing. The sick ones are our neighbors, and yes, even those in prison are our neighbors. You don’t have to know someone for them to be your neighbor, you simply have to know that they have a need. And using the resources that God has blessed you with, both your material goods and your talents, as we talked about last week, you seek to fulfill that need.

That’s what sheep do. The sheep do sheep-like things. For actual sheep, that includes eating, sleeping, and making wool. Christ’s sheep, on the other hand, serve their neighbors in each and every need. “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” The sheep see the needs of their neighbors, and they seek to fulfill them. They live lives directed outside of themselves, placing the needs of others ahead of their own. This is simply what sheep do. Christ’s sheep don’t do these things to become sheep, but instead they serve their neighbor because they are sheep. A sheep doesn’t produce wool in order to become a sheep, but it produces wool because it is a sheep.

It comes naturally, for Christ Himself has made them sheep through the work of His messengers, whom He describes as the “least of these my brothers” in our text for today. The one who receives the least of Christ’s brothers has the promise that they receive Christ Himself. The sheep received the messengers of Christ with great joy because they received the message they brought. Through the work of Christ’s messengers, broken sinners carrying the message of the Gospel to all nations, Jesus made sheep from goats. And these new sheep do the things that sheep do: they serve their neighbor. It comes naturally- or does it? Often the sheep look more like goats, for though they are made sheep, they never fully leave the goats behind.
And goats do goat-like things. For barnyard goats, that includes sleeping, making milk, and trying to eat literally anything. The goats of this world live only for themselves. “I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” The goats live focused on their own lives, their own wants and needs. They see the needs of their neighbors and they ignore them. They self-justify, saying, “I shouldn’t poke my nose in their business,” “I have enough problems of my own,” “Someone should take care of them,” or even “The church should do something.” Yes, the goats hide behind the church, passing the buck to a committee or a pastor. The goats may even live lives that seem outwardly good and moral; they don’t commit huge public sins, but instead they omit to do what needs to be done. They see their neighbor’s need and ignore it. The goats live only for themselves, with hearts opened neither to their neighbor nor to the God who created them. They rejected the messengers of Christ, refusing to welcome these strangers or provide for their needs. They rejected the messengers for they rejected the message, the beautiful Gospel that turns goats into sheep.

You and I, dear brothers and sisters in Christ, were conceived and born as goats, and have been made sheep through the power of the Gospel. Serving our neighbor should then come naturally to sheep, but it doesn’t. We instead serve ourselves, omitting the care and concern that should be directed toward those around us. You can look like a perfect sheep in the eyes of the world because you don’t commit public sins, but you are more like a goat than anything else when you neglect to care for the needs of your neighbor. People see what we do much more clearly than what we don’t do, and so we can look like sheep while living like goats. For whenever you see a need and refuse to use the gifts and abilities that God has given you to supply that need, you are living like the goat you are by nature, not the sheep you have been made by Christ.

Jesus has strong words to say against goats in our text for today: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” On this last day of the Church Year, we cannot forget that goats go to hell. This is not because they are worse sinners than the sheep, but because they rejected the salvation offered to them. They refused the messengers of Christ along with the message they bore, and so they go to the eternal fires prepared for the devil and his angels. These fires were not prepared for the goats; the goats don’t belong there, but through rebellion the goats go there, to be separated from the sheep and from God forever. They are shocked to find out that in refusing to receive Christ’s messengers, in living only for themselves, they were refusing to serve the King of the universe, the only One who can provide deliverance from hell. The King declares to them, “Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.”

This is a terrifying image, given to drive the goats away from their inward focus toward Christ and toward their neighbors. But this picture of eternal judgment should also make us uncomfortable, for we were born goats, and although we have been made sheep, we return to our goat-like ways again and again. The message of our text is clear: goats go to hell. Where can we turn to escape the wrath of a holy God? We turn to the one who made us sheep in the first place- Christ Himself. Repent! Turn away from your goat-like ways! Cling to the One who redeemed you, who died to pay for your selfishness! Jesus Christ died for goats, Jesus Christ died because goats go to hell, Jesus Christ died to make goats His beloved sheep. Plenty of people in our world today, even some Christians, try to deny the reality of hell. How could a loving God have such a place of torment? Hell seems too terrible to actually exist. Yes, hell is terrible, yes hell is terrifying; that’s why Jesus did something about it. He didn’t waste His time trying to deny the existence of hell; instead He conquered it, robbed it of its power. Jesus knew hell is real because He endured it on the cross, for you and for me. No one needs to go there anymore, for Christ has defeated the power of hell. He bore your sin to the cross and there eliminated it, removing the eternal penalty that you owed to God. Hell has no more power over you- there is no need to fear it. Christ defeated hell itself by enduring it for you, and now none that belong to Him will face the punishment described in our text. He makes goats into sheep, transforming them through Baptism so they may live before Him forever.

Therefore you do not serve your neighbor to earn heaven and avoid hell; Christ has done that for you- He has earned heaven by enduring hell. You come into the inheritance prepared for you only because of Jesus, only because of His death and resurrection applied to you. You serve your neighbor not to become a sheep, but because you are a sheep. On that last day, you will then stand in shock with the rest of the sheep when the King reveals to you how you have served Him by serving your neighbor. “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” You will be shocked because you haven’t been keeping track: sheep don’t catalogue their good works! They don’t need them to earn heaven, and so sheep simply do what sheep do. A farmer’s sheep cannot help but produce wool; you and I, Christ’s sheep, cannot help but serve our neighbor. We don’t need our good works, and neither does God: our neighbor does!

For you have been made a sheep by the powerful work of Jesus Christ, not by anything you have done. On the Last Day, you will hear the beautiful proclamation of the King: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” You are blessed for the Father has loved you in Christ; He has made you His own adopted child in the waters of Holy Baptism. You are blessed for you have a kingdom which has been delivered to you by your Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. He has had your salvation in mind since the foundation of the world. You have been blessed since before time began, for God always knew that He would save you through Christ. On that final day, you will receive your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you in the new heavens and the new earth. You will rise from your grave with a renewed body, perfect and whole forever, to dwell with Christ for eternity. You have an inheritance that is beyond anything you can imagine. There you will know rest as you have never experienced it on this earth; there love will be perfect and whole, there your heart will be fully open to God and to one another, there joy will be an eternal reality. As one pastor puts it, going to heaven is like switching your television from black and white to color- everything will be more vivid in the kingdom prepared for you. And so we yearn for this inheritance, we long for Christ to return so that He may deliver to His beloved sheep what He won for them. On this Last Sunday of the Church Year, we turn to the second to last verse of the Bible: “He who testifies to these things says, ‘Surely I am coming soon.’ Amen. Come, Lord Jesus!”

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