Monday, November 24, 2008

Sheep do as Sheep are. Matthew 25:31-46

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Dear Brothers — Disciples — in Christ, the Righteous Judge:

With this week, the Christian Church closes the book on an entire year focused on our Lord and his gracious promises and the gift of salvation freely given to us as revealed in the Holy Gospel according to Saint Matthew. A year ago we heard of Jesus' first discourse to his own brothers — his disciples — in the words of the Beatitudes. And this morning we hear from Jesus the last discourse to the Twelve and to us as he winds up his public ministry with an increasingly clear announcement of what lies ahead for his own and for the world. The Seven Woes of chapter 23, followed by the signs of the last days and the command to keep watch in chapter 24, followed by the Parable of the Ten Virgins and the Parable of the Talents.
And now, everything our Lord Christ has announced to his followers comes to it's completion, it's zenith, it's conclusion, with verse 31 and following:

[Jesus said,] “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and 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. 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. For 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.’ Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
“Then he will say to those on his left, ‘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.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ Then he will answer them, saying, ‘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.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” (Matthew 25:31-48 ESV)

At first hearing, that's a difficult section of Scripture to respond to with the words, "Thanks be to God." But like any other Word of the Lord, Christ is doing two things as he reveals something much more real and impending than a simple story about shepherds separating farm animals. He is giving nothing but condemnation to those who are shown void of what Christ-created and sustained faith produces: care for those in need; true care for those deemed insignificant by the world and our own sinful nature: the least of those Christ calls his brothers.
But Christ also gives the most comforting promise of grace and hope to all who have put their trust in the Lamb who once was slain and in his righteousness, his innocence, his blessedness.
Through these words, our Lord announces that all things have been given to him by his Father. As the Son of Man — the Messiah foretold by the prophets — Christ will, by his all-powerful Word, raise the dead and gather all peoples before him as he sits upon his judgment throne.
Once he came with his glory hidden, to be born, to live, to suffer and die as one of us, to take our sins upon his sinless body and make atonement for all in the giving of his own life-blood.
But with the words, "It is complete. It is fulfilled. The debt has been paid in full," Christ-given faith begins to see that hidden, saving glory — in the Cross, in the Scriptures, in Holy Baptism, in the Holy Supper.
That is our faith as we confess with the whole Christian Church on earth: I believe in Jesus Christ, who will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead; whose kingdom will have no end."
This is our faith as we confess in the words of the Athanasian Creed: I believe in Jesus Christ ... At whose coming all men will rise again with their bodies and will give an account of their own works. And they that have done good will go into life everlasting; and they that have done evil, into everlasting fire.
The glorious Son of Man, before whom no unholiness can survive, will, on the last day, raise and gather all of humanity in order to separate each person into one of only two groups. No third, miscellaneous category. No third, "I don't really know what to do with this one" group.
Simply sheep and goats — and the sheep are placed on his favored side, on the side of honor, on his right.
As a shepherd separates at the end of the day those animals who have grazed together in the same field, as the farmer separates the wheat from the tares at harvest time, as the fisherman separates the good fish from the bad fish after gathering them all in his net, as the master of the house, upon his return, separates the profitable from the wicked servants, so the Son of Man will come in his glory to gather in order to separate what is judged holy from what is judged unholy, what is judged righteous from what is judged unrighteous, what is judged blessed from what is judged as cursed.
As the sheep and goats are ushered by the shepherd into two separate quarters at the end of the day, so it will be for Adam and Eve and all their children.
And to the favored sheep on his right he will say, "Come, blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundations of the world."
Christ's precious sheep will be announced as gracious, undeserving heirs of the kingdom all of history has waited to be revealed, a kingdom cleansed from sin and doubt and rebellion and suffering and pain and death, a kingdom in which we will be released from the burden of an old nature that can do nothing but sin and grumble and attempt to work its way into God's good graces.
For Christ there will be no surprises, but for all those gathered, the judgment received will not be the kind of judgment expected.
More than a few will come before the King expecting praise for all the good they have achieved, for all the good they have manufactured, for all the accolades given to them by the world, for all that their heart told them would earn heaven and open it's glorious gates.
But they would have nothing to do with a King of the Cross, a Redeemer whose glory was hidden to all but God-given faith, a Savior who would freely clothe all undeserving sinners with his spotless robe of righteousness. And because they did not recognize Christ and the hidden glory of his Word and his Baptism and his Supper, they failed to see him in Christ's lowly and needy brothers.
In these days, we are tempted to look for a glorious Christ, that we might earn a favored place by his side through our own great and glorious works.
But the surprising thing is not that some will be revealed as goats on the last day. Salvation must remain a free gift that can be either received by faith or rejected in unbelief and rebellion. The surprising thing is that there are any of us who are judged righteous and blessed.
Scripture and Christ, the hymns we sing and the Catechism we learn — announce with one voice that we are the spiritually starving, wandering, naked, enslaved — sick unto death in our sin.
We were the needy ones that had no great or lasting importance — and Christ came and fed and clothed and visited us with his love and care, his grace and mercy, his very self.
To all who look to their own nature, their own spiritual poverty, their own sinfulness, their own inability to keep the Beatitudes — their own inability to produce any kind of righteousness of their own — Jesus comes to offer the gift of a righteous robe, a washing of regeneration, an undeserved place in heaven, a faith that gives us the ability to see Christ in the least of his brothers, in the least of fellow disciples and followers.
As we approach that great and fearful day, let us not fear but continue to keep our eyes on Christ and his righteousness — his righteousness that has made us his precious sheep, his righteousness that has made us blessed, his righteousness that gives us the ability to care for even the lowliest of Christ's own with a care that has no concern of earning God's favor.
God, in his abundant grace, increase our faith, that we might keep awake and watchful in these last days, and serve him — not by doing something glorious for his kingdom, but by simply allowing Christ to be our Shepherd, to work the works of faith through us, his undeserving sheep.
May Christ give us the hope and strength to look forward to the day when Christ will come in all his glory with his angels to declare his judgment upon all he has clothed in the redeeming fruits of his cross.
In faith, may we say today and always, "Come, Lord Jesus, come quickly, and clothe us in the robe of the Lamb."

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.