Cruce Tectum

Cruce tectum, hidden under the cross, a blog for Epiphany Lutheran Church, Dorr, Michigan

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Location: Moscow, Idaho

Sunday, November 23, 2008

Last Sunday in the Church Year

Last Sunday in the Church Year (A)
November 23, 2008
Text: Matt. 25:31-46

As confused as many people are about the final Judgment, what it will be like, what will precede it and what will follow it, many even denying that there will be such a Judgment, the holy Scriptures describe the Judgment quite simply: Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead. On a day known only to God, Jesus will suddenly appear with His holy angels, all the dead will be raised, and all people of all times and all places will be gathered before Him to be judged. That means you will be there, too. And in our Gospel lesson this morning, Jesus describes how this judgment will take place. Christ Himself will divide the sheep from the goats, the righteous from the unrighteous, the sheep on His right and the goats on His left. And then He will bring the sheep into His Kingdom to enjoy eternal life with Him. But the goats He will cast into hell.

But if we don’t read this Gospel lesson very carefully, we might be confused as to what makes a sheep a sheep, and what makes a goat a goat. For it sounds as though Jesus is saying that the sheep have earned heaven by their good works, and that the goats have earned hell by their failure to do good works. And such a reading of our text, beloved, would be precisely wrong. It is true that when Jesus invites the sheep to inherit the Kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world, He points out their good works, good works done to the neighbor, which were really good works done to Christ Himself. And it is true that when Jesus sends the goats to hell, He points out their lack of good works, their failure to love and serve their neighbor, and so their failure to love and serve Christ Himself. But note one thing very carefully: The division of sheep and goats takes place before any works are mentioned. The Judgment has already taken place before Jesus hands out rewards and punishments, before the sheep are rewarded for their good works and the goats punished for the lack thereof. There is something far deeper than good works that accounts for the essential difference between the sheep and the goats. And that difference is Christ.

The sheep have Christ. The goats have rejected Christ. During their earthly life, the sheep had the Holy Spirit and faith in Christ. They received the gifts of Christ. The goats did not. And it is on this basis that our Lord Jesus Christ divides between the sheep and the goats. The Good Shepherd knows His own. He calls them with His voice. He bids them enter His sheepfold. But the goats do not belong to Him. They do not listen to His voice. So they are thrown out of the fold. Christ makes all the difference. If you have Christ, you are a sheep. If you do not have Christ, you are a goat. And woe to you!

It is after the division of the sheep and the goats that Jesus mentions works. And here again, whether or not you have Christ, whether or not you are in Christ and He in you, whether or not you possess Him by faith, makes all the difference in what Christ says about your works. When Jesus addresses the sheep, He only mentions the good things they have done, for the least of these, and so for Jesus Himself. Now you and I know that even the strongest Christians, even the greatest saints, are guilty of sin, born with original sin, and having committed all manner of actual sins. And you and I know from experience that no Christian perfectly fulfills his responsibility to the least of these, gives enough time and money and possessions for their aid, prays enough for them, or loves them as he should. We know that even aside from our sins of commission, we are full of sins of omission, that we are wholly deficient in good works. But Jesus doesn’t mention any of this when He addresses His sheep. He only mentions the good. Why is that? It is because when you are in Christ, all of your actual sins of commission and omission, and the very disease of original sin with which all the sons and daughters of Adam and Eve are infected, all of this is covered by the blood of Jesus Christ. All of this was nailed to the cross of Christ in His body. He is the sacrificial Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world. And in exchange for this sin, which our Lord Jesus freely takes upon Himself, we get His righteousness. So when the sheep stand to be judged by our crucified and risen Lord Jesus, when you and I stand before the throne of God, the only thing the Judge will see is His own righteousness. And then He will praise us. We’ll be shocked when He does so, for we remember all the sin and all the failures to love and serve. But He will only point out the good, the good that He Himself has done in us by the power of His Spirit, the good works He uses us to do for our neighbor. We won’t remember those. We already don’t recognize them. But dear mothers, whenever you diaper and feed and clothe your child, you are doing it for Christ. Dear husbands, whenever you love and serve your wife and family, take out the trash, and clean the gutters, you are doing it for Christ. Dear children, whenever you honor your father and your mother and do your homework and your chores, you are doing it for Christ. And whenever you help someone in need, whenever you work faithfully at your job, whenever you serve your fellowman as a citizen of your community, state, country, and world, you are doing so for Christ. You don’t do this to earn anything before God. You’re already a sheep! This is just what sheep do! And Christ will say to you on that Day of Judgment, “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… Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me” (Matt. 25:34-36, 40; ESV).

But what about the goats? Don’t they do the same works we do here on earth? Don’t they diaper and feed and clothe their babies? Don’t they love and serve their wives, honor their fathers and mothers, work faithfully in their jobs, give to charity, work in soup kitchens? Don’t unbelievers do just as many good works as we Christians do? It is true that unbelievers outwardly do wonderful, virtuous good works that benefit many people. An unbeliever may be above reproach and full of good works in the eyes of men, perhaps even excelling beyond most Christians. But remember, an unbeliever does not have Jesus. An unbeliever is not united to Jesus by faith. An unbeliever has refused to be clothed with Christ’s righteousness. And no secrets are hidden before God. On Judgment Day, all will be exposed. So when that unbeliever tries to plead his good works before Jesus on that Day, Jesus will tell him that his works are nothing but sin. Filthy rags. Abominable works done selfishly, to make the unbeliever feel good about himself, to gain the honor of others and perhaps even to earn merit before God. Without Christ there is no such thing as a good work. So when Jesus addresses the goats, He doesn’t mention any of the good. He only mentions the failure of the goats. “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… 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” (vv. 42-43, 45). Then Jesus casts the goats into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his evil angels (v. 41). Notice how tragic this is. The eternal fire is not prepared for the goats, but only the devil and his angels. God would have all be saved and come to a knowledge of the truth. How Jesus longs to make sheep out of goats, believers out of unbelievers. But if, in the end, you are without Christ, if you have rejected Christ and His righteousness, then you will be cast into the eternal fire. You will be raised from the dead to be sure, but raised only for everlasting punishment in hell, eternal death without hope and without the relief of a conclusion, without an end to your suffering.

But the sheep, those who are in Christ on the Last Day, are taken into eternal life, paradise, a new heaven and a new earth, made perfect, without sin, without pain and suffering, without sickness and disease, without death, to live with Christ forever. This is an inheritance prepared from the foundation of the world for all the elect of the Father. Beloved, this inheritance is for you. You cannot earn an inheritance, not even by the best of works. An inheritance, by definition, is given. It is given to you by Christ. It is given to you as He feeds you and gives you to drink of His own body and blood in the Sacrament. It is given to you as He welcomes you into His holy Church, clothes you with the garments of His righteousness in Holy Baptism, visits you with His Word of life. And this is your confidence on Judgment Day: He who serves as your Judge is the same Lord Jesus who so loves you that He gave Himself into death for you on the cross. He is the same Lord Jesus who is risen and has conquered sin and death. He is the same Lord Jesus who has made you a child of the Father and bestows on you His good Spirit. On Judgment Day you will not plead your good works. You will plead Jesus’ blood and righteousness. And Jesus Himself will say to you on that Day, “Come! Come, for you are blessed by my Father. Come, and inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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