Cruce Tectum

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

Location: Moscow, Idaho

Sunday, November 23, 2014

Last Sunday in the Church Year

Last Sunday in the Church Year (A—Proper 29)

November 23, 2014
Text: Matt. 25:31-46

            There is a Judgment Day.  There will be an end to this world as we know it.  The Lord Jesus is coming soon.  He will come in all His glory, the holy angels with Him, and He will sit on His glorious throne (Matt. 25:31).  He will raise all the dead, believers and unbelievers, in their bodies, and gather all humanity, all the nations, to Himself.  The books will be open.  What is hidden will be revealed.  And our Lord will announce His verdict for each one of us and pronounce sentence.  He will separate the believers from the unbelievers as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats (v. 32).  The sheep, the believers, He will place on His right and the goats, the unbelievers, on His left (v. 33).  And then He will judge. Those on His right He will invite to inherit the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world (v. 34).  But those on His left He will cast out where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth.  “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (v. 41; ESV).  It is a fearsome thing, the Day of Judgment.  Does it strike fear in your heart?  It should at least give you pause.  For even though you know your sins are forgiven, even though you know the Judge, Jesus Christ, to be a merciful God and Savior, even though you know He will give you eternal life, you dare not take that for granted.  You dare not let it become for you a license to follow the passions of your sinful flesh, an excuse to neglect the needs of your neighbor, a pretext to be loveless and faithless.  You dare not let it keep you from watching and waiting with eager expectation for the return of Jesus Christ.
            The fact is, we live often as if there were no Judgment Day, as though Jesus will not come back in our lifetime, as though we need have no concern.  As a result, there is always the danger of that Day taking us unawares.  We should always be ready.  Each one of us, every individual, will be called to give an account before the Divine tribunal when the Lord returns.  But we do not know the day or the hour.  So we must watch.  The Lord could come tomorrow, or even yet today.  Or perhaps He will come a thousand years from now.  But He is coming soon.  Examine yourself.  Repent of your sin.  And be absolved, be forgiven of all your sins, by Christ the crucified, as He delivers that forgiveness to you in His precious Word and Sacraments.
            It strikes us Lutherans as strange that in the Judgment scene from our Holy Gospel, the sheep and the goats are judged with regard to their works, or the lack thereof.  The sheep are told that when Jesus was hungry, they gave Him food; when He was thirsty, they gave Him drink; when He was a stranger, they welcomed Him; when He was naked, they clothed Him; when He was sick or in prison, they visited Him (vv. 35-36).  For as often as they “did it to one of the least of these,” they did it unto Christ (v. 40).  So also, those on Jesus’ left are told to depart from Him because they did not do these things unto the least of these, and so they did not do it unto Christ.  It would seem that the righteous are judged righteous because of their works, and the cursed are judged cursed because they do not have those works.  What, then, of salvation by grace alone, through faith alone, in Christ alone, apart from works?  What of our Lord’s death for our sins and His life-giving resurrection, and these alone as the basis of our salvation?
            There is more going on here than first meets the eye.  For one thing, the Kingdom is given to the righteous as an inheritance, and you don’t work for an inheritance.  An inheritance is a gift, and to receive it, you simply have to be born, and the Giver has to die.  You have been born anew in Holy Baptism, born into Christ, and this is God’s work, not yours.  And Christ, the Giver, died, that you might receive the inheritance.  Believe it, and it is yours, totally apart from your works.  We are saved by faith alone, to be sure.  But then again, faith is never alone.  Works of love always follow as a result of faith.  This is simply putting the inheritance to good use.  It is, as Martin Luther says, “a living, busy, active, mighty thing, this faith; and so it is impossible for it not to do good works incessantly.  It does not ask whether there are good works to do, but before the question rises; it has already done them, and is always at the doing of them.”[1]  It is as St. James says, “faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead” (James 2:17).  Faith works.  Christians do works.  This is not because works earn any merit before God.  Works are simply the evidence of a living faith in Jesus Christ.  Works are the fruits of faith.  And works done in faith are rewarded in this life and in the life to come. 
            But make no mistake, the works are not the basis of salvation.  How could they be?  Believers and unbelievers alike do works.  You know this from experience.  Believers and unbelievers alike volunteer at soup kitchens.  Believers and unbelievers alike donate blood, drop their change in red kettles, do community service, and serve their fellow man.  What, then, is the difference between their works?  Why do the believers get credit, and the unbelievers do not?  What is the difference between the sheep and the goats?  The difference is faith.  The difference is Christ.  The writer to the Hebrews says that without faith it is impossible to please God (Heb. 11:6).  Isaiah reminds us that apart from Christ “all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment” (Is. 64:6).  No matter what we do, it is all sin apart from Christ.  But in Christ, every work done in faith is baptized by the blood of Christ.  All that is sin in it, all that is wrong with it, all that is imperfect, our selfishness, our impure motives, our reluctance to help, our grumbling as we do it… all this is washed away in Christ’s blood.  The work is cleansed.  It is made righteous.  By Christ.  Christ makes a man good by dying for him, by forgiving his sin and justifying him.  Christ makes you righteous, by grace, through faith.  It is not that good works make a man righteous.  It is that a righteous man does good works.  Because he is in Christ.  A good tree bears good fruit, as our Lord says (Matt. 7:17).  If a man abides in Christ, and Christ in him, the same it is who bears much fruit.  For apart from Christ (and this is the thing with the unbelievers, the goats)… apart from Christ, you can do nothing (John 15:5).  The work is Christ’s.  Christ gets the glory.  By grace, you are given to be His vessel for the work.
            Notice that the sheep are surprised to hear that they’ve done anything good.  You’ll be surprised, beloved, when you hear the Lord Jesus say you’ve done all these things.  And why is that?  It is, first of all, as we said, because you know the sin in your every work.  That is all forgiven in Christ.  But it is also because you’re looking for the wrong works.  You think the works that the Lord Jesus is talking about are works done by superstar saints like St. Francis, spectacular works, feats of generosity and self-denial, grand gestures like giving all your money to the poor, devoting your life to “making a difference” (as we say in our culture), volunteering all your time and energy for various good causes.  You fail to see that God has surrounded you with people to serve, and given you a vocation to serve them.  Don’t despise the works God gives you to do just because they are “ordinary.”  When you feed and clothe your children, do you not feed the hungry and clothe the naked?  Changing dirty diapers is a pretty important work.  Rocking a screaming newborn at 2 in the morning is a pretty important work.  Is a newborn not the least of these?  When you show hospitality to guests, when you pay your pastor and take care of his family, when you greet visitors to our congregation, are you not welcoming the stranger?  When you take care of your frail mother, or nurse an ailing spouse, are you not visiting the sick?  When you pray for those in prison and commend them to the Lord, are you not visiting them?  If you know them, perhaps you even literally go to see them.  Are these not the very works the Lord is commending in our Holy Gospel?  These are the things you should do as you wait and as you watch.  When you do all this, you are Christ to these people.  Christ does the work through you, in your vocation.  The work has to be done, you are Christ’s hands and feet to do it.  And the great surprise is that when you’ve done all this, when you’ve served in your vocation, when you’ve simply done your duty to your family, your Church, and your community, you’ve done it unto Christ. 
            The goats have not, even though they’ve done the exact same thing you’ve done, because they didn’t do it in faith.  They didn’t do it in Christ.  Their sin still counts against them, their impure motives, their selfishness, their grumbling.  They cling to their own righteousness rather than the righteousness of Christ.  They hold up their own works rather than the works of Christ.  And so they are surprised that they don’t get credit for their works.  Even their good works are sin before God and damnable, because they weren’t done in faith.  Such are your works outside of Christ.  But in Christ they are holy.  For they are given the holiness of Christ.  And you are given the righteousness of Christ.  And God works in you to will and to work for His good pleasure (Phil. 2:13), that His people be loved and cared for through you.
            The fact is, though, when our Lord comes again to judge the living and the dead, it will not be your works that render you righteous before Him.  It will be His works: His life, His death, His resurrection, for you.  And on account of all of this that He has done, you will hear these blessed words: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matt. 25:34).  In the Name of the Father, and of the Son (+), and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.         

[1] Martin Luther, Commentary on Romans (Grand Rapids: Zondervan, 1954) p. xvii. 


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