Sunday, November 16, 2008

Sermon on Matthew 25:31-46, 2nd Last Sunday of the Church Year, "Merit or Inherit?"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. The sermon text is Matthew 25, Jesus describing His return for the Final Judgment. Only a short time before Jesus’ arrest and crucifixion, He is prophesying about the end of time. Confident of His coming victory over sin and death on the cross, Jesus looks to the Final Judgment, where He will be exalted on His throne of glory, seated at the right hand of God the Father in power. From thence He will come to judge the living and the dead. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

Drawing close to the end of the church year, themes of Jesus’ return and the judgment prevail. For some, these Scriptures are frightening, and put us in mind of our mortality. For others they raise fears about how we’ll face the Final Judgment and how we’ll come through it. For still others, ignorance means bliss, and we pretend not to think about these things, but carry on business as usual, as if Jesus hadn’t warned us that the end will come, and unexpectedly at that. But my hope is that you’ll all be able to welcome that coming judgment, praying for it in the words of the ancient Christian communion liturgy: “Maranatha! Come, O Lord!” (1 Cor. 16:22). We anticipate and pray for Jesus return, “Come, Lord Jesus!” even as He comes to us in His body and blood in the Lord’s Supper. For a day is appointed for His return, when surrounded by all His angels in glory, all nations will be gathered before His throne for judgment.

Jesus makes it clear that all people will be gathered for judgment—there’s no escaping it, whether a person would believe in God or not, he must face the judgment. How a person believes will make the ultimate difference about how they’ll come through that judgment. Jesus will separate believers and unbelievers like a shepherd would separate sheep from goats. He places the sheep on His right hand, and the goats on His left. The sheep and goats might graze together, much like the parable of the wheat and the tares (or weeds), where believers and unbelievers coexist in this world. But at the judgment, they’ll be permanently separated.

Jesus’ description of the judgment raises the question, “What is the role of works in the judgment?” Since we all must face the judgment, it’s of great concern to know the role of good works is in our salvation. As you know, this was at the heart of the Reformation. Throughout our history, Lutherans have been accused of not teaching the importance of works, because we’ve so greatly emphasized salvation by grace alone through faith alone in Christ alone. So do we need to revise our thinking somewhat, to factor good works in, so that we at least partly merit our salvation by good works? Before any conclusions, let’s examine Jesus’ words closely.

When King Jesus calls to the sheep on His right hand, He speaks these words: “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 ” (Matt. 25:34-36). Jesus declares them “blessed by my Father” and He acknowledges their works of charity, generosity, hospitality, and compassion. But Jesus’ announcement is a great surprise to them! Call it the “surprise of the blessed.” The blessed who’ve done these things don’t even remember doing them! They say, “Lord, when did we do these things?” The blessed are forgetful of their own good works! It’s as if they did them without even thinking about it. Without any thought of reward or repayment. That’s to say they did them selflessly. And of greater surprise to the blessed is the fact that their good works and charity were done in service to Jesus Himself! Their surprise is: “Lord, when did we do these things, to you?” “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” (Matt. 25:40).

Martin Luther said the Lord’s Supper, the sacrament of love, motivates our desire to help the “least of these.” He wrote: “As love and support are given you, you in turn must render love and support to Christ in his needy ones.” Christ in His needy ones. This is part of the beautiful surprise for the blessed, that as they served and cared for the least of these, the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, the imprisoned—they did it all for Christ. Jesus Christ is found in His needy ones. Those calling for our mercy and help provide us an opportunity to serve Jesus. Jesus who sought us when we were spiritually starved and parched with thirst. Jesus who helped us when we were strangers to God, naked of the righteousness that avails before God. Sick and imprisoned in our trespasses and sins. He came to us and freed us. And now we must render love and support to Christ in His needy ones.

As Jesus completes His judgment, there remains another surprise; call it the “surprise of the cursed.” Jesus speaks to the goats 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” (Matt. 25:41-43). Those whom Jesus has declared cursed show equal surprise about their works. Like the blessed, they don’t ever remember being given opportunities to serve Jesus. But their forgetfulness isn’t of what they’ve done for Him, but of what they’ve left undone. “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” (Matt 25:44-46).

The cursed had overlooked Christ in His needy ones. Selfishly, and seeing no profit to themselves, they displayed an uncaring, indifferent attitude to the needy. Inhospitable, greedy, cold toward the need presented to them. Like the rich man who let Lazarus suffer in humility at his doorstep, with dogs licking his wounds. We too should recognize our selfishness, and the times when we pass by opportunity to show charity to Christ in His needy ones, to put our faith into practice. We can recognize the good that we’ve left undone, and confess this as sin too. How often are we attuned to the need of our neighbor? Often we’re blindly unaware of who’s in need, right beside us. Lord help us to open our eyes to other people’s needs.

But now that we’ve seen how the Final Judgment plays out, we return to our original question, of “What is the role good works play in the judgment?” It seems at first glance that the blessed are saved by their works. The title of my sermon: “Merit or Inherit?” gets at this question. Do we merit or earn salvation, as a payment for our good works? Or rather, do we inherit salvation, as a son or daughter receives the inheritance from a dead parent? Well, don’t take my word for it, listen again to what Jesus said: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Inherit! Jesus’ invitation to the blessed is to inherit the kingdom! It reminds us of the beatitudes, where Jesus says, “Blessed are the poor in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of heaven…blessed are the meek for they shall inherit the earth.” Inheritance doesn’t come because we’ve earned it, or as wages for what we have done (Rom. 4), but inheritance is a privilege of sonship, whether natural born or adopted. The very word inheritance speaks loads of grace, not of obligation, not of wages, or due for what we have earned. And we’re heirs with Christ, and have the Spirit of adoption as sons (Rom. 8:14-17). We inherit eternal life. We do not merit it. That inheritance is passed along to us sons and daughters of God, His will being sealed through the death of Jesus Christ on the cross.

What else in this passage speaks of the fact that eternal life is given by grace, and not by works? The fact that this kingdom was prepared from the foundation of the world. Ephesians 1:4-5 clarifies this—namely that God “chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him. In love he predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ, according to the purpose of his will” (Eph. 1:4-5). Before we were even alive, before the foundations of the world were even laid in creation, God had already chosen and predestined us for adoption as sons through Jesus Christ. Ages before our first breath, before we’d done a single act of good or evil, He’d already chosen us, and prepared a kingdom for us to inherit. Pure gift.

What about the cursed, who go to eternal punishment, you ask? Where they also marked for destruction for eternity? What did Jesus say to the cursed? He said, “Depart…into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” A pastor I recently heard interviewed, said that the fact that the eternal fire was prepared for the devil and his angels, and not prepared by purpose for human souls, reflects something about the heart of God. As God declares elsewhere, “Have I any pleasure in the death of the wicked, declares the Lord God, and not rather that he should turn from his way and live? (Ezek. 18:23). God does not desire or delight in the punishment of the wicked, and hell was intended for the devil and his angels, not humans. But humans will go there by virtue of their rejection of God. So Jesus warns us in advance.

Also, when we look at what marks the sheep from the goats, it’s the presence or absence of good works. It’s not a matter of fine gradations and counting up how many good works one has, or weighing them in the scale against our sins. To understand the role of works in the judgment, we might remember the words of the hymn writer: “Faith clings to Jesus’ cross alone and rests in Him unceasing; and by its fruits true faith is known, with love and hope increasing. For faith alone can justify; works serve our neighbor and supply the proof that faith is living” (LSB 555:9). Good works are the evidence or proof of faith, and the fruit by which faith is known. Even our good works were planned out before us by God (Eph. 2:10). So yes, our good works accompany us to heaven, and God does recognize or acknowledge them. But all that we receive is pure gift and inheritance. Our works are acceptable to God because He’s cleansed them of sin through Jesus Christ, our King and Shepherd.

His love in us was and is the source of any and every good that we do in this life, in service to our neighbor, in aid to Christ in His needy ones. Good works do not save, but they provide evidence of the love of Christ in us. The absence of good works proves the lack of faith, in the case of the unbeliever. The blessed do not keep tally of their good works, but are forgetful of them, serving others with the selflessness of Christ living in them. And most of all, when we “have done all that [we] were commanded, [we’ll] say, ‘We are unworthy servants; we have only done what was our duty.’” (Luke 17:10) From first to last, ”Salvation belongs to our God who sits on the throne, and to the Lamb!” (Rev. 7:10). We have earned and deserved nothing, but Jesus’ death and resurrection has sealed our inheritance, His love predestined us before the world began, and even our good works were prepared and performed through us by His love. So “Come, you blessed by my Father, Inherit!” Amen.

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

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