Monday, November 24, 2014

Sermon on Matthew 25:31-46, for the Last Sunday of the Church Year, "What sort of people?"

“To those who are called, beloved in God the Father and kept for Jesus Christ: May mercy, peace, and love be multiplied to you.” Amen. Over the past few weeks we’ve heard Bible passages warning and preparing us for the Final Judgment, the day of Jesus’ return. 2 Peter 3, faces the same concern, and explains Jesus’ patience in waiting for as many as possible to reach repentance and turn from sin. Then Peter makes a statement that fits well with our text today. Since we know Jesus is going to return, and that the end of the world is coming, “what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, 12 waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God” (2 Peter 3:11b-12a). It’s not really a question, but more of a conclusion about what sort of people we ought to be. To live lives of holiness and godliness as we wait for the day of God. Looking at the great judgment at the end of times, in today’s reading, we should come to the same conclusion, and live accordingly.

What sort of people ought you to be in Christ Jesus? Well, our reading sharply contrasts a life of charity, compassion, help for the needy, and a life that neglects all of these things. The sheep who are called into their inheritance cared for the hungry and the thirsty, the stranger and the naked, the sick and imprisoned. The goats who are sent into eternal fire did none of these things. Faithful Lutherans will wonder if this means we’re saved by good works. But read more closely. The place of the sheep in the Father’s kingdom and inheritance was determined for them before the world’s foundations were laid. Long before they had a chance to do any works good or bad. Rather than salvation being the consequence of their good works—their good works were the consequence or fruit of their salvation. They live out this life because these are the people they are in Christ Jesus. They did these works spontaneously, lovingly, and unselfconsciously, with no thought to their “score” or any reward. They were simply attentive to the needs of their neighbors, and helped them.

Many preachers, myself included, have said before that we serve Christ when we serve our neighbor. But the surprising point in the parable, is that the sheep didn’t even realize they were doing this. They weren’t serving their neighbor because they saw Christ looking over their shoulder, but simply because the neighbor needed their help. The people that are helped are called “my brothers” by Jesus—indicating that these are particularly Christians who need help—in our own midst. This doesn’t mean that Christian charity stops with only helping other Christians—but it certainly should begin there, and not overlook them. Indeed, Jesus clearly taught that any person is “my neighbor”—and may have some claim on my help when in need.

How are the needy helped? Certainly half-formed ideas and wishes won’t help, but only real action helps. Real action shows that faith is real, not just empty words or thoughts, as James 2:14–17 reads, “What good is it, my brothers, if someone says he has faith but does not have works? Can that faith save him? If a brother or sister is poorly clothed and lacking in daily food, and one of you says to them, “Go in peace, be warmed and filled,” without giving them the things needed for the body, what good is that? So also faith by itself, if it does not have works, is dead.” James shows, just like Jesus, that good works are the fruit of faith. Faith is the cause, and giving the things needed for the body, or translating faith into action, is the effect. James doesn’t reverse cause and effect, Jesus doesn’t reverse cause and effect, and the Apostle Paul doesn’t either. So it’s completely consistent to believe as Paul wrote in Romans 3:28, “For we hold that one is justified by faith apart from works of the law” and at the same time Ephesians 2:10 “For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” Faith is the only thing that saves us, but faith is naturally followed by good works. Since faith and works are cause and effect, if we see no works, we can reasonably conclude that there is no faith. When Jesus sees that the goats have done nothing, it is because they never had faith.

God doesn’t need our good works to put us into His good favor. Our good works can’t do that. Good works are never something to boast about before God, which is why the sheep never produced their personal scorecards, and were so surprised that God kept track of things they never even remembered doing or connected to serving Jesus. God doesn’t need our good works, but our neighbor does! The hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, and imprisoned—these all need our good works. They need us to help them, to care about them, to welcome them and visit them. The reason the sheep help others is because they see and recognize their neighbor’s genuine need—not because sheep are in it for a reward.

Perhaps one of the greatest things that needs to be corrected among us, if we are to be the people that God desires, is to repent of our own selfishness, or our blindness to the needs of others. We need to have hearts softened with compassion for the needy. These are basic necessities of life—food, shelter, clothing, and human love and dignity. It is a sinful and broken world that we live in, where people are sick and imprisoned, where people don’t have their basic needs met. Problems may be better, worse, or just different in some neighborhoods, communities, cities, states, or even countries. But the world is everywhere filled to overflowing with need. And for us to have a heart of compassion to see that need wherever it is around us, and to meet those needs for the sake of our neighbor—this is the Christian thing to do.

There are many different ways that Christians organize together to meet needs, or respond to them individually in our own circumstances. But whatever our part in responding, we help to bring the Light of Jesus Christ into this dark world. And while physical needs such as food and clothing is part of the mission, bringing “good news to the poor” was the heart of Jesus’ mission and ours as well. Physical and spiritual needs go hand in hand. Missionaries have often said that it’s hard for people to sit and listen to God’s Word on an empty stomach. But after stomachs are filled, the even greater need is to be filled with God’s Word. We can and should be ready to help with both physical and spiritual needs.

We can visit the sick and pray with them, showing love and concern. A young person in our congregation might grow up to be a surgeon or a nurse, or a person who works to bring healing to those who are sick or injured. You may be a volunteer for a soup kitchen, to help feed the hungry, or donate goods through our church to the Food Pantry. You may be the warm and welcoming face who greets a stranger and makes them feel at home. We’re not called to live in our own personal comfort zone, isolated from the needs of others. And we cannot just delegate the “job” of helping the needy to someone else. However, it is a good and helpful thing for the body of Christ to organize in responding to human needs, and maximizing the gifts of different individuals. But God may put before any one of us an unexpected opportunity to help one of the least of Christ’s brothers. Help doesn’t automatically equate with “money”—which is often our first thought. The needs that were met are hunger and thirst and clothing, but also meeting the emotional needs of welcoming the stranger and visiting the sick and imprisoned. All this is to say that we all may help in various ways and as various needs present themselves to us. But the compassion that turns into action unites all of these examples.

Now if we’ve already agreed that saving faith is the cause that drives the effect of Christian good works or charity; and if we’ve already shown that the sheep were chosen by God before the foundation of the world—then how does one have such saving faith, or such an identity that they live out these works? Saving faith is not just checking a box that says, “Yes, I believe in Jesus”, and then checking out. It means that we trust Jesus and have a living relationship with Him, as disciple to teacher. He calls on our life, and we follow. The faith of the church in Christ is like the lifelong commitment between a husband and wife—not like the momentary commitment of checking a box on a voting ballot for your favorite candidate—who may or may not be a your favorite candidate in the next election, and with whom you probably have no relationship or interaction. And notice again that God elects us. He chooses us, as this passage tells, from before the foundation of the world.

The question that always troubles us, is what about those He didn’t choose? Did He choose them for destruction? This question can never be answered fully on this side of eternity, because the Bible just doesn’t reveal the full answer to us. But we can pick up some hints, for example in the fact that the eternal fire where Jesus sends the “goats” is not a place that was prepared initially for them, but for the devil and his angels. This, coupled with Old and New Testament passages that tell us God desires the salvation of all people, even that the wicked turn from their way and live, show us that God didn’t intend for their eternal punishment, though some will still find that fate. And the blame lies with them. But what we can say with certainty, is that God chose believers from before the foundation of the world. We are who we are, and live according to Christ’s example, because it is Christ living in us, and working in and through the gifts He has given. Sheep are not self-made creatures—they are who they are in Christ because it’s in their spiritual DNA, if you will. God gives you your identity. And that is entirely by grace, His undeserved act of rescuing us in Christ Jesus, and making us His own.

What sort of people do these things? Feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick or imprisoned? The answer? The sheep of Christ’s flock do these things. They are the lambs who follow the voice of their Good Shepherd and do His will. Those who have repented of their way, their sin and selfishness, and have turned to God that they might live. Those who have put aside trusting in themselves, and trust fully in their Shepherd, Jesus. Forgiven lambs, washed white as wool in the blood of the Lamb. The people who do these things are shaped in the image of Christ by water and word, by daily renewal in Christ Jesus. Your identity is new in Him, and there is a Christ-shaped life to be lived, and there are needy neighbors all around you. Help them as Christ commands, for whatever you do for the least of these His brothers, you do for Him. In Jesus’ name, Amen.

Sermon Talking Points

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1.      In Matthew 25:31-32, is Jesus’ Second Coming a public or secret event? Matthew 24:30-31; 1 Corinthians 15:52; 1 Thessalonians 4:16.

2.      Are the sheep and the goats separated in the judgment before or after their works have been examined? What does this tell us about whether their works were the cause or effect of their salvation? When was their salvation determined? Matthew 25:34; Ephesians 1:4-5; 2:8-10. Why does living faith always bear fruit? John 15

3.      What sort of works showed evidence of faith in the life of the sheep? Who was helped by them? Where do we see the signs of need around us? How can we respond? What should warm our compassion to the plight of the needy?

4.      What surprised the sheep when Jesus invited them into the kingdom? What did they not realize about the works they did or the people they helped? Where was their focus when doing these things?

5.      What surprised the goats when Jesus told them to depart into the eternal fire? What weren’t they expecting, and what did they neglect to do?

6.      When helping the needy, why are warm wishes not sufficient? What is needed instead? James 2:14-17.

7.      Pray that the life of Christ and His gifts would be revealed in your life, and that God would give you the opportunities, the willingness, and the action to take in serving your needy neighbors in love. Christian care for the needy should happen in both body (physical needs) and soul (spiritual needs). The two are complementary, not mutually exclusive. What was the greatest gift Jesus had to give to the poor? Luke 4:18; 6:20; cf. Acts 3:6.

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