Sermon by Rev. Zickler for November 26, 2017

Sermon Proper 29 2017
November 26, 2017
Matthew 25:31-46

Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father, and our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. The lesson for our meditation this morning is the Gospel Lesson previously read.

If you try to actually visualize it in your brain, what do you see when you hear those words? 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. It’s a picture, isn’t it? The Son of Man in all His glory. Jesus in the flesh, but not merely in the flesh, in the flesh glorified. God in glory. What do you see? Think about Moses on the mountain with God. Moses saying, “Show me your glory.” And what does God say? “No. You can’t see my face and live, Moses. No, Moses, my glory will kill you. No Moses, you can’t look at my face, I’ll show you my back”—literally backside by the way. And yet here is Jesus at the end of time. Jesus coming in His glory.

When we think about that, we can see how Luther was terrified. As we still reflect upon the 500th anniversary of the Reformation, we are reminded of how at the time of Luther, Jesus was portrayed as only a judge. This passage was emphasized. The King, Jesus, returning in His glory. Does that image make you shift in your pew? In many ways it should. You know, the last few weeks I have mentioned a number of times about how we think of the message of Jesus to repent as merely this Law oriented call, but don’t meditate on the beauty of what it’s really saying: invitation to the feast. But as we look at the return, at the Son of Man coming in glory, what is there to say? The Son of Man comes and He separates the sheep from the goats.

He says, “You, you’re a goat, to the eternal suffering for you. But you, you’re a sheep, to the eternal joys of my kingdom with you.” And then there’s the criteria. How do you get into the eternal feast? “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.” The question arises, doesn’t it? Have you given Jesus enough to eat to get in? Have you clothed Him enough times? There’s something about it that’s terrifying, isn’t there? When we are honest about the picture of Jesus’ return, we know just how scared it makes us when we really ponder it.

So, why does it make us squirm? Well for starters, this sure doesn’t sound like the good Lutheran doctrine of justification by grace through faith does it? It sounds like salvation is by our works. So how do we deal with this?

To start, we have to realize this this really is not opposed to justification by grace through faith. Sure Jesus speaks of looking at the works of the sheep, but we have to think about this within the context of the whole Bible: Jesus’ own words; Paul’ words, even things from the Old Testament. As I say this, then, there are numerous aspects to consider with this.

First of all, we have to start by remembering that the Law itself speaks about this. In other words, if we think about God’s Commands, we see what the Law guarantees. God says it in Leviticus 18: “You shall therefore keep my statutes and my rules; if a person does them, he shall live by them: I am the Lord.” In other words, do the works of the Law and you shall live. Do what Jesus speaks of here and you shall live. Give food to the hungry. Give drink to the thirsty. Welcome the stranger, clothe naked, visit the sick and imprisoned. Of course, is that all that the Law says? No. There’s more, isn’t there? After all if we’re even just summarizing the Law, as Jesus Himself did, to say “love your neighbor as yourself,” there’s first the aspect to do what? To “love the Lord your God with all of your heart, soul, mind, and strength.” And what’s the problem with all of this? You haven’t done this perfectly like the Law demands. So, that’s the first problem. This may look like it’s judgement according to certain works, but there’s more to it, because, as Paul says, “by works of the law no human being will be justified in his sight, since through the law comes knowledge of sin.” No one, not any human being will be justified, will be declared right, righteous, in God’s sight because he kept these commands. Instead, these show sin. Or, as I often make the case of pointing out, Isaiah 64:6 says, “all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment.” We can’t do anything that’s good enough for Jesus to tell us that we have earned salvation. So, that’s what we have to begin by understanding here.

But since that’s the case, is Jesus lying when He says that this is what will happen? No, we have to take Jesus at His words. But we have to consider what this means. This means that these sheep are already those who have been justified before God. Think about what is said in Scripture. “The just will live by faith.” These sheep are those with faith. In fact, Paul even goes so far to say, “whatever does not proceed from faith is sin.” So, with that we see that there is a very real consideration of works, but these works relate to faith. Faith is first and last. Faith is the producer of any good works, because “without faith it is impossible to please God.” So that’s the next thing we have to understand.

In fact, we can relate this to what Jesus speaks of regarding the trees and their fruit. The tree of the man made anew in faith is the one producing good fruit. The tree of the man living in the life of the Old Sinner is fruit contaminated in the rottenness and death of sin. Sure some of this might look appealing to the eye, but if one is to cut the fruit in two, all that would be found inside would be offensive and repugnant sin, reflecting death, and deserving wrath. This is the fruit that does not come from faith.

The next piece we need to think about that shows that this is not opposed to justification by grace through faith is the response of the sheep. Look at what they say. Does Jesus reward them with life and they say, “I know Lord. We did a pretty good job at loving you and others, didn’t we?” No! They didn’t even think about that they were doing it! “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?” You see this is what faith does. Faith quits looking at myself and thinking about whether I am good enough, or thinking about how God must really be happy with me because I’m not like those other sinners, and it looks instead at what God says. It looks at how impure my “righteous deeds” really are apart from God. It realizes just how much I am unable to please God on my own, so I stop looking at my own strength, I stop deluding myself, and in faith I look to Jesus. I trust in Him. I trust in His love, and because of that, I actually see my neighbor and love them. I don’t serve them so I can get to heaven. Before I can think about possibly deserving heaven in good works, I’ve already served them because Jesus has loved me. You see faith comes first even here.

And then the last way we see that this isn’t opposed to salvation by grace through faith: who is this Jesus? This Jesus who comes in judgment, who is He? He is the very God who has come into the flesh to fulfill God’s law for us, for you. He is the one who looked down upon our broken estate and bore every last one of your sins on the cross, rising again to give you new life. He is the Jesus who washed you in the waters of baptism. He is the Jesus who has bespoken you righteous with His strong word of absolution. He is the Jesus who has come to this rail and fed you with His body and blood for you forgiveness. Having given you what is needful again and again and again, and having come to this world for the very purpose of giving His life as a ransom for many, do you really think that He’ll come again only to evaluate your works that He already knew weren’t enough in the first place? No, He’ll come to bring His faithful to Himself, the faithful whom He has perfected in His righteousness and purity forever. He’ll come to fulfill the promise of those who trust that He has made them righteous by declaring them righteous in this judgment, and He’ll fulfill that promise in those words, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.

And as you hear that promise of what is yours in Jesus, it relieves the terror for you. Hopefully, when you hear this declaration, you know that, although it seems too good to be true, it still is true because Jesus has already worked that faith in you which asks when you did these things.

But even as I say all of this and it relieves that terror for you, I am guessing there is still some discomfort when thinking about the end. I know even for myself, as I pray “Come Lord Jesus.”—which I often do—there’s still that terror that strikes in knowing that not everyone will be considered among those sheep, that these goats are very real and numerous. And some of them will even be those whom we have loved dearly in this life. So how can that terror be relieved?

Again, the answer, in short, is the same faith. It is same faith that trusts that I can’t earn heaven, but that Jesus earned it for me. It’s that same faith because it trusts that Jesus has even loved the goats with that same love. To be clear this doesn’t mean that we think the goats will be in heaven. It’s clear that’s not the case. But we believe Jesus has loved them even more than we have. That this isn’t something He wanted to do from the beginning of the world. And we can see this even in how Heaven and Hell are spoken of. Look at that, at what Jesus says. For the sheep, “inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” And for the goats, “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Do you see the difference? God has loved even the goats. The kingdom was prepared for the sheep from the foundation of the world. But the fire wasn’t even prepared for the goats. It was prepared for the devil. Jesus loved the goats too, it’s not His desire for them to go to the fire, it’s a consequence. And that’s what we trust. Jesus has loved them even more than we have. That and that Scripture is always clear that judgment against sin and God’s enemies always means salvation for His people.

Hopefully, then, as we look at this we can look at this return, not with the terror that can so easily come, but with the joyful expectation that we should have. Certainly, it’s not wrong for us to fear God in the midst of this, but even more we should love and trust in Him. We should look to this day knowing that He will shepherd His sheep—His beloved baptized and nourished flock—to His kingdom. And as you consider that day, Christians, consider it with hope and the joy that will come. The joy of knowing that this Jesus will come for you, bringing you into the joy of His eternal Kingdom. Amen.