Last Sunday of the Church Year

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“Doing What Comes Naturally”
Matthew 25:31-46

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

If you are a sheep, you will do sheep things.  If you are a goat, you will do goat things.  On that Day when the King, crowned on a Friday afternoon, comes in all His glory to sit on His throne of glory, everything will be known.  The books will be opened and everything the sheep did and everything the goats left undone will be revealed.  Those things will bear witness for the sheep and against the goats.  Jesus and the Scriptures which testify to Him are absolutely, crystal clear: Matthew 16: “For the Son of Man is going to come with his angels in the glory of his Father, and then he will repay each person according to what he has done” (Matthew 16:27, ESV).  John 5: “And [the Father] has given [the Son] authority to execute judgment, because he is the Son of Man.  Do not marvel at this, for an hour is coming when all who are in the tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment” (John 5:27-29, ESV).  Revelation 20: “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened.  Then another book was opened, which is the book of life.  And the dead were judged by what was written in the books, according to what they had done…And if anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire” (Revelation 20:12, 15 ESV).  Revelation 22: “Behold,” Jesus says, “I am coming soon, bringing my recompense with me, to repay everyone for what he has done” (Revelation 22:12, ESV).  And we confess the same thing in the Athanasian Creed: “And those who have done good will enter into eternal life, and those who have done evil into eternal fire” (LSB 320).  Your works, or, God forbid, your lack of works, will bear witness for or against you, evidence of your righteousness or of your unrighteousness.

So what do we do when we hear this?  We start examining our lives, to see if we stack up.  We want to see if we will be judged righteous and sheepish, or unrighteous and goatish.  The sheep and the goats are distinguished by their loving service; and, especially, love for Jesus’ brothers, the members of His Body.  What a condemnation of Christians it would be if those among us who are lonely, who are hurting, who are strangers, who are hungry, thirsty, and sick, cannot bring those needs before us because we will judge them, rather than care for them.  We talked about being faithful last week; this is what it looks like to be faithful.  If you are willing to take even a fleeting glance into the darkness in your own soul, there is no room for denial of your deep and persistent sinfulness.  It’s like walking through the woods around here: as soon as you remove ten of those maddening burrs from your gloves or coat, you’ve got fifty more that you didn’t see.  Big ones, little ones, round ones, flat ones; good luck getting them all out.  Like your sins, they stick and poke and irritate until you might as well just get a new pair of gloves or a new coat.

When we sin and when we are shown our sin, we usually move to the next stage of defense, and that is to try harder.  You want to prove you’re one of the sheep, right?  Do more, do better; serve more, give more, weary yourselves with your good works.  And then get bitter because no one ever notices.  This is the vicious cycle of the “good” person.  But if you do enough, then everyone will say that you must be a Christian.  Your funeral will fill the church with people and everyone will say nice things about you.  (But have you ever been to a funeral where people didn’t say nice things about the dead?)  Maybe even God will sit up and take note and St. Peter will let you through the pearly gates.  This is how many people do “Christianity” and it is how most unbelievers judge Christianity (and probably themselves as well).  There is just one small problem: the ignorance of both the sheep and the goats about what they have done in their lives.  Doesn’t it strike you as more than passing strange that neither the sheep nor the goats have any idea that they have been serving or not serving Jesus?  And once we see how strange that is, we are in a better position to see what connection the good works of the sheep and the lack of works by the goats have with where they end up.  That connection is exactly the opposite of how we usually go about things.  Everywhere else-in school, work, and society-we are judged by how well we do.  If you do your homework and study and put down the right answers, you get a good grade.  If you do your work well and do what the boss tells you, you get a raise or a promotion or an offer of a better job.  If you don’t kill, don’t steal, don’t speed, and pay your taxes, the police will leave you alone.  There is, most of the time, a direct connection between what you do and how other people see you.  And that’s how most people think of God: like the Cosmic School-Marm, or the Big Boss in the Sky, or the Policeman of the Universe.  And so we read this parable as confirmation of our idea that what you do determines where you go.

But do not miss the fact that the sheep are already sheep when Jesus speaks to them.  They come as sheep into the Judgment.  They are the righteous ones, the blessed ones of the Father of Jesus, standing on His right-before Jesus says anything about their good works.  And when He does reveal their good works, they have no idea that their love of neighbor as themselves had anything to do with loving God with all their heart and soul and mind.  They just did what came naturally to them, what they knew they should do.  Sheep do sheep things.  Likewise, the goats are already goats.  They come as goats into the Judgment.  They are the cursed ones, standing on His left before Jesus says anything about everything they did not do.  And when He does reveal the state of their works, they have no idea that their selfishness and lack of love for their neighbors had anything to do with not loving God.  They just did what came naturally to them, what they wanted to do.  Goats do goat things.  This Judgment is not really a rendering of an end-time verdict decided on the basis of the evidence; it is a revealing of what was already the case.  This Judgment is simply a separation of those who had been all mixed together on the earth; it’s simply God’s revelation of those who had borne His eternal mark of righteousness (Revelation 7:3, 14:1, 22:4) and those who had borne the opposite mark of the Beast (Revelation 13:16-18, 14:9-11, 20:4).  Good works do not make you a sheep before God, do not make you blessed, do not make you righteous; they only show what you are.  Before God, evil works only show that you are a goat, that you are cursed, that you are unrighteous.  And it’s no good trying to measure your good works to see which you are.  That would be sort of like trying to turn your head to see your ears.  You cannot know that way; you cannot be sure of your salvation by what you see.

To be a goat means, first of all, to bear your own sin, to ask for and get what is coming to you.  When Aaron put his hands on the head of the scapegoat in Leviticus 16, he confessed all the sins of Israel and they were put on that goat’s head.  The goat takes the sin and dies in the desert for it.  To be a sheep, first of all, is to trust that the Lamb of God has become the scapegoat in your place.  He took your sins into the wilderness and died there, and you are left sinless, with only good works to show for it.  The judgment revealed by the King of Glory will be for the sheep the eternal inheritance of the Reign of God that has been prepared from the very foundation of the world (Matthew 25:34).  And it will be for the goats the eternal fire that has been prepared for the devil and his angels.  This is very important.  Do not be deceived: the hell of separation from the love of God in Christ is very real, and those who refuse to be gathered into the sheepfold of the Good Shepherd will be given their wish.  The Lord will not, finally, force Himself on anyone.  But that hell was never meant for God’s creatures; it was created and prepared for the devil, not you or anyone else.  You are and always have been meant to be under the reign of God in a perfect creation.  You are meant to be a sheep, and that is why Christ died for you.  A bunch of goats running around, butting their heads up against sin and death, need a sacrificial Lamb.  You were a goat, doing what goats do: gobbling up everything you could, never satisfied, never serving anyone but yourself.  And so the Lamb was slain.  The Lamb of God that takest away the sin of the world has mercy on you.  The Lamb of God that takest away the sin of the world has mercy on you.  The Lamb of God that takest away the sin of the world gives you peace.  He washed you in His own blood, rinsing all that rough, goatish hair from your back and clothing you in soft, white wool.  And the blood of that Lamb is what you drink, the body of that Lamb is what you eat, again and again as long as the old goat tries to reassert itself.  You need that Body and that Blood.  Do not refuse your Lord entrance.  “For thus says the Lord God: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out…and I will rescue them from all the places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness…I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God.  I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy.  I will feed them in justice” (Ezekiel 34:11-13a, 15-16, ESV).  As you follow the Good Shepherd, you will serve Him and those around you.  You will feed the hungry, wet the lips of the thirsty, welcome the foreigner, care for the sick, and clothe the naked.  You will build up the Body of Christ and your concern for even the least of these, the fellow members of the Body, will be evident.  But the goat does not go easily.  It will kick with its cloven hooves and bite with its foul teeth and it must be killed.  Repent your goatish selfishness, seeking the things of yourself even in God.  And know that the Lamb of God is your scapegoat; know that He will come in glory as the Lion of Judah, and He will, once and for all, devour the goat in you.  Look to Him; feed on Him; hear Him.  Turn your eyes from your half-hearted attempts at good works and trust the Lamb.  And hear the Word of God, as you will hear it on that Day from the King on His throne: “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (Matthew 25:34, ESV).  “Blessed be the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ, who has blessed us in Christ with every spiritual blessing in the heavenly places, even as he chose us in him before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and blameless before him” (Ephesians 1:3-4, ESV).

In the Name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.  “And the peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, will guard your hearts and your minds in Christ Jesus,” (Philippians 4:7, ESV).

— Pr. Timothy Winterstein, 11/19/08

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