Today we wind the timer back to two. This is the Second to the Last Sunday in the Church Year. We begin counting down to the Last Sunday to remind us that this world isn't going to last forever. Everything we see, everything we know is going to end abruptly. Then comes Judgement Day.
Then comes the surprise.
The first surprise for most of you is going to be that the final judgment is based on works. Don't look so surprised; this is the clear teaching of Scripture. 2 Corinthians 5:10: "We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may be paid back for his deeds in the body, according to what he has done, whether good or bad." And what do you see going on in the text? Judge Jesus cites what the sheep did and what the goats did not do. He says, "The sheep did this and that and this." He says, "The goats didn't do this and that and this."
Surprise! It really does matter what you're doing or not doing. It really does matter if you're omitting to do right. Did you notice that the goats were only accused of failing to do something good? The proof that they belonged in hell to be punished eternally wasn't that they did bad but that they failed to do good. It wasn't that they were sexual perverts; it wasn't that they were drug lords; it wasn't that they were ax murderers. No, the proof that they belonged in hell was that they didn't feed the hungry, clothe the naked, or visit the sick.
So where do you think that leaves us? What works can you set over against the judgment of God? How many hungry people have you fed lately? When's the last time you gave so much as a cup of warm water, let alone cold water, to anyone? What about that stranger with the sign at the street corner? I'm sure he appreciates you giving him dollars and not just coins, but do you plan on inviting that stranger home anytime soon? And I'll just bet you have plans to run right out of here to Seton or to Travis county lock-up and visit some of the poor souls there.
"But, but, I give to the Red Cross; I give to the Salvation Army; I give to Lutheran World Relief." Bully for you. So, did the goats in the text.
What's that? I think I hear the plaintive bleating of sheep. They're saying, "I haven't anything at all to set against the judgment of God. On the last day, my mutton is cooked. Not only have I failed to do what is right, but I have positively done what is wrong. I have not only NOT helped my neighbor. I have actually hurt him."
Surprise! That is exactly what sheep say on the Last Day according to our text. They don't say I have done this or that for you Lord. They say, "When did we do anything at all for you?" They say what you are saying right now in your hearts. "If the Law comes down upon me in all its severity I'm history. What deed, what thought, what word of mine do I have that can stand in the judgment of the Law? Not one."
Friends, it's goats who think they and their deeds can stand before the judgment of the Law. Jesus exposes all that they failed to do, and what do they say, "When did we see You and not help you?" There's the person who gets sent to hell. The person who asserts they have kept the Law. The person who points to their work at the homeless shelter, their donation to Lutheran World Relief, or their visits to the hospital as being worthy under the judgment of the Law. This is the goat who goes to hell.
But that probably isn't your question right about now. You're not so concerned about what gets you thrown in hell as you are about what on earth or heaven could ever get you into heaven. You know the sheep aren't lying when they ask the Lord, "When did we ever do anything so pure and noble as what you say we did?" They search their hearts under the Law, just like you did at the beginning of the sermon, and they find nothing there but sins of omission, sins of commission, and a sinful nature. So how can we ever pass Judgment on that fretful day?
I'll tell you what you're problem is. You've only heard this text from one perspective. As if Jesus' whole intent in telling you this was to get you to work in the homeless shelters, to visit the sick, or to take in the strangers. Friends, this text in Matthew is the last teaching of Jesus before His betrayal and crucifixion. During the next 2 days the disciples hearing this text are going to be shown to be horrible sinners. They'll fail Jesus in every way possible. Do you think Jesus wants to get a social ministry program out of them now? Do you think Jesus is concerned that they get started feeding the hungry of visiting the sick? Do you think Jesus wants to leave them with the Law ringing in their ears? When your child or loved one faces something difficult, do you prepare them by preaching them the Law or the Gospel?
Surprise! This text is Gospel. Notice who it is who comes to judge the nations. The Son of Man who came not to be served but to give His life as a ransom for many. The Son of Man who can sympathize with out weaknesses, knows our infirmities, and never puts out a dimly burning wick. And when this Son of Man separates the nations, He does so without saying a Word to them or them to Him. He separates them as a shepherd separates sheep from goats. Sheep are not as bad as goats, right? The shepherd can easily separate them one from another because the goats are always wandering; sheep never do; because sheep always do what is right while goats never do. Not hardly. A shepherd doesn't separate sheep from goats based on what they do, but based on what they are.
What does Jesus say sheep are. He says they are, "Blessed by My Father." He says, literally, they must inherit the kingdom destined for them. And Jesus doesn't ask them what they did or didn't do. No, He tells them. "You fed, clothed, watered, visited, and took Me in." And what else does this text call sheep? Twice it refers to them as the righteous.
Here's where Christians miserably mishandle this text. They define the righteous as those who do not fail at feeding the hungry, watering the thirsty, taking in the strangers, clothing the naked, looking after the sick, and visiting the imprisoned. But where do the Scriptures teach this definition of the righteous? Do the Scriptures teach anywhere that a person can be righteous but what he or she does? If they do, then you have to throw out Isaiah 64, "All our righteousness is as filthy rags," and Romans 3, "There is NONE righteous, no NOT ONE."
Whatever happened to what we've been taught our whole Christian life? Jesus THY blood and righteousness, these are my beauty and my glorious dress. How does Paul say sinners are righteous? Freely by God's grace. The righteous live how according to Habakkuk and Romans? By works or by faith? By faith. That means they live not because they always do right, never do wrong or even mostly do right and seldom do wrong. They live by receiving through faith the forgiveness of their sins that Jesus won for them.
But the text plainly says they did these wonderful things. Yes, the righteous do, but how do they do them by works or by faith? Not by works because even our best works are not good enough. But by faith; yes, by faith all that Jesus ever did is imputed, credited to our account. I began this sermon by quoting 2 Corinthians 5:10 which speaks of being rewarded according to our works. But read the rest of 2 Corinthians 5, and you find that "God made Christ to be sin that we might be the righteousness of God IN Him." You dear friends can rightly lay claim to all that Jesus did. When your conscience, the devil, or someone speaking for him demands you to show your righteous deeds, you can simply point them to Jesus and say, "There is my righteousness."
"But I still don't see why Jesus goes into such detail about works if He isn't concerned with me cranking up my good works a notch or two?" Surprise! The theme of this text is not good works but the Judgement Day.
Remember Jesus is concerned with assuring His weak, sinful disciples of the final outcome of all things. Right now the righteous don't look any different than the unrighteous. Luther says that quite often the righteous have fewer and poorer works than the unrighteous. Admit it; you all know someone who doesn't cares for the Church, for Baptism, Absolution, or Communion, yet they put you to shame with all their glorious works. In this text, Jesus says, "Don't worry; everything will be exposed as it really is on Judgement Day."
Jesus puts before us the public judgement of all people. He is a fair God who judges not by appearances but by His Word. His Word is the standard. The unrighteous, those outside of Christ are shown that they have not done once single thing He ever commanded. Standing as they are outside of Christ, they aren't clothed by His blood or His righteousness. So they're left only with the righteousness of the Scribes and Pharisees who did many good things for many poor people. However, unless a person's righteousness EXCEEDS that of the Scribes and Pharisees, says Jesus in the Sermon on the Mount, he or she goes to hell. So, with such filthy sins and such poor works where else can they go but hell?
The righteousness of the righteous does exceed that of the Scribes and Pharisees and that of all those working in homeless shelters. How come? Think of your life as being recorded on video tape. Every thought, word, deed is there. On Judgement Day Jesus calls for your tape to be popped in. You hide your eyes in shame and fear; before God and all creation, your life is about to be exposed, and you know what's there!
Surprise! None of the filth, guilt, or sin you know so well is there. Your video has passed through the blood of Christ in Baptism, by Absolution, in the Holy Communion and all the shameful, dirty, foul sins of yours have been erased. Go ahead hit rewind; look again. They're not there. Hit fast forward. Get to your wild years. What do you see? The blood of Christ has washed those scarlet years clean. And what's this? Surprise. Here is you feeding the hungry, visiting the sick, taking in the stranger because everything Jesus ever did has been recorded on your tape. Such holiness, such righteousness is certainly worthy of heaven, isn't it?
The final judgment is based on works. Our God is fair. He judges all by this same standard. He shows that those outside of Christ have works that merit only hell. Those in Christ despite their sins have His works that merit heaven. This is what the disciples who were faced with Maundy Thursday and Good Friday needed to hear because Jesus would be hungry and they wouldn't feed Him, thirsty and they wouldn't give Him to drink, naked and they wouldn't clothe Him, a stranger they would pretend not to know, a prisoner they wouldn't visit, and sick with wounds they would not tend. We who have, do, and will let our Jesus down also need to know that our horrible, shameful sinfulness won't be remembered on Judgement Day. Only the fact that we are sheep of the Good Shepherd will be. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
2nd Last Sunday in the Church Year (11/14/99) Matthew 25:31-46