Blessed at the last – 26 Nov 2023

Matthew 25:31-46

31 ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 ‘Then the King will say to those on his right, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was ill and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.”

37 ‘Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you ill or in prison and go to visit you?”

40 ‘The King will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.”

41 ‘Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was ill and in prison and you did not look after me.”

44 ‘They also will answer, “Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or ill or in prison, and did not help you?”

45 ‘He will reply, “Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.”

46 ‘Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.’

Whenever I come across this picture of the end reckoning for all nations, I can’t help but remember the American 1970’s Jesus Movement musicians and singer, Keith Green. I think we had a tribute band play his music here at St petri some years ago.

Keith told the story of this final end-time picture Jesus paints in song. It was aptly named, ‘The Sheep and the Goats’. High voice, deep conviction, heavy handed, rapid and brilliant piano playing …

In his telling of this story in song Keith stayed pretty close the actual biblical account.  But there was one line right at the very end of his masterful telling in song that really unsettled me every time I heard it.

And my friends, the only difference between the sheep and the goats,
According to this scripture,
Is what they did, and didn’t do!!

Oh boy. Is that true? In the final accounting of all things for all of us humans, will our life be judged good or bad based on what we did? Is the only way to escape the terrible fate of the goats is to be very, very good? Is the only thing that God is concerned with about me is what I do or don’t do?

If that is the case, I think I am sunk! I am not good enough and I can’t do enough. More than that, I feel deflated. How would I ever know I have done enough, been good enough, given enough welcome, water and support? I am plunged back into fear and loathing when it comes to making sense of my life and of God and his future for his world. I am on the edge of shutting up shop and not bothering to give that cup of water, visit that isolated person, be with the wrong person, welcome anyone new into my life …

Your Lutheran and Christian radar surely is up and active now! You know in your bones this is not the case. Surely we are more than what we do or don’t do according to the God who created us. We know we are right with God and assured of a joy-filled future that has its good affect in our present today based not on what you do or don’t do but on Jesus and what he says and does out of love for you. The cross he is about to endure in Matthew’s gospel tells you this. You have heard of God’s grace received by faith in everything Jesus says and does all your life.

So, what do we do with this end-time picture Jesus paints, as he is about to undergo his earthly end?

I part company with Keith Green in his summary of what Jesus is saying here.

And my friends, the only difference between the sheep and the goats,
According to this scripture,
Is what they did, and didn’t do!!

No. The only difference between the sheep and the goats is what Jesus did and didn’t do.

See, what we do comes from somewhere. Jesus acknowledges this.

‘Listen and understand. 11 What goes into someone’s mouth does not defile them, but what comes out of their mouth, that is what defiles them.’ (Matthew 15:10-11)

Those visits to the prison, that cup of water those clothes for someone who needs them comes from somewhere – from the heart of a person.

The people in the story who fed the hungry and clothed the poor and welcomed the stranger where as surprised as those who did none of these things when Jesus the Judge tells them that they were doing all these acts of mercy and kindness for him.

Obviously, they were not doing these things in order to earn their way into life forever in God, just as those who didn’t have a care were not doing these things to please God. The people of mercy were totally surprised when Jesus said that when they did this to the least of these they did it to him.

How can that be? It must be because, ‘righteousness’ was not a motive, it was a result. Being right with God enabled them to live right. Their rightness come from his righteousness lodged in their heart, and it showed in real time.

Their righteousness (being at peace with the Father, and so loving as they are loved) did not originate from their desire to be good. It resulted from their being declared to be good.

Both the sheep and the goats were ‘doing what comes naturally’; what comes from the heart. And for the surprised sheep entering the joy of the Master, one little phrase tells me that their ability to do any good and their hope for a joy-filled future in God comes from God, not them.

“Blessed of the Father’.

Jesus calls those who clothed and fed and welcomed and visited those in need – he calls them “those blessed by the Father”.

“… the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom”.

Maybe that blessing came first in their lives and that is what made them righteous. Maybe their righteousness did not originate from their desire to be good. Maybe it resulted from their being declared to be good. They were told, “You are mine”. They were told, ‘God blesses you, not based on your righteousness, but based on His righteousness’.

And don’t we know it. God is about to show his great and perfect righteous love in this Jesus of Nazareth, His Son. He is about to enter all the world’s unrighteous hatred, violence and lack of care for the vulnerable and become the prisoner, be the stranger, thirst for a cup of water, put himself at the mercy of the merciless.

And friends, this is his ‘glory’.

Jesus begins his story by saying,

“When the Son of Man comes in glory …”

He has. Jesus has talked about the Son of Man at various points throughout the gospel, of course, but when is this “coming in glory”? Interestingly, the very next verse, 26:1, offers a clue:

“When the Son of Man comes in glory …”

Could it be true that the Son of Man comes in his glory in the crucifixion? Might it be that the place we see Jesus revealed most clearly is in the cross? I think so.

If Jesus comes in all his glory on that unrighteous cursed tree, then maybe this picture about the final completion of everything begun for us at the cross isn’t quite as fearsome as we thought. The one who will one day come to judge us is the same one who first came to be judged for us.

That says to you that Jesus — the one who came, the one who comes now, and the one who is coming again — is undeniably and unalterably for us…and all the world. And suddenly our “Oh Boy” is transformed into “Thanks be to God.”

He is the one who slates our thirst for love and meaning and hope. He is the one who welcomes us strange and lonely people. He is the one who stand with us when everyone else throws the book at us. He is the one who enters the locked heart and lets the light in.

So, we do the same, we live the same. That is what sheep of this Shepherd do.

This picture has been painted. This judgement has been handed down in that cross. God has made this decision…. You and I are not guilty and we are free.

So, as a result, we quite naturally served the neighbour. This is what we call Christian Freedom. Martin Luther describes our life in Christ like this:

A Christian is a perfectly free lord of all, and subject to none. A Christian is a perfectly dutiful servant of all, and subject to all. (Luther, Freedom of the Christian)

Christ our King has made us free from any tyranny of self-justification and salvation to-do lists, it has freed us from being named or claimed by any powers and principalities other than God, be they the cancel culture, fear of missing out culture, dark days of war in the world, unjust leadership in politics, high cost of living, financial squeeze, expectations of our families or the fear of death, or the bondage of our growing or aging bodies.

Yes, thanks be to God — for the One who cares about the needs of all; for the One who comes always in justice in mercy; for the One who both judges and is judged for us; for the One who meets us in the need of our neighbour; and for the One who works in us and through us in surprising and unexpected ways.