Second-Last Sunday of the Church Year – Trinity 26
November 13, 2016 A+D
St. Matthew 25:31-46
In the Name of the Father and of the X Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
We confess every Sunday in the Nicene Creed that our Lord Jesus Christ “ascended into heaven and sits at the right hand of the Father. AND He will come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead.” We confess the same in the Apostles’ Creed. The Athanasian Creed even adds, “At His coming all people will rise again with their bodies and give an account concerning their own deeds. And those who have done good will enter into eternal life, and those who have done evil into eternal fire.”
From this and the Gospel text today, we might get the impression that salvation comes through works: feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming strangers, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned, etc. It seems from this text that our Lord is a God of social justice, the ultimate advocate of a communist, welfare state, and that all people will be judged based on their outward works in society. But we’re getting ahead of ourselves.
The fact is, the end is certain. The last judgment is coming. Our Lord will return. There are no surprise endings or nail-biting conclusions. Our Lord Jesus Christ has ascended to the right hand of God the Father, his enemies have been made a footstool for His feet, when He comes again (not if, but when), he will come in His full, eternal, heavenly glory and all the dead will be raised and He will give eternal life to all who believe in Him, but those who don’t believe will be cast into eternal fire. All nations shall be gathered to Him and He will separate the sheep from the goats, the believers from the unbelievers.
In the Transfiguration, Peter, James, and John got a glimpse of Christ’s glory when His clothes became white as light and His face shone like the sun, added to this glimpse was the voice of the Father, and the three disciples fell on their faces from terror (Matt. 17:2, 6). The glories of heaven were revealed to Isaiah and St. John and both fell down in horrific fear (Is. 6, Rev. 1:17) These were just glimpses of God’s eternal glory. How terrifying will the full glory be when He comes back in judgement?
So terrifying in fact that the sheep will not rely upon their works. Peter, James, John, and Isaiah despaired of their works and begged for mercy at the presence of God. That is why the Lord in this parable of the judgement shows the sheep at His right being confused when the King says that they have done all those things. They know that they cannot be judged according to their works and be called righteous. However, that is what the King does. He reckons to them good works, but none of their wicked works. This is truly curious, because Christians, of all people, understand their sinful thoughts, words, and deeds. “If we say we have no sin, we deceive ourselves, and the truth is not in us. But if we confess our sins, He is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness” (1 John 1:8-9). Christians hear the Law and allow and it convicts them of sin. Christians don’t cover up or pretend they are without sin, they recognize their sin against the 10 Commandments and repent. They have true sorrow over sin, regret it, confess it, and want to do better; but they don’t pretend they are perfect. In Christ’s parable, here, we see that Christians don’t forget that they have sinned in their lives. In the judgement, they are surprised that the King does not bring it up.
In reality, we should not be so surprised. For when we were made His children, born again of water and the Word, and when we return to our Baptismal grace and are forgiven and cleansed in absolution, our sins are removed from us as far as the east is from the west, “For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love toward those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us” (Psalm 103:11-12). Although we are not aware of all our sins, for “who can discern his errors?” we are well enough acquainted with how evil our thoughts are and how much we yearn for things forbidden by God and harmful to our souls (Rom 7). In this life, we are so intimately connected with our sinfulness, it’s hard for us to imagine the time when we will be released from this bondage. But in the final judgment, we will be released from our slavery to sin.
When our Lord comes in His glory, judging the living and the dead, we will finally be perfected. We will become as God even now sees us in Christ Jesus, holy, pure, undefiled. The judgement is not a time when we stand on our own merit, but rather rest on the merit of our Lord and His all-atoning sacrifice for our sin. His death and resurrection are our hope and the object of our trust. That’s why we can pray, “Save me, O God, by thy name, and judge me by thy strength.” It is the name and strength of God, even Jesus Christ, that gives us the hope of eternal life. “Far be it from [us] to boast except in the cross of our Lord Jesus Christ, by which the world has been crucified to [us], and [us] to the world” (Galatians 6:14). And if we get weary with the delay of His second coming, remember: “The Lord is not slow to fulfill his promise as some count slowness, but is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance” (2 Peter 3:9). St. Peter records that His delay is because of His mercy for those who have not yet repented. [Notice he doesn’t say that the delay is waiting for people to be better and do more good works.] The primary work of the Christian, if you can call it a work, is to repent and believe the promises of God. That’s what makes sheep different from goats.
So does that mean that our Father in heaven is indifferent to how we act toward one another in this life? By no means. The Law stands not only as a mirror to show us our sin, but also as a guide to show us how to please our Father in heaven and serve our neighbor, to show us how He wants His children to act. He wants us to do good works. He wants us to treat our neighbor as our self. St. Paul masterfully connects salvation by grace through faith and the proper understanding of good works. “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast. For we are his workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” (Ephesians 2:8-10). He wants us to do good works. And works are truly good, good in the eyes of God, only when they flow from faith (Rom. 14:23). This is what Holy Scripture tells us.
When the King separates the sheep from the goats, Jesus’s words in the Sermon on the Mount come to fruition. “When you give to the needy, do not let your left hand know what your right hand is doing…and your Father who sees in secret will reward you” (Matt. 6:3-4). Not only will the King magnify the little works you did for your neighbor in this life, He will credit you with the works that your Lord Jesus did in His life. All that He did in perfect obedience to the Father will be credited to your account. In the eyes of the Father you are as loving to your neighbor as Christ was to all people. All of your pettiness, stinginess, and double standards will be washed away in the final judgement on account of God’s grace that you receive by faith.
The final judgement will not be terrifying as we now count terror. It will be the fulfillment of all that we believe about Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, because the giver of life has crucified our sinful flesh with Christ through the washing of new birth and raised us in His resurrection. When He comes again, we will be drawn to His throne of judgement just as we are drawn even this morning to this altar. The same King, who died and is not dead, who will come on the last day, is here for you this morning, not in wrath to cause terror, but in love to grant grace and mercy, not as someone who holds your sins against you, but as your merciful Lord, to give you His own body and blood for your salvation. He washes you clean again from your sin in this Sacrament. He makes sheep out of goats. He removes sin and credits good works to you. In this way, you have “done good, and will enter into eternal life” (Athanasian Creed).
In Jesus’ X Name. Amen.
The Rev’d Michael N. Frese
Redeemer Lutheran Church
Fort Wayne, Indiana