Sermon for Trinity 26 - Matthew 25:31-46 - November 16, 2015
1) By nature we fear God’s judgment. Fearing God, that is, being terrified of Him and His judgments, is the sinful flesh’s natural reaction to God. After choosing to disobey the Lord God in Eden, Moses records the first result of sin. “Adam and his wife hid themselves from the presence of the LORD God among the trees of the garden.” (Genesis 3:8) They knew their crime and they knew the punishment affixed to that trespass, “in the day that you eat of it you shall surely die.” (Genesis 2:17) Since that moment mankind, if he does not suppress his conscience, lives in terror of God’s judgment. Adam’s sin is our sin. We do not rightly fear God, nor do we love Him above all things, nor do we really trust Him in all things. This lack of righteousness, inherited from Adam, leads us to commit our own sins. Some revealed. Some hidden. All of them known to God, who is Judge. The author of Hebrews writes, “There is no creature hidden from His sight, but all things are naked and open to the eyes of Him to whom we must give account.” (Hebrews 4:13) The sinful flesh is right to be in terror over the final judgment. The King who sits on the throne to judge all flesh is the opposite of all that we are. Christ is true where we are liars. Christ is faithful whereas humanity is treacherous. Christ is just and righteous whereas we are sinful in thought, word, and deed. That day is surely drawing near. Jesus teaches us about the final judgment of all flesh in today’s appointed Gospel lesson. Jesus, as King, will sit on His throne. All nations will be gathered to Him. He will divide the righteous from the wicked, the faithful from the unbelieving, those who have no good works from those who possess good, God-pleasing works.
2) Yet we are to put no faith in our works. The sheep in the parable have not looked to their good works to save them. Jesus tells the sheep on His right side, “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: 'for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.” But the sheep have no clue they have done such works. The sheep on His right hand ask, “When, dear Lord, did we see you in any of these states and do such works for you?” Jesus replies that good works done for the “least of these” are also done for the sake of Christ. The sheep have no idea about their good works. They did not put their trust in their works or what those works would merit before God’s throne. The sheep are completely and blissfully unaware of all their good works. The goats on the left are also shamefully unaware of their absence of good works. The goats did not trust in works either, otherwise they would have taken the time to do them during their lives and secure their heavenly future. Sheep and goat, though very different, are alike in this: they put no trust in their own merits, worthiness, or good deeds.
3) The sheep are not concerned with works. So what are they concerned with? Doing sheep things. What do sheep do? Sheep hear their shepherd’s voice and believe what their shepherd tells them. Jesus tells the Pharisees in John 10:26-27, “But you do not believe, because you are not of My sheep, as I said to you. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me.” As Jesus tells His parable of the final judgment He wants to teach us again that we are not saved by what we do or fail to do before God. The final judgment has nothing to do with works. What matters is are you a sheep or not. Faith makes you a lamb of Jesus, the Good Shepherd. Faith hears the voice of the Good Shepherd as He speaks through His Holy Scriptures and through His true under-shepherds. Faith hears the voice of Christ in the Scriptures, from the pulpit, in the confessional, at the font and altar rail, and believes the words of Good Shepherd. The Good Shepherd’s words are life. So by hearing and believing the sheep have that life. Even in the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, faith alone justifies. Nothing else will justify us before God. Not our works, no matter how pristine they made appear. Not an inaudible declaration of God supposedly made at Easter which justifies everyone whether they believe or not. Faith alone justifies and makes sheep out of goats even here where Christ makes so much hay out of works. This is the entire point. Jesus does not say that the Son of Man will sit on His throne separating the good from the bad. By dividing humanity as sheep and goats Jesus reminds us that even in the terrors of conscience now and at the final judgment on the Last Day, He is our Good Shepherd. And as the truly Good Shepherd, He has laid His life down for the sheep and taken it up again so that they might believe and by believing have life in His name.” (John 20:21)
4) The unbelieving masses, they are goats. And no amount of good works could save them for their debt is too great. Unbelief condemns because it refuses to believe the Gospel that the Good Shepherd brings, as St. John writes in John 3:18, “He who believes in Him is not condemned; but he who does not believe is condemned already, because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God.” If faith alone justifies then unfaith, unbelief, condemns. So what then do we make of the good works to which Jesus draws so much attention? Why do the sheep have them and the goats do not? “Without faith it is impossible to please Him [God].” (Hebrews 11:6) The unbeliever, having rejected the voice of the Good Shepherd and the Good Shepherd’s gifts, cannot please God by anything that he does or refrains from doing. The unbeliever, the casual agnostic, the Muslim, the Mormon, the JW, the nicest atheist in the world can’t do a single good work before God because there is not true faith in God. The unbeliever may have a civil righteousness, a righteousness before men, causing men to look upon the unbeliever and praise their external virtues, but external virtues are nothing without true faith in the true God. In a sense, the goats are damned for their lack of good works. They can produce none having already rejected God’s Messiah and the forgiveness of all of their sins in Christ Jesus.
5) On the other hand, faith produces good works automatically, spontaneously even, so that the faithful baptized often don’t even know they’re doing them. St. Paul writes, “For by grace you have been saved through faith, and that not of yourselves; it is the gift of God, not of works, lest anyone should 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) We are saved by God’s grace in Christ, through faith in Christ. That faith then does good works, the ones God had prepared beforehand that we should walk in them. He does not prepare specific good works which you will do in your specific life. He prepares good works in the Ten Commandments, works toward your neighbor, that you are to walk in, that is, that you are live in daily. The sixth article of the Augsburg Confession says, “This faith is bound to bring forth good fruits, and that it is necessary to do good works commanded by God, because of God's will, but that we should not rely on those works to merit justification before God. For remission of sins and justification is apprehended by faith, as also the voice of Christ attests: When ye shall have done all these things, say: We are unprofitable servants. Luke 17:10.” Faith does good works. Sometimes with our knowledge, often without our thinking about it.
6) And what good works are those? They aren’t ‘good works’ as the world things of them. Jesus does not praise the works of short-term mission trips, teaching English as a second language in a foreign land, building cathedrals, living as a monastic recluse, or anything that people deem “holy.” The works Jesus praises are simple. They’re almost too simple. “I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.” The good works Jesus praises are the simple works of love and care for our neighbor, for those around us in any need. It is the work of raising children. It is work of giving to those in need who cannot provide for themselves in any way. It is the work befriending the lonely and comforting the despondent. The works Jesus praise are simply ‘love for neighbor,’ that which the second table of the Law requires. Man-made good works are just that: man-made and therefore cannot please God. For God is only pleased by the works done in faith which He commands. These are the works the sheep are doing and have done throughout their lives without knowing it simply because they are sheep doing sheep things.
7) You have nothing to fear of the final judgment if you are in Christ by faith. That true faith makes you dear lambs of God’s pasture. The Good Shepherd who has laid His life down for you on the cross and taken it up again in the resurrection so that you might be justified by faith, He will be your good shepherd on the Last Day, too. He will appear as Son of Man and be a terrifying sight to the unrepentant. He will appear as King of kings and Lord of lords and frighten the wicked and unbelieving. He will appear with all the holy angels to judge the earth and all flesh and destroy those who hate His word and judgments in this life already. But He will cause no fear in your, for you love God by faith in Christ, for “perfect love casts out fear.” (1 John 4:18) He will be to you as He has always been: the Good Shepherd. There will be no sins of yours to be recounted before the ears of all humanity, for your sins have been blotted out by the blood of the Good Shepherd and “there is therefore now no condemnation to those who are in Christ Jesus.” (Romans 8:1) You will not be ushered into paradise on account of what you have or have not done, but only because your Good Shepherd knows His sheep and His sheep know, and believe His voice in the Holy Gospel of the forgiveness of sins. Amen.