26th Sunday after Trinity + Matthew 25:21-46 + November 13, 2016
Collect for Trinity XXVI
Sermon on the Holy Gospel
Grace and Peace be unto you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
1) When Christ returns on the Last Day, then we will experience what we confess each week in the Creed, that, “He shall come again with glory to judge both the quick and dead.” All nations will be gathered before Him, living and dead, a multitude innumerable. Jesus describes this in John 5:28-29 when He says, “Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out-- those who have done good will rise to live, and those who have done evil will rise to be condemned.” St. John, prophetically seeing this event, writes in Revelation 20:12-13, “I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books. The sea gave up the dead that were in it, and death and Hades gave up the dead that were in them, and each person was judged according to what he had done.” There at the judgment seat of Christ will stand every person who has ever lived throughout the course of human history. It is interesting that whenever the Scriptures speak about the final judgment it speaks of the judgment in terms of one’s works and deeds. The parable before us today is no different. The sheep and goats seem to be separated into their respective groups because of what they have done and what they have left undone in their lives. But if we imagine that our final judgment is based upon our good works then we have misheard not only the parable itself but the very gospel of Christ.
2) When the Son of Man comes in all His glory and the holy angels gather all the nations, Christ will then “separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.” The first words out of Jesus’ mouth show us that this separation has nothing to do with works at all. He says, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance.” The life of the world to come, the eternal bliss of paradise is called an “inheritance.” An inheritance is not something which is earned, but something earned by another and then freely bequeathed to the next of kin. In the Old Testament, the Lord gave the Promised Land to Israel out of sheer grace. He tells them in Leviticus 20:24, “You will possess their land; I will give it to you as an inheritance, a land flowing with milk and honey.” The Promised Land of Canaan was a prototype of the sweet and blessed country of heaven. That inheritance is Christ’s because He is the Only-Begotten Son of the Father. But in mercy, God the Father makes this eternal inheritance available to all who believe the gospel. As St. Paul teaches us in Galatians 3:26, “You are all sons of God through faith in Christ Jesus.” When Christ tells those on His right hand side that they are to take their inheritance, He is giving them what He promised them at their baptisms. He is fulfilling every promise of gospel that remained unfulfilled during their earthly life. Eternal life, paradise with the Triune God, is not something that is earned, it is an inheritance that is freely given.
3) He also calls this blessed inheritance “the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.” By this Christ refers to the election of believers to eternal life that happened in eternity, before the foundation of the world. The doctrine of election is summarized by St. Paul in Ephesians 1:4-5, that God the Father “chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame before Him in love, having predestined us to adoption as sons by Jesus Christ to Himself, according to the good pleasure of His will.” The doctrine of election teaches us that God, from eternity, predestined believers for everlasting life. The entire point of this doctrine is to show us that our salvation is from eternity. And if it is from eternity, then we have not had a part it in, for we were chosen before the foundation of the world and before we could any good work of love for our neighbor. This Kingdom, this inheritance, has been prepared for all who believe the gospel, all who do not reject the gospel of the forgiveness of sins. And this doctrine is given to us that we may firmly believe that our salvation is in God’s hands “and the gates of Hades shall not prevail against it” (Matthew 16:18). This doctrine shows us that God only predestines believers to eternal life so that we may not doubt our salvation. As St. Paul writes in Romans 8:30, “Moreover whom He predestined, these He also called; whom He called, these He also justified; and whom He justified, these He also glorified.” It shows us that we do not earn this call, this justification, and this glory, but receive it by sheer grace.
4) Only after Christ calls it an inheritance and “the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world” does He get to their good works. The works they have done are not flashy. They are not what the world thinks of as good works. They are simple acts that help one’s neighbor in the most regular of needs. These sheep at the right hand of Christ gave food to Christ when He was hungry, drink when He was thirsty, shelter to Him when He was exposed, and clothes to Him when He was naked. These sheep at Christ’s right hand visited Christ when He was sick and imprisoned. Christ says that all these works were done for Him personally. And here’s the kicker. The sheep at Christ’s right hand had no clue they were doing good works for Christ. Shocked, they ask, “When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?” They had no idea they were helping Christ. They had no idea their works of love for neighbor had such a heavenly impact. They simply did good works for the neighbor, without any thought of reward. They did these works not to earn their heavenly inheritance, but because Christ had promised them a heavenly inheritance. These works were not the cause and source of their salvation, they were the fruit it. This is the same reason why the goats also have no idea that their works were for Christ. If they had of known that they would have most certainly done those works for their neighbors. The point is that neither the sheep nor the goats knew they would be judged by their works.
5) Frankly, the sheep did these works because they were sheep and the goats didn’t do these works because they were goats. Or, to use an analogy that Christ uses in Matthew 12:33, “Make a tree good and its fruit will be good, or make a tree bad and its fruit will be bad, for a tree is recognized by its fruit.” All men, women, and children, everyone born in the natural way is born a bad tree because everyone is born in sin. But Christ makes bad trees into good trees through the gospel, for “it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes” (Romans 1:16). Paul says that “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation; old things have passed away; behold, all things have become new” (2 Corinthians 5:17). Faith in Christ is what declares sinners to be righteous in God’s sight. Faith in the gospel is what makes you into a good tree. And a good tree bears good fruit naturally, spontaneously, and without thinking. To mix metaphors, the goats were bad trees, they had no faith. They had pushed faith away from themselves by rejecting the gospel. As bad trees, it was impossible for them to bear good fruit. “For a good tree does not bear bad fruit, nor does a bad tree bear good fruit” (Luke 6:43). Thus the sheep and goats are not separated and judged by their works alone, for good works only flow from faith in Christ. No faith? Your works aren’t any good before God, no matter how good they look in the eyes of the world, for as St. Paul says, “whatever is not from faith is sin” (Romans 14:23) and “without faith it is impossible to please Him” (Hebrew 11:6).
6) We don’t even have to use the analogy of good trees and bad trees. There is one built into the parable itself, right at the beginning. “When the Son of Man comes in glory” and all the nations are gathered before Him by the holy angels, “He will separate them one from another, as a Shepherd divides his sheep from the goats.” We must not lose sight of the fact the King who sits on the throne, the Judge of the living and the dead, is also the Good Shepherd. Did He not say, “I am the good shepherd; and I know my sheep, and am known by my own? (John 10:14). He knows those who are His sheep. And His sheep hear His voice. They hear the voice of their Good Shepherd in His word purely preached, in His visible Words of the Sacraments. So all true Christians take the opportunity to hear the Word properly preached and study the Word since it is the very Word of God, the living voice of the Good Shepherd who gave His life for the sheep upon the tree of the cross. Because they are sheep, belonging to the Good Shepherd, they hear His voice and live lives according to it. It’s not one’s works that make a man into a lamb of Christ. It is faith that makes us into the lambs of Christ. Good works will follow because of what we are.
7) While it is tempting to look at this parable, and all the passages that deal with the final judgment, and divorce it from the rest of Scripture and make the final judgment rest solely upon our deeds, we mustn’t. When we do this we do not rightly divine the Scriptures, nor do receive any comfort. If we want to stand at the judgment seat and plead our case based on our works, we will find ourselves eternally lacking, for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God. But if we want to appear before the judgment seat and plead instead the merits of Christ that He earned for us and gives to all who believe the gospel, then we will find that the righteous Judge is also Good Shepherd who has laid His life down for us. Do not fear the final judgment, for the Judge you will meet is your Good Shepherd who said, “Most assuredly, I say to you, he who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life” (John 5:24). Amen.
May the peace of God which passes all human understanding guard you hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.