20 November 2013

"You Did It to ME!"

Here is Sunday's homily, for Trinity 26 (2nd Last Sunday in the Church Year), with Matthew 25:31-46 as the text:

Wow, that sounds like a pretty works-righteous passage! Is that your reaction? We hear Jesus talk of separating the sheep from the goats. Will He really separate them based on their works—the good, the bad, and the ugly? Will the goats go to “eternal punishment” because of their lack of good works? Will the sheep enter eternal life based on their good works? Let’s see.

This time of the Church Year we hear about the “End Times” and the Last Day. Our Lord will come again in glory, just as He promised. He will sit on His glorious throne given to Him by the Ancient of Days, God the Father. His throne will be surrounded by twenty-four thrones—the thrones of the patriarchs, prophets, and apostles. And He will be surrounded by all the angels. It’s the very throne He’s had from eternity, the throne He left to take on our humanity, to suffer, to die and to rise again to restore us to life with God, the throne which He took up again when He ascended to sit at the Father’s right hand. When our Lord comes again, we will get to see how all things have been renewed and restored in Him. We will get to go back to the Garden—the “new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells” (2 Pet. 3:13).

When our Lord King comes in His glory, He will gather all the nations and separate the peoples—some on His right, others on His left. He will talk with both groups, and His conversation will sound similar for each. What will He talk about? Feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, visiting the sick, and going to the prisoners. Some will have done these things better than others. Others may have done them, but only with self-serving motives.

But the real kicker will come when Jesus identifies Himself with those who needed the help! He will say, “You fed, Me; you gave drink to Me; you welcomed Me; you clothed Me; you visited and came to Me.” You did it to ME! And both groups will say, “Uh, Lord, when? We didn’t know that we did – or did not do – these things to YOU! How did we do these things to YOU?” And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’” “Yes, you did it to ME,” Jesus will say.

Those words will make all the difference between the sheep and the goats, all the difference between eternal life and … well, eternity without God. “Yes, you did it to ME.” Actually, those words make all the difference even now!

But the Church does not give us these “End Times Sundays” to scare us to death or to make us question our life and salvation. No, these Sundays with readings about the Last Day are designed to give comfort and hope. They are designed to spur us on to keep living “lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God.” How did we pray just minutes ago? “O Lord, so rule and govern our hearts and minds by Your Holy Spirit that…we may be stirred up to holiness of living here and dwell with You forever hereafter.”

St. Peter talks about this in our second reading. Don’t doubt your Lord’s promise that He will come. Don’t scoff that He judged the world in the global Flood of Noah’s day. Don’t think your Lord is playing with your mind when He promises “judgment and destruction of the ungodly” or a “new heavens and a new earth” for the righteous. Don’t fear. Don’t cower. But then again, don’t live like bumps on logs in this fallen world either. Don’t live self-centeredly, like the unbelieving people around you. Instead, St. Peter says, focus on “what sort of people ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God.” St. Peter also says, “Therefore, beloved, since you are waiting for these, be diligent to be found by Him without spot or blemish, and at peace.”

And that’s precisely your dilemma, isn’t it? You look in the mirror of God’s Word. You examine your life and heart. And you know that you are not without spot or blemish. You are not at peace. “Lives of holiness and godliness”? “Hah! He must mean someone besides me,” you say. If King Jesus were to come right now, you know the conversation would go something like this: “When you got angry with your spouse or your child, your brother or sister, you got angry with Me. When you spoke that unkind word to your neighbor, or about your neighbor, you spoke it to and about Me. When you did not welcome that visitor at church, you did not welcome Me. When you failed to help that hungry, homeless person, you failed to help Me. When you paid little attention to the sermon, the liturgy, the hymns, and the Supper, you paid little attention to Me. When you did not support your church with your time, your labors, and your money, you did not support me.” Need I go on?

But this, dear friends, is why the Lord seems slow in coming. Actually, He “is not slow to fulfill His promise as some count slowness, but [He] is patient toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.” King Jesus  actually “desires all people to be saved and to come to the knowledge of the truth” (1 Tim. 2:4). King Jesus even says, “This is the will of My Father, that everyone who looks on the Son and believes in him should have eternal life, and I will raise him up on the last day” (Jn. 6:40).

And, yes, that includes you and me! You see, King Jesus has indeed taken His glorious throne—and, oddly enough, it looks just like His Cross. As He hung there, bleeding, suffocating, and dying, He gathered all nations to Himself. There He also separated peoples one from another. In His gory suffering your King of Glory shows how you are blessed by His Father. On the cross He reveals your true inheritance, “the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” And what is that inheritance? What is that kingdom? It’s His great grace, His mighty mercy, His lavish love, His fabulous forgiveness, all for you. That’s what makes the difference between sheep and goats. That’s what makes the difference between eternal life and … well, you know.

So this is not a “works-righteous passage” at all. The sheep—the righteous, the believers, the Christians—inherit only what is given to them as a gift. Jesus commends them only for what He has already given them in His dying and rising. You see, sheep need what their Shepherd-King has to offer. You are hungry and thirsty for God, and He feeds you on His Body and gives you His Blood to drink. You are estranged from God, and He welcomes you back to life with Himself. You are the naked ones, exposed for the sinners you truly are, and He clothes you with His robe of righteousness in your Baptism. You are sick in your sin, and He visits you to forgive you and heal you. You are imprisoned by death, and He comes to you and sets you free from that dark, dank prison. That’s the life of holiness and godliness that your Lord gives as a precious and wonderful gift!

Now—yes, even now—you and I get to go about all of life living that inheritance that we have already received. Now you get to live that renewed, restored life from Jesus with everyone around you. Now the Holy Spirit stirs you up to holiness of living here as you eagerly anticipate dwelling with your Lord forever hereafter.

Now a conversation with your Lord, King, and Shepherd might sound something like this. Jesus might say, “When you help those in need, you do it to Me. When you visit the sick, the shut-in, and the imprisoned, you do it to Me. When you love one another, when you take care of your family, when you do your work to the best of your ability, when you hold your tongue from complaining or gossiping, when you keep your anger in check, when you defend each other, when you live for one another to serve one another, you do it all to Me.”

“Oh, and don’t worry,” Jesus says, “if you don’t consciously think that you’re doing all these little things to Me. I know you’re plenty busy just serving and loving your neighbor. That’s how I created you to live. That’s how I re-created you in forgiveness to love. In fact,” Jesus says, “when you love as I have loved you, when you live for others as I have lived for you, you are already living in My eternal life. When I come again in glory, when I sit on My glorious throne, we will get to live this life together … more fully … more gloriously … more joyously … and for all eternity.” Amen.

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