This week, Christ the King Sunday, we finish up Matthew 25 with the parable of the sheep and the goats in Matthew 25:31-46. I found this 2011 post from David Lose at Working Preacher helpful. Here’s my sermon from November 26, 2017.
Grace and peace from God our Creator and our Lord Jesus Christ. Amen
How does it change the way you hear a story if you know the end? There’s a practice on some websites now of putting the letters TL;DR at the end of a long article. TL;DR stands for “Too long; didn’t read.”
Before you spend five minutes reading the whole article, you can look at the quick summary at the end. If it looks good, you can scroll back to the top and read the actual article.
For these last few weeks of the church year, we’ve been talking about how we as Christians are living in an in-between time. We can flip ahead and read the end of the story, and the end looks pretty good! I have a whole TL;DR version of the Bible if you want to see it, but the short version is Jesus wins. In fact, Jesus has already won, but we’re not to the end of the story yet. We’re somewhere in the middle, waiting and looking forward to the end, but we’re not there yet.
Two weeks ago, we heard a lesson about how we’re called to do something while we wait, not to just passively sit back because we know God is coming to rescue us, but to do something. Last week, we heard Jesus’ parable about the master giving his slaves talents to use, and I gave everyone here a dollar with the instructions to spend it in a way that shows trust in God, in a way that helps someone.
This week, in the final lesson of the church year, we hear in more detail what it is God is calling us to do. The end of the story reveals what God’s priorities have been the whole time. God cares about how people are treated. God cares about how we treat people.
In this story of the sheep and the goats, this sneak peek of the end of the story, we also learn where to find Jesus. Christ the King is found on the judgment seat, but also in the least of these, in people starving, naked, in prison, and strangers.
Which is easier to imagine, I wonder: Jesus coming in glory and sitting on the judgment seat, or Jesus in the people around us, in the outcasts of our world?
The part of this story that always sticks out to me is Jesus’ line: “Just as you did it to the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
I know how I would like to treat Jesus, and I know how I sometimes treat other people, and they don’t always line up. Sometimes they do; most of the time I try to be a decent person and treat people well, but I know full well I don’t always succeed.
I get angry at people, I don’t give as much as I should, I tune out people around the world who are starving. That’s not how I want to treat Jesus. This is a hard passage! It’s hard to constantly see Jesus around us. It’s hard to keep awake and keep noticing.
I think that’s why I like what Paul writes in the passage we heard from Ephesians. He starts off his letter to the Christians in Ephesus by saying he’s heard of their faith in the Lord Jesus and their love toward all the saints. They’re doing a good job.
And then, in the very next sentence, he tells them he’s praying for God to give them a spirit of wisdom and revelation that the eyes of their hearts will be enlightened.
That’s good news for us, isn’t it? Even with the faith we have, even with the grace God gives us to show love toward our neighbors, there’s still plenty of room for God to open our eyes. And as hard as we try, we can’t open our eyes on our own all the time. We need God’s help to be able to recognize Jesus around us.
The point of the sheep and goats story is not to provide a vision of what the final judgement will look like so we’ll be scared straight or something, but rather to give us an opportunity for a spiritual checkup. [For more on this idea of a “spiritual checkup” see the essays for Christ the King Sunday, year A, in Feasting on the Word]
How are we doing at living the way God calls us to live? How well are we doing at seeing Jesus in the people around us?
Looking forward to the end of the story gives us a chance to check in on our spiritual health right now.
Is our faith in Jesus affecting the way we live?
Where is there room to ask God to help us do better?
How is knowing the end of the story changing how we live in the middle?
Notice that in the story, both the sheep and the goats are surprised. They’re not surprised by the verdict about how they treated people; they’re surprised that Jesus was present. Neither group recognized Jesus in the people they interacted with.
They didn’t have the chance to dress up their behavior for Sunday morning or act better when the pastor’s around, because Jesus was with them throughout their life.
Their faith influenced the way they acted without them even noticing. The righteous didn’t go feed the hungry out of fear. They didn’t give clothes to the naked to get brownie points or build up credit with God. They just did it because it was the right thing to do. Their faith made it natural for them. Think about when you hear stories about a firefighter rescuing someone out of a burning building, or a police officer jumping into a crisis. Often in interviews afterwards when someone calls them a hero, their response is: “I was just doing my job.”
I think that’s true for Christians as well. We’re not called to be superheroes; we’re not going to be perfect. We’re called to be faithful, to allow God to use us. We’re called to live out our faith, to do our job.
The good deeds and the service comes from the righteousness given by God. You don’t get righteous from doing good works; you do good works because God is at work making you righteous. The way the sheep lived was shaped by their faith, their simple willingness to let God shape them.
The same is true for the goats. Their lack of faith also shaped how they lived. They didn’t set out to be jerks to Jesus, or to ignore him, but because of the way they lived, helping people didn’t seem natural for them.
That sounds bad, but actually, it’s pretty realistic. We Lutherans have a pretty pessimistic view of human nature. We believe that although God created us good, our nature is so bound up by sin that our default is always selfishness. We always put ourselves first, ahead of others and ahead of God. That’s why we need a savior. Even before we’re born, we are our own top priority.
Jesus changes all that. Jesus gave himself up for us to set us free from our bondage to sin. Jesus calls us to look beyond ourselves, and the Holy Spirit dwelling in us inspires us to care for others. Our faith in God—that faith that’s only possible because it’s given by the Holy Spirit—works against that selfish, fallen human nature. By grace through faith, God changes our nature so we can care for the least of these.
So, what about you? How are you doing on your spiritual checkup? How does your faith shape the way you live? Does your faith make a difference in your life?
I hope it does. I’m confident none of us are there yet, and we won’t get it all figured out in this life. But I’m equally confident the Holy Spirit is at work in each of you, and as we move on through the story, the Holy Spirit is giving all of us plenty of opportunities to practice!
This way of living by faith doesn’t come naturally. It’s kind of like building faith muscle memory. It takes practice to live in a way where we notice Jesus in those around us. It takes practice to shift our default to be loving and giving and serving beyond ourselves.
This week, I challenge you to look for Jesus in the people you encounter. Sometimes it’s easy to see Jesus present among us, but usually, I think it’s pretty challenging, especially when it’s someone you don’t like, or someone asking you for something.
Just when you think Jesus can’t be in that situation, that neighborhood, that political party, that kind of person, that’s where Jesus is. I had a professor whose favorite saying was whenever we draw a line in the sand, Jesus is on the other side of it. Practice noticing Jesus. Whatever you do even to the least of these, you do to Jesus.
Next week, I’ll invite you to write down where you saw Jesus, perhaps in the places and people where you least expect to meet our King.
Good and gracious God, we want to live as your people. We want to serve you. We want to see you in our neighbors. Help us to build those muscles of faith and to trust you more and more. Reveal yourself to us, and give us the vision to see you. This we pray in the name of Jesus Christ, our merciful Judge, our righteous Savior, the King who gave himself for us. Amen