26th Sunday after Pentecost (Last Judgment)
Rev. D. K. Schroeder
November 13, 2005
Hymns (from the Service Book and Hymnal):
172 "Immortal, Invisible, God Only Wise"
376 "Jesus Thy Blood And Righteousness"
587 "Jerusalem My Happy Home"
578 "Softly And Tenderly Jesus Is Calling"
CHRISTIANITY BY DEMONSTRATION
TEXT: (vs. 44-46) “…Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you? He will reply, I tell you the truth, whatever you did not do for the least of these, you did not do for me. Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
There seems to be an epidemic in our country today, an epidemic that I’d like to call the “dumbing down of Christianity.” This can be seen in various forms in our society. It has become popular for some to take various parts of the Christian faith and run with them, while completely ignoring other parts altogether.
I heard a preacher say one time that it didn’t matter what you believed, it only mattered what you did. According to that philosophy, a person could be a Jew, or a Muslim, or a Buddhist, or a Hindu, or even an atheist—it really didn’t matter. The only thing that mattered was that you “acted” like a Christian—or at least some sort of a decent person.
The flip side of this, are those who say it doesn’t matter what you do, so long as you believe the right thing. This winds up creating people who go and do whatever they want to do. They’ll cheat people and be dishonest and live more or less just to please themselves. They’ll look at God’s grace as a license to keep on sinning, because after all a person is saved by grace alone through faith, and this is not dependent upon good works.
People like this tend to make Christians look bad. Churches are seen as havens of hypocrites—that is, people who carry the name of “Christian” but who give absolutely no physical evidence that they are who they say they are. From the outside, they don’t look any different from secular society. They lie, cheat, steal, and treat other people badly. They don’t live lives consistent with the way God expects his followers to live. It’s like the old question goes—if you were arrested for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?
Our text for today focuses our attention on the Last Judgment. This is a very central belief of Christianity. Every time we confess our faith according to the creed, we affirm the fact that Jesus will indeed return; and when he does, he will judge both the living and the dead. Our text for today depicts how this is going to happen.
Jesus will be coming again in glory. Everybody will know when he has returned. It’s not like Jesus will somehow “slip in the back door” with some people not noticing him. He will come in glory with all his angels. And there before him will be absolutely everybody. And Jesus will sort everybody and everything out, once and for all, like separating sheep and goats. The sheep are depicted as being the faithful who will inherit the kingdom of heaven. The goats are depicted as those who are headed for a place which is not quite so pleasant.
This is a familiar lesson for most people, although it might not rank right up at the top according to popularity. Scenes of discrimination and judgment are not images people like to keep in mind when they think of Jesus. People would rather focus their thoughts on the more “warm and fuzzy” pictures of Jesus. This is something like a child wanting to think of their parents in the roles of giving them nice things for Christmases and Birthdays, and who will nurse them back to health when they’re ill; and not parents who punish them when they act up or misbehave.
This picture of Jesus has more of a bite or sting to it, and people don’t like that type of a picture. And in the process of “dumbing down” Christianity, such pictures will often get swept by the wayside. After all, if some teaching of the Bible or a lesson taught by Jesus isn’t popular, why worry about it at all? Why not just eliminate it or gloss over it, and go on from there? And so that’s what happens in a lot of circles. Instead of picturing Jesus at the final judgment as the Bible says, people like to replace this picture with one where Jesus flings wide the doors of heaven to everybody, regardless of what they believed or did during their life on earth. According to this philosophy, hell doesn’t exist; and everybody who dies automatically gets a “go home to heaven” pass issued to them, no questions asked.
The scene depicted in our text may be a familiar one, but definitely not a popular one in some circles. It doesn’t “fit in” with the way people think Jesus should be. And so, the Christian faith gets “dumbed down.”
The scene Jesus presents us with in our text for today is a theme which is consistent with Scripture. If we look at Daniel 7, 13-14 we read: “In my vision at night I looked, and there before me was one like a son of man, coming with the clouds of heaven. He approached the Ancient of Days and was led into his presence. He was given authority, glory, and sovereign power; all peoples, nations and men of every language worshipped him. His dominion is an everlasting dominion that will not pass away, and his kingdom is one that will never be destroyed.”
Think about it. Here is Jesus, and he has all the angels with him. How many angels might that be? In Matthew 26, 53 Jesus says, “Do you think I cannot call on my Father, and he will at once put at my disposal more than twelve legions of angels?” Figuring that there are 6,000 in a legion, that would make at least 72,000 angels at the very least. And this picture of the last judgment isn’t limited to just 12 legions either! That in itself would be an impressive picture.
And then if we read Daniel 12, 2 we get an even clearer picture of the Last Judgment: “Multitudes who sleep in the dust of the earth will awake.” So regardless of how many angels will be there, they most likely will be outnumbered by all of the human beings when “all nations will be gathered before him.” Every single human being who ever lived or will live is going to be there. There will be no excuses or exceptions.
As I’ve driven past cemeteries, especially the really large ones, I’ve often wondered to myself what that place will look like on Judgment Day when all the dead are called forth. Some people like to diminish this scene by saying that when the dead rise, it will be a type of “spiritual resurrection.” But the Bible is very clear that the resurrection of the dead will be a bodily resurrection, regardless of what has happened to that body. The Lord who created man out of the dust of the earth will have no trouble in reassembling people on the Last Day.
When the people are judged, it will be like a shepherd separating the sheep from the goats. This is a metaphor that Jesus’ disciples could readily understand. When a shepherd was tending his flocks, it was easy to spot the difference between the sheep and goats he was tending. At the end of the day, it was the shepherd’s duty to herd the sheep into the sheep pen, and the goats into the goat pen.
It’s the same way on the Last Day. It will be a relatively simple matter for Jesus to separate the believers from the unbelievers. They will be easy for him to spot.
The whole point of the Last Judgment story, is that some people are saved, and some people aren’t. It’s just that simple. This is a theme that has been consistently presented throughout Jesus’ ministry. Even though we live in a society that prizes diversity and tolerance in all things, one very sad and real truth remains; and that is that not all people will be saved. Some people will go to hell, regardless of whether or not it fits into our idea of what we think God should be like. I Timothy 2, 4 tells us that it is God’s will for “All men to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” Unfortunately not everybody does the will of God. Jesus makes this clear.
God’s original purpose in creating hell was not to prepare a place for sinful people. Hell was prepared for the “devil and all his angels.” Nevertheless, the goats who are on the King’s left will join the devil and his angels in the place of eternal flames and suffering and torment. For those who wanted nothing to do with God while they were alive, will get their wish granted. Those who chose separation from him on earth, will realize this separation for all eternity.
Being amongst the sheep is something that people want; and if they are amongst the goats, they are there because of a choice they have made themselves. God doesn’t want them on that side of the fence.
So how do we find ourselves amongst the sheep on that day? How can we be assured that Jesus will say to us, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world?”
The first thing we need to do is to first identify ourselves with the goats of this world. When we judge ourselves, we can readily see that we have been the ones who have failed in feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, looking after the sick, and visiting the prisoner. In many other ways as well, we have shown ourselves to have sinned and fallen short of God’s glory.
Left in this condition, we would have nothing to look forward to except the judgment that awaits those who are depicted as the goats. Our sins would seal our fate.
But here’s where Jesus steps in. He is our Good Shepherd. When we come to him in faith, we know that we will find acceptance in the Father’s kingdom. This is the beauty of the Gospel. We know that regardless of what our lives have been in the past, Jesus takes our sinful past and completely cleans it up. Our past sins and infractions against God and our fellow man have been washed away. Through faith in Jesus our Saviour, we now have the righteousness that Christ won for us when he died on the cross. Jesus is the only way we can change from being the goats being sent to hell in the final judgment into the sheep headed for the mansions of heaven.
At this point, it would be best to clear up a misconception. At first glance, a person might think that our text is teaching some sort of works righteousness—that if you feed the hungry, and give drink to the thirsty, and welcome the stranger, and clothe the naked, and look after the sick, and visit the prisoner, then you will somehow earn heaven. Some look at this section and see it as a reward of merit rather than a reward of faith.
It isn’t this way at all. If one wants to inherit heaven, going before God holding up a list of good deeds and charitable acts isn’t going to cut the mustard. There is no way that a person can push Christ out of the picture and hope to get into heaven by righteous acts.
If we look at our text for today, verses 37 and 40 say, “…Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, [etc.]? Jesus replies, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”
The important thing here, is that the believers did these things without ever realizing they were doing it. They weren’t doing good deeds and righteous acts so they could merit heaven; rather they were doing them out of a natural response. Because they loved Christ, it was a natural thing for them to love their fellow man.
I think of parents who patiently sit with their children in the hospital, or people who look after a spouse who is an invalid. If you were to ask them why they were doing this, they would probably look at you with some element of surprise. Of course parents will tend to their sick children and concern themselves with their welfare. It’s only natural.
Certainly we can concern ourselves with global concerns. There are a lot of hurting people in the world. We respond to these needs because we are Christians, and it is the natural thing to do. We don’t do such things to earn rewards in heaven.
But even if we haven’t the means or opportunity on a larger scale, our Christian charitable acts can be much more local. You don’t need to go all the way to India or Africa to treat people in a Christ-like way. Sometimes that distance can be as little as the distance between the kitchen and the bedroom.
Christian charity is always based upon a response of faith. It’s a natural response that we do often without realizing it. It’s just the way Christians are supposed to act.
The judgment depicted in our text for today is a judgment based upon faith, not upon works. If the fruits of faith aren’t there, then most likely the faith isn’t there either.
People who claim to be Christian are expected to act like Christians. If a person who claims to be a Christian doesn’t show any fruits of their faith, then they most likely are lying about their faith. And if they are lying about their faith, then they can expect to be herded together with the goats.
I talked about the “dumbing down” of Christianity. We are living in a world where that has become more and more prevalent. Unpopular doctrines are often ignored. Tolerance has become a concept that is used to cover up a lot of unchristian activity.
It isn’t easy to be a Christian in today’s world. Secular society is attacking it all the time. School boards have tried to eliminate holidays which have any Christian reference from their calendars. Historical buildings have been attacked if there is any reference to Christianity in their structure. Meanwhile, non-Christian religions are very vocal whenever they feel their religion is given short-shrift. So often Christians just politely stand aside and say nothing; and when they do say something, they are immediately branded with the label “radical religious right.”
There are many examples where the Christian faith has been “dumbed down” in society to try to include everything.
The scene of the final judgment can’t be overlooked or “dumbed down.” On that Last Day, there will be separation and discrimination between the sheep and the goats—the believers and the unbelievers.
Jesus’ words to us in this text speak volumes. If we say that we are a Christian, then we are expected to act like one. We are to be living witnesses to the faith we proclaim, whether it be globally or right at home.
The Apostle Peter has some good words for us. In I Peter 3, 15 we read: “But in your hearts set apart Christ as Lord. Always be prepared to give an answer to everyone who asks you to give the reason for the hope that you have.”
And right along with this, we have the words of Jesus in Matthew 5, 16: “…let your light shine before men, that they may see your good deeds and praise your Father in heaven.”
May we always live our lives in a God-pleasing manner, doing everything to the glory and praise of God, so that the world may know him through us—by our words, our deeds, and our actions.