ST. STEPHEN’S EVANGELICAL LUTHERAN CHURCH
Striving to speak God’s saving truth in love. Ephesians 4:15
St. Stephen’s Evangelical Lutheran Church and School | Beaver Dam, WI | 920.885.3309
Sermon on Matthew 25:31-46 for 2nd Sunday of End Times – Last Judgment, November 12, 2017
Grace to you and peace from God our Father, and from our RETURNING Lord Jesus Christ!
This is one of those sections of Scripture that makes you wonder whether Martin Luther had it right. We’ve spent much time this year (500th anniversary of 95 Theses), and especially last week highlighting the timeless truths of God’s Word about mankind’s need for righteousness with God which we don’t have, and God’s amazing grace that credits to us the perfection of Jesus through simple faith in his promise of it. We’ve heard often about the three truths that became somewhat the “slogan” of the reforms that came about: that we are saved for eternal life with God 1) By his GRACE ALONE, which is made ours 2) by FAITH ALONE, which is created and sustained by the Holy Spirit working 3) by SCRIPTURE ALONE. Our rescue for life eternal is totally God’s work in Christ; nothing of ourselves.
And then you come to these words of Jesus that he told his disciples would be spoken to the righteous ones who are going to heaven, “Come, you blessed ones of my Father, take the inheritance prepared for you. For I was hungry and you gave me food; thirsty, you gave me a drink; a stranger, you welcomed me; lacking clothes, you clothed me; sick, you cared for me; in prison, you visited me.” Sure sounds like those are the reasons those people on his right side were given the inheritance of the kingdom.
But it’s when we come to sections of Scripture like this that another key principle that came out of Luther’s reformation must be applied, the principle about how to understand Scripture: scripture interprets scripture. That is to say that if you read a section that confuses you, like this one, there are other places in Scripture where the same topic is addressed, perhaps in a different way. Every little section of Scripture we read must be read in the context of the entire Scriptures. So, what does the rest of Scripture say about this matter of God’s basis for judgment of people to heaven or hell?
Scripture is full of statements that the verdict that leads to eternal life in heaven is a result totally of his grace in Christ, resulting in forgiveness and righteousness made a person’s own possession by the faith God graciously gives. Nothing that a person has done is the cause of that verdict. Ephesians 2:8,9 is very clear: “It is by grace you have been saved, through faith – and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God – not by works, so that one can boast.”
Scripture is also clear about the “good works” that God’s people do in their lives, and this is one of those places. Scripture is clear in saying that the result of God’s verdict of “righteous” pronounced upon people through God-given faith results in a person’s earthly life also being “righteous”. In the verse following “it is by grace you are saved through faith…”, the Apostle Paul went on to speak of the “works” God’s people do: “For we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared in advance so that we would walk in them” (Ephesians 2:10).
The godly way of living, guided by God’s commandments, or good works done in a Christian’s life is a result of being declared righteous before God for Jesus’ sake. It’s a result of the “verdict” or judgment of God, that in Christ you are not guilty. And a major characteristic of this righteousness which we see in Jesus’ words today is generosity, just like our God.
Jesus’ Verdicts Make You Generous!
Jesus was three days away from having some VERDICTS pronounced on him. For the last four to five weeks our Gospel readings have come from Matthew 21-25. Those chapters record events during Holy Week, especially Tuesday of Holy Week, two days after Jesus’ Palm Sunday entrance into Jerusalem and three days before his crucifixion. Today’s reading records the discussions between Jesus and his disciples later in the day, when they had gone outside Jerusalem to the Mount of Olives (Gethsemane?) for some quiet time for learning and prayer. The disciples must have been sensing that something big was about to happen; that things between Jesus and the Jewish leaders were coming to a head. Also Jesus’ words as they were leaving Jerusalem may have fostered that thinking. The disciples pointed out the magnificent temple structures to Jesus; to which he replied that the day was coming when there would not be one stone on top of another of those buildings. So, they asked Jesus when these things would happen and what would happen when he returned in his glory.
Jesus spoke of the signs in the world that would indicate that THE day was coming (chapter 24). He told them that they can be sure that day is on its way when they see wars in the world and threats of war, natural disasters like earthquakes, spiritual apathy – not caring about God or eternity, false prophets, and the love of people growing cold – results in violence. Seen any of that ???!!!! But then Jesus begins speaking of what will happen on that day of his return. JUDGMENT. Jesus, the master Teacher again uses pictures and mingles them: a shepherd dividing sheep & goats and a king serving as judge in a courtroom. In that courtroom, as in any courtroom, there are only two possible verdicts to be handed down: guilty or not guilty.
To those whom the shepherd had placed at his right side, the sheep, whom Jesus refers to as “righteous” the verdict of “not guilty” is handed down. “Come, blessed ones of my Father, take your inheritance of the kingdom prepared for you…” And to those the shepherd had placed on his left side, the goats, the king hands down the verdict of “guilty”: “Depart from me, you cursed ones, into the fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
But Jesus in this section doesn’t say how it is that the ones on his right are “righteous” and how those on his left are “cursed”. Well, actually he does, but we’ll come to that later. At this point we “pull from” the entire Scripture concerning “the righteous” and how it is that they are so. For this we look at the entire life of Jesus and what would happen to him three days from when he spoke these words. Jesus’ entire life consisted of what he credited to “the righteous” on his right. When Jesus saw a need in someone’s life, he generously gave of himself to meet that need. A huge crowd of people on a hillside listening to Jesus were hungry. He had nothing, but used a couple fish and a few loaves of bread from a boy who was there to feed the thousands! The sick and disabled came to him and he met their needs from what was his, healing them! The outcasts of Jewish society needed forgiveness and love and assurance of God’s care. Jesus visited them, ate meals with them, and offered them peace with God through forgiveness of their sins! Even while dying on a cross, Jesus “visited” a man locked up in the prison of guilt and despair. Jesus was righteous! And yet, on that Friday Jesus had some verdicts handed down on him – one from the Jewish leaders and one from God the Father. Both verdicts were “guilty, depart from me”! Why?!
The reason is that the “guilty, depart from me” verdict should be handed down on every human being; you and me, too! Rightly we would ask our Judge, “when did I see you in any of these circumstances and help you?” Also, we could take it a step further and ask, “When did I see one the least of your brothers in these circumstances and help them?!” How many times in my life and yours have there not been people we know, even fellow Christians, whom we’ve ignored when they are in need and I could do something to help??!!! How many times have you and I said to ourselves, “I should pay so and so a visit; I know s/he is hurting / down / lonely”? How often have you and I said to ourselves, “I should take a meal over to my friend/relative; s/he has been laid up with a sickness or injury”? But we didn’t do it! “I don’t have time, I’m so busy.” “If I make a meal, or even just buy a grocery store gift card for them, I might be short on funds later in the week.” Or, if you’re like me, there have been times when at this time of year when you hear a bell ringing and see a red bucket outside the doors of a store, you’ve walked by quickly with head down, when there is a buck in your wallet or some change in your pocket. I’m selfish. You’re selfish. And we aren’t by nature at all generous.
But Jesus is! He’s so generous that he was willing to leave heaven and set aside for a time the full use of his divine power and knowledge to live a perfectly generous life in this selfish world for each of us. He is so generous that he allowed to have handed down on the him the verdict from God we deserve – “depart from me”. We know he got that verdict, for he cried out, “My God, My God, why have you forsaken me?” Jesus, the Son of God, generously gave his life so that now, the verdict we hear handed down on us in his picture is “Not guilty! Come, you who are blessed by my Father; inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
This is Jesus’ verdict handed down on you! And in the words of this verdict handed down by Jesus on you, we hear that the rescue for life eternal is indeed a gift of God’s grace made yours through faith. The King says to those on his right, “Inherit the kingdom…” An inheritance is a gift from someone who loves you. We do nothing to earn an inheritance. The King also said, “It was prepared for you…” Again, not something any of us has prepared. And finally, he said that it was prepared “from the foundation of the world”! That’s long before you or I were born, so there was nothing you or I had to with it!
This verdict handed down by Jesus says, “NOT GUILTY! COME…” Assured by God’s word that this is Jesus’ verdict handed down on us, we could also phrase it this way: “NOT GUILTY! YOU ARE FREE TO GO!” You are free to go and live generously, as your Savior has done for you!
This verdict handed down on you by Jesus is your confidence as you know that day of judgment approaches. In Jesus you are innocent before the Judge. In Jesus, you are one of the sheep at his right side. In Jesus you will hear his gracious invitation to “Come, inherit the kingdom” – his kingdom. Come, and receive life as he intended it at the foundation of the world – no sin, no sorrow, no death or suffering; just perfect and unending life of joy and peace and contentment.
This is why all those things Jesus mentions are true of his sheep. THEY ARE GENEROUS, because they know his generosity to them! We know that in Him we have all we need. Materially, for the most part we have MORE than we need to care for life. We can give – food, money, Covering – clothing or shelter, encouragement to the suffering, time with others for their benefit. That’s a result of the verdict handed down on us by Jesus!
But what every person needs more than these material gifts is the gift of assurance that because of Jesus they can be a sheep at his right hand on their judgment day! This can happen through our generous giving of our time to talk with someone about eternity, rightness with God, and Jesus who gives it.
This can happen through generous support of the ministry Jesus gives his believers. We have a ministry right here that shares Jesus’ verdict, but needs constant support. Children in our congregation can hear this verdict of Jesus as you support with prayers and wealth and service our ministry to them in Sunday School and Day School. People around the world can hear this verdict of Jesus as you support that work in the same way.
So, our question … Have I been as generous as I can be? I have to answer “no”. You probably have to, also. May the verdict we are assured Jesus will hand down on us make each of us more generous with what our generous Jesus gives us! May generous Jesus give us hearts that look for needs to meet! And may he give us generous hearts to meet the needs of others that we see, especially the need of their souls! Amen.