Second to Last Sunday of the Church Year (Matthew 25:31-46)

Bethlehem Lutheran Church, Lebanon, OR

Second to Last Sunday of the Church Year + November 17, 2019

Text: Matthew 25:31-46

This is one of the most uncomfortable passages of Scripture to read, because it leaves us with questions of, have I been good enough to stand on the Lord’s right hand? What does it take to be counted with the righteous?

I could give you the Lutheran pat answer that ultimately we are saved by grace through faith in Christ, and that’s what qualifies the righteous to stand on His right.  Amen. End of story, go in peace.

But that would be whitewashing the Lord’s message is here.  Another related passage that makes us uncomfortable is these words from James 2: 

20 Do you want to be shown, you foolish person, that faith apart from works is useless? 21 Was not Abraham our father justified by works when he offered up his son Isaac on the altar? 22 You see that faith was active along with his works, and faith was completed by his works; 23 and the Scripture was fulfilled that says, “Abraham believed God, and it was counted to him as righteousness”—and he was called a friend of God. 24 You see that a person is justified by works and not by faith alone.” (James 2:20-24)

To rightly understand salvation by grace through faith, we need to know that Jesus is more than the salvation version of the Staples “Easy” button—all you have to do is believe in Jesus and you’re set!  Or put another way, when he said, “Your faith has saved you; go in peace” that wasn’t the end of the story.

What makes us uncomfortable about this passage in the Gospel is that we live in light of the final judgment—“He will come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead, whose kingdom will have no end.”  And what’s uncomfortable and hard is that believing in Jesus is not a once-and-done, instant trip to eternal life.  Like Abraham, that faith is put to the proof.

In Romans 10:10, St. Paul says, “With the heart one believes and is justified, and with the mouth one confesses and is saved.”  Faith operates in the heart, but it actually does change the heart it occupies.  Each week, we say—God forbid that it just be out of routine—“I, a poor miserable sinner confess unto You all my sins and iniquities…and I am heartily sorry for them and sincerely repent of them.” (LSB 184) However, if we say that and there is no movement in the heart or intent to lead a God-pleasing life, that confession is nothing but straw—straw that will be tested by the fires of Judgement Day.

In Luke 3, when the crowds are answering God’s call through John the Baptist, he told them, “Bear fruits in keeping with repentance…and the crowds asked him, ‘What then shall we do?’ And he answered, ‘Whoever has two tunics is to share with him who has none, and whoever has food is to do likewise.’” (3:8, 10-11) Genuine repentance is manifested a changed heart, and an effort to change behavior.

In Ezekiel 36, the Lord says, “I will give you a new heart, and a new spirit I will put within you. And I will remove the heart of stone from your flesh and give you a heart of flesh. 27 And I will put my Spirit within you, and cause you to walk in my statutes and be careful to obey my rules.” (36:26-27)  This is what it looks like when God works faith in you.

Faith gives you a new heart.  Of course, it removes the love of sinning, intentionally doing those things which anger God.  But faith also includes the work of renewal.

When Jesus says, “I was hungry and you fed me, I was thirsty and you gave me drink…”  These were all things which God created humanity to be.  They’re an echo of the good He originally made us to be, but there is so much evidence of how our hearts have changed.  It’s sin that has hardened our hearts—toward God and toward each other. We go from being people who have compassion to finding excuses why it’s not our problem or why they deserve the hard lot they have.

As I left California behind, I remember listening to the Stevie Ray Vaughan song, “Crossfire,” in which he sings, “Day by day, night after night; Blinded by the neon light/ Hurry here, hustlin’ there/ No one’s got the time to spare/ Money’s tight, nothin’ free/ Won’t somebody come and rescue me?”  At the time, I thought this coldness was just a symptom of overcrowding or politics, and that moving to a smaller city in Washington would be the answer. Of course we recognize that this is not the kind of society we want to live in, and yet we find ourselves being a part of that problem every day.  That’s because it’s a symptom of the hardness of heart that sin has brought about in us.

But through the “washing of regeneration and renewal by the Holy Spirit” in Holy Baptism (Titus 3:5), God not only gives the gift of trust in Christ, but also a heart being renewed to be like our Creator once more (Col. 3:10).  With that renewed heart, we are able to look at those around us less as inconveniences to be avoided, but as people made in the image of God and loved by Him!

One last thing about this regenerated heart, lest we should think Christianity is not much more than a moral system like Buddhism: Notice what the works were: Feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothed the naked, visiting the sick and imprisoned.  These people who God turns our heart toward aren’t just the easy cases—the family and friends you get along with, those who are self-sufficient and fun to hang out with. These are people in need, and God will give you a heart for them. Faith can only be said to be His work, because who in their right mind would care about hungry, thirsty, naked strangers, who are sick and imprisoned?  Oh, that’s right, our Lord does. In the same way He cared about us when we were strangers and even enemies of God.

So, yes, it is true that the righteous receive an inheritance prepared from before the foundation of the world—“saved by grace through faith, not a result of works, lest any man should boast” (Eph. 2:8-9)—a true, living, and active faith, and you can know that you have this faith through the sorrow over your sins and your trust that only Christ—not anything you do—can make you acceptable in God’s sight.  It is that genuine faith in which God’s mighty hand can be seen not only by Him, and also by our fellow man in need. As we live in the light of this Judgement, let your hearts not be fearful about the how much, because Christ has done it all to earn our blessed peace.  As He calls you His own here on earth, He gives you a heart to show His mercy. May God’s gracious kingdom come among us, and bring to His right hand, as the psalmist declares:

      You make known to me the path of life; 

      in your presence there is fullness of joy; 

      at your right hand are pleasures forevermore. (Ps. 16:11)

Amen. Go in peace.

Second to Last Sunday of the Church Year (Matthew 25:31-46)

Bethlehem Lutheran & Bethel Lutheran Church, Lebanon & Sweet Home, OR

Second to Last Sunday of the Church Year + November 18, 2018

Baptism of Nathan L. Vasquez

Text: Matthew 25:31-46

It’s no myth from the past or a method of keeping people in line.  Every person will appear before the judgment seat of Christ.  “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” (2 Cor. 5:10)

But that brings up the question, what will people be judged by? 

35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’

And to those bound for hell, He says,

For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’

This sounds like they will be judged by their works, and that those works are the basis for whether someone placed on the right (going to heaven) or the left (going to hell).

But if that’s the case, this would seem to contradict the rest of Scripture which says, “The righteous will live by his faith” (Mal. 4) and “by works of the Law no one will be justified” (Gal. 2:16) and the King’s own words to the sinful woman: “Your faith has saved you. Go in peace.” (Luke 7:50)

If we’re to believe that He will judge us by our works, a performance-based review, who tips the scales?  How would anyone know if they had worked their way over to the right side of the King?  If you go down that road too far, you’ll wind up in the ditch on either side.  On one side of the road is pride, where you’re sure that all your hard work for God must amount to some kind of reward.  This is the ditch that we see Mother Teresa, Gandhi, Martin Luther King, Jr in heaven simply because of all the good they appeared to do.

Then there’s the other ditch which is filled with despair.  How could I ever hope to measure up in God’s sight?  I’ve got such a load of sin that I could never make it up to Him!  I couldn’t possibly hope to do enough good to be called “a saint.”  Incidentally, this is also the ditch people wind up in when they think the Church will fall down the minute they walk through the door.

If our eternal destination depended on how well we measured up against God’s standards, then no one could be saved—not Mother Teresa, not Saint Paul, not you or me.  Even King David himself prays, “Enter not into judgment with your servant, for no one living is righteous before you.” (Psalm 143:2)

Listen to these words again:

And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food…

The key is in what He says before the works: Inherit kingdom prepared from the foundation of the world.  I know some of you in the congregation have worked all your life, but I don’t know any person who has worked since the foundation of the world.  I also don’t know how many inheritances have to be worked for—unless you have a sadistic relative.  No, an inheritance is something that is bequeathed to you after someone dies.  So now put those two together—works and inheritance.  The only one who has been working to prepare from the foundation of the world is the Son of God, who “for us men and for our salvation came down from heaven…and was made man.” (Nicene Creed).  He is also the one who died, and who made us His heirs—“This is my Blood of the New Testament which is poured out for you.” (Luke 22:20) 

So Christ has worked and Christ has died, and the sheep receive what He earned and what He willed them to receive.  It is true—“by grace you are saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God.” (Ephesians 2:8-9)

But what about the works?  After all the King says they have done all these marvelous things—fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed strangers, clothed the naked, and visited the sick and imprisoned.  But the righteous seem to have a memory block and can’t remember doing all that.  That’s because this is what faith is.  Faith receives the perfect, righteous life of Jesus.  Through faith in the Perfect Man, the faithful are counted as perfect, acceptable in God’s sight.  That’s why it’s such a shock on that day, because they are not judged only by their deeds; they are judged on the deeds of Jesus Christ and receive a perfect passing grade.

Now lastly, it sounds like those on the King’s left, the goats, are judged by their works—“Lord when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?”  And it’s true.  The goats, the wicked, are those who refused the way of faith and chose the way of works.  They tested God by saying, I’m sure there will be an exemption for people like me.  Surely God would let the decent people go to heaven.  But because they refused Christ, they are judged exactly by their works, and found wanting. “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” and that’s what they find out by the time it’s too late.  But to you who hear the Word today, believe the rest of the verse: “and are justified by His grace as a gift through the redemption that is in Christ Jesus” (Romans 3:23-24)

But the works are mentioned for a reason.  When the Lord talks about works, he doesn’t let His people off with a free behavior pass to do whatever they please.  Scripture speaks very strongly against the idea that faith exists in a vacuum.  Works are the fruit of a heart that actually has faith.   The Apostle James, not being up on Lutheran lingo says, “So faith alone, if it does not have works, is dead.” (James 2:17)  And he’s right.  If we claim to be Christians, but it makes no difference in how we order our life, then we have a faith problem. 

Jesus endured His bloody suffering and death because our sin went to our heart.  The heart is where our will is ruled, and that’s where all actual sin comes from.  But because Christ’s sacrifice in which we believe starts in the heart, the heart must change.  Today, we witnessed the power and promise of God for Nathan, because St. Paul writes, “He saved us by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit whom He poured out on us through Jesus Christ our Savior.” (Titus 3:4-6)  While everyone who believes in Jesus has this power, Baptism confirms God’s work to make us new people.  “Create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me” (Psalm 51:10)  Through Baptism, God answers this call by giving the gift of the Holy Spirit who mightily works to crucify our old self and the wickedness in our heart, and raises us with Christ to walk in newness of life. (Romans 6:4).

So yes, as far as good works, Christ-like, sacrificial, loving works toward God and our neighbor—God does expect those because He puts them in our new heart.  And whatever still rears its ugly, evil head, He forgives.  But on the Last Day, we will be judged on account of our faith—whether we believe in Jesus from the heart or whether we choose a do-it-yourself alternative.  Out of His boundless mercy, and according to His wonderful promises, may we be found on the King’s right hand.  Amen.

Works are also the fruit of faith, the visible evidence of the difference between the saints and the wicked.