A Sermon on Judgment

By Bob Hiller

What is the image that comes to mind when you think of judgment? Think of our justice system where we say that justice is blind. The idea here is that you have lady justice holding up the scale. She weighs everything to see if she needs to execute with the sword. She is blind to persons or excuses. She simply weighs the evidence on the scale, feels the weight of the law, and executes justice properly.

I wonder if this isn’t how we view judgment day clouds and inform the way we hear Jesus’ words to us from Matthew 25 today. We read this passage, where Jesus most certainly has come to judge the world, and we read it this way: Jesus comes back and separates the good guys from the bad guys, the righteous from the sinful. He weighs out the deeds of each. The good ones go to heaven, and the sinners go to hell. In this reading of the parable, all that talk of “saved by grace apart from works of the Law” just seems to get thrown out the window! But we always kind of doubted grace to be so good anyhow, and so this parable doesn’t shock us all that much. So, you and I had better get to work if we want to be good enough for heaven on that last day. Sheep are saved by works; goats are damned by sins! Better get busy if you want to be a sheep!

Now, this would make the parable today rather hopeless, as the reality is this: You and I are very, very sinful people by nature and choice. And even as those saved by grace, if we are honest with ourselves and look in the mirror of God’s Law, we bear the resemblance of some very “goatish” people. Take a look at the Ten Commandments and the call to love and ask yourself: Do I get on Facebook or watch the evening news and feel a sense of care and compassion for my neighbor? Or have I murdered them with hatred fifteen times in the last 12 seconds? If we are honest with ourselves, or better said, if we hear the Law of God compared to our lives, we know that we have no hope on this day of judgment if Jesus is weighing with the scales. And yet, there are sheep in this parable. So, if we are all sinners, how can anyone hope of life as a sheep?

Well, let’s just listen to the words of the parable for themselves. “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.  And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.” Now, first things first, notice what Jesus doesn’t show up with: a scale. He doesn’t show to weigh the good in our lives over and against the sin in our lives. He simply shows up to judge. And in his judgment, he makes a separation between the sheep and the goats.

Now, pay very close attention to what He says to the sheep: “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.” Did you hear that?!? He starts the whole day off with a word of grace and mercy! Not to get too deep into this today, but do you know what it means to be blessed in the Scripture? It means to be graciously loved by God and forgiven of all your sins. Listen to what Paul says in the book of Romans, quoting the Psalms:”Just as David also speaks of the blessing of the one to whom God counts righteousness apart from works: “Blessed are those whose lawless deeds are forgiven, and whose sins are covered; blessed is the man against whom the Lord will not count his sin.” It is as though Jesus is saying here: “Come to me, you whose lawless deeds are forgiven and whose sin is covered, for the Lord does not count your sins against you. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you by my Father when, before this place was made, He decided to have me die for your sins, wash you in my baptismal flood, and go to the place I have prepared for you.” Jesus speaks to the sheep—for you—by grace alone!

But, you say, what about all the works he then lists? Again, notice that when Jesus does this, he leaves the scale on the shelf. Jesus makes no note of the sins of these blessed sheep. Their sins being covered is the very thing that makes them blessed! They are blessed because, having their sins removed, Jesus takes delight in their works! Now, don’t miss this, the works they do matter. Christ has saved them for good works, and by the power of the Holy Spirit, they do them, whether they know it or not! And oh! Jesus is pleased! Some of you have heard me use this illustration before, but it is like my son playing t-ball. The other week, he went out and the ball was hit right to him. He lined it up, made a good run at it, stopped the grounder, and threw it back to the coach. I thought it was perfect! Never mind that he was the runner! But you watch your kids play t-ball, and you love it. They improve, whether they know it or not, and you just watch with joy!

So, Jesus says, “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, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” And the sheep say, “Uh, when did we do that? We were just playing the game on the field. And honestly, we messed up, a lot!” “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.’” Jesus says, “Your faith was evident in your good deeds! And I loved it! There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus! And dear baptized children of the Heavenly Father, sheep of the Blessing Shepherd, this is the promise for you who believe. This is the promise of judgment day, when you who are righteous by faith in Christ alone, will enter eternal life.”

But then what of the goats? We cannot simply ignore them, for Jesus is very concerned to strike fear in their hearts for that day of judgment. Once again, we do not see Jesus take out the scales for those on his left. In fact, for them, He sees nothing but sin. “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 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.’ Then they also will answer, saying, ‘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?”  Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me. And these will go away into eternal punishment.’”

You see, the problem here is that these wicked goats would have nothing to do with Jesus. Their faith was evident by their lack of deeds. That is, they had no faith in Jesus and proved it by their lives and how they treated those Jesus loves. Jesus, after all, has to do with the poor, the hungry, the naked, the imprisoned. Jesus has to do with the lowly and humble, hurting and broken people of this world. He deems them beautiful and beloved. He shed His blood for them. He calls them sheep. He, in fact, decided to leave heaven to identify with them and make them His own. And the goats, by ignoring them, have ignored the Jesus, no, despised the Jesus that was born amongst them in a manger, baptized as one of them in the Jordan, crucified among them on Golgatha, and who now comes to them in lowly words on page and stale wafers.

And so, they can sound pious and holy, “Oh, if we’d only known it was you, Jesus. We would have loved you!” But this is the equivalent of a Pharisee saying, “Oh, if only we’d known you were the Son of God we wouldn’t have crucified you.” Or worse, “If we’d known it would have done us some good in your sight, we would have totally used the poor to gain your favor.” In the lives of such faithless goats, the Lord Jesus takes no delight. As Paul says elsewhere, “Without faith it is impossible to please God.”

And so, here is where we find ourselves today, in the church, among those who are hurting and in need, among those who bear the name of Jesus on their heads and face all kinds of sins and struggles in this world. We are among those who have suffered, are suffering, and will suffer for their faith, perhaps even in prison! And Christ is with them and Christ is for them and you, as their brother or sister in Christ are called upon to love them. What you do for them is done for Christ. That’s why we care together here at church, for Christ is in our midst, and He has given us to love each other until He calls us home to the place prepared for us before the foundation of the world. AMEN!