By Paul Koch –
When people talk about sheep, when they ascribe the title of being a sheep to a different group of people, it usually isn’t all that flattering. To be a sheep is to just go along with the flow, to not think critically about where you are headed or how you will get there. To be a sheep usually means you are dependent on someone else for your survival. The sheep need a shepherd. People usually don’t want to consider themselves sheep. They want to be the shepherd or perhaps even the sheepdog, but not the sheep. Being sheep has gotten bad rap. We consider them to be stupid and blundering beasts that are good for mutton and wool but that is all. In other words, they are only useful to be consumed.
But that is not the way our Lord uses the image of being a sheep. In fact, to be one of His sheep is something radically different. It is a title of honor and prestige. It isn’t a stupid and blundering animal but a gracious and bold creature that lives in a radical freedom that the other creatures long to have.
Today, our Lord turns our attention to the end of days, to the day when the Son of Man will come in His glory for the final judgment of all mankind. And the scene that He paints for us is one of a shepherd separating the sheep from the goats. Before His glorious throne He gathers all the nations of the earth and begins to separate them out. He puts the sheep on His right hand and the goats on His left. To the sheep He says, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 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 then to the goats on His left He says, “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.”
So here we find that to be a sheep is to be in a pretty good situation. To be a sheep is to inherit the kingdom prepared for the sheep from the foundation of the world. To be a goat, on the other hand, why that is terrifying. The goats spend eternity in the place that is prepared for the devil, in eternal torment of fire. Now this text is full of surprises for us, in fact, it seems to be full of surprises for the sheep and the goats as well. Because whenever we hear about the judgment of our Lord, we immediately want to know what it is we need to do to end up on the right side of things when all the dust settles. That is, we always are looking for a checklist to say “Ok, I’m doing the things I need to do to ensure that I will end up on the right hand of our Lord and to be welcomed into eternal life.” But this text reveals to us that this isn’t how our salvation works. This isn’t how it plays out on the day of judgment.
The separation of the sheep and the goats doesn’t come with a list of deeds that makes you a sheep or a goat. Oh sure, Jesus gives them that list of things that they did: they fed and cared for their Lord, welcomed and clothed Him and visited Him in His time of need. But the sheep have no idea about this. They are completely ignorant of the fact. Jesus says, “You did these things for me”. And they say, “What? When? I don’t remember any of that.” They truly don’t. They were just living their lives as sheep, doing what sheep do. As it turns out, sheep do some pretty cool stuff.
What Jesus tells the sheep is that when they did their sheep things, when they took care of the children of God, when they acted in compassion and love towards a brother or sister in Christ, when they fed and clothed and visited them, they in fact were visiting and caring for Christ himself. Now this is reminiscent of the time Jesus shows up to Paul on the road to Damascus as he is persecuting the church and says, “Saul, Saul, why are you persecuting me?” Jesus identifies himself with His church, with His people. So, without even knowing it, without sitting down with a checklist of things to get into the kingdom of God, those who are declared to be sheep end up doing sheep things. They are then rewarded for their faithful care of the other sheep.
On the other hand, the goats are equally unaware of the presence of Christ in the church. Their contention seems to be: look Lord, if we had known that you were really there, if we had known that caring for the church was in fact to care for you, why, we would have stepped up! We would have tried a little harder. We would have made sure that we didn’t end up on the left side, destined for the hot place. But goats cannot see this. Goats are goats and they aren’t sheep. See, salvation isn’t a matter of aligning yourself with the right team. It doesn’t have anything to do with your self-designation as a sheep or a goat. It rests solely in the gift and election of God. He alone establishes the sheep and the goats. He alone separates them out. He alone guarantees the eternal reward.
So where does this leave us? Well, it leaves you with a life to live. A life where you are free to live as sheep. That is, you don’t need a checklist of things to do to make sure you are a sheep. You are declared to be so in the gifts of Christ alone. His life, His suffering, death, and resurrection has made you into the sheep. The whole counsel of God is bent toward the proclamation that Christ alone is your salvation. Not your effort or work – you, because of his blood, are made a sheep. And so, the encouragement today is to go ahead and live as one. And to live as a sheep isn’t to look to your brothers and sisters in Christ and try and find Christ lurking around as you say to yourself, “Well, if I do this good thing to help my neighbor I’m really serving Christ.” No, you are encouraged this day to simply be of service to each other because these are your brothers and sisters, and that is what sheep do.
We had a tradition at my previous congregation in Georgia, after the closing hymn I would say, “Go in peace.” My congregation would respond, “Thanks be to God!” But I knew other pastors had the tradition to say, “Go in peace and serve the Lord.” Their congregation would respond back, “Thanks be to God.” Once during Advent, I had preached at another church, and the next Sunday when I was back at my congregation I said to my brothers and sisters, “Go in peace and serve the Lord.” One of God’s faithful sheep asked me afterwards, why I said it that way. Wouldn’t it be better to say something like, “Go in peace and serve the Lord by serving your neighbor”? And you know, I think he was right. The eyes of the sheep in their service is not focused on our Lord but on our neighbor, on our brothers and sisters gathered around us.
And so, your acts of service ought to be for the benefit of your neighbor. Not because you hope Jesus is watching, but because you actually care for your neighbor. This, perhaps more than anything else, ought to drive our fellowship. When you volunteer to teach Sunday School, when you show up and help clean the church, when you pray for those who are hurting in our midst, when you contemplate supporting the congregation with the blessings of your life, you do so – not motivated by fear of the fires of hell or by hopes of gaining bonus points in heaven. Rather you do so because these gathered with you today are your brothers and sisters. They are part of your tribe, part of your flock, and as sheep you are free to live as a blessing to them.
I mean that, you are free to live this way. See, in the text of the separation of the sheep and the goats, just as the sheep are unaware of their good works so the Lord seems unaware of their failures and fears. What makes them sheep is beyond their actions, it is the proclamation of the shepherd that makes them sheep from the foundation of the world. Which means that your salvation is secured in the wisdom and generosity of God alone. You are free then to live for others, to love others, to care for others. Look around at your fellow sheep. They don’t care about your stumbles along the way. They don’t reject you because of your failures. But they need the gifts you have to give. They need the care and mercy that you can provide. They need the work of the sheep, which is good because sheep is what you are.