Sermon for the Last Sunday of the Church Year, AD 2020

Matthew 25:31-46

On this last Sunday of the church year, we hear about the last things – Jesus Christ returning in glory to judge the living and the dead. In the last two weeks, we heard of the parables of the ten virgins and the talents, to know we need to be watchful for Christ’s return, and that to everyone who has, more will be given, and an abundance. Today’s reading from Matthew is often called the parable of the sheep and the goats, but it isn’t really a parable. It is a description of Jesus’ real judgment at the end of time. Jesus reveals this future event to us so we may be ready, and be judged as one of those blessed by His Father. We want to be sheep, and not goats.
The question remains – what does it mean to be sheep? While we always speak of salvation by grace alone through faith alone, it seems like the sheep are accepted because of their works. 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.’” There is an old song by the Christian artist Keith Green about the sheep and the goats where he concludes – “the only difference between the sheep and the goats is what they did or didn’t do!” If so, where is Christ in all this? What difference does His death for us make?
Doing good to others, helping the poor and needy, seems to be a common theme in understanding this reading from Matthew 25. Just do an internet search for “Matthew 25 Ministry” and you will see pages and pages of nonprofits and church groups which reach out to help the stranger, the poor and needy, or those sick or in prison. These are all good things – Jesus tells us the second greatest commandment is to “love your neighbor as yourself.” We cannot think that just because we are saved by grace that we should not care for our neighbor. We care for those in need because Christ has saved us, has forgiven us, and we do not need to worry about doing enough works to please him. Christ frees us to serve our neighbor every day in so many ways, wherever we are in life.
That being said, is that truly the basis for the final judgment, for our identification as sheep? This is not a trivial question, it is a matter of eternal life or death. Matthew continues, “Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 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.’” Who are the “least of these my brothers”? Is it anyone who is poor and needy? Or does Jesus have someone specific in mind? Who is a brother to Jesus?
In the Old Testament, there was a prophet named Jeremiah. He may have been one of the most unpopular prophets ever. It was his job to tell the people of Judah that they were going to be conquered by the Babylonians for their sins. One day, he was preaching as God told him, that the Babylonians would conquer Jerusalem, and the city would be destroyed, but anyone who gave themselves up to be captured would be saved. The rulers of the city did not like this message at all. It was terrible for morale. They threw Jeremiah into a pit full of mud with no water, and he sank into the mud. He would have died, but an Ethiopian who worked in the king’s palace named Ebed-melech visited him in the pit and saved him. Ebed-melech trusted the Lord. Even though Jeremiah’s message was not a happy one, Ebed-melech trusted that Jeremiah was sent by God.
Ebed-melech received a prophet, and demonstrated his faith in God. Jesus mentions receiving a prophet while speaking to the disciples in Matthew 10: “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.  The one who receives a prophet because he is a prophet will receive a prophet’s reward, and the one who receives a righteous person because he is a righteous person will receive a righteous person’s reward. And whoever gives one of these little ones even a cup of cold water because he is a disciple, truly, I say to you, he will by no means lose his reward” (Matthew 10:40-42) The little ones who would be received are Christ’s disciples. They are those who are sent out by Jesus. Jesus tells them that those who receive them, even giving a cup of cold water, will not lose their reward. And we see in Matthew 25 where that reward is finally given at Christ’s return.
These brothers of Jesus are the disciples, or anyone sent by Jesus to proclaim the gospel. While it is a good fruit of faith to care for the poor in general, that is not what Christ is speaking about here. Here before Jesus’ glorious throne, all the nations of the world are separated into sheep and goats. Their judgment has already been determined by what side they are on. Then the judgment is announced as a result of what each person did or did not to “the least of these my brothers,” those who Jesus sent to them to preach the gospel.
For God sends his Gospel, His Good News to us through human means. The way He has determined that His Kingdom be spread is through one person preaching to another. Certainly the Word may work by other means.  Some may read the Bible and come to faith, some may hear a video or audio recording, but these have not always been available to everyone. It is only in the last few hundred years that the average person could afford a Bible. But God always sends preachers, first the disciples, and then clergy and laity in the church, to distribute the message of His Gospel to others.
Not every Christian is sent to preach, but every Christian is to receive those who preach with love and hospitality. This shows acceptance of the very message of the gospel. We can see then how this is truly salvation by grace through faith. For the Father sent the Son to become man and die for our sins and rise again, and believing that this is for us, we can be saved. It is to hear the very message that the Father has prepared a place for you from the foundation of the world, that He desires you to inherit the kingdom which is your through adoption in your baptism. Trust in these words is shown in care for those who are sent to preach it. For those who are sent to preach are not promised an easy life.
Like Jeremiah, many times the Word of God is spurned and rejected, and the messenger attacked and abused. In rejecting the preacher, they show they have rejected the Good News of the gospel as well. In our sinful flesh, the gospel can seem inconvenient. We don’t want to admit that we cannot save ourselves. We do not want to repent of our pet sins, the allowances we make for the sins of others. Like the leaders of Jerusalem, we reject the one who preaches. Those who tune out, mistreat, or leave those who preach the true gospel will find themselves on the side of the goats. The leaders of Jerusalem rejected Jeremiah, and their city and all that was in it was destroyed. This destruction is only a small taste of the eternal destruction at the end of time.
This destruction is not meant for you. As Jesus says, the eternal fire was prepared for the devil and his angels. Jesus has already taken our eternal punishment on the cross. He has already made peace with God for us. Our salvation, our status as sheep, is in receiving that good news, trusting in Christ alone, which shows in our care for those Christ has sent.
For whatever you do to one of these who Christ has sent, his brothers, you do unto Him. For Christ was also rejected. He was born in a stable, had no place to lay his head, was rejected, crucified, and killed outside the city even though he did nothing wrong. He was buried in a borrowed tomb with nothing to His name. All this He did for us, all this He suffered so that we could be welcomed into eternal life.

For those who are sent, we are sent in the same way Jesus was. Some may have it easier, some may be despised and rejected. This is not just pastors, but it could be in your sharing the gospel with friends and family members. Whether such things or well or badly, Jesus is with us. He knows our suffering and need, he knows how His brothers can be rejected, for when it is done to them it is done to Him. That trust in affliction, which blossoms into love for those who preach the message, is the very act of caring for Christ which makes us His beloved sheep.

Whether a Jeremiah, Ebed-Melech, a disciple, or just a beloved sheep, all who receive the gospel and those who preach it are promised an eternal inheritance. In that inheritance we shall be before God forever, and there will be no more hunger, thirst, strangers, nakedness, sick or imprisonment. For Jesus Christ who suffered is also the Jesus Christ who rose again, and he, our brother reigns over heaven and earth. This we now know by faith, but when He returns, we shall see His kingdom fully come in blessedness forever. Amen.  
Illustration by: Biblical illustrations by Jim Padgett, courtesy of Sweet Publishing, Ft. Worth, TX, and Gospel Light, Ventura, CA. Copyright 1984. Released under new license, CC-BY-SA 3.0

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