[Picture: Separation of Sheep and Goats – Early 20th Century Mosaic Reproduction (Original dated 6th century), Metropolitan Museum of Art, NYC]
Pastor Hopkins preached this sermon on the Twenty-sixth Sunday after Trinity, 11/17/2019. The text for the sermon was the day’s gospel lesson. To read the Bible texts for the Twenty-sixth Sunday after Trinity, click here.
Most Pastors aren’t easily surprised, even if they’ve only been in a church for six months. And yet, this morning, you surprised me.
A few minutes ago, I read Jesus’ words concerning the final judgment: sheep and goats, right and left, heaven and hell.
They were heavy words for anyone with a conscience. For anyone who cares what Jesus has to say, for anyone who is aware of what they’ve done and what they’ve left undone, those were very hard words to hear.
But then you surprised me. I said, “This is the Gospel of the Lord.” And you said, you sang, “Praise be to Thee, O Christ.”
It’s possible you said that because it was in the hymnal and you are rather used to it. But it’s also possible that you were more than a bit uncomfortable, and even surprised to hear yourself call such a thing praiseworthy. And you’re not alone.
There’s plenty of surprise going around today. For starters, folks are surprised that the judgment is actually happening. The Son of Man is really here; He’s really back; just like He said; just like we prayed: Kingdom, Power, Glory – and now, the entire world, all people – past and present – are gathered before Him. This was never a figure of speech. This was never a cautionary tale to keep them in line and make them be nice.
Christ’s return for judgment is as real as He is. And to make sure that you are not surprised by that day, Jesus tells you about it now. And He is dead serious. So, on the great last day, please don’t be surprised.
Of course, I can tell you not to be surprised; but I know you will be. Even if you see it coming, that day will still be full of surprise.
You’ll hear again the words that Jesus speaks this morning, and you’ll do what everyone does. You’ll take an inventory of your life: everything you’ve done and left undone. Maybe you already were doing that as I read the Gospel.
You’ll try to remember all the hungry people you fed, all the naked you clothed, all the sick and imprisoned you went out of your way to visit. And then you will tremble. If you have a shred of integrity, you will tremble, because you know how short that list of mercies is.
Even when you consider the times you actually did those things, they won’t satisfy your conscience.
You’ll remember the reluctance with which you prepared a meal for children who were ungrateful and spit it out or threw it on the floor, you’ll remember looking longingly out the window when your house became a prison for the sickly and quarantine, and jealousy you felt for people with no such obligations.
You’ll recall how eager you were to get out of the hospital, to escape the smell of recycled air and IV fluid, even though your loved one had to stay behind. And so, at the judgment, you will be very surprised. You will be very surprised at all the nice things Jesus has to say about you. You will be very surprised to hear:
“Come, you who are beloved 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.” Matthew 25:34b-36
You won’t remember doing any of the beautiful things you’ve done. Neither will you remember your impure motives or reluctance. You won’t remember either of those things because in this life, you didn’t see that serving these, the very least and needy, was serving Christ. Reason alone won’t say that serving the sick and the dying beggar is the same thing as serving the living and resurrected Jesus.
And yet, His Word is true. The praise He heaps on you is not exaggerated or mistaken. Everything that falls short has been washed away. Jesus has exchanged His own good works for your sins. Christ’s good works stand in place of yours.
The judgment of the last day has already taken place. The trial has already occurred. The sentence has already been rendered – not from Christ’s glorious throne, but from His bitter, humiliating throne. Judgment occurred on a Friday afternoon in Jerusalem, 2000 years ago. And it looked a lot like what Jesus describes for us today.
The world gathered around for a sentence to be carried out. This Jesus, this King, enthroned and lifted up for all to see. A sheep on His right, a goat on His left.
There’s no difference between them. Both deserve the same judgment; both fall desperately short of the glory of God.
One hopes to get off the hook without repentance. He mocks Jesus, saying:
“Are you not the Christ? Save Yourself and us!”
But the other rebuked him, saying,
“Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation?
And we indeed justly, for we are receiving the due reward of our deeds;
but this man has done nothing wrong…
Jesus, remember me when you come into Your kingdom.” Luke 23:39-42
He deserved the same judgment as the other man, and he knew it. So you can imagine his relief and surprise at Jesus’ reply
Truly I say to you, this day you will be with Me in paradise. Luke23:43
Or, in the words of the judgment this morning:
Come, you who are beloved by My Father; inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. Matthew 25:34
He had certainly done nothing deserving of that kingdom, and that’s the point. He doesn’t get what he deserves, and neither do you.
That word “inherit” should rescue you from any idea that you can earn this kingdom. Inheritances don’t come from hard work and flattery. They are a birthright.
The Kingdom of God is your birthright. It has been prepared for you. And not only you. The Kingdom of God has been prepared for everyone, for every last person who is and was. The Kingdom of God has been prepared for them as well.
But Jesus is not only teaching about heaven. Jesus also says something about hell. Jesus says clearly that it is not for you! It has been prepared for the devil and his angels, not for you.
To be in hell is the most unnatural thing you could ever imagine, Even if some folks still relentlessly insist on it. But it is not for you. It never was.
For you, the Kingdom of God was prepared from the foundation of the world. Long before you fed or clothed anyone, long before you visited a sick person or someone in prison. Long before you failed to, the Kingdom was already prepared.
So when your conscience pricks you, and you begin doubt that God could be so merciful, and you fear His judgment, hear again the words and promises of Christ:
The font, the pulpit, and altar cry aloud and proclaim the divine verdict:
By Water & Word, the naked have been clothed in Christ’s righteousness. The prisoners are not merely visited but set free. The sick and the dead are healed and raised. The hungry and thirsty are nourished Christ’s Body and Blood.
And you are free to pass all of that along to the least, the last, the lost, and the dead. A litany of good, forgiven works that you will not remember.
You will only look to your righteous Judge, hear His judgment, and with a tune of joyful surprise, you will sing. Praise be to Thee, O Christ.