Text: Matthew 25:31-46
Date: Pentecost XXIV (Proper 29) + 11/23/14
On the last Sunday of the Church Year, the last word is about judgment day. We have spent three Sundays in Matthew chapter 25. All of this resulted from the disciples’ question back in chapter 24, “Tell us, when will these things be, and what will be the sign of your coming and of the close of the age?” Jesus began to answer by saying, “See that no one leads you astray” because many false prophets, preachers, predictors of the future will come. Many people today have questions about a so-called judgment day and of the second coming, the return of Christ. It is a common mistake that people race to the Book of Revelation thinking that’s what this mysterious book is all about. Today we urge people rather to “race to” this chapter of Matthew’s Gospel where Jesus gives the clear answer.
He began by saying that He is going to return but that no one knows the day or the hour. The timing is totally up to God the Father. While many of Jesus’ parables tell what the kingdom of heaven is like for you now, these last parables speak in the future tense saying what that day will be like; it will be like ten virgins waiting for the bridegroom but only half of them will be ready for His surprising return. Watch, therefore! “It will be like” a settling of accounts for how you handled God’s Word and your life in this world. But today we did not hear that the Lord’s return “will be like” anything because He tells us plainly about the final judgment. “All the nations,” all people that ever lived will be raised and gathered before the Son of Man, the great Good Shepherd, the Davidic King of the universe. They will be divided into two groups and finally ushered into their eternal reward or condemnation. So which will it be for you?
While this is a literal picture still Jesus uses metaphor to describe it all. As so often in the Bible He uses the metaphor of sheep and goats and shepherds. The first thing you should discover is that “the judgment” has already happened before that final day as people have demonstrated now in this life whether they are sheep or goats, that is, saved or unsaved. So are you a sheep or a goat?
When I was a little boy I actually thought that dogs and cats were of the same family, and that the dogs were male and cats were female. Obviously I didn’t think about it critically or clearly. Hey, I was only five years old! So now, what about sheep and goats?
Sheep and goats are actually two different “kinds” or species. I looked it up. Sheep have 54 chromosomes, while goats have 60. Sheep are grazers, goats are foragers. Sheep have wool, goats have hair. The easiest way to tell the difference between a sheep and goat is to look at their tails; goats are “up,” sheep are “down.” So which are you?
Though the metaphor breaks down here we need to say that we are all goats to begin with, that is, we are all spiritually blind, spiritually dead and enemies of God. We continually confess the truth that the goats around us want to deny namely that “we are by nature sinful and unclean.” The goat says, “Hey, I’m okay!” By our sin we confess that “we justly deserve Your present and eternal punishment.” The goat denies that. So you can see that it is truly a miracle, then, when we goats-by-birth are transformed into sheep. That happens by God’s direct action through the Word of the Gospel and the sacrament of Holy Baptism. On the one hand, as St. Paul puts it, “if anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation. The old has passed away; behold, the new has come” (2 Cor 5:17). But it is even more than that! We are recreated in Christ Jesus with new hearts full of faith by God’s design. As God’s sheep, then, we cease going our own way like goats do and follow the voice of our Shepherd. Because God has become our Shepherd we will never be in want. He leads us in paths of righteousness. He comforts us. He feeds us at the table He has prepared. “Surely goodness and mercy shall follow me all the days of my life, and I shall dwell in the house of the Lord forever” (Ps 23).
The point is that the judgment has already happened, here, now depending on whether you have received Christ or rejected Him. So the sheep are sheep before this scene of the Last Day even begins! All that the Son of Man, the Shepherd, the King says here is the evidence of that fact.
Notice that the “judgment” begins with the righteous, the sheep. This is of great comfort. After a lifetime of Law then Gospel the last day will be pure Gospel and we never hear the condemnation of the Law again, we only get to hear the Gospel part! While we don’t have to stick around to overhear the bad news for the goats, the goats hear of the great reward they miss. We discover that all those little acts of love of neighbor (the second table of God’s law) are the evidence of our having become the sheep of the Good Shepherd.
The warning, meant to wake up those who are rejecting Christ now, is the description of the fate of the goats: “eternal punishment.”
So on this last Sunday of the Church Year, after having heard again the entire story of the Gospel, from the coming of Christ Jesus into the flesh, to His ministry of preaching, teaching and healing, to the sacrifice of His body and blood on the cross, to His glorious resurrection and amazing ascension, and His sending of the Holy and Life-giving Spirit, now we have the great promise of His return and of our final deliverance. If this faith is yours it produces good works and proves you to be His sheep. But don’t worry, most of the good works happen automatically without your having to keep a record or even make the effort. For, “Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.” “And these will go…into eternal life.” The End? Oh, no! Only the beginning!