Our Gospel this morning is often referred to us as the parable the sheep and the goats, but it’s no parable. It’s just a straightforward factual account about Judgment Day and what to expect when it comes. Today we zero in specifically on those words which we confess every Sunday from the Nicene Creed. We say, “I believe that Jesus will come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead.”
But what does it mean that Jesus is coming again to judge the living and the dead? What will that be like? It will be the day when all people will appear before the judgment seat of Christ, and He will announce publicly those who inherit eternal life and those who inherit eternal condemnation. The judgment of salvation or damnation is proclaimed through the Office of the Keys in the remitting and retaining of sins, and it is sealed for every individual at the time of death, but on the Last Day it is made known to all.
This morning our Lord tells us what that day will be like: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory (The Son of Man is Jesus, by the way!), 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.”
“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. 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.’”
But what a surprise that will be for the righteous, for they say, “Lord, when did we do these things? When did we feed you? When did we visit you? When did we care for 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.’”
What’s this all about? Well, most certainly it’s got to mean that if you do lots of really nice things for people, then God’s just got to reward you for that. Visit a soup kitchen, drop a few coins in the Salvation Army kettle at Christmas and you’re good to go. How about the bumper sticker, “random acts of kindness,” yeah, that will do it. That will earn you heaven, and God’s just got to reward you for all the nice things you did for Him. Is that it?
Well no, that’s not what it means. Not even close. But that’s just the sort of doctrine, the very sort of teaching, the devil would love for you to believe! Because it throws salvation all into your lap. It’s that old ancient religion of the law – the religion of self-righteousness – and pride which can only condemn us.
This is precisely the religion of the goats in today’s lesson. They are condemned to eternal torment with the devil and his angels, but they object. “Lord, when did we possibly fall short? When did we fail you? When did we see you hungry or thirsty, naked or in prison and did not serve you?” They were convinced that they had lived according to the Law, they were paying it forward, they were convinced of their own self-righteousness. They fell prey to the devil’s doctrine of pride and works-righteousness, and so fell miserably into eternal punishment. They despised the Gospel.
But faith is a different matter. It always prays, “Lord, have mercy.” Faith always prays, “God be merciful to me a poor sinner,” because it is faith which alone can justify. A faith which believes Christ came to save sinners. And that this salvation is given as a gift by grace alone, through the blood and merit of Jesus Christ.
Now for a little context on our text today: this is the last recorded sermon in St. Matthew’s Gospel. Jesus’ farewell sermon, at least on this side of the grave, because right after it our Lord is anointed for His death at Bethany, institutes His Supper, and is betrayed into the hands of sinful men to be crucified. So our ears should really perk up here. Jesus is preparing His disciples for the apostolic ministry – sending them out to preach the Gospel, administer the Sacraments, and to gather His Church. Our Lord’s words should be understood in this context, particularly how He links eternal salvation with how these messengers (and the message they carry) will be received.
“Whatever you do unto the least of these my brothers, you do unto me.” While it’s doctrinally true and salutary that the least of these my brothers can refer to all Christians, nothing wrong with that, it also has a particular meaning, in this particular context, because our Lord is sending His disciples out as missionaries, pastors, and evangelists.
Jesus had said earlier to His twelve apostles as He sent them out: “Whoever receives you receives me, and whoever receives me receives him who sent me.” Now again, He says, “Whatever you do unto the least of these my brothers, you do unto me.” We should understand that there’s a connection here between the eternal Son of God representing His Father, and the ministers whom Christ Himself sends out in His name and with His authority.
In our culture, and with our religious situation, this is an unfamiliar teaching to deal with for a number of reasons. We’re all egalitarians – everyone is the same – there are no distinctions. But in the Scriptures and Catechism, there is something of a distinction, because there are actually only two groups of people: There are preachers and there are hearers.
The straightforward meaning of the preaching of Jesus here is that when people receive those who proclaim the Gospel and believe their message about Christ, they are receiving Christ Himself. When you receive a pastor, when you support a missionary, you receive Christ. Behind the ever-changing preachers of the Gospel there stands the Son of God Himself, and behind Him, God the Father.
Oh, we don’t say this because we want to puff up pastors, as if they were so special, because they’re not. But it’s Christ we magnifiy! It’s His office, Jesus’ office, that that we extoll. Because we love Him. We love the comfort of the Gospel, the forgiveness of sins, and the promise of Christ and His resurrection. This is all to say that this message of salvation is brought to us through flesh-and-blood human beings – and this means something for our lives together as Christians.
I’ll never forget arriving at my first parish in Wittenberg, Wisconsin. I showed up for the Sunday service the day of my ordination. The oldest member of the parish, the matriarch, was sitting in front me. She turned around in her pew and asked if I was going to be her new pastor. She grabbed my hand, kissed it, and held it to her cheek. What an act of worship. But it didn’t say anything special about me. It did communicate something amazing to me about the ministry, about the faith people have in Jesus – and their willingness to see Him in those whom He sends to speak and comfort on His behalf.
Jesus said, “Whatever you do unto the least of these, my brethren, you do unto me.” When we welcome the one whom Christ sends and accept the preaching that we hear – and when we give our amen to the absolution and the sermon – we show that we love Christ. We have received Him. We have believed the Gospel.
And the Gospel is this, that this end-time judge, who is coming again soon, is a gracious King. A King who came down from heaven, even taking the form of a slave.
In fact, He took the form of a lowly animal. An animal associated with sin and curse – the goat. Do you remember in the Old Testament how Jacob covered himself in goat skin to fool his father, so that he would get the blessing of the firstborn? Well, now consider this: Jesus, our King from heaven, dressed Himself in our goatlike sins at the cross, in order to be cursed, so that we might be blessed.
Consider that Jesus was willing to become what we are – goats by nature – so that we might become by grace what He is– righteous, innocent, and holy lambs.
This morning, remember with joy Good Friday, the ultimate day of atonement, when your scapegoat Jesus took your goat-like sins upon Himself and died for them all, all to remove your sins as far as the east is from the west. He was slaughtered, and His blood was carried into the Most Holy Place – that you would have safe passage and access to God in heaven.
Dear Christians, this merciful judge, victorious over the grave, will not turn you away. For you were hungry and He gives you His body as heavenly food. You were thirsty and so He gives you forgiving blood to drink. You were naked, exposed by sin and unrighteousness, and yet now He clothes you to the nines in His very own righteousness. That you would stand up gladly on the Last Day and be welcomed into His kingdom. In the name of Jesus. Amen.
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