29. November 2023
Wednesday of Trinity 27
In the holy Name of + Jesus. Amen.
Our reading begins with a preface. “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the holy angels with Him, then He will sit on the throne of His glory. All the nations will be gathered before Him.” The readings that we’ve been hearing began something like, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared.” But not today. Now, we’re preaching directly about Himself as the Son of Man, how He gets His kingdom, how He rules or judges His citizens. And notice that all the nations are gathered, everyone. It’s just as we confess in the Creed: Jesus sits at the right hand of the Father and will come to judge the living and the dead.
You’ll notice, too, that only Jesus—not secular rulers, social media, or public opinion—judges. And therefore, it’s only Jesus’s judgment that matters in the end. But if we only read the text from Matthew 25, we’d think that the basis of judgment is the law. What have I done or not done? And if you go that way, it’s about your charity for those hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, or in prison. He will decide if you’ve been naughty or nice and then make His ruling. The sheep and goats are separated on the basis of a personal account of sin.
“And [unrighteous] will go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” This is what we all think the judgment will be about. And rightly, we’re in a bind. Because we cannot possibly know if we’ve done it or done enough of it, the proverbial sheep and goats exclaimed, “Lord, when did we?” If judgment comes by the law, but the charity the law demands cannot be seen, known, or evaluated, then again, we’re in rough shape. We have no confidence, no assurance, and no real hope. All we have are a wish and prayer. So we must ask, is the law of charity finally the basis of the judgment? Is that what makes a Christian righteous or unrighteous? How can you avoid being a goat and be welcomed into the kingdom as a sheep?
In the end, God in Christ will make a great distinction. He will not unify, but He will separate. What is the basis of this separation? What distinguishes a sheep from a goat? And we can’t help but ask, “Which am I?” That’s a good place to start but a horrible way to end. The Gospel isn’t given to cause you to worry or panic but to be comforted and confident. We need a promise, something we can rest our hope on. With our readings in mind and knowing that Scripture must be interpreted Scripture, we can hear Jesus in the Gospel in faith, rightly distinguishing between Law and Gospel, if we bring to bear the whole counsel of God.
The committee that put our readings together knew this, too. So, we heard in our epistle, “Now Christ is risen from the dead, and has become the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. For since by man came death, by Man also came the resurrection of the dead. For as in Adam all die, even so in Christ, all shall be made alive” (1 Cor 15:20-22). Now, we can hope for that, confident that Jesus will give us the resurrection He promised. Now that’s good news!
Or hear again our Old Testament reading: “Indeed I Myself will search for My sheep and seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock on the day he is among his scattered sheep, so will I seek out My sheep and deliver them from all the places where they were scattered on a cloudy and dark day. And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them to their own land; I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, in the valleys and in all the inhabited places of the country. I will feed them in good pasture, and their fold shall be on the high mountains of Israel. There they shall lie down in a good fold and feed in rich pasture on the mountains of Israel.” More good news! How can you tell? Who’s the subject of the verbs? Who does the searching, seeking, delivering, bringing, feeding, binding, strengthening, and healing? The Lord Jesus!
The only way that Jesus, “the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world,’” is if it’s based on His promise. You are made into sheep as God in Christ chooses you, elects, and predestines you. He clothes you His righteousness, as He baptized you in His name and absolves you of your sin daily. He has prepared salvation for you but also now delivers it to you.
Now, some think that the Bible teaches something very different. Some think you start as a goat, then you hear you can become a sheep. So you hear the Gospel, an invitation to be a sheep. If you accept it and do the right things, you become part goat and part sheep. And the goal is to transition from goat to sheep. The goal in life is to be more sheep and less goats so that, in the end, you are entirely a sheep and not a goat anymore. It sounds silly told this way because it’s usually dressed up in fancy theological talk. All life is about being more and more sanctified, again less goat and more sheep, until finally your transition is finished. And the judgment will be based on what you’ve done.
More recently, some say you can’t transition but also can’t tell who’s a sheep or goat. Even worse, you can’t tell yourself apart from an inner call. If you think God is telling you you’re a sheep, you might be. But how can you know unless God gives you some signs? You could deceive yourself into thinking you’re a sheep or goat. So, the main job of the pastor or your spiritual guide is to help you evaluate and determine the inner call. He’ll help you see how God works in your life to show you if you’re a sheep or a goat. To help the effort, you work hard at proving God right by thinking, saying, and doing all the right things. And again, the basis of judgment will be on what you’ve done.
But your salvation is prepared for you. “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” And in those words and all the words of promise of the Scripture, salvation is delivered to you as you hear the preaching and teaching of the Gospel. Faith says, “I don’t know anything about my works. I can’t even judge them rightly. Only you can do that. Only you see what is done in love or out of obligation. But I trust in you. All my works are worthless. My work can’t make me a sheep or a goat. Only you can do that, and you must give that to me, Jesus.”
When it comes to sheep and goats, they are or aren’t. And you can’t change yourself any more than those beasts can. And no one can believe that they’re a sheep in the end. The reality is that everyone is a goat, born in sin and under the law. None of our charity is enough to overcome that. There’s no way into the kingdom for us, Jew or Gentile, by works, merit, or law. Only the one who created, redeemed, and sanctified you can make you new, a saint of God. That’s what your Baptism is all about, and it’s blessed good news. Jesus makes you something you weren’t. He comes and finds the lost one and gives them a promise. “I forgive you!” The old Adam is drowned and dies. The goat is dead. The new Adam rises from the dead and lives. The sheep is alive.
The peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, guards your hearts and minds through Christ Jesus. Amen.
Rev. Christopher R. Gillespie
St. John Ev. Lutheran Church & School – Sherman Center
Random Lake, Wisconsin