(sermon note: 03-26 sermon note)
[Jesus said,] ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that 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 something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’
This morning’s reading reminds me of the one about a big, burly man who visited the pastor’s home one day and asked to see the minister’s wife, a woman well known for her charitable impulses. “Madam,” he said in a broken voice, “I wish to draw your attention to the terrible plight of a poor family in this district. The father is dead, the mother is too ill to work, and the nine children are starving. They are about to be turned into the cold, empty streets unless someone pays their rent, which amounts to $400.” “How terrible!” exclaimed the preacher’s wife. “May I ask who you are?” The sympathetic visitor applied his handkerchief to his eyes. “I’m the landlord,” he sobbed.
Aaah, turns out the big burly man was a goat after all! He wasn’t as concerned with actually helping the family as he was with making sure he was paid his rent. And he was willing to manipulate the compassionate pastor’s wife into helping him out. Sneaky, goat-like ways! Surely the man will be judged for his behavior and separated with all the other goats when the time comes. Goats are sly, troublesome creatures by nature. It’s no wonder they’re separated from the sheep who are obedient, trusting creatures. Sheep aren’t looking to manipulate others but rather follow. Goats, on the other hand, are stubborn and like to upset the order of it all, not unlike that clever landlord.
For weeks we’ve been reflecting on the wisdom of several of Jesus’ parables. Perhaps you noticed that in all of them Jesus was teaching about the kingdom of heaven, certainly not an easy subject to teach. We heard how the kingdom is overseen by a ruler who pays his workers the same wages regardless of how much work they put in throughout the day. Then we heard how the kingdom is a feast to which all are invited but not everyone will make it into the actual feast. There will be some who will refuse to rid themselves of their sinful, defiant ways. Others who won’t fully dedicate themselves to living by faith and trust. Both groups of people are no better than goats, stubborn and defiant in all that they do. And you know what? The kingdom isn’t meant for such people even though they’ve been invited. The kingdom isn’t meant for those who complain at the fairness of God’s grace. The kingdom isn’t meant for those who persist in their sin or fail to light the pathway for our Lord. The kingdom is meant for the grateful, the faithful, the committed, and the trusting. All are invited but not all will participate in the feast and it is up to God to decide who gets to actually participate. Only He knows the truly grateful, faithful, committed, and trusting among us. Only He can distinguish the sheep from the goats.
So the parables served to not only describe the kingdom of heaven but also the king who rules over it. He is a gracious but discerning God. He wants faithful, trusting, committed subjects. Isn’t this what all rulers want?! Of course it is, why shouldn’t God be any different?! God wants our loyalty, our obedience, our trust, and our commitment. Plain and simple, right? Well, we have a wonderful way of getting sidetracked, don’t we? We aren’t loyal, obedient, trusting, and committed to him at times. Our goat-like natures can get the best of us. But all is not lost! God, in his abundant mercy, also teaches us how to get back on track. And in very practical terms. How do we get back to being loyal, obedient, trusting, committed servants of God when we’ve gone astray? By simply serving our neighbors in need! In serving them, we are ultimately serving him! In fact, that’s how we best serve him…by serving them! Go figure?! Paul advises us in his letter to the Philippians, “let each of you look not to your own interests, but to the interests of others.” (2:4) Friends, it’s very simple. If we want to serve God, we have to serve each other. If we ever hope to participate in the feast, we must first look out for the needs of others. And lest you think this is a call into works righteousness, think again. Our works don’t save us, they simply allow us to realize our salvation…to actually participate in the feast. John writes in his first letter, “how does God’s love abide in anyone who has the world’s goods and sees a brother and sister in need and yet refuses help?” (3:17) It’s when God’s love abides in us that we experience the feast.
Our journey through Lent is quickly coming to an end. Jesus’ parables have helped us reflect on the kingdom of heaven and the nature of the king who rules over it. But guess what? The kingdom is coming to us through Jesus himself! He will show us in his death how to be a loyal, obedient, trusting, and committed servant. And for this we give thanks. Thanks be to God!
In the name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.