Sunday, November 16, 2008

Sermon: Trinity 26

16 November 2008 at Salem Lutheran Church, Gretna, LA Text: Matt 25:31-46 (Dan 7:9-14, 2 Pet 3:3-14)

In the name of + Jesus. Amen.

As the time draws near for our Lord to go to the cross, His preaching increasingly focuses on the end times, on His return to establish His kingdom, the judgment, eternity, and the fact that He will have to suffer and rise from the dead.

And as we get closer and closer to the end of the church year, the Church’s preaching reflects that same theme – of our Lord’s return, of judgment, eternity, and the results of His passion, death, and resurrection.

As He does so often, our Lord teaches us with a story. He tells us how He will judge the sheep from the goats, physically separating them, saying to the sheep: “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world,” but saying to the goats: “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and His angels.”

Sheep and goats may look similar, but they are completely different animals with different numbers of chromosomes. They are what they are, “each according to its own kind.” Sheep cannot become goats, and goats cannot become sheep. But we can tell which is which by observation.

In our Lord’s story, the sheep are blessed and given eternal life. They are confirmed to be sheep based on the fact that their works prove what they are. The sheep perform acts of mercy and kindness. They have compassion, and do what needs to be done for those whom our Lord calls “the least of these, My brethren.” The sheep feed the hungry, provide water to the thirsty, show hospitality, clothe the naked, and visit the sick and the prisoners. They don’t do this seeking reward, but rather out of love and compassion. And our Lord reveals that whatever we do to our neighbors, we really do to Him. Man is made in God’s image, and whatever is done to God’s image is done to God, whose iconic form is Jesus Christ. The sheep serve their neighbors out of love. And the beauty of love is that it has no thought of reward.

Mothers change diapers day in and day out not because the child thanks her, but rather because she loves her child, and it simply needs done. She doesn’t expect the Congressional Medal of Freedom. Fathers likewise labor and work year in and year out, most days without any fanfare, simply because it needs done. He loves his family, and doesn’t expect a front page article in the paper or a Nobel Prize.

And the opposite is also true. The goats in our Lord’s story do not lift a finger to help others in need. They care nothing for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the prisoner. The goats are too busy taking care of themselves. And again, our Lord reveals that whatever neglect we show to our neighbors, we show to Him.

To those without love and mercy, even the acts that appear good are nothing more than a desire to build up the self, an attempt for the goat to look like a sheep only to play the impostor and escape punishment.

Notice that of the two, only sheep are able to repent. For they may behave as goats, even much of the time (and we all do), but we sheep can come to our senses and repent. A goat, on the other hand, is only imitating a sheep with false motives. A goat cannot repent because he is what he is. He is concerned for himself and for no-one else.

And what a great blessing we have these words from our Lord, dear brothers and sisters! Our Lord is warning us to repent while there is still time. If we are unloving and uncaring, if we are selfish and inhospitable, if we are unmerciful and indifferent to suffering, and we realize that our conduct is appalling – we can repent! Even the desire to repent is the very mark of being a sheep and not a goat.

Unlike the goat, the sheep can pray for the Lord’s grace to “create in me a clean heart, O God, and renew a right spirit within me.” We are what we are. Goats can’t become sheep and vice versa. But by the Holy Spirit, we sheep can act like sheep, and not seek to live like goats. We know that we are sheep when we have a Shepherd: the Good Shepherd. For we know His voice, and He knows us by name. We know we are sheep when our Shepherd leads us to the green pastures of the Gospel and the still waters of Holy Baptism. We know we are sheep when we are grieved at our goat-like behavior, when we want to look and act like the sheep that we are.

It is in being loved by the Shepherd that we sheep can love our fellow sheep. And when we show love to our fellow sheep, we’re really showing love to our Shepherd. Whatever we do, or don’t do, for the sheep, we’re in fact doing (or not doing) for our Shepherd.

Think of the words we pray in the Lord’s Prayer: “forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” We sheep have been forgiven by our Shepherd – who forgives us motivated solely by love. And we pray to give the same forgiveness to others, motivated by the same love as our Shepherd.

And the beauty is this: when we sheep are doing what we are supposed to be doing, when we are behaving as sheep, when the time comes to receive our reward, we won’t even realize that what we have done is worthy of reward. We may be completely ignorant of having done good works. For true good works are not done with repayment in mind. They are done simply because they need done, because someone needs help. We Christians have been blessed to be a blessing, even as we have been forgiven so that we might forgive. And the opportunities are virtually endless.

But in these “last days,” St. Peter assures us that “scoffers will come,” those who walk “according to their own lusts,” men who “willfully forget that by the word of God” all things were made. These, dear friends, are the goats in our Lord’s parable: the unbelieving, the loveless, the self-centered, those who mock Christ and the Christian faith. And notice that our Lord desires that “all should come to repentance.” By definition, those who are baptized, those who repent, those who cling to their Shepherd – are the Lord’s lambs. But when we lambs display the characteristics of the goat, when we serve ourselves instead of our neighbors, when we are loveless and unmerciful, the Lord bids us to repent.

The lambs hear the voice of their Shepherd, and in hearing that voice, are led to repentance; whereas the goats do not hear the Shepherd at all. And thus, they do not even desire to repent. The sheep hear the law and feel the sting of conscience. The goat hears the law and feels nothing but perhaps scorn and anger and a deluded self-righteousness.

Dear brothers and sisters, we are in the “last days.” For one day to Him is as a thousand years to us. And if He seems to be taking His time about returning, it is only because He is “longsuffering” and giving us every opportunity to repent, to turn away from our self-centered ways and to hear the cries of the suffering. If we have much, it is because the Lord has given us much to share. If mercy is something that is even on our radar screen, we will desire to show mercy to our fellow sheep who are in need. Compassion is something that is both sought and given away. The sheep has been forgiven, which is exactly why he forgives.

But you can’t earn your forgiveness any more than a goat can suddenly become a sheep. You are sheep by grace. You are a sheep because you have been created as one – born again by water and the Spirit. You are sheep because you have been called and separated, set apart, made holy, given a new heart and a new life, and you hear your loving Shepherd’s voice, both when he calls you back to the flock when you wander, and on that day when He will bid you to “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Amen.

In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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