St. Paul's Lutheran Church

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Last Sunday of the Church Year
Matthew 25:31-46
November 26, 2023

This depiction of the Day of the Lord seems simple enough, doesn’t it? On the Last Day, the Son of Man – the same Jesus who died on the cross for the sin of the whole world – He comes and sits on the throne of final judgment, and He separates sheep from goats – believers from unbelievers, ushering in the believers to their eternal and preordained kingdom, and condemning the unbelievers to eternal perdition with Satan and his demons.

And if this is all there is to Jesus’ teaching here, then we might even say that the song written by the secular band “Cake” called “Sheep go to Heaven” is Christian, and we may even encourage our kids to listen to it.

But no, Cake was not a Christian band, their song is anything but teaching Christ and His Word, and even though it’s loosely based on this parable, it has absolutely nothing to do with this parable, and in fact the song displays for us precisely how the devil sees and cherishes the Scripture…not at all.

So, if it’s such a simple parable, why do so many get this parable, this depiction of the Last Day so very wrong?

Well, some people just can’t accept the fact that there is a hell, a devil, and that God , on the Last Day, WILL condemn people that we know to eternal hell. And this troubles us, and it should – it’s part of the point of the parable.

Another confusing matter that we must consider is how the sheep didn’t think they did any good works while the goats were confused that they weren’t saved in spite of the fact that they did good works, and probably quite a few.

So, this may be confusing and conflicting; it may seem as though God doesn’t really care about good works at all, that He’s gonna save who He’s gonna save and condemn who He’s gonna condemn and in the end of the day, just live your life and hope for the best. And in fact, many have taken this “double-predestination” approach to reading this text. But nowhere does Jesus say He condemns anyone based upon some prior preparation that was done before the creation of the world. Sure, the sheep have a home prepared for THEM prior to the creation of the world, but regarding the goats, no such notion is found in the text. God wants ALL people to be saved; He doesn’t want to condemn anyone; He doesn’t want anyone to be a goat.

But God is also a God of justice and holiness and righteousness and His desire to save humanity does not change his righteousness, his holiness, his justice.

So, we’re still very confused and at a loss regarding this depiction.

But let’s broaden our scope here a bit; let’s look at the big picture here. This is THE last teaching, the last parable Jesus preaches in the Scripture. After this it’s the Passover, then the betrayal, the arrest, the trial, the sentencing, and the crucifixion. This parable, or depiction is VERY important because many who followed Him will not hear another word from Jesus’ lips, in person, ever again, not until the Day of Judgment. They will remember this parable, in fact, they will remember the past 4 parables because they all have to do with the Day of Judgment when He will return again, and they will see Him sitting on His throne. Those pharisees who continued to reject Him, they’ll be there kneeling before Him, as well as the Scribes, Judas, Pilate, and all the rest. And of course, we’ll be there too. You are going to get to meet Pontius Pilate, Judas, the unbelieving scribes and Pharisees, every character in the Bible, believer or unbeliever, you will get to meet on the Last Day.

That’s big picture stuff, isn’t’ it? And by the way, this is why the Christian faith can NEVER be a matter of, “My beliefs are between me and Jesus; it’s private,” because such is just not the Christian faith. The faith is always public, and on the Last Day it will be as public as it gets.

See, the devil has injected a whole lot of lies into modern or postmodern infested Christianity. There’s the lie that the Scripture is too hard to interpret so just believe however you please. There’s the lie that there is no absolute truth. There’s the lie that because we’re Christians and God forgives us, we can live our lives in any way we please and still be saved…that’s not what Galatians 5 teaches. There’s the lie that you don’t have to go to church to be Christian – so contrary to the 3rd Commandment and Hebrews 10. There’s the lie that the Scripture only “contains” God’s Word, that it’s not really God’s Word given to us in the fullest sense as 2 Timothy 3 clearly teaches.

But perhaps the most insidious of lies is the one that says faith is between you and Jesus, it’s private, and it’s not something that you should talk about. I mean think about it. You have been given the GREATEST GIFT in the universe – salvation and eternal life, being set free from your sins, forgiven…why would you NOT want to talk about that, share that gift, that knowledge, that faith with others? Something to think about, especially when it comes to your children or grandchildren.

Now, all too often this parable is interpreted in horrible ways. People play fast and loose with the Scripture and particularly parables like this and in so doing they lead people away from the cross, away from the faith and turn people into pride machines where they wear their good works on their sleeves. But if you read the parable, it’s clear, isn’t it, that those who think they deserved God’s inheritance, they are the ones who don’t receive it. They instead receive eternal deportation to hell.

See, if you think you’ll get to heaven by helping the poor, feeding the hungry, visiting the sick or imprisoned, clothing the naked…think again. Trying to enter the great wedding feast of the Lamb wearing this inappropriate and ungifted garment, no matter how beautiful it may be, will certainly earn you a one-way ticket to weeping and gnashing of teeth.

The modern-day philosophy of the “social Gospel,” a gospel taught by far too many people, and with far, far too many believing it will ultimately lead a LOT of people to hell. The true Gospel message isn’t about you going out and helping the underprivileged or those treated unfairly or affirming gay lifestyles or celebrating alternate forms of this, that, or the other. That’s not the Gospel. And in fact, if you think standing with the minority groups, defending the underprivileged or celebrating the alternative lifestyles of people is going to make God smile on you and accept you, then let this parable be a stern warning to you.

There is only one way to salvation, one path, one door, one entrance into the eternal kingdom. Believe in Jesus and believe in His Word.

In Matthew 10, Jesus sent his disciples, his apostles as His witnesses, His representatives to the various Jewish towns of Galilee. He sent them, not to affirm their lifestyles or celebrate their diversities, but to preach a specific message to the people, to preach His Word. And we know Jesus’ message because He preached it all the time Himself: Repent and Believe the Gospel because the kingdom of heaven is at hand. Those who heard the message and received it and believed it were saved, not by their works but through faith – through believing that what the Apostles preached, what Jesus preached was the truth. Those who heard the message and outright rejected it were not saved and should they have died in their unbelief, they would be among those standing at the left of Christ on the Last Day.

This is what Jesus means when He says, “Those who receive you, receive me, and those who reject you, reject me…” sheep and goats.

And it’s important to understand that there’s no middle ground here. You can’t be a “CINO,” a Christian in Name Only who says things like, “I’m a Christian because my parents are Christian,” or “I’m a Christian because America is a Christian nation,” or “I’m a Christian because I do good works and I’m a good person,” or, “I’m a Christian because I was confirmed at the Lutheran church…haven’t been there in 25 years and I don’t know what I believe about God, but…” This will not save you.

So, if receiving the gift of salvation has to do with believing in Jesus, “Christ alone,” right, then where do these good works come in? Well, think about how the apostles were treated when they went to a town where the people received them and believed their message? The believers, those who repented and turned to Christ for forgiveness, they responded almost automatically, driven by the Spirit of God, and tended to the needs of the Apostles out of thanksgiving to God for the message those men preached.

Simply put, believers support the mission and ministry of the Church – unbelievers do not. Supporting the ministry of the church is a natural by-product of the faith. God gives good gifts to each of us in different ways and in different amounts, and our support of the church might be exhibited in different ways, but Christians always support the Church of God because it is there that God’s very Means of Grace are offered.

The sheep, they are saved because they believe the message. Now, of course this means that the messengers who deliver the Lord’s message have to be delivering the right message. Pastors that preach and teach in accordance, not with the Word of God, but with their own egos and “promptings of the spirit” they aren’t leading ANYONE to Christ because they’re not delivering the message of Christ.

It’s sort of like going to the mailbox and finding a letter that isn’t addressed to you and opening it anyway. Nothing in that letter is of any value to you and it won’t get you anywhere. But when the right message, the right letter is delivered and you open it, you are fed with knowledge, wisdom, and who knows, maybe something so wonderful that you respond with thankfulness in kind.

Pastors must preach, and churches must teach what is given them to preach and teach from God, nothing more – nothing less. If I, as the pastor, were to go out of my way to preach and teach so that you’re happy and comfortable and everything I say and do is easy on the eyes and ears, it may very well make you happy and comfortable in your flesh and sin, but it won’t lead you to your eternal inheritance. And if you understand that the way to heaven is narrow, then you also know that the pastor’s message must not be broad and human-pleasing, but narrow and God-pleasing.

To put it plainly, you are given the eternal inheritance of God, prepared for you from before the creation of the world, through repentance and faith, through turning from your old sinful ways, subduing your flesh and passions, and turning to Christ for mercy and grace and forgiveness, and trusting that what He has done for you on the cross is sufficient to save you. Out of thankfulness for this great work done on your behalf, you respond and you respond by living a Christian life in your thoughts, words, and deeds. You help your church and support your ministers. You give, you volunteer, you step up, you lend a helping hand when need-be, you help the poor in the community if you are able, not because it saves you, but because you ARE a child of God and there’s nothing more wonderful and no greater privilege than to be a child of God.

Folks, judgment day IS coming – this isn’t potentiality, this is fact. Christ IS coming to judge the living and the dead, and there will be sheep and there will be goats and the sheep DO go heaven and the goats DO go to hell. The Day of the Lord IS coming, so rejoice! You have nothing to fear; Jesus, the author and perfector of YOUR faith is YOUR judge! You may want conservative judges on the Supreme Court, but in the heavenly court, Jesus is SURELY the judge you and I want.

You, who have never done enough good works for anyone to earn God’s kingdom, you have it because Christ has done more than enough for you. He hungered and thirsted in the desert of temptation, prevailing against the devil and his lies. He was nailed to a cross, naked and exposed for all to see and gawk at, to spit upon, and to scoff, but He did not give in or suffer embarrassment. While dying on the cross, he bore in Himself all the sickness and sin of your life from conception to death, and when He died, He destroyed death forever so you can live. He was imprisoned by the Roman guards who beat Him and broke Him. And Jesus did all this so that you, who have no holiness or righteousness of your own, might stand before Him who is your judge and bear on your body His righteousness and holiness.

This is fact, this is the Good News. It is the message that the apostles preached day in and day out. Repent. In other words, stop thinking like an unbeliever, stop trying to earn your way to God, stop living according to this world, your flesh, and the devil, and believe. Believe that Christ has paid for you, that before the creation of the world, God already had you in mind and set all things in motion so that, at the moment of your baptism, you were set apart as His dearly beloved sheep.

I think Psalm 23 is the most appropriate Psalm to consider today:

The Lord is my shepherd.
I lack nothing.
He causes me to lie down in green pastures.
He leads me beside quiet waters.
He restores my soul.
He guides me in paths of righteousness for his name’s sake. (in other words, He teaches me His Word)

Even though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, (in other words, even though I live in this dark and evil world)
I will fear no evil, for you are with me.
Your rod and your staff, they comfort me. (in other words, His Word keeps me on the straight and narrow, repents me, and gives me the promise of eternal life).

You set a table for me in the presence of my foes. (it’s right here, the table, the altar)
You drench my head with oil.
My cup is overflowing. (here, at the altar, He serves us the food and drink of heaven to the overflowing)
Surely goodness and mercy will pursue me all the days of my life,
and I will live in the house of the Lord forever.

This is the house of the Lord. It is the house that is filled with His Word and Sacraments. What better house is there to dwell in, to serve, to support, and to ultimately rest in your sleep of death in, than in this holy house where all here offer up their worship and praise?