The Second Last Sunday of the Year| Rev. Rolf Preus| November 15, 2009| Matthew 25:31-46
The Bible says that we are justified through faith alone, and not by our works. The Bible also says that on Judgment Day everyone will be judged by his works. Clearly, to be justified and to be judged are two different things.
To be justified is the same thing as to be forgiven. God washes away the sin. God takes away everything that is evil and he leaves us spotlessly pure, holy, righteous, and lovely. He sends his Son into the world to do just that. Jesus is our righteousness and our holiness and our freedom and our salvation. All that we have and are and ever shall be that is pleasing and acceptable to God is because of Jesus. We have earned and deserved nothing but death. Jesus has earned and deserved for us everlasting life. The Holy Spirit has given Jesus to us. He has opened our hearts to receive Jesus by faith, and so, for Jesus’ sake we are God’s saints. We are righteous. Why? Because God says so. What he says is so. He speaks, we hear his voice in faith, and we receive from him everything his word promises to us. When God says we are forgiven and that Christ’s righteousness is reckoned to us this means that we are forgiven and Christ’s righteousness is reckoned to us. So we believe these words and have what these words say. We are the children of God.
Since we are God’s children, we inherit God’s kingdom. Jesus says so. He says, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” If it was prepared for us from the foundation of the world, it was ours before we were even born and before we could to anything to deserve it. And surely we don’t deserve it. We receive it only as a gift.
What do you think of this gift? What do you think of God giving it? What kind of a God do we have, who gives us such treasures without requiring that we earn them? Does his generosity lead us to selfishness? Does his mercy teach us to harbor hatred? Or does the love that God has shown us in Jesus flow through us into acts of love toward one another? Love is not just words. Love is always an active verb. It does. It does without waiting to be asked. It loves in a very down to earth and practical manner. It isn’t some kind of religious philosophy. No, God sees us in our need and he meets our need. When we are hungry, he feeds us. When we are thirsty, he gives us water to drink. He provides us with shelter, clothing, health, and comfort when we are all alone and with no friends. He never turns his face away from us. We who receive this love show it in what we say and do. We who are justified by faith alone will stand before our Lord Jesus on the last day when he returns to judge the living and the dead.
And he will judge. “From thence he shall come to judge the quick and the dead.” So we confess. This confession is true and faithful. Judgment Day is not an idea invented by the church to intimidate people into honoring God. Judgment Day is not an idle threat. It is coming soon. On that day it will be too late to find refuge in God’s mercy. Today is the day for that. Tomorrow may be too late.
We who find refuge in God’s mercy receive God’s mercy by trusting in Jesus. That trust is nothing so very complicated, though, humanly speaking, it is the hardest thing in the world to do. It is nothing else than believing the words of the gospel, the words of the Apostle’s Creed, the words of our baptism, the words of absolution, the words of the Lord’s Supper. The faith that receives God’s love receives God, the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. It receives the righteousness of Christ. This is the faith that says “amen” to Jesus. After hearing everything that Jesus did, faith always adds the words, “for me.” He did it for me. For me he was born in a stable and lived a life of poverty. When I see the divine power and deep compassion that Jesus showed to the blind, the lame, the lepers, the deaf, and others suffering loss and pain, I see the almighty love Jesus has for me. Every act of kindness he showed, he showed to me. Every word of comfort he spoke, he spoke it to me. Every drop of blood he shed, he shed it for me. This is what faith says. It says he did it all for me. And this is what we say together here at River Heights Lutheran Church, we say he did it for us.
And this is why we do it all for him. When we show love to one another we show love to Jesus. That’s how we do it. When we look at a fellow Christian we are seeing Jesus. The Rev. Richard Wurmbrand, a Lutheran pastor from Romania who was tortured by the Communists for preaching the gospel, wrote a little book entitled, If That Were Christ, Would You Give Him Your Blanket? He knew the meaning of Jesus’ words: “I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.” What we do for our fellow Christians we do for Christ. Jesus says that what we do for the “least of these my brothers” we do for him. It is the way of the world to do good things for those who can do good to you in return. It is the way of Christ to do good to the least or the smallest: to those who can give us nothing back.
What are good works? They are the good and kind things that we do for Jesus. We do good things for Jesus by doing them for Jesus’ brothers. But before we can do good things for Jesus we ourselves must become good. If you are not good you cannot do good. This is what Jesus said. A good tree bears good fruit. Before a tree can bear good fruit it must be a good tree. This means that before anyone can do something good he must be justified by God, that is, he must become good in God’s eyes. We become good in God’s eyes when God forgives us all our sins for Jesus’ sake and thereby reckons us to be righteous. When you are righteous or just, when you are a sheep of the Good Shepherd, God doesn’t count your sins against you. He sees only the good that you do and he blesses you for it. Yet the good that you do is only good because God has made you to be good by giving to you the very goodness or righteousness of Jesus.
Every good and kind and decent act a Christian does he does because of what he is: a Christian. But he didn’t make himself into a Christian. God did that for him. This is why, if we want to do good things for Jesus, we must first have Jesus do good things for us. I don’t say that we must let him, because he doesn’t really need our permission to do anything. I say that he must do good things for us. He must come into the world of our sin and take that sin upon himself to bear it away as the Lamb of God. He must come into our lives of sin with the pure love of the Holy Spirit. This is why we must come to church faithfully. We need the gospel. There’s nothing in the world we need more than the gospel. We need to hear about Jesus and how he died for us and rose again. We need the forgiveness that flows through our lives from our baptism. We need the sacred body and blood of Jesus given us in the Supper. We need Jesus in our lives if we are to see Jesus in our brothers and sisters. We cannot serve Jesus until Jesus has served us. This is why the Divine Service that we call “church” or “worship” is essential. Christ feeds us, gives us to drink, visits us, clothes us, and isn’t ashamed to be with us when we are suffering alone and abandoned. When Jesus, the Almighty God who has become your brother, has thus served you, then and only then can you serve anyone and do anything that is good.
The Christian mother comes to church burdened by her sins because she hasn’t been the mother God called her to be. She knows it. She wishes she could do so much all over again, but of course she cannot. But here it is that Jesus serves her by covering her sin with his own righteousness, and so it is as a saint that she goes home to serve her family. And she does. She does the drudgery of everyday duties for her children and she doesn’t even think of a reward. She only does what God called her and put her there to do. And God in heaven treasures what she does because she is his holy saint. He sees and he notices what her husband is too obtuse to observe and her children only take for granted. She wonders if her labor isn’t just a waste of time. But God tells her to keep it up and not to grow weary because Jesus himself will display her acts of love and they will shine with true heavenly splendor on the day of his return.
Where has God placed you? What is your job? Is it just a job? Stuff you must do because it needs doing and you need to make a living? That’s all? No, that’s never all. Everything good you do for a brother of Jesus you do for Jesus. Now we know who his brothers and sisters are. They are the Christians. But you don’t always know who the Christians are. And you certainly don’t do wrong by treating someone who isn’t a Christian as if he were one. This just might be the beginning of something wonderful, perhaps a journey that will lead him or her to Jesus in faith.
Brothers and sisters in Christ, we cannot ever waste an act of kindness. When no one is watching, God is. When no one says one word of thanks, God does. The greatest joy comes when you work, not for pay, but for the love of the work. Well we Christians don’t do any good works for pay. Jesus has already purchased our inheritance in heaven by the payment of his holy life and innocent death. We do what we do for the pure love of it. And these are the works that God will praise on Judgment Day.
Those who are cast away from Jesus because they did no acts of mercy for Jesus are those who trusted in something or someone other than Jesus. Perhaps they didn’t consider their own sins at all. Perhaps they trusted in their own deeds. Perhaps they religiously followed a false god. Perhaps they denied there was a God. They will go away into eternal punishment. They did their works only for themselves and there was nothing good in that. The self-righteous are those who despise the least of Jesus’ brothers. They have no need for Jesus (or so they think) and on Judgment Day God will have no use for them. But the hell in which they will suffer forever was not prepared for them. It was prepared for the devil and his angels.
The heaven that awaits the sheep of the Good Shepherd was prepared for them before time began. It is what gives us confidence to serve Jesus by serving those he loves. This is why we find this such a precious thing to do. Our hopes aren’t set here on the things of this world, but in heaven where our Savior even now prepares our eternal home.
Let us pray:
O Jesus, who my debt didst pay and for my sin was smitten;
Within the Book of Life, O may my name be also written!
I will not doubt; I trust in Thee, from Satan Thou hast made me free
And from all condemnation. Amen