Sunday, November 20, 2011

Last Sunday of the Church Year, Series A

Sermon on Matthew 25:31-46
For Holy Cross Lutheran Church, Elmwood Park, WI
November 20, 2011 (Proper 29, Series A)

One thing that’s always struck me about this particular Gospel lesson is the fact that neither the sheep nor the goats knew that they did or didn’t do these things for our Lord.  “Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink?  When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You?  Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?” the sheep ask.  And the goats ask a similar question: “Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to You?”  Of course, we all know Jesus’ answer, “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did (or did not) do it to the least of these My brethren, you did it (or did not do it) to Me.”  When we serve our neighbor in love, it is really God we are serving, as we are acting as His hands to give them what they need, whether in terms of the things we do every day in our daily vocation which helps provide food for our own families or others, or in terms of the things we make a point of giving to others out of pure charity, it is through these things that God provides their daily bread.  And so when we do these things to the best of our ability, when we serve our neighbor in love, we are in reality serving God.

Of course, we never do these things totally with a pure heart, do we?  The work we do to make a living, we do for ourselves, so that we can get the paycheck and buy food.  We don’t think of it as serving our neighbor.  And when we do give to the Church or to charity (which none of us does as much as he should), the left hand manages to find out what the right hand is doing, and we still end up thinking of it as something that we’re doing so that someone, somewhere will reward us.  Either we’re thinking that God will be more pleased with us because we’re doing as He wants, or, especially in the case of donations to the Church or of work done serving in offices for the church, we might possibly think it gives us some say in the direction of the church, as if the fact that we help the congregation out gives us the right to tell the congregation what to do.  It’s still all about ourselves, isn’t it.  It’s not about our neighbor and it’s definitely not about Jesus.

And that poses a problem, because the judgment scene depicted in today’s Gospel lesson is something that we could face at any time.  Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead.  And even if that doesn’t happen for a long time yet, the verdict is already “locked in” when you die, which is also something that could happen to any of us at any time.  What we see in ourselves, however, matches pretty closely the description of those on Jesus’ left.  Even when we outwardly seem to be serving God and our neighbor, we’re doing it for ourselves.  And even outwardly we haven’t done as good a job as we could have.

The thing to remember here, though, is that those on His right are also surprised when Jesus points out that they have done all these things for Him.  Just as those on His left think they’ve done a pretty good job of serving God and their neighbor and are surprised to find out that they hadn’t, those on His right are surprised to find out that they have served God and their neighbor in a manner that pleases God.  God sees us opposite of how we see ourselves.  If you think you’re doing a pretty good job of serving God and your neighbor, through God’s eyes you will fall short, because you’re not doing nearly as good as you think you are.  But if you realize that you’ve fallen short, and you know that there’s no way for you to do as well as God expects of you, then you’re one of those who will be surprised to find out that you and your good works are, in fact, pleasing to God and done in service to Him.

After all, when God looks at you, He sees Christ.  And Christ did all these things for us, when we were spiritually in need.  He visited us when we were sick and in the prison of this sinful world.  And not only did He visit us, becoming one of us and bearing all our sin and infirmity; but He healed the sickness of our sin, just as He healed those who were sick with frail and diseased bodies in His Ministry on earth.  He freed us from the prison of our sinfulness.  And just as He clothed Adam and Eve with skins after their Fall into sin, so He clothed the nakedness of our sinfulness with the pure white garments of His perfect righteousness in the waters of Holy Baptism.  He feeds the spiritually hungry and gives drink to those who spiritually thirst with His Body and His Blood in the Holy Supper.

And yet, He did all this by taking it on Himself.  He fed us and quenched our thirst by becoming hungry and thirsty Himself.  He said so on the cross: “I thirst.”  He resolved our separation and estrangement from God by becoming estranged from the whole world and even His own Father.  He clothed the shame of our sin by being exposed to the elements on the cross, while the soldiers divided his garments and cast lots for his cloak.  He healed our disease of sin by becoming “sick” to the point of death for us.  He released us from Satan’s bondage by becoming a prisoner of the Sanhedrin and the Romans despite his innocence.  He took all of sin upon Himself, and so all the effects of sin in the world afflicted Him as well.  He did all these things for us, and so now all those who are suffering under the effects of sin in the world become pictures for us of our Lord.

That’s why Jesus says, “Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did (or did not) do it to the least of these My brethren, you did it (or did not do it) to Me.”  Because all the suffering that is in the world on account of sin, which we still see around us every day, was actually taken by Jesus into Himself and nailed to the cross.  And so when we in some small way try to alleviate that suffering, whether by providing a shoulder to cry on or a kind word, or whether we offer more substantive help in the form of charitable donations, we are doing it for Him who already took all of it upon Himself.  And, further, we are also preaching by our actions about that place where there is no hunger or thirst, no estrangement or nakedness, no sickness and no prison.  That’s what Jesus won for us by becoming all these things, and that’s what we ultimately have to offer.  Not just temporary help for this life, but eternal life without any problems or suffering or grief ever again.  And that’s what we ourselves will inherit, and that’s what we receive even now as our hunger and thirst is satisfied by Jesus’ own body and blood, His righteousness clothes our unrighteousness, and we even now enjoy  the visitations of Him whose separation from His Father unites us to both Himself and His Father.  It was Christ’s charity to us that got us this, not anything we did or could do.  And it is Christ’s charity working through us that He will see in us on that last day.  Come, you blessed of the Father.  Amen.

+ Soli Deo Gloria +

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