The Last Sunday in the Church Year
November 26, 2017
“The Work of God”
Rev. John R. Larson
Ascension Lutheran Church Littleton, Colorado
Grace, mercy, and peace are yours this day from our triune God; Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
“In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” (Genesis 1:1) As we come to this, the last Sunday in the Church Year, it good and right to remember where it began. Genesis 1:1 forces us to deal with the great distinction; God is God and we are not. We are the creation. The rest of chapter 1 drives home this reality in a greater way but God chose to start His revelation with this simple basic truth; before all things, He is God and we are not. It is with that truth that we focus upon the Last Day, the very return of our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
There are many views as to what it will look like when our Lord returns and what it will be like forevermore. The reason why there are so many views is simply because many people lose sight of the truth of what it was like in the beginning. It is difficult to understand the end of the story if you do not understand how the story began. There is confusion and it rests upon the perception, or the misperception, of what is real and true; what was real and true in the beginning and what is real and true now. And this misperception is what we see in our Gospel text.
“[Jesus said:] “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.” (Matthew 25:31-33) The return of our Lord is quite simple. Jesus comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him. Then the judgment comes. He separates the whole of humanity into two groups, those who are represented by the sheep and those represented by the goats. And you will be in one group or the other.
But here is the problem. You cannot trust your own perceptions. Jesus welcomes the sheep into the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world. The goats, on the other hand, are condemned into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. And so the great cry comes out, “Why?” The sheep want to know why they get the kingdom and the goats want to know why they get the fire. Jesus had given them both the reason for their success or failure and it all rested upon what they did with Jesus. The sheep cared for Jesus. The goats did not.
Now here is where the whole issue of perception comes in to play. To the sheep Jesus said, “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.” (Matthew 25:35-36) To this the sheep ask, “When did we do that?” To the goats Jesus said, “For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” (Matthew 25:42-43) And what do the goats ask? “When did we not do that?”
Do you see the issue? What the sheep perceived is that they failed to care for Jesus and what the goats perceived is that they always cared for Jesus. The sheep perceived that they failed to do good works while the goats perceived that they did good works. Yet, both perceptions were wrong. The perceptions of man were not in line with the perceptions of God. God’s judgment was beyond the perception of man. It was beyond the comprehension of man. And this is why we must go back to Genesis 1.
When the King, Jesus Christ Himself, points to the kingdom prepared from the foundation of the world we are pointed back to the God who is above and beyond creation. We are brought back to the God who set into motion the very plan of our salvation even before the foundation of the world. For there, when in the counsel of the Trinity it was established that the Son would go to the cross to die for the sins of humanity, the kingdom was established. God would be the God who did the work and man would be part of the creation that would benefit from His work. Thus, the proclamation in Ezekiel is not a plan B or an afterthought. Rather, it is a Gospel proclamation of what God had planned from the beginning.
There is tension when it comes to doing good works. We cannot deny that good works must be done and yet we cannot rely upon our good works to gain us salvation. The issue, again, is how are we to recognize good works according to God’s perception rather than ours? We cannot walk away and live for ourselves thinking that God no longer requires us to do good works. And yet, we must acknowledge our inability to truly do good works that are in line with God. The sheep were sheep not because they rebelled of doing good works. Rather, they were sheep because they lived their lives focused upon Jesus. Thus, He was able to do the good works through them because they were not in His way but followed where He led.
The goats on the other hand were so preoccupied with doing good works that there was no room for Christ to be present. They thought they were caring for the hungry, the naked, and the sick but they were only giving out of human abundance. They did not give the bread of life. They did not cover the nakedness with a robe of righteousness. They comforted the symptoms of death and all the while stood in the way of the one who is the way, the truth, and life itself. Now note, they may have been successful on many occasions but the issue is that they failed when it came to just one of the least of these. As Jesus said, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ (Matthew 25:45)
All too often, we as Christians can put forth a false image of salvation by saying that you must be obedient and do good works. On the other hand, we can go to the opposite extreme and overlook the need to do good works. We harm the least of these by demanding that they do good works and we also harm them by refusing to do them ourselves. In the end, when we only live based upon our own perceptions, we fail both God and neighbor. Our only hope is to simply live out our lives through daily confession and absolution; daily confessing our emptiness before God and daily hearing the forgive He gives. Through this work of our confession, God is able to bring forth His work of salvation not only into our lives but also the lives or our neighbors, the lives of the least of these.
Hear again what it is that the Lord requires. “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.”
Now hear these words from the prophet Ezekiel and see the work of God. “For thus says the Lord God:” Now just a footnote here, this is the Son speaking. This is Jesus telling us what He will do.
“Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered,” This is the Jesus born of Mary. “so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness.” This is the crucifixion. “And I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land. And I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel.” This is the new Jerusalem. “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.” (Ezekiel 34:11-16) This is what we see with the sheep and the goats.
Salvation rests in the work of God, the very work of Jesus Christ our Lord. Your salvation rests in the work of God. The salvation of your neighbor rests in your willingness to be a new creation, the work of God done in you for their sake. “In the beginning, God created the heavens and the earth.” And guess what, He didn’t seek our approval or wisdom. He is God and we are not. Yet, it was the desire of God that He would be one with His creation and that He accomplished through the sinless life, the agonizing sufferings and death, and the resurrection unto life by Jesus Christ, the only begotten of the Father.
In Jesus Christ, justice has come. The judgment we deserved was poured out upon Him as He suffered and died upon the cross. Therefore you are forgiven and He now feeds you true justice in His very body and blood given and shed for you. So do not be fooled by your perception. What is put into your mouth is not mere bread and wine; it is the very work of God which has sought you out and brought you home. So now, may the work of God continue in you as you go forth into a world of hungry and thirsty souls who long to be loved with the very love of God living in you and through you. Amen.