Last Sunday Of The Church Year – Vicar Schleusener
Grace, mercy, and peace be unto you from God our Father, and from our Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ.
Jesus’ description of the final judgment, which is our Gospel reading for today, is one that people routinely mishandle. People who love the apocryphal book of Revelation and its description of long lines of people waiting to be judged one at a time usually ignore Jesus’s words here because they describe something very different. People who want to be justified by their own works rather than by the grace of God will twist Jesus’ words to argue in favor of the idea that we’re ultimately justified by works rather than by grace through faith. And likewise, the people who reject the fundamental truth that no one can come to the Father apart from Jesus Christ twist things to insist that this passage describes a possible pathway to salvation even for those who have rejected Christ. Fortunately, this passage becomes quite plain in its meaning when we let the text speak for itself. So let’s turn to the text now, and see how things play out with the two groups of people that Jesus speaks of.
To begin with, note how Jesus, the King and the Son of Man, begins His address to each of the two groups. When He speaks to the sheep, the ones who are being saved, He begins by saying, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” In this one short sentence, three things are made clear.
First, that those who are saved are blessed by the Father. This is very much in keeping with Jesus’ words in John 6 (6:44), that no one can come to Jesus unless the Father draws him. It’s God’s blessing that brings salvation, not human works. Second, those who are being saved inherit a kingdom. They don’t claim this kingdom for themselves, but receive it passively, as heirs receive an inheritance. Third, this blessing and this inheritance have been prepared from the foundation of the world. God has blessed them by graciously appointing them to salvation even from the very foundation of the world. We aren’t saved because of a Divine afterthought, but because of a Divine forethought. Predestination to salvation is a thing.
On the other hand, Jesus’ address to the goats, the ones who are being damned, begins very differently. “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Not “you cursed of My Father” but simply “you cursed.” The curse of sin lies heavily on their heads, because they’re sinners and have lived accordingly. Their own sins have cursed them. God, however, has not. In other words, while there’s a predestination to salvation, there’s no comparable predestination to damnation.
But let’s turn now to how each group reacts to Jesus’ verdict for them. When Jesus speaks His verdict, both the sheep and the goats are confused, and wonder how in the world Jesus could be mistaking them for someone else. The sheep are confused because the righteous deeds that Jesus describes aren’t their own and they know it. The sheep are very much aware of their own sin. Aware of the truth that their righteous deeds earn them nothing in regards to salvation. And so all their righteous deeds have been done from faith and then promptly forgotten because they weren’t noteworthy. They were simply part of living life as a believer.
Is Jesus lying then, when He ascribes a litany of righteous acts to the sheep? Of course not! Rather, Jesus’ own omnipresent and perfect care for His beloved children has been ascribed to the sheep. Jesus has given food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, and clothing to the naked. Jesus has welcomed the stranger, visited the sick, and come to those in prison. The sheep have done these things only imperfectly, but Jesus has done them perfectly. And since the sheep have placed their faith on Jesus, when He looks at them on the day of judgment He sees them clothed in His own righteousness. And so He welcomes them to their eternal dwellings in heaven.
The goats, on the other hand, are confused because they see themselves as good people. Or at least, a lot better people than those really bad ones like Stalin, or Hitler, or Jeffery Epstein. The goats are convinced of their own righteousness, and can rattle off names, places, and situations in which they’ve cared for others. Has Jesus somehow failed to see them when they’ve done good things? Of course not! Rather, the goats can’t see how their attempts at righteous living were never more than an attempt to bribe God into ignoring their own sin. The sin that they themselves ignore, minimize, or gloss over as somehow insignificant. The sin that now curses them and dooms them to suffer the eternal fire with the devil and his angels because they depended on their own righteousness instead of the righteousness of Christ.
Both sheep and goats are confused, the sheep because they see their sin and the goats because they don’t. But Jesus has no such confusion. He is the one who separates the sheep from the goats, and He makes no mistakes. It’s quite ironic, really. The sheep, when asked where they deserve to go, would all answer that they deserved to go to hell, and yet Jesus calls them into heaven. The goats, when asked where they deserve to go, would all answer that they deserved to go to heaven, but Jesus sends them to hell.
So. If you’re content with the level of righteousness you think you have. If you’re convinced that your sins aren’t that big a deal. If you feel pretty good about how much your righteous acts seem to outweigh your mistakes. If this is you, tremble, and be afraid. Because this is how the goats feel even as Jesus condemns them.
If, on the other hand, you see your own sin with clarity. If you recognize the miserable state your sin leaves you in before God. Or if perhaps you are trembling in fear because you see the sin of the goats within yourself and recognize it for what it is. Repent, but don’t be afraid. Christ Himself, the One who will judge you on the last day, has suffered upon the cross for your sake. He Himself has paid the price for all of your sins. As His own sheep, hear His voice when He speaks His forgiveness to you in the words of the absolution and in the words of the consecration of the Supper. Know that these words are spoken to you, no matter the darkness of your sin. Believe His words as He both promises and gives you forgiveness, trust in Him and in His righteousness, and you will “inherit the kingdom [that God has] prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
The Lord’s table will soon be ready for you. So come. Eat, drink, and be comforted.
In the holy name of Jesus.