Be Ready - Matthew 25:31-46
An audio recording of this sermon is available.
The Turner prize for art is normally a focus for controversy, and this year was no exception. The £20,000 prize went to Martin Creed who according to the Guardian is ‘famous for his composition in using everyday materials. He is keen to recapture the original spirit of conceptual art - where it's the thought that counts - and has shown plenty of works that are no more than sheets of paper with a few words on.’ His portfolio for the prize included screwed up newspaper, a piece of blue tack impressed with a thumb print and his centre piece winning work entitled ‘Lights going on and off’ , which describes exactly what it was-lights going on and off. This has led many to wonder just what criteria the judges use to determine what constitutes ‘good art.’ Whether in fact they are capable of spotting good art if they fell over it. Well, few years ago the competence of some other judges was seriously brought into question when an unknown artist was showcased by the Manchester Academy of Fine Arts. The judges then selected a watercolour entitled ‘Rhythm of the Trees,’ which displayed, they opined, "a certain quality of colour balance, composition and technical skill." The artist, it turned out, was a four year old child. You see, when it comes to the matter of being assessed; whether it is our car for an MOT, our child’s education for their GCSE or our own state of health carried out by an MD, we have a right to expect the best. Folk who know exactly what they are doing and will do it well, without fear nor favour. How much more, then, should we expect only the very the best when our lives are assessed at the end of time? When what is at stake is not simply our future reputation but our eternal destiny?
Well, in the passage that we are looking at together this morning, Matthew 25:31ff we discover that that is exactly what will happen. Judgement day is coming, that is the most certain thing in the whole world, the question is, will we be ready? How can we be ready? That, in part, is what this penetrating and in many ways disturbing picture painted by Jesus, answers. So we had better study this visionary masterpiece with tremendous care. There are three aspects of this picture I want us to look at- the judge, the judged and the judgement.
First of all, the judge. Just look at the terms Jesus uses to describe himself on that awesome day-v31: ‘ When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his heavenly throne.’ And v 34: ‘ Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come you who are blessed by my Father.’
Artists, should judge artists, car mechanics should assess cars, teachers quite rightly assess their pupils. Who then should judge human beings? Well, ideally a fellow human being of course. Someone who has walked this weary war torn world. Who has known the pull of temptation, the disappointment of love betrayed, the grief of loved one’s lost. We need someone who has experienced the whole gamut of human emotions, its troughs as well as its peaks, and has had to wrestle with all the struggles common to humanity, for only then would they be in a position to say: ‘I know exactly where you are coming from, for I have been there too.’ And that is precisely what the world is presented with in Jesus who took to himself this title, ‘Son of Man’- i.e. he is one of us. More than that he represents us, he is our spokesman, our federal head. As Adam once represented us in a Garden, Jesus now represents us in heaven. Now I don’t know about you, but I take some comfort from knowing that. We are never too impressed are we? when someone comes along telling us what we should or shouldn't be doing who really haven’t ever proved themselves on the ground. I think it was George Bernard Shaw who said ‘Those who can do. Those who can’t, teach. Those who can’t teach, teach teachers.’ It may be a little cynical but many of us have had enough experience to know there is more than a grain of truth in that. But no such thing can be said of this judge. He has been there. Born into the filth of a cattle shed, stumbling as he takes his first steps, dribbling as he is fed, only to be impaled on a stake when he is fully grown, forsaken by his friends and left naked and bleeding for all the world to see. Oh, the Son of Man says too, ‘ I have been there too and- triumphed.’
But not only is this judge human, he is also divine, notice what he says in v 34 ,he speaks of ‘My Father.’ This is not only the Son of Man, then, this is the unique Son of God. As such his knowledge is infallible, his judgements impeccable, his wisdom inscrutable. He knows everything about us. If we have any mitigating circumstances ,he is fully aware of them. In the glory of his omniscience he has been following our progress from the moment we were conceived, according to psalm 139. As man not only does he know from the inside what it is like to be human, as God he knows from the outside, what it is like to be me. Now can you think of anyone better qualified to judge me than a person like that? Someone who in one person combines fully the divine and human natures -all knowing, all wise, all just? That is Jesus.
But not only is Jesus qualified to judge, he has every right to judge for he is described as ‘The King.’ What Adam was intended to be but failed, the one who was to rule this world with love and fairness-Jesus succeeds. God has made him the rightful ruler of this planet and the inhabitants of this planet-you and me. So our lives are not our own to do with whatever we please, they belong to Jesus, whether we like it or not ,whether we recognise it or not. And that is why every single one of us will one day appear before him, he owns us and as such will judge us.
So lets look at the judged -v 32 ‘ All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people from one another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right side and the goats on his left.’ Now here we have a mix of imagery. First, there is that of the all conquering King who gathers his new subjects around him to determine which have been loyal to him and so will continue in his kingdom and which have been traitors, his enemies, and so are to be banished. The second image is that of a shepherd who during the day allows goats to come in and mingle and graze with his flock of sheep, but who at night when they are to settle down in their folds separates them out, allowing only the sheep to go in, which is not as easy as it sounds because Palestinian goats look pretty much like Palestinian sheep. So the question is this: How is the Shepherd-King to decide who are the loyal subjects and who are the rebels- after all, people look pretty much the same from the outside. How can he tell the sheep from the goats, they too both smell pretty dire and bleat? What is the basis for deciding to which of these two groups people belong? And notice there are only two. Those who are placed on the right of the King and those placed on his left, the right hand of a Near eastern monarch signifying approval and the left hand denoting condemnation. Just who are the righteous-v37? And who are the cursed destined for eternal hell in v 41? Could I ask: Do you honestly know which group you are going to belong to if you keep on as you are doing at the moment? Is it simply a matter of being religious? Is it calling yourself a Christian, saying the Creed and coming to this building whenever you feel you can make it? Well, not according to Jesus and here the world is in for a surprise as we come to - the judgement itself.
Now you may say there is nothing surprising at all about this. It is simply what most people expect anyway- good people get to heaven, those who care for the sick and needy, who visit those in prison and hospital, while it is the mean and selfish who don’t do any of these things that have got it coming on judgement day. Heaven is full of nice people and hell is full of bad people. So you can be just as good a Christian not going to church and being kind to one another. Is that it?. Well, that is certainly how some would read this passage. And so they would go on to talk of the ‘anonymous Christian’-that is the good Buddhist who has never even heard of Christ who will be accepted by him on the day of judgement on the basis of his good deeds. He may not have realised it but simply by being generous to the poor he was being generous to Jesus, so in he comes.
Well, if that is so then we do have a major problem, because that idea flatly contradicts everything else the New testament teaches, namely ,that we are saved by grace, through putting our faith in Christ’s work on the cross-the sinless one dying for sinners. We contribute nothing to our salvation except our sin and we accept God’s forgiveness with nothing to offer in return.
However, there are two other important things to bear in mind. The first is that the Bible does make a link between faith and works, what we claim to believe and what we actually do. So while we are not saved by good works, we are saved for good works. It is blasphemous to say, ‘Yes I believe in Jesus, yes he died for my sins,’ but I will not allow it to make any difference to the way I behave at work, or treat the wife, or fill in my tax return. And yet that is precisely what many professing Christians do, and as we shall see in a moment it is that sort of hypocrisy the final judgement will expose.
In the second place we need to pay close attention to what the passage actually says, which means paying attention to some of the detail. Now remember these are words spoken by Jesus to his disciples who want to know about the lead up to the end of the world. They, like most of his audience at the time were Jews. As far as they were concerned, it was a matter of belonging to the right group which meant belonging to Israel, even becoming if you like an honorary Jew through circumcision and keeping the ritual, that was what made you one of God’s sheep. Now Jesus here speaks of ‘all the nations’ literally all the ‘pagans’, and from some of these comes God’s sheep, members of the Kingdom. So membership of this kingdom is no longer based upon national affiliation or religious heritage-being a Jew. What is more this inheritance spoken of in v 34 in which the righteous are to share, the happiness of God, has been prepared for them since before the world was made, before they were even born-in short it is a gift of God not dependent upon merit.
So what are the reasons for accepting some but not others? How do you know that you are a sheep and not a goat? We are told in vv 35 and 45. And it is all to do with people’s true attitude towards the King as revealed by their actions towards his subjects .The King says to his people, v 35 ‘For, here is the basis for my judgement- when I was hungry you gave me something to eat, thirsty something to drink, naked, you clothed me’ and so on. Doing things for Jesus, the King. But how? When did this take place ? They ask. The answer?-v 40 ‘Whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did it for me.’ Who are these brothers of the King? Earlier in Matthew’s Gospel we are told-12:49 ‘Whoever does the will of my Father’.-is my brother and sister. And when Jesus speaks of ‘the least of these’, it is very similar to what he says in chapter 10 when he is speaking of people accepting his disciples as his messengers and so Jesus -the King himself, when he says : ‘ If anyone gives a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple will certainly not lose his reward.’ (10:42). So do you see what the basis for judgement and approval will be? It is whether we accept and love Jesus. And whether we really accept and love Jesus is measured not by how much we say or how much we sing, but by how much we love and care for fellow believers, those in need, including ,those who bring God’s message to us who can often be the ones throw into prison or struggling in poverty-as evidenced by the apostles themselves. As Jesus said elsewhere to his disciples, ’Whoever accepts you, accepts me and whoever accepts me accepts the one who sent me.’
Let me read to you some words spoken by Martin Luther at Christmas 1534, ‘ There are many who think: ‘If only I had been there. How quick I would have been to help the baby. I would have washed his linen. How happy I would have been to go with the shepherds to see the Lord lying in the manger.’ Yes you would. You say that because you know how great Christ is, but if you had been there at the time you would have been no better than the people of Bethlehem. Childish and silly thoughts are these. Why don't you do it now? You have Christ in your neighbour.’ And he’s right, you have Christ with you this morning, sitting in front of you, ten rows behind you. You have Christ in the lonely Christian widow, the bewildered Christian teenager, the isolated Christian asylum seeker. You see, these people who are placed at Jesus right hand and told to come in and enjoy the Father’s blessing for all eternity, are not particularly conscious of doing these things - as if they thought to themselves, ‘Oh I must ask that Christian into my home this Christmas because that is going to earn me a few points by inviting Jesus in.’ No, they did what came naturally. This is the authentic mark of a Christian - they love one another-and they show it.
But what of the others, the goats? Well, they simply did nothing. ‘When did we see you hungry, thirsty, a stranger, or needing clothes or sick or in prison?’ And the King will reply ‘Whatever you did not do for the least of one of these you did not do for me.’ It is the ‘least’ of Jesus brothers, they overlooked, the ones they didn’t consider worth it, they were just invisible to them. And you can be quite sure that amongst this crowd will be those who in all honesty would have numbered themselves as Christian-notice in v44 they too call him ‘Lord’, but who by their inaction, have shown that they had never really embraced the Christian message into their hearts because it has never really affected their lives. Some no doubt would be sound in orthodoxy, regular in church attendance, paid up members of the Church of England even - but showing no Christian charity at all where it counts the most - to Christ’s people in need. Do I exaggerate? Can professing believers possibly behave as Jesus describes here?
I have a friend who is a Vicar in London. His name is Shaun Atkins. Shaun now suffers from ME, and not surprising really. His wife you may have heard of, Ann Atkins, broadcaster and journalist. A few years ago she wrote an article after they had moved as Shaun took up a new post in an allegedly ‘evangelical bible believing church.’ This is part of what she wrote: ‘Eighteen months ago we were invited to a wedding where a large proportion of the 300 guests were clergy, not surprising, since both bride and groom were Christian workers and the service was being conducted by a bishop. As we chattered, others asked how we were and how Shaun had enjoyed his first six months. And almost without exception , the clergy and their spouses said to us, ‘Oh, those first two years in a parish. How well we remember the hate mail! The AGM’s which ended in tears! The church wardens who tried to get rid of us.’ Well, its been two years now, and Shaun has had enough interesting letters to paper his wall, including one complaining about a Christmas Day service before he got there; one moaning about our children's’ behaviour in church on a weekend they were away; one from a neighbour maintaining that we’re such bad neighbours that it was the Atkins family, not the recession which reduced the value of the property’, and one-our favourite-complaining about a guest service on the grounds that it was, most outrageously, full of guests.’ I am glad to say that under God the church has been turned, but not without a price - Shaun’s health. A very nice respectable church you see, full of very nice respectable people, who each Sunday returned to their nice respectable homes and on Monday went to their nice respectable jobs but who had no respect for Jesus, as displayed by the fact that they had no respect for Jesus’ servants.
There are only two judgements- eternal life and eternal punishment and eternity is a very, very long time, in it never ends. And which destiny we will have all turns upon our relationship with this King- Jesus. And this is decided not by what we say but by what we do. Changed lives as well as professing lips is what this King is looking for -radical Christianity which is real Christianity, whereby we see the need of our Christian sister or brother and practically respond to it. That is the only measure Jesus will allow as the test our true love and devotion to him, the extent to which we are devoted to one another.
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