Sunday, November 14, 2010

Homily for the Second-Last Sunday in the Church Year


Matthew 25:31-46; 2 Peter 3:3-14; Daniel 7:9-14

In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.

Dearly beloved in our Lord Jesus Christ, we have entered hereunto the last days of the Church’s Year of Grace wherein, as we prepare for the annual commemoration of the nativity of our Lord at Christmas, we, simultaneously, prepare for His second coming as King and Judge. Indeed, the last three Sundays of the Church Year and the four Sundays of Advent serve together as a time for such preparation not unlike our Lenten preparation for Holy Week and Easter. In northern European tradition, these six weeks have been known as St. Martin’s Lent, named for the fourth century Father of the Church, St. Martin of Tours, who is commemorated on November 11th and for whom our more recent Father and namesake Martin Luther, whose birthday we celebrated on November 10th, was named.

Why does the Church set aside so much time for preparation? Why all the waiting for something to happen? Because preparation, waiting, and patience are what the Christian faith and life are all about – waiting on the Lord, trusting Him in patience, preparing for His return. When St. Peter warns of Christ’s return and judgment, he rhetorically asks “What sort of people ought you to be?” Then, he answers, live lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God. Here, the Biblical metaphor of leaven is useful for understanding. Leaven is put in place by the baker and then the dough is set aside for a while to rise. It is during this set aside time that the leaven does its work of causing the dough to rise – and, as we know, a little leaven leavens the whole lump. The leaven simply does what leaven does, it leavens. Slowly, and in an unseen way, the whole lump of dough is affected and is transformed.

This is what the kingdom of God is like. To unbelievers, it seems like foolishness, for the world appears to go on as it always has, filled with evil and wickedness, wars, disease, and death as the sun rises and sets day after day. And, this is true, in many ways it is the same old world filled with the same kinds of sinful men. But, slowly, patiently, in a hidden and unseen way, change has been taking place, beginning with God’s first promise of a savior after the fall of Adam and Eve, all the way to the death of the Son of God on a Friday afternoon two thousand years ago, to today, and tomorrow, and as many tomorrows as the Lord may grant us. A transformation is taking place, a leavening, and it is God who is doing the work, in God’s way, in God’s time, patiently, that all should reach repentance.

Now, waiting in patience is only reasonable if you expect that something is going to happen. Most of you would not wait an hour and a half in the doctor’s office if you didn’t believe that you were going to get to see the doctor. In a similar way, we wait patiently for the coming of the Lord, trusting in God’s promise that He will come. And, the question, then, for us, is not “What do we do while we wait?” but, it is “What sort of people ought we to be?” For, the Son of Man is coming in 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.

This judgment and separation is going to happen, that’s a bonafide guarantee. All people are either sheep or goats, and the Lord, and only the Lord, knows who’s which. And, moreover, it has nothing to do with people being either good or bad, and it has nothing to do with their works. For, the sheep and the goats exist together in the one flock of the Good Shepherd just as the wheat and the tares are permitted to grow together in the same field until the harvest. But, then the sorting, then the judgment, and that is done only by the Lord. So, again, it is not being good or being bad that makes one a sheep or a goat, a stalk of wheat or a tare, and, it is not about works, but, it is about what you areare you righteous? And, no one can make themselves righteous, no one can work their way into righteousness anymore than a goat can make itself into a sheep or a tare into wheat. If you are righteous, that is because you have been made to be, declared to be righteous by God. And, God has already declared, already judged all men to be righteous in Jesus’ blood. So, if you are not righteous, if you are a goat or a tare, then you have rejected God’s external righteousness for yourself. For, righteousness comes by grace through faith in Christ alone, just as it came to Abraham: And, Abraham believed God, and God counted that to Abraham as righteousness.

But, doesn’t Jesus credit the righteous for their good works, that they gave Him food and drink, welcomed Him, clothed Him, and visited Him? Sure He does! But, their good works did not make them righteous, God did! Their works were the fruit of their righteousness, and the righteous one’s didn’t even know they were doing them, let alone did they know that they were doing them to Jesus. They are like leaven that leavens because it is leaven, placed in the world, but not of the world, by God, to leaven it. Furthermore, their blessedness and inheritance, and, do take note of the passiveness of those words, was prepared for them before the foundation of the world. Thus, the good works of the sheep are counted to them as righteousness – they are not righteousness, but Jesus treats them that way! The righteous sheep are praised, not for their good works, but for their faith, their trust in Jesus all along, throughout their lives.

But, what about the goats? Well, the terrible truth is that they, too, have been declared righteous in Jesus Christ, they are in the flock of the Good Shepherd, but they do not trust in Christ but in their works. They cry out “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?” And Jesus will answer them, “As you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” You see, the goats put their trust in their works, not in Jesus, therefore they are judged by their works, and, necessarily, they come up short. But, again, the terrible truth is that they, like the sheep, have been declared to be, made to be righteous in the blood of Jesus. But, because of the blindness of their unbelief, they will have cut themselves off from the salvation they already had – from the favorable judgment that, but for the noise of their own works, they would otherwise have heard.

For, in the end, salvation is not about works, it’s not even about being good or bad, sheep or goats, but salvation is about faith, faith in Christ Jesus, blind trust in His acceptance: The one who believes in Him is not judged: but the one who does not believe has been judged already because he has not believed in the name of the only begotten Son of God. The goats on the left are not bad people loaded down with sins of omission. The sheep on the right are not do-gooders. Jesus habitually avoids depicting badness as an obstacle to the kingdom, just as he carefully steers clear of making goodness one of its entrance requirements. The kingdom is not taken by force and violence, nor is it merited by works, but, rather, it is received in faith and is entered in no other way.

Thus, the Church, in Her wisdom, has established times of waiting and preparation so that all will have the opportunity to stop focusing so much upon what they do and to focus, instead, upon what God, in Christ, has done, that, when He comes, we might be found patiently waiting, without spot or blemish, and at peace – waiting and trusting, not in our works, but in Christ alone, that in His suffering and death, He has made us to be righteous and His holy sheep. This is the time to stop all doing and to recommence being – being blessed, being righteous, being godly, begin holy, being a sheep, being leaven in the world but not of the world. God has put you here, and, yes, He has a purpose for you, but, you don’t have to discover it, chose it, experience it, or wrangle over it, anymore than a sheep wrangles over what it means to be a sheep. Sheep eat and sheep drink, sheep walk and sheep rest – sheep do sheepy things. Sheep do not worry or think too much about what they’re doing, but sheep trust, sheep believe, and sheep have faith in their Good Shepherd to lead them, feed them, guard them, and protect them. And, this, your Good Shepherd does for you here, today, now, with His Word and His Wounds – His holy body and His precious blood – that you may be well prepared for His return and may inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.

In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.

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