Sunday, November 15, 2015
Homily for The Second-Last Sunday of the Church Year (Trinity 26)
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.
Take note of how Jesus describes the Judgment on the Last Day: “He will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” You see, the people are already either sheep or goats. In a very real sense, they have been judged already. For, as the preacher to the Hebrews proclaims, “It is appointed for man to die once, and after that comes judgment.” Therefore, what Jesus describes in Matthew 25 is, in actuality, the sorting and the rendering of the sentence – eternal life in heaven, or eternal damnation in hell. For, as St. John proclaims, the Good Shepherd knows His sheep, and His sheep know Him. He gives them eternal life, and no one can snatch them out of His hand.
Now, to be sure, with just a casual hearing, it may sound as though, on the Last Day, that you will be judged on account of your works. Truly, we confess as much in the Athanasian Creed, which I know brings many of you consternation each year when we confess it together on Trinity Sunday saying, “And those who have done good will enter into eternal life, and those who have done evil into eternal fire.” However, you must understand that there is only one hope for your works to be counted as good, and that hope is that God the Father views your works through the purifying lens of Jesus’ holy, innocent shed blood. For, good works do not, and cannot, justify, for they are produced, only and always, by fallen, sin-corrupted men and women. Thus, even the Prophet Isaiah confessed of himself saying that the very best of his works were but filthy rags.
And so it is that the goats will stand before the Lord on the Last Day with only the filthy rags of their sin-corrupted works. And, because of this, the Lord will judge them cursed and will sentence them to “the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” However, the sheep, too, will stand before the Lord on the Last Day with only the filthy rags of their sin-corrupted works. And, yet, they will be judged “blessed by [the] Father” and they will “inherit the kingdom prepared for [them] from the foundation of the world.” So, if both the sheep and the goats stand before the Lord with their sin-corrupted, filthy-rag-like works, then why are the sheep judged blessed and why are the goats judged cursed? Well, it’s not the works, but it’s the way in which the Lord looks upon the works and upon those who perform them. For, they are, both the sheep and the goats, fallen, corrupted sinners. And, if they were to be judged by their works alone, naked, in and of themselves, then they would all be damned. However, the sheep have something that the goats don’t have; the sheep have the sprinkled, purifying blood of Jesus, which speaks a better Word than the accusing blood of Abel. The holy, innocent shed blood of Jesus does not make their works to be good or holy, and neither does it make the person to be righteous or holy, but it does change the way God the Father looks at you and at your works. For, in the holy, innocent shed blood of Jesus, the Lord looks at your sin-corrupted, filthy-rag-like works and He sees only goodness and holiness and righteousness. And, in the holy, innocent shed blood of Jesus, the Lord looks at your goatish self and He sees only His precious, holy, righteous, and beloved sheep. Therefore, on the Last Day, if you are a sheep, you are a sheep, not because of your works, but you are a sheep because of the holy, innocent shed blood of Jesus. You are counted as a righteous sheep because you trust not in your works for justification before the Lord, but your faith and your trust is in Jesus Christ and in His meritorious work alone. The goats will be those whose fear, love, and trust for justification before the Lord is in something, or someone else, most typically in themselves.
Still, you do not suddenly become a sheep or a goat on the Last Day, but you are a sheep or a goat now. Yet, you are a sheep or a goat now in the same way, and by the same means, that you will be recognized as a sheep or a goat on the Last Day – by the holy, innocent shed blood of Jesus. You see, we all start out as goats. The Holy Spirit calls you to be His sheep by the Gospel, gathers you and enlightens you with His gifts, and sanctifies and keeps you in the true faith. Thus, your being a sheep is objective. It comes from outside of you. While you were still a sinner, Christ died for you. However, once you became the Lord’s sheep, then you began to do truly sheepy things. In your God-given sheepishness, you began to desire to do the sheepy things your Lord desires and commands you to do. You began to do works that are truly good – good, not because they are good in themselves, for no filthy-rag-like work of a corrupted sinner is good in itself, – but good before the Lord because of the holy, innocent shed blood of Jesus. This, the Church calls sanctification, and it flows out of, and is the fruit of, your justification. When the Holy Spirit called you by the Gospel, and gathered and enlightened you with His gifts, He also sanctified you – He declared you to be holy in the holy, innocent shed blood of Jesus. But then, the Holy Spirit continued, and He continues still, to actually make you to be holy.
The Holy Spirit makes you to actually be holy, not all at once mind you, for you could not endure such a thing, but gradually, over the entire time of your life. He makes you holy through the trials and tribulations you face and endure. He makes you holy through the selfless acts of love and mercy and compassion with which you serve others as you have received the same from the Lord yourself. He makes you holy when you suffer and endure ridicule and persecution for the sake of Jesus. In all these ways, and in many more, the Holy Spirit sanctifies you, He makes you to be holy, even as He has already declared to you be holy in the holy, innocent shed blood of Jesus. However, you will not be fully holy, perfectly holy, until the Lord raises you from death on the Last Day. Therefore, throughout your life, from its new beginning in Holy Baptism until your death, you live in the grace of being declared holy before the Lord by the holy, innocent shed blood of Jesus in which you trust solely and completely for justification before the Lord. That is what makes you sheep, even if you are far from a perfect sheep and sometimes, even frequently, do goaty, rather than sheepy, things.
The truth is that, when you are doing the sheepy things you have been called to do, you typically are not aware that you are doing them. You are unaware because you are simply doing what sheep do – eating, drinking, following your Shepherd, lying down and resting, etc. More than that, however, you are doing what you have been called and given to do in all the relationships you have with other people. The Church calls this your vocation. Are you a husband or a wife, a father or a mother, a son or a daughter, an employer or an employee, a teacher, a preacher, a butcher, a baker, or a candlestick maker? Your vocation(s) is where your Lord has called you to live and serve as His sheep, to do the sheepy things He has called you to do. And, on the Last Day, the Lord’s sheep do not recall serving Him when He was hungry and thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, or imprisoned because they were simply doing what they were given to do, to those whom the Lord had given them to do them to. Moreover, they did not keep a tally of their good works, for they knew that their works were not good enough to merit anything, but that the Lord counted them as His sheep, not because of their works, but because of the holy, innocent shed blood of Jesus.
In contrast, the goats were busy doing what goats do – and, frankly, that often doesn’t look a whole lot different than the sheep! – foraging for food, wandering off on their own, seeking to satisfy their every desire and amusement, etc. While they may still serve their neighbor in various ways, they do not do it with the awareness and intentionality of their God-given vocations, but they do it for the praise they receive from men, with the expectation of a return, or perhaps from a purely humanitarian sense of what is right to do towards one’s fellow man. However, the reason that they are goats is not because of their works, but it is because they have refused, or failed to receive, the Lord’s gracious gift in Jesus’ holy, innocent shed blood.
So, what is the point of today’s Gospel? Very simply, it is this: You are justified, you are a sheep, by faith and trust in the holy, innocent shed blood of Jesus – period. If your faith and your trust are in Jesus, if you are baptized into His death and resurrection, if you regularly receive His gifts in Word and Sacrament, then you are a holy and righteous sheep before the Lord and you can take comfort and be secure in your justification and salvation, for it is not by your works that you are justified and saved, but it is by Christ’s work for you in which you trust. And, because you are a sheep, you will do sheepy things – period. Don’t bother to count them, and most certainly do not succumb to the temptation to put your trust in them. Don’t boast about them, but give thanks to God for them, that He has given them to you to perform for the sake of others to the glory of His Name.
And, because you are the Lord’s sheep, continue to follow your Good Shepherd and to receive from Him the good things He gives you to forgive yours sin, to strengthen your faith, and to sustain and equip you for the sheepy good works He has called and given you to perform. That is to say, continue to gather here on the Lord’s Day and on each and every Feast Day, with the rest of the flock the Spirit has called, gathered, sanctified, and kept in this place around the Holy Word and the Blessed Sacraments of Christ. The Spirit gathers you here as He gathered Noah and his family in the ark to save you from the destroying flood of God’s wrath against sin. That Ark was Jesus in whom you have died and have been raised. Remain in Him, and He will remain in you, and you will bear much, and sheepy, fruit to the glory of His Name.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.