Sunday, November 29, 2015
Matthew 21:1-9; Romans 13:8-14; Jeremiah 23:5-8
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
One of the reforms the Roman Catholic Church affected in Vatican II was the renaming of the last Sunday of the Church Year to Christ the King Sunday. Caught up in the ecumenical fervor of the time, most liturgical Protestant denominations followed in suit, including the Evangelical Lutheran Church in America (ELCA). However, the LCMS did not, though it permits the observance of Christ the King Sunday as an alternative to the traditional propers for the Last Sunday of the Church Year. Why did the LCMS not adopt this particular reform of the liturgical calendar? Perhaps because we already have a Christ the King Sunday observance built into Historic Church Year calendar. However, it is not the Last Sunday of the Church Year, but rather, the first Sunday, that is today, Ad Te Levavi, The First Sunday In Advent. The Historic Gospel appointed for The First Sunday In Advent is the account of Jesus’ triumphal entry into Jerusalem on the day that has come to be known as Palm Sunday. In this Gospel pericope, Jesus rides into Jerusalem just like all the kings of Israel before Him, on a donkey or a mule, and the crowds received Him with jubilation as God’s anointed King of Israel by throwing down their cloaks and palm branches before Him and by hailing Him as the Blessed One who comes in the Name of the LORD.
Indeed, that is what this Gospel pericope is all about, Christ the King, both when it is read on Palm Sunday and today on this First Sunday In Advent. Indeed, St. Matthew, even more so than the other Evangelists, steeps His account in kingly prophecy and Messianic fulfillment in order to demonstrate without question or doubt that Jesus is the Christ, the Messiah, the anointed King of Israel, of all the Earth, of Heaven, and of everything that God has made. Matthew’s Jesus is fully aware of the prophecies and of Israel’s traditions concerning the coronation of a king. Jesus sends His disciples to procure the necessary donkey and her colt, fully expecting and knowing them to be there, for the LORD has foreordained it and Jesus is the fulfillment of all those kingly processions that came before Him. They were signposts pointing the way to Jesus. Matthew quotes the prophecy of Zechariah, “Behold, your King is coming to you, humble, and mounted on a donkey, and on a colt, the foal of a beast of burden.” For, humility, selflessness, sacrifice, and service were to be the mark of every king, but only Jesus took those traits to heart and fulfilled them perfectly. The people cried out, as they surely had done before, “Hosanna!” God save us! They surely meant just as they had meant before, “God save us through this man, your servant, our king!” But, this King was God’s own Son and not merely an instrument of temporary salvation from worldly oppression. He was not merely the one by whom Israel and all men would be saved, but He was God’s salvation of all men Himself. They hailed Him as the Son of David, the Messianic title, for He was truly David’s Son, but also David’s Lord. They hailed Him as the Blessed one who comes in the Name of the LORD. Truly He was blessed by the LORD and came in His Name, but even more, Jesus is the very Name of God incarnate.
In this Advent season we remember that our King has come. We hearken to the Baptist’s cry to repent and to prepare the way for the coming of our Lord. Even as servants would go before their king and prepare his way by leveling the road before him, filing in the holes and leveling the high spots, so by repentance are the mountains of our pride and the valleys of our hopelessness and despair smoothed and leveled that our King may easily enter into our hearts. May we ever lay down our cloaks and palm branches in humility and selflessness and love before our King who comes to us in mercy, love, compassion, and forgiveness. And, may we ever show this same mercy, love, compassion, and forgiveness to our brothers and sisters in Christ, to our neighbors, and to all men, even to those who hate us and mean us harm.
Our King has come! But, how do men receive Him? While many received Him that first Palm Sunday in Jerusalem, even ascribing to Him Messianic titles and the blessing of God, many more rejected Him, and before the end of that week, no one stood by Him, but all, actively or passively, handed Him over to death on the cross. Our King has come, and that’s a fact. But, how do men receive Him? Do you receive Him in faith to your great blessing? Or, do you reject Him in unbelief to your judgment and condemnation? All in Israel were looking for salvation, salvation from their Roman occupiers and oppressors. All were looking for a king, a king who would do something, a king who would lead them in rebellion and conquer their foes, a king who would make their name great once again among the nations of the world. Oh yes! God be praised, indeed, when He comes as so many kings before Him. But, down with Him when He mounts, not Herod’s throne, nor Pilate’s, nor Caesar’s, but the pitiable throne of shame and scorn and death, the cross. How quickly the shouts of “Hosanna!” turned to cries of “Crucify!”
So very soon would they fulfill the prophecies by raising Him up on the cursed tree. Most thought they were crucifying a false Christ, an imposter king, a criminal insurrectionist, but many others knew that they crucified their Messiah, their King, even the very Son of their God and Creator. But, God Himself raised Him up as a Righteous Branch. God Himself raised Him up as did Moses the bronze serpent in the wilderness, that all victims of Satanic snakebite unto death may look to Him and live. God Himself raised Him up that men would cease looking to themselves, cease looking to their works and their piety, cease looking to their own filthy-rag righteousness, cease looking to their own false divinity, and gaze upon the objective righteousness God gave as a free gift to the whole world and live. For, God so loved the world in this way: He gave His only-begotten Son that whoever looks to Him, whoever believes and trusts in Him, will not perish but live.
This is what God’s King looks like. And, this is what God’s King was given, and came, to do. But, how do men receive Him? How do you receive Him? Do you receive Him gladly with praise and thanksgiving when things are going your way, but begin to doubt and grumble and complain when your fortune turns? Whether the LORD is in a giving mode or a taking mode, we must confess with Job, “Blessed be the Name of the LORD,” for all is His, you are His, and He will steward and manage His creation as He knows best. Are you offended by the seemingly backward and pitiable ways in which He chooses to interact with His creation? Do His gifts of Word and Sacrament offend you in their simplicity, that He deigns to give you holy things through the means of sinful, fallen, and corrupt materials and men? Does your King’s torn, tortured, and lifeless body upon this cross offend you because you think of your God, not in weakness, humility, and death, but in glorious victory without suffering? You are no different than those who received their King on Palm Sunday who, within days, rejected Him and nailed Him to the tree.
No, you are no different. That’s also what this Gospel, and this Advent Season, is all about. You are no different. You are a sinner. Your wisdom and expectations are fallen, corrupted, and sinful. You consider God’s good things to be evil and man’s evil things to be good. You see glory in wealth and power and success, while your God reveals His glory in humility, lowliness, selflessness, and sacrifice. You still must hearken to the Baptist’s cry, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand!” You still must have your mountains of pride brought low and your valleys of hopelessness and despair filled in that you may receive your King, your Lord, and your God into your heart, into your mind, and into your soul. For, King Jesus did not take His seat upon Herod’s throne, or Pilate’s, or Caesar’s, but He sat down at the right hand of God in Heaven as Lord, God, and King of heaven and earth, that He might fill all things – that He might be your King, and the King of your body and soul, your heart and mind.
Repent, for the kingdom of God is at hand! How will you meet your King? Once again our Epistle lesson describes what the Christian life should look like and be. St. Paul says that you must love: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” “Love does no wrong to a neighbor; therefore love is the fulfilling of the Law.” Why is love the fulfilling of the Law? Love is the fulfilling of the Law because, while it is focused outward upon another, it can only flow from what you have received from God yourself. This is to say that, when you love another, that is living proof that you have received love from God. For, you love with God’s love in Christ, even as you give of His gifts and forgive with His forgiveness. This can only happen when you have obeyed and fulfilled the First Commandment, when your fear, love, and trust is in God above all things. If you fulfill the First, then you have fulfilled them all, and the fulfillment of the First and of all the Commandments is love. For, love is not a work, but love is a gift. Love is the gift we have all received and which we remember at Christmas. For God so loved the world that He gave…, He gave the gift of His Son. As God has loved you, so you must also love one another. You must love one another, not because your love is a meritorious work – it is not! – but you must love one another because that is what necessarily must happen as a result, as a fruit, or your being loved by God. If you do not love, then you are not of God. If you love, then you know that you are of God. The loving thing is always the right thing. Others will know that you are subjects of King Jesus when you have love for one another.
How will you receive your King? Receive Him in repentance, in humility, in lowliness, selflessness, and love. He doesn’t need your gifts, your money, or even your time and your talent, but He loves your sacrifice. Your sacrifice is what you give away to others of what He has given to you. Your sacrifice is what you give back to Him of His own gifts to you. Your sacrifice is your body, your soul, and all you have. This is how you meet your King: Give Him yourself. Give Him your body, your soul, your mind, and your heart. And, receive from Him mercy, compassion, forgiveness, life, and salvation. When? Now! Today! And, everyday! For, salvation is nearer to you now than when you first believed! Indeed! Salvation Himself is here in Word and Water, Body and Blood for you this very hour! That is why we sing “Hosanna to the Son of David! Blessed is He who comes in the Name of the Lord! Hosanna in the highest!” each and every time we receive the Lord’s Supper. King Jesus has come! King Jesus is coming! King Jesus comes now! How will you receive Him? Lift up your soul unto the LORD. Trust in Him, and you will not be put to shame.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.
Thursday, November 26, 2015
Luke 12:13-21; 2 Corinthians 9:6-15; Deuteronomy 8:1-10
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Today is a day to give thanks to God for His providence. But, “Shouldn’t we give thanks to God every day?” you ask. Yes, of course we should; but we don’t. Thus, we should be thankful that our nation has set aside this one day each year when we collectively rest from our labors – well, most of us – and give thanks for food, for clothing, for shelter, for family, and for all things, to a higher power, however he, she, they, or it might be defined. Truly, we need this day of thanksgiving to get us to cease for a moment in our striving to carve out our own piece of the American dream and to gain our independence and self-sufficiency, to look outside of ourselves to our God, who lovingly provides us all that we need to sustain our bodies and lives, by no merit or worthiness in us, but because of His own Fatherly, divine goodness and mercy.
We get so wrapped up in the notion of earning a wage by our own works and labor so that we can buy food and shelter and all the necessities and pleasures of life that we seldom stop to think about the source of all these things. Most likely, whether we think about it or not, we consider ourselves to be the source. This begs the question, “Who, then, is our god?” That is what the man in Jesus’ parable believed. He had stored up a great wealth of grain, more than he could possibly use. He said to himself, “Soul, you have ample goods laid up for many years; relax, eat, drink, be merry.” From his perspective, the labor was his and the harvest was his. He had done his work, and in his work he trusted. Why not then kick back and have a drink to himself, his labor, and self-merit? But, the God who gave him the grain and his goods, the God who gave him his life and breath, required it of him that very night. And when the man was dead, what do you think became of his storehouses of grain? Did they not spoil and decay? Were they not eaten by insect and vermin? In the end, not only did they not benefit the rich man, but they benefitted no man.
The truth is that we are stewards, managers of God’s creation. When we give Him thanks we acknowledge this truth; we fear, love, and trust in Him alone as God. He lovingly provides us with all that we need, and more, with which we can serve our brother and our neighbor in his need. Our heavenly Father wants us to sow bountifully, and so reap bountifully. There is no need to be stingy or selfish, for we sow, we give, only of what belongs to Him. And, you cannot be compelled or forced to give, but you must give freely from your heart, in cheerfulness, without resentment. For, by giving to others, you acknowledge the Lord to be God, and your neighbor, too, may turn in thankfulness to the God who provides for His children. And, since your heavenly Father knows what you need, and graciously provides you what you need, you do not need to be anxious or worrying, and you do not need to covet what belongs to your brother and your neighbor. For, with faith comes comfort, peace, and contentment. Through faith in Christ you lack nothing; therefore, give thanks for what you have, and give thanks for what your brother and your neighbor have. Your life does not consist in the abundance of your possessions. However, misplaced fear, love, and trust in possessions can cause them to possess you. Therefore, lay up your treasures in heaven, and not on earth, for the one who lays up treasure for himself cannot be rich toward God.
There is an interesting corollary between the beginning of the Lenten season and the observance of our National Day of Thanksgiving. Everyone knows how New Orleans celebrates the beginning of Lent by gorging in all manner of lasciviousness the day before known as Mardi Gras or Fat Tuesday – Let’s relax, eat, drink, and be merry, for tomorrow we fast and die. However, do we not go a step further at Thanksgiving? Indeed, we gorge ourselves into a stupor on Turkey Day, and then we go insane for twenty-four hours (or more) and bow down and worship the god of commercialism, ironically, in the name of Jesus. This year, more stores than ever before will be open, not only at four in the morning on Black Friday, but they will open their doors as early as 4:00 pm on Thanksgiving Day! Truly, wherever a church is built for God, there the devil builds a chapel next door.
Covetousness, greed, selfishness, these are the fruits of self-righteousness, which itself is a fruit of unbelief and idolatry. We are at risk of bowing down to the false gods of commercialism and materialism every day, but perhaps never as much as the so-called holiday season. Indeed, our culture, our neighbors, our friends, and even our family and children place pressures upon us to buy, to consume, to acquire, and to amass stuff, and things – idols; even the secular media and the government tell you that it is patriotic and responsible citizenship to buy, buy, buy so that our nation’s economy will recover. Do not listen to that whispering voice. But, give thanks to the Lord in all things, at all times, and in all places, for He knows your needs, and He graciously provides you all things needful. And, when your brother or your neighbor has a need that you can satisfy, give it to him, freely, with cheer – Your Lord will generously replace what you give. He will always give you more than you need, that you may freely give to others and glorify Him.
Even now He is present in this Holy Eucharist, which means thanksgiving, to give you forgiveness anew, eternal life, and salvation in Jesus Christ. Come, and give thanks to the Lord who is here for you; come, and give thanks to the Lord by receiving Him into your body and soul. When the Lord is your treasure, then you are truly rich, and you will have all that is needful for eternal life. Trust in Him, for He provides you all you need for life in this world as well.
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.
Sunday, November 22, 2015
Matthew 25:1-13; 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11; Isaiah 65:17-25
In the Name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Last Sunday, you were a sheep. This Sunday, you are a virgin. Yes, once again, your Lord Jesus is speaking to you in a parable. However, the truth is that you are not a virgin, are you. Truth be told, you are more like that woman Jesus met at the well who had had seven husbands, and the man she was presently with was not her husband. You are a spiritual adulterer and idolater; You give your fear, your love, and your trust to foreign idols and false gods. And, yet, you have repented, and you have been baptized. And, even though you were a spiritual adulterer, your Lord looks upon you as His virgin bride. In fact, He has suffered for your betrayal and your wandering eyes and hearts, and He has died for your transgressions, paying the penalty for your sins in His flesh, and He has washed you clean in His holy, innocent shed blood and has called you His beloved, His bride. This is the Lord’s work, and it is marvelous in our eyes.
Yes, you are a virgin, and you are a bride in the eyes of the Lord. And, you are waiting, even now, for the arrival of your Bridegroom. But, your Bridegroom is delayed. He has been delayed for almost 2,000 years, and it may be another 2,000 years before He returns. Or, He may return today, or tomorrow, or next month. For, “with the Lord one day is as a thousand years, and a thousand years as one day.” Therefore, you must watch, for you know neither the day nor the hour. Ah, but, what does that mean? How do you watch? And, what are you watching for? Well, you are watching for the coming of the Bridegroom, Jesus. That’s simple enough. However, these past few weeks you have heard warnings about false Christs that will arise in the last days. The only way to distinguish the teaching of a false Christ is by checking it against the Word of the true Christ, the Holy Scriptures. And, how do you watch? Well, the best kind of watching is done, not with your eyes, but with your ears. Blessed are the eyes that see what you see, and the ears that hear what you hear. Once again, being a regular hearer of the Lord’s Word and being a regular recipient of His gifts will equip you and sustain you with eyes that see and with ears that hear. All of this is to say that, in order to be well prepared for the Bridegroom’s return, in order to be found watching when He comes, you do not need to be found doing anything, but, rather, you need to be found receiving. What must you be found receiving? Well, your Lord Jesus describes it in The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins as oil, oil in your lamps. Thus, the ultimate question that must be answered in this parable is, “What is the oil, and where can you get it?”
But first, let us consider why the oil is the all-important factor. As all ten of the maidens were virgins, it was not their virginity alone that made them more or less prepared to enter the marriage feast. Likewise, as they each, at least initially, had their own lamps burning with oil, having a lamp and oil at some time was not decisive either. Additionally, all ten virgins fell asleep, and, thus, it was not even their wakeful watching that made them well-prepared for the Bridegroom’s arrival. So then, the necessary thing that counted for preparedness when the Bridegroom arrived was the oil, and the oil alone. When the cry went out at midnight that the Bridegroom had arrived, all ten sleeping virgins awoke and began to tend to their lamps. However, five of the virgins, whom Jesus calls foolish, had run out of oil. They had not brought extra along with them and were not prepared for the Bridegroom’s delay. The other five virgins, who also slumbered, nevertheless brought extra oil with them. Because of this, Jesus calls them wise. They filled their lamps and lit them and prepared to enter the wedding feast.
Now, what is the oil? Where do you get it? How do you keep it over the course of your life? These are the questions you should be asking. What is the oil? The oil represents faith continually sustained by the means of grace, thus able to endure until Chris’s return. Where do you get it? Plainly, in the Church, for the Church is the Bride of Christ in which He is present with His gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation. In the Church is the womb of the baptismal font from which new Christians are born. In the Church is absolution and the forgiveness of sins. In the Church is the proclaimed Word of the Lord, the Gospel, which comforts and strengthens faith, and equips for good works to the glory of the Lord. In the Church is the body and blood of Jesus for the faithful to eat and to drink that they may persevere in this little while in which our Bridegroom is delayed. The oil is faith, and the Word and Sacraments in the Church, the means of grace, sustain faith until the Bridegroom comes. Thus, how do you keep the oil of faith over the course of your life? You come regularly and frequently to the Church to have your oil replenished and to be forgiven, comforted, and strengthened that you may persevere until He comes and be found well prepared.
That is where the five foolish virgins made haste when they awoke and realized that their lamps had gone out and that they had no more oil. Sure, they hoped to borrow some from the others, but that will not do. No one can believe for another, but each must believe for herself, each must have the oil of faith to fill her own lamp. Thus, they made haste to go and buy from the oil merchants. “Go and buy?” you protest. “But, pastor, you are always teaching us that we cannot buy, earn, or merit our justification by our works or money.” You are right, of course! Then, what does Jesus mean to say? Well, think of it this way: The time between Jesus’ Ascension and His Parousia, that is His return on the Last Day – the time of the Bridegroom’s delay – is the time of the Church. It is the time in which the faithful are gathered by the Holy Spirit around the means of grace, God’s Word and His Blessed Sacraments, that new Christians may be born, that faith may be created, strengthened, and sustained, and that sins may be forgiven. However, when the Lord returns on the Last Day, when the Bridegroom arrives, the time of the Church will be over. Thus, the five foolish virgins rushed out seeking to buy oil only to find that all the vendors were closed, not only for the night, but forever. The time in which to buy oil and to keep your lamp full with oil to spare is now. When the Lord returns, it will be to late. This is what it means to be prepared: You are prepared if you have oil in your lamp. You are prepared if your faith is being nurtured, strengthened, and preserved in the means of grace, through Word and Sacrament, in the body of Christ, the Church, His Bride.
“Ok,” you say, “but still, why does Jesus say that the virgins should go to the dealers and buy oil for themselves? You can’t buy or earn faith, right?” Right! You are absolutely right! But, what does the Prophet Isaiah say? “Come, everyone who thirsts, come to the waters; and he who has no money, come, buy and eat! Come, buy wine and milk without money and without price.” If you have oil, if you believe, if you trust in Jesus Christ and Him alone for your forgiveness, life, and salvation, then your God-given, Holy Spirit-created faith is credited to you as righteousness. Likewise, as St. Paul writes in today’s Epistle, “But you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness.” And, “since we belong to the day, let us be sober, having put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation.” You did not buy this defensive armor, but they are yours and they cover you and protect you because you have faith in Christ. The oil of faith is replenished and sustained in the same way, but you have to have it. You can’t borrow it. You can’t earn it. You can’t buy it. But, you must have your faith replenished through the Words and Wounds of Jesus, in the Church, through Word and Sacrament.
Therefore, if you absent yourself from the means of grace for a prolonged period of time, you are putting yourself in grave peril. No, you will not surely die, immediately, – remember who used that little trick on our First Parents – but you will die, spiritually, in time. This reminds me of the story of a pastor’s visit to a member who had stopped attending church. The pastor was welcomed in and was seated in a chair by the fire. Neither the pastor nor the parishioner spoke a word. After a while, the pastor reached out with tongs and removed an ember from the fire and placed it upon the hearth. As the silence continued, the ember grew steadily colder until it was stone cold dead. After a few moments’ silence, the pastor returned the cold, dead ember to the fire, and immediately it began to glow once more with the light and warmth of the coals burning around it. As the pastor reached the door to leave, the parishioner said, “Thank you so much for your visit, Pastor, and especially for the fiery sermon. I shall be back in church next Sunday.” The Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins is just such a story. Here Jesus teaches you to keep yourself glowing with His light by remaining in His gifts where He gives them and where He has promised to be until He returns. Having oil in your lamp is not something you have to go and seek for yourself, but your Lord, your Bridegroom Jesus suffered and died and rose again to keep your lamps full through His Word and Sacraments until He returns to take you to Himself to be His Holy Bride. Until then, He provides this feast for you today, which is but a foretaste of that great wedding feast that is to come.
If you remain in Him, He has promised to remain in you. He will never leave you or forsake you. And, nothing can separate you from His love. If you remain in Him and His gifts, it matters not should He return when you are awake or when you are sleeping, for your life is in Him throughout this little while until He comes. And, your Lord Jesus exhorts you to encourage one another and build one another up in this truth. If you see that a brother or sister is missing out on the gifts, that his or her faith is growing weak, or cold, is dying, or is already dead, encourage them to come and receive the true oil of faith and be replenished. For, the time is coming when the Church will be closed and will be no more, and then it will be too late. However, today the Church is open and Jesus’ gifts are free for you to buy without cost or price. Come, and fill your lamps with the precious, life-giving oil of faith in Jesus Christ, and fear not the day and hour of His coming. Join your voice with the voice of Christ’s Church of all times and all places saying, “Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus! Come, quickly come!” Behold! He has come. He comes. And, He is coming on the clouds. “Maranatha! Come, Lord Jesus! Come, quickly come!”
In the + Name of Jesus. Amen.
Sunday, November 15, 2015
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.