Twenty Second Sunday after Pentecost November 13, Year of Our + Lord 2011
Look to the Judge. I don’t think this will be difficult, when that great and awesome Day described in our Gospel is actually here. When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, when He sits on His glorious throne, revealed to every nation, I believe our eyes will quite naturally look to Him. For there before our eyes will be the humble man from Galilee who welcomed little children, touched and healed unclean lepers, and washed His disciples’ feet; the teacher who taught with authority, about Himself and His Mission; the Crucified One who suffered for the sins of all mankind. And also, at the same time and in the same man Jesus Christ, we will see the Glory of God fully revealed, the bright light of heaven shining not on, but from within this Son of Mary. Seated on the throne, surrounded by saints and angels, I don’t think we will easily take our eyes off of Him.
Today, though, Jesus is hidden from our eyes; we must walk by faith, not by sight. Jesus is hidden from our eyes, but the people who will be gathered before Him, they are visible. And so, since we can see people, but not Jesus, it is the appearance and visible actions of people that tend to shape how we hear this Word of God. And what we see in people makes this a hard text. Because, of course, as we look at people, as we look at ourselves, the question of this text forces itself upon us – sheep or goat? As we look around at the people of every nation, as we look at ourselves, do we see sheep? Do we see people welcoming strangers, feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and the prisoners? Or do we see goats, people shunning and mistrusting strangers, feeding ourselves until we are stuffed, drinking ourselves drunk, pretending not to see the naked, avoiding the sick, despising the prisoners?
This is a very difficult text for us sinners. Maybe it seems a helpful thing that we are in the middle of Food Bank November, baskets of canned goods stacking up in the back, actual visible acts of kindness happening in our midst. If Jesus returns tomorrow, can we point to those canned goods and so avoid the left hand of the Judge? We hear Jesus describe the lives of the goats, who fail to care for the lowly and hurting, and we tremble, because we know that His words all too often describe us. Looking at our lives, and knowing the Lord’s desire that we love our neighbors as ourselves, we should shudder at the thought that we deserve to be sent away with the goats, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. In our fear we may even burst into a flurry of attempted good works, running to Reynolds to buy up all the cream of mushroom soup for the food bank, resolving once again to live differently, so that we will have something good to point to, something we can claim for credit, when the Last Day comes.
Just one problem with that plan. It’s not that supplying the food bank isn’t a good thing. It is. The problem with trying to find some good works to store up for Judgment Day is this: sheep don’t become sheep by doing good works. The Judgment Day sheep in our reading certainly don’t point to their works. When the Judge praises them for their works of mercy which He says were done toward Him, their answer is “What works?” These sheep, blessed of God the Father from before the foundation of the world, look at Jesus on the throne, and they remember nothing of their works, all they see is His mercy. Looking to the Judge, the sheep see their Shepherd, the Lord God Himself, who fulfilled His promise, who came, and searched for His sheep. They look to the Judge and see His mercy, which caused Him to seek them out, and rescue them from all places where they had been scattered. This the Shepherd Judge did, on a day of clouds and thick darkness, when the sun failed, and the earth quaked, as God’s Son died, to rescue His flock.
The Judgment Day sheep don’t point to their works, because they are too busy looking to the Judge, for mercy. In fact, mercy is what makes you a sheep. The Father blessed the sheep from before the foundation of the world by giving His Son in mercy to take away their sins, including their failures to love. The sheep of God are those who look to the Judge for mercy, knowing that in Him they will find mercy. Sheep marvel in the joyful inheritance God in His mercy has prepared for them. And this is, ironically enough, also why they showed mercy in their lives.
The sheep look to the Judge for mercy, and they see it in His life of selfless service, healing and teaching and seeking and comforting the weary and heavy laden, taking their burdens of sin and guilt upon Himself, carrying all the sorrows of the world on His shoulders. Looking to the Judge for mercy, the sheep see the One who humbled Himself, coming down from His rightful seat on heaven’s throne, coming down to be poor for the poor, and hungry for those without food, to thirst with all who suffer in the wilderness of sin, to be stripped and mocked and imprisoned, to die for dying sinners. In His sacrificial love, the sheep find forgiveness, and along with that forgiveness they are filled with Christ, and sealed with the Holy Spirit. Redeemed, reborn, made new by the mercy of Jesus, the sheep then have mercy for others. The better they understand the gift of the Father, the more mercy they have for their neighbors. Faith alone saves, our works contribute nothing to salvation. Faith alone saves, but faith in Christ is never alone, it is always followed by good works, because true faith receives Christ and His Spirit, and having the merciful Lord God in your life changes everything.
So, if this Judgment Day Word from Jesus makes you uncomfortable, good, you’re being honest. If you look at your life and know that you do not love the weak and the lowly as Christ has loved you, good, you’re admitting the truth. Repent of your lovelessness and selfishness. Repent, and look to the Judge, for mercy. The answer to your failure is to look to the Judge, for mercy.
This is the difference between the salvation Christ offers and all the works righteous religions in the world, including some that claim to be Christian. For false religion, of whatever name, also points out your lack of love, and warns you that God does not like that. But the solution of false religions is to crack the whip and tell you to get busy, piling up good works to prepare yourself for Judgment Day. Maybe, say these false gods, maybe you’ll have a positive balance sheet when the time comes. Maybe.
No such lies and doubt from Christ your Judge. Yes, He wants you to love your neighbor, especially those who are the lowest and least lovable. And yes, He hates that you are a sinner. But He does not send you off to pursue the impossible task of saving yourself by your works. No, the Judge has come to seek you out and rescue you from sin and death, and He still seeks you out to remind you that He has completed the task, for you. Jesus, your Judge is speaking to you: Look to me for mercy. Look to me, and see my nail scarred hands. Look to me, your merciful judge, and trust in my Cross and Empty Tomb.
So look to the Judge, for mercy. Marvel at the light of love that pours forth from Him. Be fed and nourished and lifted up by Him. His mercy is all you need, and it is all your neighbor needs, too. Be filled with mercy from Jesus your Judge, and His mercy will overflow from you to the people in need that He brings into your life.
Look to the Judge for mercy. True good works that are pleasing to God only flow from faith in Christ, for the Scripture says that anything which does not proceed from faith is sin. Works done to earn God’s favor and forgiveness deny the all-sufficiency of the sacrifice of Christ. Works done in fear are unacceptable to the God who is Love, who has loved the world by sending His only-begotten Son, so that whoever believes in Him may not perish, but have everlasting life.
So, look to the Judge for mercy. Come often to the places where He is giving out advance judgment, and know that you are prepared for Judgment Day. You have already been judged not guilty in your Baptism. The same not guilty verdict is repeated in absolution, and whenever and wherever the Word of His blood bought grace rings in your ears. Jesus’ final meal before His trial has been transformed by Him into your meal of forgiveness and freedom. Look to these, for your merciful Judge is present in them, for you.
The Words and Signs of Jesus do not impress the world of goats. But sheep walk by faith, not by sight. So look to the Judge in His Word and Sacraments, and know that His mercy is for you. Come, all you blessed of the Father from before the foundation of the world. Come you Baptized believers, come you children of God. Receive again the promise of your heavenly inheritance, and look forward with joy and confidence to the Day of Christ’s return, Amen.