Last Sunday of the Church Year
(Proper 29)

Matthew 25 31-46 especially 31-33
"When the Son of Man comes as King and all the angels with him, he will sit on his royal throne, and the people of all the nations will be gathered before him. Then he will divide them into two groups, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the righteous people at his right and the others at his left."

Jesus - Judge and Advocate

You may recall the TV program Judge Judy. The voice over at the beginning of the show told us that what the viewer was about to see are real cases in a real courtroom. The judge presiding over these cases is Judge Judy. She is tough. She doesnít stand for any nonsense. She is decisive. She tries to get to the bottom of often complex cases. She can be rude and sharp-tongued. She doesnít tolerate fools. There are those who are happy with her rulings and there are also those who are disappointed. Thatís how it is when it comes to making a judgement, especially when a decision needs to be made about who is right and who is wrong.

Today is the last Sunday of the church year and we hear about Judge Jesus. This idea of Jesus bring a judge doesnít go down too well with people of the 21st century. This is an image that we donít see very often in our modern churches. We see Jesus the shepherd,
Jesus who loves children,
Jesus who forgives the sinner and heals the sick and raises the dead.
We see Jesus in a manger;
Jesus on the cross Ė dying because of his love for you and me.

But we donít see images of Jesus sitting in judgement over all humanity separating the sheep from the goats (to use todayís imagery from the gospel reading.)

In the Sistine Chapel in the Vatican, the whole wall behind the altar is one huge painting of the final judgement. Christ is in the centre with one hand raised in judgment over the condemned and the other hand reassuring and calming the fears of the righteous. In the cathedral of St Markís in Venice the visitor can look up and see a huge image of Christ with hand raised in judgement Ė to his right are the sheep and to the left are the goats.

We heard a moment ago - "When the Son of Man will come as King and all the angels with him, and he will sit on his royal throne, and the people of all the nations will be gathered before him". Jesus is saying when itís all said and done, and our lives are finished, and our world has ended, in the end, we shall be judged. All the nations of the world shall appear before the Judge, the King.

We are given images of right and left, sheep and goats which are biblical ways of speaking about judgement, of the saved and the damned, the insiders and the outsiders.

This image of Jesus the judge seems to contradict the happier images of Jesus the shepherd who cares for his sheep, who comforting us with his presence, who lead us to green pastures and quiet waters. Jesus the shepherd is a nice image, a comforting image, a helpful image. It makes us feel good and safe.

So - what then do we make of Jesus the King who judges his people? What do we make of Jesus the king who divides his flock into those which are sheep and those which are goats, inviting the first into his eternal joy, and sending the last into eternal punishment? In fact, thinking of Jesus as Judge sends a bit of a shiver down our backs as we wonder how we will fare before Judge Jesus.

Judges see things in terms of black and white. Judges have to be uninvolved, objective, even unemotional as they sit in judgement so that they can remain impartial and make a correct judgement according to the facts and the law. This sounds so unlike the Jesus we know.

Letís make something quite clear. The Return of Christ and the Last Judgement are not legend, myth, or fiction. There will be an end to this world and there will be a judgement. We canít assume that everyone understands this.

The Day of Judgement is mentioned throughout the Scriptures. Jesus tells several stories prior to our text for today Ė all of them include judgement.

The parable of the ten bridesmaids waiting for the arrival of the bridegroom. Five were prepared, five were unprepared. The five who were prepared went into the wedding feast. The five who were unprepared turned up late, "Sir, sir! Let us in!" they cried out. "Certainly not! I do not know you", the bridegroom answered.

Then there is the parable of the 3 servants who were given various amounts of money to invest while the master is away. Two of them did very well doubling what they had been given, and they were rewarded for their faithfulness. The third had hidden the money away and did not use it wisely and "he was thrown outside in the darkness where he would cry and gnash his teeth".

We begin to get a different image of Jesus. Jesus is a shepherd and a king who judges his people, drawing a dividing line through the centre of all humanity. There are those who are saved and those who are condemned.

And todayís reading from Matthew shocks us (as many of Jesusí parables do). It is a chilling reminder that we have failed to live up to God's expectations. Jesus says, "I was hungry but you would not feed me, thirsty but you would not give me a drink; I was a stranger but you would not welcome me in your homes, naked but you would not clothe me; I was sick and in prison but you would not take care of me".

And then Jesus concluded, "I tell you, whenever you refused to help one of these least important ones, you refused to help me".

How scary! Jesus is talking to me here. Heís talking to you. How often have we been blind to the person in need right in front of us, the people who are in need right here on our shire, right in our own neighbourhood, right here in our church community? Jesus said, "I tell you, whenever you refused to help one of these least important ones, you refused to help me". Jesus identifies himself with the victims and the needy.

The teenager from up the road who is facing court proceedings because of drug offences? Is he Jesus? Or is he simply a kid who has gone wrong, a no good who needs to learn a lesson before he destroys himself and his family?

What about the young woman, the single mother who is pregnant again. Is she Jesus? Or is she the girl who should have known better? She got herself into that situation and doesn't deserve any sympathy.

What about the drunk who lives a few houses up the street? Or the divorced man who has walked out on his wife and family? Are they Jesus - or are they simply people who have made their beds and now should lie in them?

Or what about the kids at school who dress in old looking clothes and always seem to be untidy, the ones who seem to be uninterested in the work the teacher sets them? The ones we suspect do not eat enough wholesome food? Are they Jesus? Or are they not our problem and we donít need to get involved?

Or what about the elderly woman whose mind is not what it used to be and is cranky and hard to get on with? Is she Jesus? Or is she only the poor old thing whose relatives should be doing more for her?

Jesus is here. He lives in those whom we forget and in those whom we dismiss as unimportant, or as deserving of their fate.

Friends - I like to think that no one wants to be a goat, I like to think that we all want to do the right thing, but Iím afraid our actions give us away. We allow our judgements about other people to blind us to the fact that Jesus is here in our town right now, that he is here, and that he is in need.

Thatís what makes the idea of a final judgement so scary. We are afraid that on the basis of our record we wonít hear words of blessing and a welcome into heaven but instead Jesus will say, "Away to the eternal fire which has been prepared for the Devil and his angels!" If it were up to us to present a case in Godís courtroom why we deserve to be "called blessed and possess the kingdom which has been prepared for us since the creation of the world" we would fail miserably. The evidence is stacked against us. We are guilty as charged.

But here is the good news! Jesus is not only judge but he is also our lawyer, our advocate. He not only speaks up for us at the last judgement but reminds all those gathered around the seat of judgement that he has died for us. He is our Saviour. We believe and trust that he died on the cross to release us from any accusation that will come up on the last day. His death wiped away all guilt for our failure to see Jesus in those who were hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked (being naked implied being very poor), sick, or in prison.

Or to put it this way. A number of movies have been made about men who are bodyguards of political figures. These men are so dedicated that they would be prepared to stop a bullet to ensure the safety of the person they are protecting. Jesus has stopped the bullet for us. He died to save us. He has ensured that those who believe in him, rely on him, trust in him, will not die, but have eternal life. If our eternal future depended on the good things we did in this life then we would be doomed for sure. Every good thing we do is covered with our own selfishness and pride. Our eternal future rests solely on Jesus who covers every sin with his grace, making us right in God's sight and thus saving us from hell.

There is one more important point that this story about the last judgement brings out, that is, showing love toward others and taking care of their needs is the way faith in Jesus is put into action. Discipleship is more than knowing and believing and worshipping. It also involves doing.

Did you notice how surprised the people were in Jesus story when they were told that they had been so caring toward others? ""When did we do that? When did we see you hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick or in prison?" Part and parcel with faith in Jesus comes being like Christ in the way we deal with others and their needs.

Apple trees produce apples. Tomato plants grow tomatoes. And likewise faith gives food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothing to the naked, welcomes the stranger, provides company for the sick and imprisoned. Apple trees that donít produce apples are useless and likewise faith that doesnít result in good works is useless (see James 2:14-17).

The parable challenges you and me to ask, "Am I a sheep or a goat?

The answer is "yes". On the one hand, yes I am a goat. Our sin tells us we are undeniably goats by nature. We have neglected the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick and the imprisoned. Our faith has not influenced our daily life.

On the other hand yes I am a sheep. Our baptism brings us into Shepherd's flock. We are loved dearly by Jesus who gave his life to rescue us. We are his forgiven sheep to whom he says, "Come, you that are blessed by my Father! Come and possess the kingdom."

© Pastor Vince Gerhardy

20th November, 2005

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