[This was shared during worship with the people and guests of Living Water Lutheran Church in Springboro, Ohio, this morning.]
It’s always humbling to realize that there is so much more in the Bible, the Word of God, than we sometimes imagine and that the understanding of it that we sometimes take for granted isn’t entirely correct. Or even substantially incorrect.
That’s the experience I’ve had this week in studying today’s Gospel lesson, Matthew 25:31-46.
I confess that I approached my study and the prospect of preaching on this text with something of a ho-hum attitude. Everyone could see, I thought, what these words of Jesus are about: Jesus the King is portraying the final judgment scene. Some will be welcomed into His eternal kingdom because their faith in Him has led them to serve those in need, while others, who have refused to trust in Christ and so have refused to serve their neighbor, are separated from God and sent to hell. Throughout my Christian life, I have believed that these words of Jesus were about how faith in Christ leads Christians to an ethic of love for the needy and a concern with justice for them.
Now clearly, when we know that we have been saved by grace through faith in the crucified and risen Jesus Christ, it will change how we live. Jesus’ life and heart will be planted within us and we will feel motivated, not be legalism, but by gratitude, to “love our neighbor as we love ourselves.” But, I’ve come to realize that that is not what the words in our Gospel lesson from Christ our King today are about. They’re about something altogether different.
Jesus' words for us today are not about how believers treat the needy of the world. They're about how the world treats His disciples who, because of their belief in Him, experience need.
To follow Jesus means to risk, in a sinful, disbelieving world, going without food, water, shelter. It means to risk being despised and imprisoned.
The world casts judgment on itself when it fails to welcome the children, the disciples, of Christ the King.
People receive salvation and eternal life when they welcome Christ and His messengers into their lives.
To set us on a course to more clearly understanding this, I’d like to ask you to look at three other passages of Scripture with me this morning.
First, please look at Isaiah 52:7 (page 511 in the sanctuary Bibles). It says: “‘How beautiful on the mountains are the feet of those who bring good news, who proclaim peace, who bring good tidings, who proclaim salvation, who say to Zion, ‘Your God reigns!’"
God cherishes those who proclaim His truth and the good news of new life through faith in Him. And the proclaimers God values aren't confined to the ranks of the ordained clergy. First Peter, for example, reminds us that every Christian is a proclaimer of God’s good news, telling and showing others how God has called us out of darkness into His marvelous light and how He is willing to do that for anyone who repents and believes in the God we know in Jesus.
Now, look at Matthew 10:40 and 42 (page 682). Jesus is speaking to His disciples, ordinary followers of Him just like us. Jesus says in verse 40: “Anyone who welcomes you welcomes me, and anyone who welcomes me welcomes the one who sent me.” (Of course, the One Who sent Jesus is God the Father.) Slip down to verse 42, where Jesus goes on: “And if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones who is my disciple, truly I tell you, that person will certainly not lose their reward.”
These little ones are Jesus’ disciples. When people welcome Jesus’ disciples and their message of new life through Jesus, they too become disciples. It’s through Jesus’ little ones, followers of Jesus, that others come to know and believe in Jesus as their God and King.
Finally, let’s look at Matthew 18:6 (page 688). Jesus says: “If anyone causes one of these little ones—those who believe in me—to stumble, it would be better for them to have a large millstone hung around their neck and to be drowned in the depths of the sea.”
What do we learn from these three passages and the rest of Scripture?
First, we learn that God transmits the message of new life in Christ through ordinary, humble people, not people the world might call superstars.
Second, we learn that when people receive the message and the messengers of the Gospel, they have new lives. And those who reject them and their message, are condemned.
Third, we learn that Christ cherishes the faithfulness of His little ones, the humble “least of these” of the world who trust in Him as their only God, King, and Lord.
So now, let’s look at our Gospel lesson, Matthew 25:31-46 (page 695). It begins: “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered before him...”
As in other lessons we’ve been looking at over the past few weeks, Jesus is talking about the end of earth’s history, when judgment will come to humanity. The Old Testament has several passages that speak of this final judgment by God. God is portrayed as being on the throne. Here, Jesus makes clear Who He is by claiming that He, “God in flesh appearing,” as we sing at Christmastime, will be humanity’s judge. All the nations--the very nations to which He commands His Church to go with the message of new and everlasting through faith in Him--will stand before the King.
Jesus goes on, “...and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.” I’ve read that even in the Middle East of today, shepherds pasture their sheep and goats together during the day. At night, the shepherds separate sheep from goats. Like the wheat and the weeds in Jesus’ parable in which He says He will allow the righteous and unrighteous to live side by side until the day of judgment, Jesus says that He won’t separate His sheep from the goats until the night of this world comes, when no one can work.
Verse 34: “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’”
Salvation and eternal life come to those who receive the message about Jesus through the humble servants of Jesus. They’re the messengers that the world underestimates.
The world would never guess that for me, the great-grandmother who mentored me in Christ and prayed for my salvation is a more important person than all the kings and rulers this world has produced in my lifetime, because it was she who, even when I couldn’t see it, set my course for eternity.
The world would never guess that welcoming unassuming saints with their good news of new life through faith in Christ, like Martha Schneider, my mentor in the faith when I was in my twenties of whom I’ve spoken before...or a simple housepainter named Charlie, who shared his faith in Christ with me on the day of his beloved wife's funeral...or Betty, a woman whose life was hard, yet who openly proclaimed her love for Jesus...or dozens of other messengers from Jesus who have crossed my path in life...were and are more important to me and are more important in the eyes of God and the Kingdom of God than all the VIPs, prime ministers, presidents, kings, and potentates that have ever occupied this planet taken together.
To welcome Jesus' disciples, even when their needs make them weak in the eyes of this world that values the strong and powerful and self-sufficient and beautiful, is to welcome the King of the universe.
To let these disciples' King become our King is to experience life with God and everlasting salvation...the only way to experience these things.
In their humble, unassuming ways, Jesus' children reflect the presence of Jesus within them.
In the eyes of the world, one of the great scandals of the Christian faith is that we claim that the God Who created the whole universe has come down deep into our lives.
He hasn’t overpowered us with His infinite strength.
He hasn’t used His power to force us to believe.
Instead, He became one of us and chooses, by His Holy Spirit and His Gospel, to woo us with His love.
He suffered as we suffer.
He died on a cross.
It was only after He experienced the worst that any and every human being will suffer in this world that He destroyed the power of suffering, death, and sin over us by rising from the dead.
Today, by His Holy Spirit unleashed within them, Christ the King works in the lives of ordinary people who experience the full gamut of hardships and challenges that come to human beings, making them His ambassadors to neighbors, friends, relatives, and strangers who, just like us, need Jesus.
We who believe in Jesus bring Jesus to this world.
It’s as true today as it was when John the apostle wrote in the prologue to His Gospel: “...to all who did receive [Jesus], to those who believed in His Name, He gave the right to become the children of God [the little ones, huh?] born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.”
You know what happens with the goats in our Gospel lesson. They’ve lived alongside the sheep all their earthly lives. When they’ve met the King’s sheep, they haven’t welcomed them. When they’ve heard the sheep’s message, they’ve rejected it. To them, Jesus says in verses 45 and 46: “‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’ Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
At the end of history, at the ends of our lives, Christ’s judgment over us won’t be about the service we render, though if we believe in Christ we will render service to God and to others.
Instead, Christ will judge us over whether we have received Him through the witness of believers in Him, no matter how inferior they may seem--no matter that they are “the least of these.”
We will be judged on whether we have believed the Gospel message of Jesus, the Servant King.
The words of Jesus this morning have, I think, special meaning for us at Living Water.
Throughout the just completed series of Getting to Know You dinners, the most commonly mentioned aspiration for the congregation is that we would grow.
I want that to happen too, especially spiritually. It would be nice for it to happen numerically too, although it’s important to remember that Living Water is already bigger than 75% of the churches in North America and that the church growth experts would classify this, not as a small church, but as mid-sized one.
And maybe some day, God will bring the millions of dollars we would need to build a facility that allows us to do as much ministry to our community and our world as we’re able to do from this building with which we’ve been blessed.
But whatever God’s plans for our congregation may be, our Gospel lesson tells us that our call will always be the same:
First, to welcome the messengers of Christ and their message about Christ, irrespective of how humble or powerless or worthless those messengers may seem to be.
AND second, to be disciples who point the world around us not to our power, or our class, or our building, or out programs, or to ourselves at all, but always and only to our King, Jesus Christ. Amen