Monday, November 27, 2023

Being Sheep

[Below is the message shared during worship with the people and friends of Living Water Lutheran Church in Centerville, Ohio, yesterday, November 26. You'll also find live stream video of both worship services.]

Matthew 25:31-46
I’m going to do a risky thing as I begin this sermon: I’m going to tell you what it’s all about at the beginning, taking the chance that you’ll just check out and not listen to the whole thing.

The bottom line message Jesus gives in today’s Gospel lesson is summed up in words spoken several decades after Jesus died, rose, and ascended. They were spoken by two early Christian evangelists, the apostle Paul and his colleague, Silas.

Silas and Paul had been thrown into prison because of their faith in Jesus. God caused an earthquake–what someone has called the first “jailhouse rock”--and the prison’s cell doors flew open.

For the jailer this was very bad news. Roman law said that if a jailer lost any of his charges, he would be executed. Fearing that his prisoners would escape, the jailer was about to take his own life, when Paul shouted, “Don’t harm yourself! We’re all here.”

The jailer then asked, “Sirs, what must I do to be saved?” Paul and Silas answered, “Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved…” (Acts 16:31)

Jesus and the apostles to whom He first entrusted this message shared it over and over: Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved…”

We need to hear this message because, as Jesus tells us in today’s Gospel lesson, there will come a point when He will return as King of all. He’ll no longer be lowly, demeaned, condemned Jesus, the poor man from Nazareth. This is the One Who, because He humbled Himself to take the death sentence you and I deserve for sin, has now been raised and given “the name that is above every name” (Philippians 2:9), the One Who, after dying and rising, then ascended to heaven and “sat down at the right hand of God.” (Hebrews 10:12)

When Christ the King comes back to us, He will raise the dead and judge all people. As Jesus says of Himself, “All the nations will be gathered before him, 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.” (Matthew 25:32-33) Jesus, Christ the King, will judge every human being who has ever lived on this earth.

As one Lutheran preacher has said, there will be no escaping Jesus then. The moment Jesus returns, the old universe will be destroyed. We will stand before Jesus, some set by Jesus to His left, others set by Him to His right. And what is it that will determine the side from which we view Jesus? What will decide if we stand with the goats sent to hell and eternal condemnation or with the sheep in the eternal new heavens and the new earth with Christ the King? It will all depend on where we stand with Jesus in this life.

The question will be, “Have we believed in Him or not?” As the preacher in the New Testament book of Hebrews tells us: “Without faith it is impossible to please God, because anyone who comes to him must believe that he exists and that he rewards those who earnestly seek him.” (Hebrews 11:6)

It is by faith–belief–in Jesus that we will be able to enter into eternity with God, freed of death, sin, and futility.

This may seem too good to be true. We think that we should certainly have to do something good, be someone good, to gain a place in Christ’s Kingdom.

But when Jesus was once asked point-blank: “What must we do to do the works God requires?,” He said, “The work of God is this: to believe in the one he has sent. [That is, to believe in Jesus.]” (John 6:28-29)

So, what do we make of what happens in today’s gospel lesson? Does it seem that King Jesus is welcoming some into His Kingdom because they served Him by serving the hungry, the thirsty, the one needing clothes, the one who was sick, the one who was in prison, while the goats are sent to hell for failing to do these things?

If that’s what Jesus is doing or saying, we all have reason to be frightened.

Can any of us say we have always cared for others in need?

Can any of us claim that we have always kept the Sabbath day and honored God’s Word?

Can we say with a straight face that we have never gossiped or murdered others by our thoughts or words?

Can we say we’ve always been chaste in our words and actions, always honored our parents and others in authority, never stolen or craved what belongs to others?

If none of us can lay claim to these things and our life with Christ depends on lives of perfect love and service, we’re all in trouble. It won’t do any good for us to stand before God on the day of Christ’s return and say, “I was pretty good, Lord.”

God’s Word is clear: “Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it.” (James 2:10) Only the righteous will enter eternity.

That’s where Jesus comes in. He gives His righteousness to unrighteous people like you and me, He makes sinners into saints, goats into sheep, when they believe in Him. “Righteousness,” the Word of God says, “is given through faith [belief] in Jesus Christ to all who believe.” (Romans 3:22)

Jesus has told us that “Every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.” (Matthew 7:17) Jesus is saying that those made good, righteous, through believing in Him will do righteous things. They will love the unlovable, serve those who cannot repay, clothe and feed those in need, even forgive the unforgivable.

But they will only do these things because, through faith in Christ, He lives within them.

Many of the good things that believing people do, they’re hardly aware of doing or don’t think of them as particularly good deeds. This is why the sheep ask Jesus today, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’” (Matthew 25:37-39)

Effectively, they tell Jesus, “We don’t remember anything good we ever did. We weren’t paying attention to what we were doing. We only remember daily turning from our sin, turning to You for forgiveness and help, and keeping a lookout for You.”

The sheep, believing in Jesus and living in daily repentance and renewal, simply do what good God gives them to do–for their family, friends, neighbors, and strangers–along the way. Those made righteous by faith in Jesus just follow Jesus and Jesus, living in them, does the “good works, which God prepared in advance for us to do.” (Ephesians 2:10)

“Fine, pastor,” you say, “we’re saved by believing in Jesus. Every Lutheran knows that. But sometimes, I don’t think I believe.”

Friends, your faith doesn’t depend on your feelings, because our feelings change all the time. Sometimes, Ann feels really good about the guy to whom she’s been married for forty-nine years; other times, like when I’m being a hard head or affecting a condescending tone, not so much.

And faith doesn’t depend on your thoughts. Our thoughts can wander all over the place.

Let’s be clear: Faith isn’t something we do.

You can’t generate belief internally.

Faith is a gift God gives to you from outside yourself by simple means: the Word that is preached and the Word that is given to you in the Sacraments.

So, if your faith is weak, keep receiving His Gospel Word, keep receiving His body and blood, keep confessing your sins and receiving his forgiveness along with His people, even when there’s a pastoral vacancy at your church.

Receive Jesus today and always, even when your faith is weak, even when nothing makes sense.

You have this promise from our Lord, “Whoever comes to me I will never drive away.” (John 6:37) When you come to Jesus in repentance and whatever faith you have, He will never drive you away!

When you receive this Word Jesus gives to you, He will give you all the faith you need for the day. Faith for each day to those who live in daily repentance and faith is part of what Jesus teaches us to ask for in the Lord’s Prayer: “Give us this day our daily bread.”

You can trust Jesus’ promise to never drive away those who want Him and know with certainty that you belong to Him now and for all eternity.

Believe in the Lord Jesus, and you will be saved…” Amen

[The insights of Dr. Steve Paulson and of the late Bo Giertz were important in the preparation of this message. I'm grateful.]

The Gospel of John, November 26, 2023