Sunday, November 23, 2014

The Final Judgment

Matthew 25:31-46 Each week we confess that Jesus will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.  Our Lord’s return—as an event in history-- is clearly taught in the Bible.  It is his final work of salvation.  It is an article of faith that we must believe to be saved.
            On that day each of us will stand before the Lord and he will render his verdict about our life—what we have believed and how we have lived. 
Today in our Gospel lesson, in simple language, we hear just exactly how the final judgment will take place from the one who will judge the world.  Jesus says:
"When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne.   Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.  And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left.  
            On judgment day every person who has ever lived will stand before the glorious throne of Jesus Christ and we will be judged. 
Before a word is spoken—before the evidence is given—Jesus will separate all the world’s people into two groups—one group on his left and one group on his right. 
That separation is the judgment—and there is no changing sides at that point.  The day of grace that we enjoy today- to repent of our sins and believe in Jesus- to amend our lives--will come to an end with that division.
Shepherds have no problem making a distinction between sheep and goats because there is nothing that a shepherd knows more about than the difference between sheep and goats. 
So it will be on Judgment Day as the Shepherd King separates those who are his (those who have believed in him and followed him) from those who are not his (those who have rejected him and went their own way).  Every person in the world (and in this sanctuary) will fall into one of those two groups.
            The unbelieving world around us sees fine moral distinctions, with many shades of gray, when it comes to their relationship with God—they say that surely it cannot be so simple, so cut-and-dried as those who believe in Jesus and those who don’t.  But it is just that simple.
When it comes to your relationship with God—you are either righteous in God’s sight through faith in Jesus—blessed by God from the foundations of the world with all that is needed for salvation— OR--you are cursed by God because you have not counted yourself worthy of his salvation and have rejected the forgiveness and eternal life that comes through faith in Jesus.
The basic division of all people into one of these two groups is not always evident because faith in Jesus is, finally, a matter of the heart. 
But that division between the saved and the lost will be plain for all to see on the Last Day when the Son of Man comes to judge the nations and presents the evidence for his perfect, righteous judgment.  Jesus will say to the saved on his right hand:
‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me,   I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.'
            There is nothing here that is difficult to understand:  those who had faith produced the fruits of faith--those saved by grace were gracious people to others—those who received the mercy of God in Christ extended that mercy to others—those who were forgiven were forgiving.  In other words, the life of Jesus was seen in the lives of those who were his.
The evidence that is given for a true and living faith is found in the small acts of mercy and kindness and generosity given to others simply because those who are saved by Jesus want to live loving, self-sacrificing lives like their Savior’s.
            Another really remarkable thing about those who are saved is that all the things that we have failed to do-- are not even brought up. 
We haven’t fed every hungry person or clothed every naked person or housed every homeless person—but these sinful failures to be all that we have been called to be-- have no part in this judgment because they have been taken away by the blood of Jesus.
But for those who have rejected Jesus Christ it is a very different story.  Every sinful failure, no matter how small, is remembered and entered as evidence.  Jesus will say to the lost on his left hand:
“'Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.   
The great tragedy is that it never had to be this way.  Hell was not prepared for people but for the devil and the other angels who rebelled against God at the beginning of the world.  But when a person rejects Jesus Christ, they choose to align themselves with the devil and they too will receive hell as their eternal punishment. 
And just as there are no great works of faith that are mentioned for the redeemed, so there are no great sins that are mentioned for the damned.  Jesus says:
I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,  I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.' 
Those who had no faith-- simply failed to produce the fruits of faith that come from being saved and will hear the terrible judgment of all who die apart from faith in Christ— “depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire.”   
It has become fashionable in these modern times to deny the existence of hell but there are very few things that Jesus teaches as clearly as the existence of hell because he does not want us to go there.  Hell is real, it is terrible, it is eternal, and it is deserved. 
As a final proof that our Lord’s judgment is valid, we hear the reaction of each group to the Lord’s verdict—their own testimony to the truth of the Lord’s verdict.    
 “The righteous will answer him, saying, 'Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink?  And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you?  And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?'   And the King will answer them, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.'
The Good News for the child of God is that on judgment day, not only will our sins not be remembered, but all those small acts of mercy and kindness and generosity that we have forgotten about—that we would never have dreamed to lift up to the Lord as deserving of eternal life— will be remembered by him-and counted as if we had done them all for him.
That the Lord’s people are astonished by his accounting is a sure sign that they simply did good to others out of love for the Lord—not to earn heaven for themselves. 
Acts of love, done in faith, require no accounting on our part.  They are simply given in the context of our ordinary, daily vocations. 
When we are forgiving with our family; when we set a good example at work; when we are compassionate and merciful to those in need; when we are concerned for the needs of others; we show ourselves to be the Lord’s people.  On the other hand, those on the King’s left will answer, saying:  
“'Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?'   Then he will answer them, saying, 'Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.'
The lost, even at that late hour, exhibit no sorrow or repentance to Jesus.  They have no compassion for those who have gone without food and drink and clothing and shelter through their faithless neglect.  Their only desire is to call into question the righteous judgment of a perfectly just judge.
We are tempted to believe that faced with hell, even the most hardened sinner would come to their senses, repent of their sins, and beg for mercy—but it is not so.
Those who were not concerned for others will never be concerned.  Those who have rejected the Lord throughout their life will continue to reject him for eternity. 
That is why judgment day is merely a final demonstration of what was true:  in a person’s life—at the moment of their death—and then forever in eternity as they “go away into everlasting punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
And so what does this plain and simple teaching from our Lord about the final judgment and the Last Day have to do with our lives this week?  What does the Lord want us to do as a result of his words?  How then should we live, knowing that we will stand before the throne of Jesus Christ and be judged?
First and foremost, no one ought to leave this sanctuary today without knowing for sure that they are one of those whom the Lord will call righteous and blessed on the Last Day.  That confidence comes through faith in Jesus Christ alone. 
None of us, by nature, are worthy to stand before a perfectly righteous judge.  Each of us deserves hell.  But God sent his Son to save us from what our sins deserve.  Jesus suffered hell for us on the cross.  He paid for our selfishness and sins with his shed blood—and he rose up from the dead to give us eternal life. 
We receive the salvation he accomplished by believing the Gospel as it is preached and given in the sacraments.  As we do so, we can look forward to Judgment Day with confidence.
Secondly, we should measure our lives by Christ’s standard of what really counts and not the world’s.  On the Last Day there are no questions about how much money we had, how important we were in the community, what car we drove, where we went to school, or what we did for a living. 
Instead, the only thing that matters on judgment day is that we showed with our lives that we belonged to Jesus by caring for those around us. 
Nothing miraculous is required of us, but only that our faith in Jesus would bear the fruit of good works as we deal with others in the same gracious, generous, merciful, forgiving way that we have been dealt with by Christ.
And finally, we should live our lives this week -and always- in expectation of our Lord’s immediate return. 
All of the worries and trials and temptations that we are faced with daily-- become something altogether different and altogether smaller when they are seen in the light of that glad and glorious day when the Lord says to each of us:
 ‘Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world! 
May God graciously grant that each of us hear those words on Judgment Day for Jesus’ sake!  Amen.

General Prayer Proper 29a Last Sunday of the Church Year

Gracious heavenly Father, in the name of Jesus Christ we ask that You would hear our prayer and give ear to our cries for mercy:

Make us people after Your own heart who are willing to search out and find all of those who are lost sheep so that we might bring them into Your fold.  Bless the work of pastors and missionaries throughout the world and make their efforts fruitful for the growth of Your flock.

You have promised to bind up the injured and strengthen the weak.  Care for those who stand in any need.  According to Your will heal those who are sick; deliver those who are caught in the snare of addictions; and meet the material needs of those who are hungry and homeless and lonely. 

Grant us compassion for those who are weak so that we do not fall under Your judgment.  Open our eyes to the needs of those around us and lead us to generously meet those needs.

We thank You that You have graciously kept Your promise to send the Son of David to be our Good Shepherd who has laid down his life for us on the cross.  By the help of Your Holy Spirit help us always to remain members of his flock.  Especially do we give You thanks for the gift of life that You have granted to Your servant Trey as he celebrates a birthday.  Keep him close to You all his days and bless him with every good gift of body and soul.

Comfort those who mourn with the Good News that in Christ we will all be made alive and that Jesus is the firstfruits of an entire harvest of people who will also rise from their graves.

Until that day when Jesus puts all enemies under his feet, protect, guide, and uphold all those who serve as Your ministers for our good in the government, especially our military men and women, that our enemies would not prevail against us.

Remind us that as your people our lives of faith are to be busy and active, doing good works and performing acts of charity and service so that we might receive the commendation of Your Son when he comes again to judge all people.

Keep us firm in our faith and grant that on that day we hear these words:  Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for You from the foundation of the world.

Whatever else You see that we need; whatever serves our neighbor and brings glory to You; whatever extends Your kingdom, grant to us dear Father in heaven for we ask all things in the name of Your Son Jesus Christ.  Amen.

Sunday, November 16, 2014

Let Us Use Our Gifts Faithfully!

Matthew 25:14-30 The Bible has a great deal to say about the second coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in glory to judge the living and the dead.  In fact, much of what we long for as Christian people will be accomplished on that day as the fruit of his death and resurrection. 
Evil will be destroyed and the devil and his angels will be cast into the lake of fire never to trouble us again.  This broken world will be destroyed and a new heaven and a new earth will be created where there is no sorrow or suffering.  Our bodies will be raised from the dead.  And Jesus will judge the world and honor those who have served him.
When Peter was considering all that would happen on that day, he asked an important question:  What kind of people ought we to be?  As we wait for the end of evil—as we wait for a new world—as we wait for the judgment –what kind of people ought we to be?
Jesus has much to say about this as well.  He says that we need to be people who are aware of the signs of his coming—signs in nature and the family and the church and the nations.  He said that we ought to be people who are spiritually awake—that we ought to fight off the spiritual laziness that afflicts us all at times.  Last week we heard Jesus tell us that we need to be prepared spiritually by hearing his word and receiving his gifts.
In the lesson this week, Jesus tells us that as we await his return we need to keep busy and work hard, using the gifts he has given us for his glory and the good of others and the advance of his kingdom--that our life right now, as we wait for his coming, is like this:
It will be like a man going on a journey, who called his servants and entrusted to them his property.
            Every one of us has been gifted by Jesus so that we might serve him and do good to others and extend his kingdom.  In fact, there is nothing that we possess that has not been given to us as a gift of his grace—down to and including our next breath and heartbeat.
Our jobs and financial resources and material goods.  Our intellect and our bodies and our emotions.  Our relationships.  Our particular place in life.  Our faith and the gift of the Holy Spirit in us and our life with God.  All of it properly belongs to the Lord who gives it into our hands for us to use as his stewards for a time until he comes again.  Jesus says that:
To one he gave five talents, to another two, to another one, to each according to his ability. Then he went away.
            All of us are gifted by God.  Jesus has entrusted to all of us material and spiritual blessings.  But that doesn’t mean that we are all blessed and gifted with the same gifts and abilities or the same degree of blessing. 
The Lord in his wisdom and love for us has seen fit to give us some gifts and withhold others.  He has seen fit to give us more and less than others have been given.  But in the way, and to the degree, that we have been gifted-- God expects each of us to be faithful in the use of his gifts whether they be great or small.  Jesus said that: 
He who had received the five talents went at once and traded with them, and he made five talents more.  So also he who had the two talents made two talents more. But he who had received the one talent went and dug in the ground and hid his master's money.
            Jesus wants us to recognize two things here.  First of all, that having been entrusted with material and spiritual gifts, God expects us to put them to work caring for others and extending his kingdom just like the first two men in the story.  God wants us to be active in our faith.
It is true that our salvation is, from beginning to end, God’s work for us and it is given to us as a gift.  But his saving work has a purpose in our lives—that we would bear the fruit of good works.  The Bible says that we are God’s workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works.  God expects us to put his gifts to work in our lives and the lives of others.
Second of all, Jesus wants us to understand that whether we have been gifted with much or little, he expects us to be faithful with what we have.  Jesus does not expect me to sing a solo like Heather—but he does expect me to sing his praises in Church.  He does not expect me to run a successful business like Sylvia but he does expect me to manage my money prudently.  He does not expect me to preach like Billy Graham but he does expect me to preach his Word.
God expects us to faithfully use the gifts he has entrusted to us.  The first two men in the story did exactly that—the third one did not.  He buried his gift in the ground.
In a few moments we’re going to hear what Jesus thought of that (and I bet you can guess) but here it is sufficient to say that what the third man did was a tragedy for him.  Never mind (for now) that he did not serve the master—he did not even serve himself.  He missed out on all the opportunities to live a richer, more fulfilling life than what the master intended for him because he was too lazy to put his gifts to work.
All of us can use this reminder.  We have gifts and abilities and strengths and resources beyond what we can imagine because we have never really stretched ourselves or taken a risk for the Lord.  That’s a faith problem and it speaks to a lack of confidence and trust in the Lord. 
The Lord wants us to have a meaningful life filled with divine promise.  He has gifted us for that.  But we have to step out in faith and put our gifts to work as we wait for the Lord’s return.  Jesus said that:  Now after a long time the master of those servants came and settled accounts with them.
            It has been a long time since our Lord’s ascension.  It is easy to lose our focus on what really matters.  It’s easy for us to go our own way.  It’s easy for us to live for ourselves.
But Jesus will return and that day will be a day of reckoning when how we have lived our lives and what we have valued and believed and what we have done with the gifts we have been given will be measured and judged and a divine accounting given. 
Because of that, we want to live our lives and use our gifts in such a way that we will be glad to meet Jesus when he comes again—glad to show him what we have accomplished with what he has given us.  Jesus said that:
He who had received the five talents came forward, bringing five talents more, saying, ‘Master, you delivered to me five talents; here I have made five talents more.’ His master said to him, ‘Well done, good and faithful servant.  You have been faithful over a little; I will set you over much. Enter into the joy of your master.’
            And so it went in exactly the same way with the second servant.  Everything that we accomplish in life—everything that we lay our hand to and say “mine”—all of it comes from the gifts that we have been given by God.  These men knew that. 
When their master returned, both of them began by acknowledging that what they had and what they had done began with the gifts given to them by the master.  They did not waste those gifts or the time given them to use those gifts—they used them to work for the master-- and Jesus acknowledged their faithfulness.  “Well done, good and faithful servant.”
            Brothers and sisters in Christ, this is where we want to be on the last day.  This is what we want to hear.  This is the goal of our lives as God’s people.
There is no accolade or award or accomplishment that you will ever receive—no success that you will ever enjoy—no goal that you will ever reach--that is more important or more meaningful than hearing these words when you stand before the Lord on judgment day:  “well done, good and faithful servant.”  They are our goal for the future and our guide in life.
And if that accolade from the master wasn’t enough—there was more:  each of the servants would have a reward much greater than even the gifts they were given—each of them would have a share in the master’s joy.  Their faithfulness was not forgotten—but neither was the faithlessness of the third man.  Jesus said that:
He also who had received the one talent came forward, saying, ‘Master, I knew you to be a hard man, reaping where you did not sow, and gathering where you scattered no seed, so I was afraid, and I went and hid your talent in the ground. Here you have what is yours.’
            Let’s be clear:  our Lord does reap where he has not sown and he does gather where he has scattered no seed.  Jesus never traveled outside of Palestine except for his trip to Egypt as a baby.  He never walked the streets of Kingsville.  He did not conduct his ministry in South Texas.  And yet he still expects to gather and reap and harvest here.  He expects his kingdom would be extended here and that the poor and needy would be served here and that God would be glorified here. 
But does that make Jesus a hard man or does that make him a good man?  The way we answer that really depends upon whether we have faith or not--whether we really have any inkling of what our relationship with God means.  The third man did not.  He saw the gifts he was given by the master as an imposition.  He didn’t understand the incredible honor of being trusted by the master.  He didn’t count it a privilege to serve his master.
So it is with many in the church today.  They don’t understand that the purpose of their lives is to serve the Lord.  They don’t recognize that the gifts they have been given were entrusted to them for no other reason but to extend Christ’s kingdom and glorify God.  They see opportunities for service as impositions.  And they think that forgiveness means freedom to live life as they see fit and get heaven thrown in at the end.  But life with God doesn’t work that way.  Jesus said that:
His master answered him, ‘You wicked and slothful servant! You knew that I reap where I have not sown and gather where I scattered no seed?  Then you ought to have invested my money with the bankers, and at my coming I should have received what was my own with interest.
            Here’s the thing folks:  it took more effort for the man to dig a hole and bury the master’s gift than it would have taken for him to put it in the bank and render the master just a bit of service!  He was so blind that he couldn’t see that serving the master was easier than disobedience.  That is what so many people do not realize about a life with God. 
            Jesus did not come to burden us but to bless us.  The gifts he gives us and the work he sets before us is not an imposition but a benediction.  To live as a servant of Jesus is what we were made for and redeemed for and sanctified for and in his service is perfect freedom.  His gifts and mission ennobles and blesses our lives and lifts them up above what we could ever achieve by doing our own thing and going our own way.
We have nothing to fear and everything to gain by living our lives in the service of our master for he has come to give us life and that abundantly.  Jesus said:
Take the talent from him and give it to him who has the ten talents.  For to everyone who has will more be given, and he will have an abundance. But from the one who has not, even what he has will be taken away. And cast the worthless servant into the outer darkness. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’
            As we wait for the coming of our Lord’s return, Jesus tells us this story because he wants us to consider the lives of these men and apply the lessons of their lives to our own lives.  The first two men began as servants but the master set them over much more than they were given in the beginning.  They were blessed at his return with far more than they were given in the beginning.  But the third man did not even get to keep his status as servant but was cast into hell. 
            Jesus’ point is this:  To be entrusted with our master’s gifts and to do our master’s work will not diminish or impoverish our lives.  Just the opposite!  Jesus’ obedience even unto death leads to life for all people.  So it is with us.  To lose our lives in service to the Lord is the only way to an abundant life here on earth and an eternal life that death cannot end.
As we wait for the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ let us use our gifts faithfully:  serving those around us, extending Christ’s kingdom, and bringing glory to God.  Amen.