“Inherit the Kingdom Prepared for You”
2nd Last Sunday of the Church Year
15-16 November 2008
Trinity Evangelical Lutheran Church Girard, Illinois
In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen. There are two aspects of today’s Gospel that we should not ignore or just gloss over. The first is that on the day our Lord Jesus returns, our works will be judged. St. Paul writes in Romans 14, “For we shall all stand before the judgment seat of Christ . . . So then each of us shall give an account of himself to God.” Again the apostle writes in 2 Corinthians, “For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive good or evil, according to what he has done in the body.” Too often we are quick to use the slogan “faith alone” as an excuse for not doing the good works God has given us to do. We use His grace as a cover to justify a self-serving way of living. But that is not the life God has called us to. Rather, He has called us to a life of self-giving, of love toward our neighbor in need, the hungry or thirsty or sick or in prison or just in need of someone to talk to. Jesus praises the works of the sheep, and He condemns the lack of good works in goats. Do not be deceived; your works will be judged on the Last Day.
The second thing we should not skip over is the reality of eternal judgment. Hell is not a particularly popular topic–for obvious reasons. No one likes to think of someone suffering in tormenting flames without relief, separated from God and knowing only sleepless agony forever. And yet that is the reality that the Scriptures put before us time and time again. Hell is real, and it is eternal, whether or not people believe it to be so. That’s how serious sin is; that’s how devastating it is to our relationship with God. It’s not just a little imperfection, a little petty thing. It is rebellion against God and an expression of someone’s desire to live without Him. Hell is simply the terrible completion of that wish. Do not buy into the many spiritualities out there which suggest that basically everyone except perhaps the most vile of criminals ends up in heaven. Today’s Gospel makes it clear that some receive eternal life; but many others receive eternal death. May God have mercy on us all, that we be may spared from suffering that judgment.
However, do not misunderstand my words. For I am not suggesting to you that you are saved by your works; nor is today’s Gospel saying that. For before we hear any talk of works, we hear of what God has done and prepared. Notice first of all what Jesus says to the goats. “Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” Believe it or not, there’s actually a bit of good news in those words. God did not prepare hell for us, for human beings. Hell is God’s judgment on rebellious Satan and his followers. No human being is predestined for eternal judgment. The people who end up there are those who through their own unbelief and pride have joined themselves to the devil’s fate.
Now pay close attention to what Jesus says to the sheep on His right, “Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” When was the kingdom prepared for you? Before you were even born! In fact, before the world was even created! That’s how much eternal life is a free gift of God’s grace to you. You couldn’t have had anything to do with winning eternal life because it was already done for you before you were in existence! Ephesians 1 says, “God the Father chose us in Christ before the foundation of the world, that we should be holy and without blame.” That point is made clear by the fact that Jesus says this is something you inherit. In other words, you get it not because of what you have done but because of who you are and whose you are. If you are a sheep of the Good Shepherd, you’re on the right. If you are a child in the family of the heavenly Father, then you get the inheritance. The blessing is yours. Period. It is for you, Jesus says.
Revelation 13 tells us why all of this is so. It says, that the Lamb of God, Jesus Christ, was “slain from the foundation of the world.” That’s how the kingdom was prepared for you from the very beginning of creation. Jesus’ crucifixion was already foreseen and in effect from the very moment the universe was being formed. It is the one event that not only defines all of history but even eternity itself. The blood of the Lamb has cleansed us of our sin and made us the people of God. The Lamb who was slain is the one who reigns as King of this kingdom. And He gives you the kingdom gladly as an unearned gift. You are forgiven. You are free. You are royalty in God’s house.
So then, why is there all of this emphasis on the works of the sheep in today’s Gospel? Well, to start with, we must remember that even good works are gifts of God, which He has prepared, as Ephesians 2 says, “We are His workmanship, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand, that we should walk in them.” So even good works are something, which God Himself prepares, and does in and through His people who are baptized into Christ. St. Paul once said, “I have been crucified with Christ. It is no longer I who live, but Christ who lives in me.” Christ is the ultimate doer of all of our good works. He is the new man who joins Himself to us to live by faith toward God the Father and by love toward our neighbor. As Isaiah said, “Lord, You have also done all our works in us.”
So not only is our salvation a complete gift from God, but the good works, which are a fruit of our faith, are also a gift from God. Just as Christ credits His righteousness to us as our own, so also the works, the Spirit of Jesus does through us, are credited to us as well. Even though from our view our good deeds are still stained with imperfect motives and pride because of our old Adam, yet God still receives such works as holy for the sake of Christ. The blood of Christ not only purifies us but also purifies our works, so that they are pleasing to God. Christ honors all works done in faith and receives them as works done for Him.
Interestingly, though, the sheep on the right hand do not remember their good works done for Christ. Jesus praises the things they did, and they respond by saying, “When did we do that?” If you think about it that makes sense doesn’t it. A truly Christian good work is done for the sake of the other person and not for the sake of having a list of accomplishments to puff yourself up with before God. They are often forgotten, because they’re not about you. Why would you need to be remembering your good works and calling them to mind all the time–unless you’re trying to justify yourself in God’s sight, which no Christian does. We know that we are justified through faith in Christ alone. And so the sheep have “good works memory loss.”
And there’s one more reason why the sheep didn’t know of their works done for Jesus. Our Lord says, “Whatever you did for one of the least of these my brethren, you did for Me.” Now in the Gospel of Matthew, that term “brethren” is used almost exclusively for the 12 disciples. They were Jesus’ brothers in the ministry, the apostles, the first preachers. And so to feed or clothe or visit them in their need was to do a good work for Christ whom they preached. For a minister acts in the stead of Christ and by His authority when he baptizes and preaches and administers Holy Communion. During His ministry Jesus sent the disciples out with no belongings to support themselves. They were to receive their food and clothing and so forth from those who believed their preaching. The apostle Paul was often imprisoned for the sake of the Gospel and received great comfort from those who visited him. So these good works that Jesus describes are simply expressions of faith in the Gospel. The sheep naturally support and care for the preachers of Christ. For Christians desire Christ’s Word and His saving gifts which are given through the ministry. That, by the way, is why there’s nothing to praise about the goats at Jesus’ left hand. Even though the goats may have done many good things in their life from a human perspective, the one thing they did not do was believe the Gospel or support the ministry of Christ. Only the sheep did that.
Finally, we would do well to remember that this final separation of the sheep and the goats begins at the cross and is pictured for us there. It was a goat who was crucified at Jesus’ left, one who mocked Him and didn’t believe. But crucified on Jesus’ right was a sheep who prayed in faith, “Lord, remember me when You come into Your kingdom.” Jesus said to him, “Today, you will be with Me in paradise.” Fellow Christians who believe and are baptized, you are at Jesus’ right hand. Just as our Lord will come on the Last Day with all His holy angels, He is here even now with angels and archangels and all the company of heaven to bring you His kingdom in the Sacrament of His body and blood. And so I say it to you once again, come, you blessed of the Father, receive the kingdom prepared for you, right here at this altar; come, receive the King. In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.