Everyone in our culture seems to love the drama of a good courtroom scene! And so you would think that our scripture passage from Matthew would be a natural favourite of most people. How much more drama could you ask for? You get a court room scene on a cosmic scale. The judge is incorruptible. The verdict is final. There will be no long, drawn-out appeal process. Eternal freedom and everlasting punishment hang in the balance. WOW! How could you not like it? What more could you want?
“Easy,” most people would answer, “I want to be left out of it!” Despite our current frenzy for courtroom drama, our text for this morning is not a favourite with most people. In fact it actually brings terror and torment to many. It’s one thing to enjoy the happenings of a courtroom when you are safely reclining in your lazy-boy at home. It’s quite another thing altogether, to be on the receiving end of it all. When we are told of a murderer getting what is coming to him, we can feel happy. But when we read in Matthew that EVERYONE will be called up before an almighty and all-knowing magistrate . . . well then the breath starts to get a little faint, the brow starts to sweat, the heart starts to race. I mean, we’re not playing around any more. This is you and me we’re talking about. This isn’t some story any more.
Matthew records it all very matter-of-factly. “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 them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left.” As we go on to read, the sheep are commended while the goats are rebuked. Then the whole thing ends with “And they [the goats] will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous [the sheep] into eternal life.” Is it any wonder that this particular courtroom raises some pretty burning questions in the minds of most people who read it.
Am I a sheep or a goat? Will I live this whole life thinking I’m a sheep only to be turned away at the last moment because I was only fooling myself? Have I done enough to stand on the right or have I failed so much that I will be placed on the left? How can I be sure? After all isn’t everyone in this story surprised about their outcome? What if I don’t want a surprise ending? And what did those goats do that was so bad anyway? I mean they were a little selfish sure, but is that enough to warrant an eternity of suffering? And are you telling me that the sheep never neglected anyone ever? How is that possible? No one can live up to those standards!
You see how quickly the vicious cycle of questioning and doubt can begin to seep in upon reading this passage. And it’s not without reason. We have all walked a mile in the hooves of the goats. You know it. I know it. God knows it. You’ve turned the other way. You’ve pretended not to hear. You have had more important things to do than worry about everyone else all the time. And you know that’s not even the worst of it. Those are only the things you have failed to do. What about all the things you did that you weren’t supposed to. In light of this, I suppose there is every reason to view the end of all things sheepishly. If God were to judge us based upon our actions in this life none of us could ever pass ourselves off as anything but a goat.
But this courtroom scene depicted in Matthew doesn’t work that way. Look again. Look closer. What we are talking about here is not some future day of reckoning to be based upon our actions. It is a done deal. Right Now. Right Here. The sheep and goats are not separated after the recounting of all there deeds but long before anything is said. There must be some deeper criteria. Their verdict was passed even before they got into the courtroom.
When you came into church this morning I had you do something a little different. I personally asked you to sit here before me on this side of the church. It was to show you two things. Number ONE: “He will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left.” When the day of the Lord dawns, our Lord Jesus will be there to usher us in to this final scene, much like you were ushered into church this morning. Jesus will separate the peoples of this world like a shepherd separates the sheep and the goats. He knows which ones belong to him. He knows which ones he has rescued from the butcher’s block. He knows which ones he paid for. As He, himself said in John 10:14-16 “I am the good shepherd; I know my own and my own know me, as the Father knows me and I know the Father; and I lay down my life for the sheep. And I have other sheep, that are not of this fold; I must bring them also, and they will heed my voice. So there shall be one flock, one shepherd.” You are those sheep. Right now you are His. Through your faith in Him you have already been separated out to stand (or in this case, sit) at His right hand. It’s a done deal. When the final day comes, you will only be claiming that which God has already given you here in His Church on earth.
Faith is the only basis on which this final heavenly scene is played out. Matthew 25 is not about proving our individual worth, it is about our collective trust in our Good Shepherd. This is not a picture of a mean and callous deity, lording it over helpless minions, promising one thing only to deliver another; gleefully casting some into the fires of hell while others stare on in shock and horror. NO! Quite the opposite, this is a picture of a gentle and loving shepherd finally calling home His frightened, bewildered, and beloved flock; bringing them into His fold, the place He has prepared for them ages in advance, one last gift of love in a long journey of support, and protection, and personal sacrifice. This is the final act of mercy from the one who’s love knows no bounds. The one without whom all of us would be lost.
Want more proof? Then look at these words from v. 34 “Then the King will say to those at his right hand, `Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;” The gift of salvation we see fulfilled on the last day is a gift God gave to each of you before the world began. A gift given only through His plan of salvation, thought out long before you ever came to be. A plan fulfilled in Jesus Christ who came to earth to stand in our place under the judgment of God. Jesus, who paid the penalty for humankind’s sin once and for all. Jesus, who rose again to life that you might share everlasting life with him in heaven. Jesus, who comes to you with love and acceptance and forgiveness every time you hear His holy Word, or receive His body and blood in the sacrament. Jesus, who’s blood shed upon the cross for you, changes you from a goat to a sheep. How then could it possibly rely upon what you have or have not done. It doesn’t. From the beginning God has wanted you to be with Him in heaven. And He has made sure, through Christ, that it has happened.
But that’s something He wants for everyone! Eternal damnation and hell were never meant to be for people. God wants all people to be a part of His everlasting flock. This much is evident from v.41 even when He rebukes the unbelievers “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.” That punishment was never meant for people, only satan and his devils. People are meant to be with Him in heaven. And that’s the second reason for having you all sit on this side of the church this morning. Not only to show you that you are already saved through your faith in Christ, but to also show you that many more are waiting to be saved along with you. Take a look to your right. God is waiting for you to help Him fill those pews with more sheep. As Peter once wrote: “The Lord is not slow about his promise as some count slowness, but is forbearing toward you, not wishing that any should perish, but that all should reach repentance.”
As we approach the end of another church year; the end of a century, and the end of a millennium, we can look with great joy to the eternal salvation that awaits us at the end of all time, as God’s beloved sheep. God has already set us apart to stand at his right when that day comes. He has given us faith, love, forgiveness, and eternal life through our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. He has already reserved us a spot with Him in heaven. But He is not yet finished taking reservations. There is room for so many more. Through the grace of God, we can feed the hungry, clothe the naked, visit the sick and imprisoned, and welcome the stranger, all in the name of our loving and forgiving Saviour. Through the grace of God we can share the hope that we have by faith in Christ with those who have none of their own. by the grace of God we can, and will fill these pews many times over with others, like us, who are Blessed in the Lord.
AMEN, LORD GRANT THIS TO US ALL.