Sunday, July 15, 2018

Sermon: Matthew 25: 31-46 The Sheep and the Goats

People are being divided up into groups all the time. So, you’re either right-handed or left-handed; you’re male or female; you wanted England to win the World Cup or you were happy to see them lose; you’re pro-Brexit or anti-Brexit. All the time, people are seen as part of a bigger group - on one side or the other; with us or against us.

But, in the grand scheme of things, all those divisions are petty and don’t really matter. There is just one division that really does matter. And we hear about it in our reading this evening - the separation of people, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.

Over the past few weeks, we’ve been looking at Matthew 25, listening in as Jesus teaches about the coming of his kingdom. He is preparing to leave the disciples, by way of the cross, resurrection and ascension, and so he is preparing them for life in between his first coming and his second coming. He’s preparing them to be ready for when Jesus returns.

A fortnight ago, the key word was ‘watch’ - the lesson of the parable of the ten virgins. Five were wise, and were watching, ready for the bridegroom’s arrival. Last week, the key word was ‘work’ - the lesson of the parable of the talents. We want to use all that the master has given us, to put it to work, in order to hear the ‘well done, good and faithful servant...’ Both those stories were parables - indeed, that’s what the publisher’s headings tell us.

But tonight’s story is a little bit different. I wonder did you notice that when it was read? It wasn’t introduced like the others - ‘At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like...’ (1) ‘Again, it will be like...’ (14). No, this one is different. Look at verse 31. ‘When...’

Jesus is telling us what is going to happen. It’s a bit like you saying, ‘when I get back from holiday I will...’ or ‘when the hosepipe ban is lifted, I’ll wash the car...’ This isn’t an earthly story with a heavenly meaning, no, this is a real story. Jesus is reporting on something in the future, telling us what is going to happen. This is how it’s going to be.

And ‘when’ will it be? ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his throne in heavenly glory.’ (31) Jesus is telling us about the day when he comes again to the earth. The term, ‘The Son of Man’ is Jesus’ favourite way to refer to himself in the gospels. It has its roots in Daniel 7 - the Son of Man is the one given authority, glory and sovereign power; an everlasting kingdom; and worshipped by all.

Jesus is telling us about who he is - the Christ, the Messiah, the King of the universe. And one day he will come in glory. He will sit on his throne. And everyone from every nation will be gathered before him. Look closely at the scene he is painting, and you’ll see yourself. (Isn’t that what we do when we look at a photo that we’re in? We look to see ourselves before we see who else is in it. Well, somewhere, in this scene, you’re there.).

The Son may not know when he will return (see Matt 24:36), but he knows what will happen when he does return. ‘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.’ (32-33)

So what will the division be based on? In that moment it won’t be based on men and women; he’ll not worry about left-handed and right-handed. The division is sheep and goats. There just these two groups; two categories, and he speaks to each of them in turn.

To those on his right, he says in verse 34: ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world...’ To those on his left, however, he says in verse 41: ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels...’

Two different groups, with two different destinies. one is told to come, the other to depart; one of blessing, the other is cursed; one receives inheritance, the kingdom prepared for them; the other receives the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. Now, when you see the two destinies side by side, it’s not hard to decide which you would prefer. The question, though, is how do some find themselves on his right and others on his left? And how can we be sure of being on his right?

Jesus gives the reason in verse 35 - to those on his right he says: ‘For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink...’ In the same way, he tells those on his left: ‘For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink...’ (42).

Now, if you were listening closely earlier on, you’ll have noticed that both groups were very surprised when they heard what they had done or not done. They both ask the same question: ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry...?’ (37, 44). They can’t remember seeing Jesus hungry, or thirsty, or as a stranger, or needing clothes, or being sick or being in prison.

Now, if that’s so for the righteous, it’s even more the case for the wicked. If they’d seen Jesus in this way, they’re pretty sure they would have done something to help him. But, they never did see Jesus in these positions, so how come they’ve ended up as goats, condemned?

And if our position on that day depends on how we have treated Jesus, how can we do that if we’ve never seen him? Have we got an excuse? Can we get out of doing it if we’ve never seen Jesus in the flesh?

It appears not. You see, Jesus explains it in verse 40. When do we see Jesus in these positions of need? ‘The King will reply, “I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of mine, you did for me.”’ How you treat the family of Jesus shows your attitude to Jesus himself.

Think back to your school days. If you had a little brother or sister at the same school as you, did you ever act as a minder for them? If they were being picked on, did you ever try to sort it out? Warn them off? What would you have said? Maybe something like - If you mess with them, then you mess with me. (that sounds a bit like the mafia, I’ll admit).

That’s what Jesus is saying here! The way we treat the family of Jesus, the least of his brothers, is an indication of what you think of Jesus. To help or ignore a brother or sister of Jesus is to help or ignore Jesus himself.

So, who are the brothers and sisters of Jesus? Sometimes people read this, and urge us that it’s everyone and anyone, the whole of humanity. But Jesus has a narrower focus. You see, Jesus has already asked and answered this very question. Back in chapter 12, Mary the mother of Jesus and his brothers and sisters hear about the crowds flocking to see Jesus. They’re concerned for him, so they go to bring him home. And what does Jesus say, when he’s told they’re outside wanting to see him? ‘Who is my mother, and who are my brothers? Pointing to his disciples, he said, Here are my mother and my brothers. For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.’ (12:48-50).

And, just to make sure, he says the same thing after his resurrection. So in Matt 28:10, Jesus says to Mary Magdalene and the other women, when she meets them near the empty tomb, ‘Do not be afraid. Go and tell my brothers to go to Galilee; there they will see me.’ He’s speaking about his disciples again.

So how we treat the disciples of Jesus, his brothers, shows us what we think of the Lord Jesus himself. Now, let’s be clear - Jesus here is not saying that we will be saved by our works (and thereby overturning the whole of the rest of the Bible’s teaching on salvation by grace alone by faith alone in Jesus alone...). But our works show whether we are saved or not, by showing what we think of Jesus by how we treat his family.

So how are you treating his family? When you see his brothers and sisters who are hungry, or thirsty, or strangers, or needing clothes, or sick or in prison - how will you respond? Because the way that you respond to them shows what you think of their big brother.

Our entry into eternal life and the eternal inheritance is down to God’s grace. but the test of our words of love for Jesus is in our actions - if we love the family of Jesus, the least of his brothers in sisters.

So let’s resolve to show our love for Jesus in the way we love his family. Let’s see the face of Jesus in the face of Christians facing persecution and hardship. Let’s show our love in practical ways, to his praise and glory. Amen.

This sermon was preached in St Matthew's Church, Richhill on Sunday evening 15th July 2018.

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