Matthew 25: 31-45
As well as Christ the King , the first Sunday before Advent is known as "Stir Up Sunday", traditionally when Christmas puddings are stirred, and because of the wonderful collect.* I pray that we may all get another type of stirring this morning.
Once again we have one of the hard stories from Jesus, hard to explain, hard to take on board; we don’t like talking or hearing about judgement or the end times and you might well think, here we go again with the sheep and the goats.
In the Middle East sheep and goats are almost identical to look at unless you are the shepherd. They are large brown woolly animals and the only way of telling the difference is by looking at their tails. Sheep are ‘downies’ and goats are ‘uppies’.
So it is with us –it is not clear from our looks what is happening on the inside. I am sure we have all heard it said that you don’t have to go to church to be a Christian. We all know people that live exemplary lives and do many good deeds but would never darken the door of a church. But we know that God looks into the heart; only he knows our intention, and more to the point, he knows what we have done with Jesus. Is he king in our lives or have we rejected him?
The idea of eternal punishment is no longer tenable in the 21st century, and so many of our generation have lost the sense of sin; right and wrong have blurred edges now, and very few people see the need to make recompense; We have a ‘live and let live’ culture. There is the interesting situation at present with the footballer who has been convicted and served some time in prison for rape, wanting to be reinstated in his club, the issue dividing communities and families.
If we are not careful we will end up with a God who is regarded as an easy-going Father who will let us get away with anything as long as we say we are sorry once a week. It is very clear from our reading this morning that we are individually accountable for our actions and our inactions. We will be judged whether we believe it or not.
Most of us will go through life without meeting a judge. The majority of us learn about judges and judgment from films and the television. In the old days, it was Perry Mason, now it is Judge Judy, but we know it isn’t really true to life. There won’t be any clever lawyers to get us off the hook in heaven.
Jesus is telling his disciples at the end of the age he will come back. Jesus Christ will be in his rightful place as King and there will be the final division of the sheep from the goats. With a little imagination we might be able to fill in the gaps in the parable. It might go something like this. The king looking at the goats on his left said, “What did you do? “What did you do for the hungry, the thirsty, the naked, the starving, the imprisoned, the elderly, the disabled, or the sick? What did you do?" And the goats reply “Judge, we are good people. If you got to know us we are not bad at all. We love our wives, our children, our families; we come from a good solid family background. We have good beliefs and values; we go to church; we give money each week; Judge, we have good feelings about the poor, the starving, and the naked. We have positive feelings towards the poor and every time we see pictures of the starving, our hearts are sad.” The judge asked the question: “Yes I hear you but what did you do? And the goats reply; “Well, uhhhh, you know:” they expected the judge to be lenient, to be understanding. Then came the verdict clearly and distinctly: “Move to the left and depart from me into eternal damnation.” “What?” they couldn’t believe their ears. “Depart from me into eternal damnation where people will weep and gnash their teeth. The goats weren’t expecting that sentence.
Then he turned to the sheep on the right, the judge said: “What did you do?” The sheep said, “We didn’t do anything.” The king said, “Yes, you did. I was watching you. You fed the hungry, you clothed the naked, you visited the sick andthe imprisoned, and now you shall inherit eternal life. You are good sheep.” The sheep said, “We are?” The king said, “You are, come into my eternal pastures and receive eternal life.”
But, how many of us take these parables about the final judgment seriously? Are we really concerned about our final day in court? Do we really expect to hear that question, “What have you done?” Most of us are too busy with life to be preoccupied meeting our maker. I am sure many think this story is part of archaic, religious folk law from the Bible, about the sheep and the goats. What does this have to do with our cosmic age in the 21st century? I am sure most of us don’t spend too much time worrying about our final day in court. It is not one of our ‘biggies’ and it is not one of the dominant themes in most of our pulpits unless you go to a service in the Church of Scotland, the ‘wee free’s’ know all about judgment!
But, my friends, there will be a day of reckoning; Jesus talked about it time and time again, just look through the gospels. We cannot have pick and mix salvation. Judgement is found through all the Old Testament prophets and through to the book of Revelation. There will be that question to face, “What did you do? And we will be either in the sheep or the goat camp; and I don’t think Jesus will be interested in our religious faithfulness but he will be interested in knowing what we have done for each other.
Of course we mustn’t fall into the trap of reducing the Christian faith into an extension of the Scout movement - ‘doing a good turn every day’, or feeling compelled to give to every begging letter that comes through the door. The heart of Christianity – the heart of our faith - is about our relationship with God in Christ,
Jesus is teaching us that he is in every person; in every person that we help or that we ignore. Sometimes it is very hard to see Christ in the drunk, the beggar, the addict, or the criminal, but whether we believe it or not Jesus tells us it is so.
Jesus did not tell this parable to send us all on a guilt trip, or to give us sleepless nights. If we read the story again it is all about the simple things, giving simple help to people every day.
Several years ago I spent some time with a friend who is the Rector of a parish in Wanstead. We set off to do some shopping and noticed a young man and his dog huddled in a blanket outside a café. Liz went over to him, called him by name and helped him up. She took him into the café and bought him breakfast. I was dispatched to buy the dog food and feed the dog! Later that day she organised a hostel bed for Robert for the night. A ring at the door - another gentleman of the road on the doorstep, he was given sandwiches and a flask and shelter in the garden shed until it stopped raining, and so it went on. I was so humbled, she was, and still is, such an example of what caring is all about. She has set up a fund in church that any member can use to help the needy in practical terms. The wealthy stockbroker and the homeless sit side by side each Sunday.
Of course we cannot do any of this on our own, so we pray for Jesus to come into our hearts and lives, we pray for the Holy Spirit to guide and enable us to live as he meant us to, then we will know the joy of serving Christ; And when that final day comes and we stand before the King, we may mumble like silly sheep, or we may not be able to say anything at all, but we need not fear the question.
"What did you do?"
* The collect:
Stir up, O Lord, the wills of your faithful people;
that they, plenteously bringing forth the fruit of good works,
may by you be plenteously rewarded; through Jesus Christ our Lord.