“Go Over There”

Matthew 25:31-46

September 28, 2003

 

Throughout Jesus’ earthly ministry, Jesus clearly identified himself with the poor and needy, with the downtrodden and the oppressed, with the sick and the dying, and perfectly revealed the character and nature of God. 

Jesus spoke out against the unjust practices of the religious elites and political authority.  He ate with outcasts and sinners, he healed the sick, made the blind see, the deaf hear, the lame walk, and the dead live again.  In Jesus, we see the true heart of God as the one who brings hope to the hopeless, power to the powerless, comfort to the afflicted, and freedom to the oppressed.  It is these people who are the inheritors of the kingdom of heaven; to them belong the kingdom of God.

In this last formal act of teaching, Jesus gives to his disciples a final lesson with a parable of the sheep and the goats, a parable about the coming day of Judgment.  For Matthew, this parable is the culmination of all that Jesus taught and did during his ministry, and it marks the turning point from Jesus as the great teacher to Jesus as the crucified Lord, for immediately after this final lesson, Matthew will go on to tell us about Jesus’ last days on earth and his death on the cross. 

With this final lesson, Jesus’ teaching ministry has now come full circle.  What started out as the opening preamble and hallmark of his message and ministry, which we know as the Beatitudes, has now become the imperative for his disciples.  If his disciples are to follow him and witness to his gospel and have eternal life, they must become Christ-like in everyway and do what Jesus did by feeding the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty, welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting the prisoners.  This is to be their mission, their calling, and their purpose after Jesus is gone.  But I have to tell you that for a final lesson, Jesus sure picked a doozy.

In our text for this morning, Jesus describes for us his own vision of the last day.  One preacher said that this Scripture passage is awe-inspiring.  Well, in a certain respect it is awe-inspiring.  In this glimpse into the future, we see the Son of Man coming in glory, with all the angels with him, and he sits upon the throne.  Stretching out before him is a sea of humanity as far as the eye can see; people from every nation, from every land, from every walk of life.  They are in fact everyone in the whole world, including the church, and it is the Day of Judgment.

Now if the text stopped here, I, for one, would be a lot more comfortable.  Certainly, for us Jesus is the King of glory, the Lord of salvation, and the judge of the living and the dead.  It is indeed our hope and our promise that the one who we will stand before us on the last day is the one who died on the cross for our sins and was raised from the dead for eternal life.  It gives me a lot of comfort to know that I will stand before my Lord and Savior, the one who took upon himself my sins and the sins of the world, the one who died and was raised so that I may have eternal life.  But the text doesn’t stop there, and my anxiety begins.

We all have our opinions about who Jesus should be, how he should act, and what he should do.  If the real Jesus doesn’t fit into our “Jesus mold” as we would like him to, it is easy for us to get anxious and nervous, and to want to separate the real Jesus from our perception of Jesus.

It’s like my daughters playing with Playdoe.  Hollie will make really neat things with Playdoe, but she is very careful not to mix the colors.  Like Hollie, I always want the colors to remain separated, not mixed together.  Kara, on the other hand, couldn’t care less.

The other day as she was playing with her Playdoe, I heard her in the kitchen banging away on the table.  Whap! Whap! Whap!, came the noise from the kitchen.  “Kara,” I yelled, “what are you doing?”  “Come here, Daddy,” came the innocent reply, “come here and see what I made.”  I walked into the kitchen looked at the table, and there I saw every container empty and every color – red, green, yellow, blue, orange, and pink – stacked one on top of the other, and Kara smacking them together.  “Kara, you can’t mix the colors!  We won’t be able to separate them!”  “But, Daddy,” she said, “I made a rainbow, I made something beautiful.” 

Our text for this morning shows Jesus in a very different color, not as the one who walked the streets of Galilee, or who as the Suffering Servant, but as the Son of Man, the Son of Man who sits upon the throne in judgment at the end of time.

As we see the Son of Man separating the people into two groups, the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left.  You can almost see him raising his right arm and calling to the first person he sees saying, “You, go over there,” and then he raises his left arm and says to the next person he sees, “You, go over there.”

Now I don’t know about you, but anytime I hear anyone talk about separating sheep and goats, I begin to get a little nervous, because I know what is coming.  It’s like watching a suspense thriller or scary movie, and knowing what’s behind the door at the end of the hallway or what’s around the corner, and also knowing there is nothing you can do about it.  So sure enough, as you guessed it, the sheep get to inherit the kingdom that is prepared for them, and the goats…well, the goats get the place of eternal fire.

This is not quite what I had in mind for Judgment Day, and after reading this text, it’s a little hard to get into the spirit for what this day will bring.  After all, I kind of hoped that it wouldn’t be so cut and dry, so either/or, so pass or fail.  I kind of thought and hoped that Jesus would grade on a curve.  I know that I’m not going to get an “A,” but I don’t think I should get an “F” either.  We know that we don’t always do as well as we would like to, but come on.  A text like this might just make me wonder whether in the end I’m going to be in or out, whether in the end I get to go over there to the right with the sheep, or go over there to the left with the goats, but it doesn’t.  It doesn’t!

My friends, there are many Christians today who live a life of anxiety over whether or not they are going to be a sheep or a goat on the last day.  So they spend their entire life with their good-deed-to-do-list always ready to mark off another entry in hopes that in the end, they will have a positive balance in their account.  Show up to church on Sunday…done.  Read from some of the Bible…done.  Pray…done.  Give some money to the church…done.  Open the door for somebody…done.  Be nice to my neighbor…done.  Help someone across the street, wash my own clothes so my wife doesn’t have to, and do the dishes…done, done, and done.  But this is not the kind of life that the Son of Man wants us to live, it’s not the way the King upon the throne judges our worthiness for eternal life, and it’s not the message of the good news of the Gospel of Jesus Christ. 

If our understanding of this text is purely one of sheep/goat reward/punishment, then our Christian faith and life will be one of sheep/goat reward/punishment, and so will our witness be of our God.  But this is not the kind of witness Jesus wants from his disciples, because God is not this kind of God. 

What Jesus wants from his disciples is a dedicated commitment to his ministry and mission in the world.  What Jesus wants from his disciples is for them to be like him in every way, with the same heart and mind that he has.  What Jesus wants from his disciples is for them to identity themselves with those who are the hungry and the thirsty, the poor and the needy, the stranger and the lonely, because that is what he did.  What Jesus wants from his disciples is for them to follow him so completely and faithfully that their mission, calling, and purpose becomes a natural extension of who they are and of their whole being.

As Christ’s disciples we won’t always get it right.  Sometimes our goat side will show up more than our sheep side when we become judgmental about how someone looks, dresses, or acts, when we pass by a stranger without saying hello, or turn away from a person in need, or concern ourselves with our own status at Judgment Day as we worry about how many goat points we have versus how many sheep points we have. 

But thanks be to God that the good news of the gospel is good news and not bad news, that the one who sits upon the throne is the one who came to all of those who didn’t get it right all the time, to all of those who knew that in the great economy of God they were paupers, to all of those who knew they were the least, the lost, and the left out.    

Thanks be to God that the one who sits upon the throne of grace, is the living Christ who calls us to go over there to the most unlikely places, who opens our eyes to see the face of the other, and who teaches us that “just as you did it to one the least of these who are members of my family, you did it unto me.”   For it is in the most unlikely place, in the face of the other, and in the least of these, that we will see the glory of God and find our Lord and Savior at work in the world. 

Brothers and sisters, if you want to see the true colors of Jesus, then go over there to where he is, and he has told you where he will be, for where Jesus is, there the church that is faithful must be also, and there you will find and see something not just beautiful, but glorious.  Amen.