Some time back, I heard a story about a man who lived in Florida several years ago in the days before the weather channel. He had ordered a very expensive barometer that he wanted to place on a post just outside his window so he could have a better idea what the weather might be for the coming day. Well, the expensive instrument arrived at his home, but when he went to put it on a post outside his window, he was disappointed to find that the indicator needle seemed to be stuck pointing to the sector marked 'Hurricane'. After shaking the barometer vigorously and banging it on the post with no change in results, he wrote a scathing letter to the company from which he had purchased the barometer and the next day he mailed the missive as he went to a nearby city on some other business. But that night when he returned to find that that not only was his new barometer was missing, but his house was also. It had been swept away by a hurricane.
Ignoring danger signals is, unfortunately an all too common occurrence. Like a man who feels pain in his chest, but refuses to go to the doctor and then dies of a heart-attack. Or the woman who fails to read the prescription on her medicine bottle and takes an accidental overdose. Or the child who sees that the pedestrian walk light is red, but runs out in the street anyway and gets hit by a car. Yet, as sad as those scenarios are, there is an even more tragic occurrence and that is when people disregard the warning signals found in God's Holy Word and die without faith in Jesus Christ.
It was for that reason, that Jesus in His great mercy spent much time in the days before his crucifixion talking to His disciples about the end of time and the judgment. And today’s gospel lesson, which relates Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats, is a prime example of this. There is no doubt it is a stern warning and a strong declaration of God's Law, which shows His fierce anger against sin, which should move all people (including us) to repent of it immediately! But there is also a gentle reminder of the Gospel, Jesus unconditional saving love for sinners, which promises that whoever believes in Him will not perish eternally in hell, but will live forever in heaven. With those two thoughts in mind, let us take a closer look at this parable of our Lord.
We begin by noting that the sheep are believers in Jesus Christ, while the goats are unbelievers. This is not the first time this metaphor is used in the Scriptures. God’s people are often called His ‘sheep’ in the O.T. particularly by David in his Psalms. But it is the Prophet Ezekiel, who compares the heathen nations to goats, because goats were basically viewed as being worthless animals because they were stubborn, belligerent and destructive. According to ancient shepherding practices, which are still used in use in some places today, sheep and goats are allowed to mingle together in rugged pasturelands, grazing on scarce grasses. But at night shepherds call their sheep home to the security of the fold, while the goats do not respond. They ignore the call, while the sheep follow it, because they know and listen to the shepherd's voice. Jesus uses this metaphor also in the gospel of St. John chapter ten where he says:
I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me, just 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 listen to my voice. So there will be one flock, one shepherd.
Then a little later John writes:
So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father's name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand.
With these words and others we can see quite clearly who the Lord’s sheep are. They are those people who follow Jesus and who know His voice. That means they accept His free gift of salvation in humble faith. They read His Word hungrily, digesting it daily in private devotions and weekly in Bible Study and they submit themselves to His teachings and keep them. On the other hand, those who are not Jesus' followers, do not and will not listen to Him. They turn a deaf ear to His calls. Not only do they not study His Word, they openly reject it and His gracious call to them in the Gospel, like stubborn, belligerent goats they think they can do whatever they want believing that they are in complete control of their own destiny. And that, beloved, is a good summary of where most Americans are at in their thinking today, which is why our nation is dying and rotting away before our very eyes.
That is also why Jesus, at His Second Coming, when He appears in glory, accompanied by His harvesting angels, He will divide the world into two distinct groups: Christians -- believers whom He will station at His right hand in the place of honor, and non-Christians or non-believers whom He will be herded to His left hand in the place of disgrace. And then will come the Judgment.
Now at first glance that may seem confusing. We might ask: Why do Christians need to be judged? Since they're believers, aren't they going to be saved rather than judged? Not only that, but doesn't judgment take place at death? Because when you die you go straight to heaven or hell right? Well, that is true! But in any court of law, where there is judgment taking place, there are actually two things that occurr: (1) the verdict and (2) the sentence.
So it is with the judgment that takes place in Scripture. In John 3:18 we read:
Whoever believes in God's Son is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God's One and Only Son!
Again in John 5:24 Jesus says:
I tell you the truth, whoever hears My Word and believes Him who sent Me, has eternal life and will not be condemned; from he has crossed over from death into life.
In other words, the verdict has already been handed down. Those who believe in Jesus are innocent; those who don't are guilty. And that goes into effect, for our souls, the moment we die. However, the sentencing itself doesn't take place until Judgment Day, after the resurrection of all flesh, when our bodies are raised up and reunited with our souls. Then Jesus will judge believers to be saved, and unbelievers to be damned.
However, the question brought to mind by this text is by what criterion will we all be judged? A casual look at this text seems to imply that we will be judged by our works, whatever we do or don't do for the least of these, Christ's brethren. However, the good works that are spoken of here are only mentioned as an evidence of faith. This is supported by several facts in our text:
- Works aren't even brought up until after the separation takes place. In other words, the reward of glory is first bestowed and then the works are viewed. It's a reminder that good works are not the cause of our salvation but rather a natural outpouring of it. As Luther used to say: they are the fruit of faith.
- It is important to note the attitude of the sheep and the goats is quite different. The sheep are filled with humility: “Lord, when did we do all these things?” they ask. For in humble repentance they realize that nothing good dwells in them; it is only by God’s grace through faith that they are able to do anything that is good. That's why Jesus says that they are “Blessed by His Father.” As Christians we all know this to be true. The goats, on the other hand, are so blinded by their own pride, that they cannot even see their sin, particularly their sins of omission. They must have Jesus show it to them: “Lord, when didn't we do all these things?” they arrogantly ask. In their pride and unbelief they fail to repent and so are rightly condemned.
- And finally, you'll notice that the believers have only good things spoken about them; while the unbelievers have only bad things spoken about them. Why is that? Is it because once you become a Christian you're no longer a sinner? Of course not. The Bible plainly teaches that we're as sinful as the rest of the world. Rather, it's a sign of God's mercy and compassion. Because we believe in Jesus, the Judge buries all our failures in forgiving silence and remembers our guilt no more. Or as the noted Lutheran theologian Edward Koehler so beautifully put it:
For the believers the sentence of condemnation is suspended and changed into a sentence of pardon and justification, because by faith they have appropriated to themselves the saving merits of Christ. Their sins are not investigated and published; they are not even mentioned. The Judge does not look at the filthy rags of their sins, but sees only the perfect garment of the righteousness of Jesus Christ, which He offered them in the Gospel, and which they put on by faith !' Therefore, the criterion by which all people will be judged is their faith in Jesus Christ, or the lack thereof. For as Romans 2:16 states: 'On that Day, God will judge the secrets of men according to the Gospel, through Christ Jesus !'
As I was thinking about this I couldn’t help but recall the story about one of Sir Ernest Shackleton’s expeditions to the Antarctic. Once he was once compelled to leave some of his men on Elephant Island, with the intention of returning for them later and carrying them back to England. But he was unavoidably delayed, and by the time he could go for them he found to his dismay that the sea had frozen over and his men were cut off. Three times he tried to reach them, but his efforts ended in failure. Finally, on his fourth and last attempt, he discovered a narrow channel through the ice. Guiding his small ship back to the island, he was delighted to find his men not only alive and well, but all were fully packed and prepared to get right on board. After the excitement of the homecoming died down, Sir Ernest inquired how it was that they were ready to leaven so promptly. His men told him that every morning their leader rolled up his sleeping bag, and said: 'Get your things ready, boys, because the boss may come back today !'
How much more important it is for us then to always be ready, because our Great Leader Jesus may be coming back today. May God help us then to be prepared for His coming, whether it be in death or at his second coming; to be waiting for our Shepherd, listening to His voice in his Word & heeding with the full assurance of faith, unto life everlasting. Amen.