Sunday, November 20, 2011

Matthew 25:31-46

Who knows what this is?

Yes, it’s a Swedish Christmas Goat -- or Julbocken.

In ancient Scandinavian mythology the god Thor rode through the skies in a chariot pulled by two rather ugly goats. So goats were already a big deal in Sweden, Finland, and Norway.

Somehow, then, the idea of a powerful goat was then incorporated into the Christmas celebration after Scandinavia was Christianized.

By the 19th century the myth was that an invisible goat would visit each house to make sure that they were properly prepared for Christmas. Then he evolved into a Santa-like creature which would bring gifts to children.

These days he is mostly seen as a fun Christmas decoration made from straw. As a matter of fact Gävle, which is about 160 km north of Stockholm, in the mid-1960’s their chamber of commerce came up with the idea of building a giant Christmas goat as a tourist attraction.

So each year they haul in tons of hay and build a 35 foot-tall Christmas goat. They will be starting this year’s goat on Tuesday. And I’ve put the webcam link on the message guide if you want to check it out.

Now, the thing is that the poor straw beast of commerce has become a target for pranksters -- which has not hurt it’s reputation -- nor business. And about every other year someone manages to sneak by all the fences and guards and they set it on fire.

Last year someone was implicated in a plot to use a big helicopter to steal it. They were going to fly it to Stockholm.

Other cities now have their giant Julbocken, too.

For Swedes -- the goat has become synonymous with Christmas fun.

In our gospel passage this morning it isn’t so fun or glamorous to be a goat. Sometimes Matthew 25:31-46 is called the parable of the sheep and the goats -- although it is not technically structured as a parable. It is a picture of the final judgment -- the culmination of history when God makes everything right.

Verse 31
“But when the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit upon his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered in his presence, and he will separate the people as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will place the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left."
Now, I know that the idea of judgment is not exactly everyone’s favorite topic these days. For some it seems a bit archaic and harsh. For others it seems to a little unfair because we’ve culturally bought into the idea that no one has the right to judge since there does not seem to be an agreed upon standard. Everyone has their own idea of what’s right and what’s wrong. Although there is strong consensus on Hitler and Stalin -- but little else.

So, with all of that in mind I want to share FOUR observations about our passage this morning.

Number one -- first observation -- JUDGMENT IS REAL AND JESUS IS THE JUDGE

Most of our gospel reading this year has been from the book of Matthew. Next week we start a new year and switch to the gospel of Mark. But we’ve been in Matthew this year. And the thing about Matthew is that he seems to include a lot of judgment talk.

He wants to make sure that his readers get it -- that they see that there is accountability -- that they take Jesus with extreme seriousness.

Picture this:

Vs. 31 -- “But when the Son of Man (Jesus’ favorite name for himself) comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit upon his glorious throne. All the nations will be gathered in his presence..."

Jesus is coming in his royal glory -- surrounded by armies of angels -- seated on his glorious throne.

You get the idea that he’s not messing around. Up to this point he has allowed the people and religious leaders to challenge him. He’s cut people a lot of slack. But when he comes “in his glory” the time for that will be over. It will be a day of reckoning. Life doesn’t just go on and on like it is going now -- with injustices and casualness about life.

As I was working on my sermon Thursday afternoon there was a loud crash down the street behind the house. So I hustled myself out there. Three car wreck.

There were at least four teen-age guys who had been hit on the side. It didn’t look like it was their fault but at least one in the back seat was messed up pretty badly. Bleeding from the ear and unconscious. One of my sources with the PD told me he died.

We helped the others out of the car -- and we were trying to calm them down. It was pretty obvious that they’d been partying -- lots of beer in the car. But I doubt that had much to do with this accident. It’s just that they were living life BAU -- driving down the street minding their own -- and ka-bang! No warning. Perhaps not really their fault.

You can’t just go on living like there is no end to the semester.

I started saying that to my students in September. But now there are 27 days left -- and I don’t know how some are going to make it. They didn’t listen at the beginning of the semester and in spite of all the prodding and encouragement they didn’t adjust their study habits then -- so now, the end is near.

We’ll see what happens. There will be a separation of the sheep and the goats. Those with passing grades are the sheep and those who don’t make it are the goats.

vs. 33 -- "He will place the sheep at his right hand (that is in a position of honor) and the goats at his left."

In the OT sheep represented Israel. The leaders were called shepherds -- and the prophets endlessly derided them for being greedy and inattentive shepherds. But notice here that the sheep are drawn from the gathering of the "nations" -- not just Israel. It would have been a bit scandalous to first century Jewish ears to hear that the Gentiles might be included in the sheep on the right.

But the scandal cuts even deeper -- the idea that Israel itself would be subject to the judgment.

Were not the Jews -- all of them -- the de facto sheep -- guaranteed the right hand spots of honor? But here it sounds like Jesus, who is himself Jewish, is saying that they’ll be judged with the rest. “What’s up with that?” the first century audience would be saying. It caught them off balance.

And really, in spite of what they might be hearing when Jesus said this, it’s not that goats are so bad and sheep are so good. It’s just that ancient shepherds used to allow the goats and the sheep to mingle together. But there came a time when they needed the sheep for something else and they had to go through and divide up the flock -- removing the goats. And that’s the picture that Jesus is drawing on.

Just as the shepherd goes through and separates the animals and takes the sheep with him -- leaving the goats -- so does the Son of Man come with his angel helpers -- and they separate the flock.

And that leads us to the second observation -- THOSE WHO SERVE JESUS NOW ARE THOSE WHO WILL BE WITH HIM THEN.

Verse 34 -- “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world.'"

Throughout the gospel Jesus has been pitching his kingdom and offering people a place in it.

The kingdom is his agenda. It is way of doing things. It is his new counter-cultural society. And it is always present when people are acting in accordance with his kingdom values -- and relating to him as sovereign savior.

But there is a future dimension to it as well. It is -- but it will be. Now it is like a mustard seed but eventually it will be a tree. Now it is like yeast in dough but then it will be bread. It will come into its eternal own. And the beginning of that kingdom era will be marked by judgment.

Those who have lived the kingdom life in the here and now will be welcomed into Jesus’ kingdom in its fullness.

It’s what makes sense because only those who are experienced in kingdom living will be acculturated to kingdom life.

So, what then is the criteria for determining who is a sheep and who is a goat -- who goes to the right and who goes to the left?

Are the sheep those who have raised their hands or gone forward somewhere to say that they accept Jesus as Savior? Nope, as valuable as that experience might be there are some who have raised their hands or gone forward who will end up with the goats.

Well, what about baptism?

Baptism is important -- Jesus tells his disciples to baptize people. But, in this teaching, baptism is not the criteria for separating the sheep from the goats.

Well, what about an experience with the Holy Spirit? You know, getting filled, speaking in tongues, doing miracles -- enjoying the sense of God’s closeness?

Again, in Matthew 25, an experience of anointing or filling of the Holy Spirit, as valuable as that might be, is not the a part of the criteria for separating the sheep from the goats.

Nor is church attendance or participation. Nor is Bible reading. Nor is putting money in the offering. Nor is learning to play the ukulele so you take over from me.

All of these things are good and valuable at some level. But when judgment day rolls around and it's time to decide who is with Jesus and his kingdom and who is not -- none nor all of these things are criteria for determining who is serving Jesus.

Look at verse 34 --
“Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the Kingdom prepared for you from the creation of the world. For I was hungry, and you fed me. I was thirsty, and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger, and you invited me into your home. I was naked, and you gave me clothing. I was sick, and you cared for me. I was in prison, and you visited me.’”
Then jump down to verse 40 -- and I’m reading from The Message here because I think that it is an exceptionally powerful translation:
Then the King will say, 'I'm telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me—you did it to me. 
"Then he will turn to the 'goats,' the ones on his left, and say, 'Get out, worthless goats! You're good for nothing but the fires of hell. And why? Because—
I was hungry and you gave me no meal,
I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
I was homeless and you gave me no bed,
I was shivering and you gave me no clothes,
Sick and in prison, and you never visited.'"

Come to think of it, Jesus has been pushing this point throughout the entirety of his ministry. From the very beginning Jesus goes to work with those who are on the margins.

If you jump back to Matthew 4 -- right after the episode where Jesus is tempted by the devil in the desert, and read starting at verse 12 -- “When Jesus heard that John had been arrested, he left Judea and returned to Galilee. He went first to Nazareth, then left there and moved to Capernaum, beside the Sea of Galilee, in the region of Zebulun and Naphtali.”

I know that Mei has heard me preach on this passage at least a couple of times -- once in chapel at PIU and once at the Lutheran Church of Guam.

And the point is that these places where Jesus went were all backwater ghettos -- tainted by Gentile presence. That’s where all the poor folk hung out. They were not the religious centers of Jewish life.

Jesus begins his ministry on the margins of society. 4:17 -- “From then on Jesus began to preach, “Repent of your sins and turn to God, for the Kingdom of Heaven is near.”

He works with the sick, the possessed, the hungry, the fickle uneducated crowds... And when he does interface with the religious establishment it almost always gets confrontational.

Jesus and his kingdom seems to center around welcoming the marginalized into God’s presence. It is all about his compassion and mercy -- and gracious hospitality. So, again, it makes total sense that those who will continue on with him in his future administration are those who share in his compassionate hospitality for the marginalized and poor in the present.

This is core to the gospel -- to the good news of who Jesus is and what he is about. It’s not an add on or a social service project. When you accept Jesus into your life you are accepting his mission and his priorities. Those who do are his sheep. Those who don’t are the goats.

And then the fourth observation: EVERYONE SEEMS SURPRISED.

In spite of everything that Jesus, echoing the ancient prophets -- nothing really new here, says about caring for the marginalized throughout his entire ministry -- people still don’t get it.

Verse 37, again in The Message version,
"Then those 'sheep' are going to say, 'Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry and feed you, thirsty and give you a drink? And when did we ever see you sick or in prison and come to you?' Then the King will say, 'I'm telling the solemn truth: Whenever you did one of these things to someone overlooked or ignored, that was me — you did it to me.' 
"Then he will turn to the 'goats,' the ones on his left, and say, 'Get out, worthless goats! You're good for nothing but the fires of hell. And why? Because—
I was hungry and you gave me no meal,
I was thirsty and you gave me no drink,
I was homeless and you gave me no bed,
I was shivering and you gave me no clothes,
Sick and in prison, and you never visited.' 
"Then those 'goats' are going to say, 'Master, what are you talking about? When did we ever see you hungry or thirsty or homeless or shivering or sick or in prison and didn't help?' 
"He will answer them, 'I'm telling the solemn truth: Whenever you failed to do one of these things to someone who was being overlooked or ignored, that was me—you failed to do it to me.'
Everyone seems surprised. The sheep and the goats both fail to understand that Jesus’ call is intricately tied into serving on the margins. The goats don’t get it and so they ignore the needy. The sheep don’t really understand it all -- they’re not able to explain it -- but they have a heart for these people. So they intuitively act in line with Jesus’ mission because they have his heart and the Holy Spirit lives in them.


Now I know that some will find this idea paralyzing. You’re busy and you don’t have time for people in need -- besides they’re so draining. But the fact is that if you’ve got Jesus you’ll allow God to rearrange your schedule and priorities. Otherwise you’re a goat.

Some though, find the message of judgment intimidating and troubling because you recognize your inadequacies. Maybe you’re pretty poor yourself or you’re worried about failing to do it right.

And that is a valid concern. Sometimes the things we do to help the needy and hurting end up creating more problems than they fix. They create unhealthy dependencies or end up meeting our needs rather than theirs.

First of all we need to recognize that we’re going to make mistakes. We are not judged on whether we’re perfect but on whether we’re actively sharing in Jesus’ heart for those on the margins.

It’s okay if you make mistakes. That’s how you grow and become effective.

Some of us are concerned about figuring out who is worthy of our assistance. You see, in our culture we’ve become somewhat obsessed with making sure that nobody gets more than they deserve.

Of course, if we remind ourselves that our relationship with God is entirely grace-based... We’re all getting something we don’t deserve...

The other thing I’d suggest is to keep it relational. The best way to know how to serve the needy is to know the needy -- to relate to people not as projects but as people -- people a lot like us in most ways.

Also, when it comes to figuring out which agencies to partner with in caring for the poor -- think relational. This is one reason I like working with Covenant World Relief. I know the people running it and I trust them. I know, too, that their approach is very relational in developing partnerships. They know the people with whom they work. It’s not an institutional atmosphere.

And this is why I’m excited about our Christmas Project this year. We are partnering with Covenant World Relief, which is partnering with Habitat for Humanity Haiti -- and by the way, one of the associate directors of that organization is a part of a Covenant church.

So our people know their people and the Habitat people have been working in Haiti for years -- and they know the family which will be receiving the house. And the Habitat approach is to include recipients in the process of building. All around it is healthy. And so I’d encourage you to join with us as we seek to put our Matthew 25:31-46 learning to work in the next few weeks.

Now, I don’t want to leave you with the wrong impression this morning. The Bible isn’t down on goats in general. And I like goats. I’ve been trying for years to talk Cheryl into letting me have pygmy goats. For now I’ll have to be happy with my Julbocken.

Goats are great. But on judgement day I just wanna be a sheep.

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