Sunday, November 20, 2011

The Word of the Shepherd King

 Texts:    Acts 9:1-6; Galatians 6:7-10; Matthew 25:31-46

     IT'S BEGINNING TO LOOK A lot like Christmas!  At least, the merchants have had the decorations up for the past three weeks or more.  And up where I live in B--, some people already have their wreaths up in their windows.  However you feel about rushing things like this, in five weeks Christmas will be here.

        But there may be signs something else is coming soon, too.  A lot of people are asking, "Could we be getting closer to the end of the world?"  It's not just false prophets like Harold Camping and chatter about the Mayan calendar and December 2012.  We've got natural disasters coming so thick and heavy.  Civil unrest all over the world, especially in our own streets.  Our whole economic system seems to be headed for collapse, with greed and selfishness championed all the way up and down the economic ladder.  Our moral standards are getting worse and worse, faith is growing cold in many hearts, and even those who call themselves Christians proudly follow their own devices and desires instead of clinging to Jesus their Lord.

    Could these all be signs of the end?

    Maybe, maybe not.  As Christians, we need to be ready for our Lord's return as King and Judge no matter when it occurs.  In Matthew chapter 24 Jesus' disciples asked Him what will be the sign of His coming and of the end of the age.  He told them, and us, that no one knows that day or hour, and that He, the Son of Man, would come as a thief in the night.  Therefore, we must be prepared.  But prepared for what?  Beginning in the 31st verse of Matthew 25, Jesus our coming King tells us what will happen when He returns.

    First of all, Jesus will come as King, King of kings and Lord of lords.  And He will come as the Son of Man.  He will sit on the throne of the universe as a glorified Human Being, in the same flesh He brought with Him resurrected from the tomb.  In Christ, for our sakes, God has become Man forever!  He will sit on His throne as King in heavenly glory, and all the nations will be gathered before Him.  All the nations.  Not just the so-called Christian nations, but all of them, regardless of what religions they professed here on earth.  All people will learn that Christ is King, and Christ alone.

    But what does Jesus mean by "the nations"?  Remember, God ordained that Jesus should be born a Jew.  Jesus was speaking to Jewish disciples in a Jewish context.  For a Jew, the word "nations" (ethne in Greek and goyim in Hebrew) meant the Gentiles.  That is, everyone who wasn't a part of God's chosen people Israel.  The disciples would assume-- and assume rightly-- that God's faithful remnant would find blessedness when Israel's Messiah and King came as Judge.  But what was going to happen to all those other people Out There?

    Something the disciples would not have suspected.  Jesus says He will take the people of the nations and separate them from one another, and some He will put on the right as sheep, and some on His left as goats.  That tells us first that all mankind are under His staff as the universal Shepherd, whether they ever confess faith in Him or not.  In verses 37 and 44 we see that all the dead acknowledge that, they all call Him "Lord."  When Christ sits on His glorious throne, all nations will bow the knee and every tongue will confess that He is King and Lord, to the glory of God the Father.  But on that day He will sort out some who did not visibly belong to His chosen Israel, and He will put them with His chosen ones, with the sheep He loves. 

    These days, we often assume that almost anyone can be saved, if only they're nice enough.  For good 1st century Jews like Jesus' disciples, it would have shocked them to think any Gentiles who didn't convert to Judaism could get into the kingdom at all!

    To these unexpected sheep Jesus the King will say, "Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world."  Who could have thought it?  Ever since the world began God had included these sheep from the nations in His glorious kingdom, along with His chosen people Israel!

    But why?  On what basis?  Because He was hungry and they fed Him; He was thirsty and they gave Him something to drink; He was a stranger and they invited Him in; He needed clothes and they clothed Him; He was sick and they tended to Him; He was in prison and they came to visit Him.

    These righteous from the nations are amazed.  They don't understand how they could have rendered all these good services to Him, the Lord of glory.  And 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."

    We think we understand this.  But again, Jesus is out to undermine our modern understanding of how things will be at the Judgement, just as much as much as His word subverted the ideas of the typical 1st century Jew.  Here's the question: Who are Jesus' brothers?  Who are His sisters?  Who are this family with whom He identifies so closely?

    Two thousand years ago, the assumption would be that since He was the Jewish Messiah, His brothers and sisters would be the nation of Israel, people who were born Jews by blood.  But over and over again in His teaching Jesus kept letting everyone know that the true Israel was not those who attempted to keep the law in their own righteousness; rather, His brothers and sisters are those who do the will of His Father in heaven, as we read in Matthew 12.  And what is the will of the Father?  St. John tells us that the Father's will is that we believe in the One He has sent, the Man Jesus Christ.

    The consistent teaching of the New Testament is this:  that Christ's brothers and sisters are His believers, the Church.  They-- or rather, we-- are His Body, the New Israel made up of ethnic Jews and ethnic Gentiles alike, formed by the new covenant in His blood, shed on the cross.

    So in Acts 9 the risen Christ casts Saul of Tarsus down on the road to Damascus and demands, "Why are you persecuting Me?"  Like the righteous from the nations at the Judgement, Saul can't understand.  He'd been attacking a rabble of Nazarene heretics, not this heavenly Being he now had to call Lord!  But Jesus identifies with His Church and says, "I am Jesus, whom you are persecuting."  To do evil to His disciples is to do evil to Him; to do good to His disciples is to do good to Him.

    And who are "the least of these"?  Please note that this doesn't mean "only the least of these."  No, Jesus is saying that the surprised  righteous have done good to Christians even when those believers were so humble no earthly credit could possibly come from it.  Jesus taught us in Matthew 18 that the greatest in the kingdom of heaven are those who humbly repent and become like little children and follow Him.  In Luke 12 Jesus calls His disciples His "little flock" and says that the Father has been pleased to give them the kingdom.  Jesus exalts the humble in His kingdom, and at the judgement the nations will share in their exaltation.

    I realize that this goes against much popular thought on what this passage in Matthew means.  The usual interpretation is that some people will enter the kingdom by believing in Christ, while others can get in by doing good to the financially poor.  But nowhere does the Scripture hold out any possibility of any man or woman entering eternal life on the strength of his or her own good works.  It is only through the blood of Christ shed for us that we can inherit blessedness forever with Him.

    Yes, you might say, but if "the nations" in this passage are those who didn't identify with Christ's Church in their lifetimes, doesn't it sound like they can earn their way in by good deeds done to those who belong to Him?

    Well, think of it this way: When are Jesus' disciples most likely to be hungry, thirsty, refugees, naked, sick, or in prison?  In times of persecution for the faith.  Today, particularly in Muslim and Hindu countries, Christians are being harried, arrested, burned out of their homes, put to death-- all because they dare to confess Jesus Christ as Lord.  Now think of yourself as a Muslim neighbor of one of these despised Christians.  Everyone else is pouring on the violence.  But something moves you to step out and help the followers of Christ.  Even though your friends will shun you for it; even though you could be arrested yourself as a Christian sympathizer, you go ahead and open your home to the refugees.  You visit the tortured pastor in prison and work for his release.  You make sure those orphan Christian children are fed and clothed, and you don't pressure them to convert to Islam. Whether you realize it or not, you're identifying with the believers and identifying with Christ.

    In Matthew 10 Jesus sends His disciples out with the good news of the kingdom, warning them they'll face danger and hardship for His sake.  But in all this, He says, "He who receives you receives me," and "anyone who receives a righteous man because he is a righteous man will receive a righteous man's reward," and "if anyone gives even a cup of cold water to one of these little ones because he is my disciple, I tell you the truth, he will certainly not lose his reward."

    At the Judgement there will be many who never considered themselves to be part of Christ's flock the Church, but they sympathized so strongly and actively with Christians because they were Christians that Jesus will recognise them as His sheep themselves.  To their surprise they will receive eternal life, the righteous man's reward.

    But what about those on the left, the "goats" who did not minister to Christ's faithful in their need?   To say they didn't identify Christians with Christ will be no excuse.  When they see the King enthroned in glory it's too late to say, "Oh, my Lord, I'd do anything for you!"  What about that insignificant Christian they saw beaten, tortured, starving, or simply slandered out of a job, and they did nothing to intervene?  The King will reply, "If you did it not for the least of these my brothers, you didn't do it for Me."

    So.  Here we are, and we belong to Christ's church on earth. Can we sit satisfied and sure we'll go to the King's right hand in the Judgement?  Not necessarily.  This passage is a warning to us, too.  A lot of people are members of Jesus' New Israel on paper, but actually they belong to the unbelieving nations.
    We have to examine ourselves!  How do we treat our fellow members in the Church?  The truly committed disciple will feed and clothe and help and heal their fellow Christian precisely because he or she is a fellow Christian.  A true believer in our Shepherd King will strive in the Spirit to see and serve Christ in everyone in the congregation, no matter how humble or struggling that other believer may be. 

    In the course of my life I've seen too many churches and church people focus all their ministry on those outside the church.  And yes, like Christ Himself we do extend the love and grace of God to all.  But sitting all around you are brothers and sisters who are hurting.  They're struggling with troubles of body, mind, and spirit.  They need someone to help them repair their house, to watch their kids for an afternoon, to sit for awhile and just listen.  But there's this assumption in the Church today that as soon as someone becomes a believer, they're set up for life and have all they need.  No!  Jesus calls us into His little flock because we do need each other, and He expects us to minister to one another for His sake.  As St. Paul says in his letter to the Galatians, "Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially those who belong to the family of believers."

    Remember, Paul puts the command for Christians to do good in the context of judgement.  If we take one another for granted, if we live to please our sinful natures, we will reap destruction.  Goats all along we will show ourselves to be, and as Jesus says, we'll go into eternal punishment.  But if we follow the Spirit of Christ who has saved us and do good to one another, we will show that we are His sheep. We will reap eternal life and enter into the blessed inheritance prepared for us by our heavenly Father before the creation of the world.

    As baptised believers, we no longer belong to the nations; we are citizens of Christ's new chosen people and sheep of His little flock.  Since this is true, let us strive in the Spirit to do the things that belong to Christ.  Do good to all, but especially to your brothers and sisters in the faith, from the greatest to the least.  Care for, help, and build up one another because you belong to Christ.  And so by His grace, His judgment at the end of the age will bring no fear for you, but only exultation, blessedness, and joy as together with all the saints you enter the realm of your Shepherd King.

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