Sermon / November 23, 2014 / Pastor Terry Defoe / Our Gracious King / Matthew 25
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him… (N.I.V.)
Our sermon text for this last Sunday of the church year – the one we call Christ the King Sunday – describes Jesus’ return in glory for the final judgment. It’s interesting that this theme – the theme of judgment – is central in Matthew's Gospel. We encounter words about judgment already at the baptism of Jesus in Matthew chapter 3. Early in Matthew’s gospel, Jesus had told his disciples to
“… obey everything that I have commanded you” (28:20, NRSV).
Matthew’s Gospel emphasizes doing – specifically, doing what Jesus says – and our text this morning definitely fits that pattern. The setting for our text is the Jewish temple in Jerusalem. It’s early in Holy Week –– somewhere between Palm Sunday and Maundy Thursday. This latter part of Matthew’s Gospel presents us with several parables that emphasize being prepared for the master's return (24:45-51; 25:1-13; 14-30, 31-46).
Jesus’ first arrival is described in the Scriptures in a very different way from His second coming at the end of the age. At his first coming, Jesus came quietly into this world, having set aside His divine glory, coming into this world as a servant (Philippians 2:5-11). At his second coming, however, Jesus will arrive in all of his glory. Every eye will see him. He came first as suffering servant. He will return as conquering king. I pray that God would bless our consideration of His Holy Word this day!
Jesus speaks the words of our text this morning as he neared the cross. The words we consider this morning were Jesus’ last words before Matthew transitions to the account of our Savior’s journey to the cross. Matthew’s Gospel marks that important transition with these words:
“When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, ‘You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.’”
As our Lord and King, Jesus left the glory of heaven to live on this earth with us, his created ones. He willingly gave up the glory he had in heaven with His Father, and the privileges He had there, too. Jesus came to this earth, carried out a ministry of healing and salvation, and, at the end of that ministry, suffered and died for the sins of the whole world. Since then, his people, those who trust him, have often had to suffer, too.
The Scriptures proclaim the wonderful Good News that all those who trust Jesus are righteous, declared righteous by God, not because of anything they have done, but because of what He has done for them – at the cross and the empty tomb. His people trust him, and, as part of their new relationship of faith in him, serve him and others in the time before He calls them home to be with Him in heaven.
Notice how Jesus describes the kingdom of heaven in our text this morning. He says in Matthew chapter 25, v. 34:
“Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
God’s will has always been that humanity would be able to live in eternal fellowship with him. All people have been created to live with God and to rejoice with him in his creation. God has made his will known in and through His Son. He wants us to be able to live an abundant life in the here and now and eternal life with Him in heaven someday.
But, you know, people often misunderstand Christianity. They think that it’s all about escaping this world in order to live in heaven. They think that, as someone once said, Christians are so heavenly-minded that they’re no earthly good! Many people believe that Christians stand at a distance from this world, wanting to escape its physical existence so that they can go on, as disembodied souls, to eternal life in heaven. Yet that is not what we believe or confess. Every time we confess our faith, we refer to a resurrected body, and we declare our confidence in “the life of the world to come.”
Jesus’ mission was – and remains! – to bring all people everywhere into God’s eternal kingdom. Although humanity turned away from God, rejecting his design, falling into sin in the Garden of Eden, in love, God the Father turned toward us. In love, He sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to bear our sin and to be our Savior. Now, baptized into Jesus’ death and resurrection, our eternal life with God has already begun. In Jesus, we are a new creation, and, one day, we will live with him in heaven. Until that time, we are His stewards and managers, His caretakers and trustees. We care for this world and its creatures. We trust in, we live in, and we long for, God’s new creation.
In our text this morning, as Jesus speaks to his disciples about the end, and in doing that, he opens their eyes to something they didn’t expect. He opens their eyes to His relationship with His Father. The image we see is that of Jesus the shepherd, with all the nations of the world as his flock. We see Him separating the sheep from the goats (v 32). And then, the shepherd becomes a King, the very Son of God, His Heavenly Father. As King, Jesus’ rule extends over all nations and throughout all time (v 34). On this Christ the King Sunday, we are reminded that Jesus is a very different King. He is, as my sermon title this morning says, our Gracious King. He suffers for his people. His eternal glory is hidden in His suffering (vv 35–36). All who trust Him are members of his family – God’s beloved children. He blesses His children. He forgives, imparts hope and meaning and peace.
Our King, the Lord Jesus, is never far away. He is with us. Nothing can separate us from him. He’s Lord of all the nations. His Father chose Him to rule over all things and to bring salvation to the world. Jesus, our Gracious King rules in our lives, and lives in our hearts. He walks with us on the road of life. And when we pass from this life to the other side, He is there to usher us across the divide.
Knowing this Gracious King brings the entire forgiveness of all our sins. Our King speaks to us in His Word. He grants us a most amazing and precious gift – the gift of faith. He is pleased to give us the precious gift of eternal life. We take great comfort in knowing that he has not left us on our own in this world. He comes to us in his Word and the Sacraments.
If we listen carefully to the words of our text this morning, we hear echoes of the Sermon on the Mount (Matthew 5–7). You and I are the people God has called out of this world and into His Kingdom. Though we may be rejected, and persecuted, though we often mourn, and hunger and thirst for righteousness, we are and will always remain God’s adopted children. Now, near the end of his ministry, Jesus describes those who trust Him as being “blessed by my Father” (v 34). His people are made “righteous” (v 37) in God’s sight by their faith in Jesus. Jesus’ presence among us is hidden with the hungry, the thirsty, those who are strangers, those without clothing, those who are sick, and those without freedom. (vv 35–40). When we serve these others, Jesus says, we are really serving Him.
It’s interesting that Jesus doesn’t command His people to become the salt of the earth. He doesn’t force us to be the light of the world. He says, “That’s what you already are – salt! and light! – by virtue of your faith in me. That is what I have made you. Just be who you are!” Likewise, Jesus doesn’t command his followers to hunger and thirst for justice, to pursue peace, and so forth; he simply blesses those who do these things as a natural part of living out their faith (5:1-16). Here’s my point. Judgment simply brings out a reality that’s been present all along.
When you consider artist’s renderings of the last judgment, you will often see that the faces of the people are filled with wonder and awe – they are surprised by what they see. Christ paints a surprising portrait in our text this morning. On the day of judgment, he says, God will reveal the good that we have done and will reveal his presence in our lives in ways that we never even considered. Jesus indicates that those he speaks to in the judgment will be surprised by what He says to them. They will answer, “Lord, when did we do this or that?” or “When didn’t we do these things?” They will be surprised by their failure to recognize Him in the midst of their service for others.
Believers don’t expect to see Jesus in the face of the disadvantaged, the poor, the imprisoned, those who are in need. Perhaps that’s to be expected. When we think of God, we think of power and might and glory. But Jesus, our Gracious King, comes humbly, in a life of service and sacrifice. He gave up his glory to be with us. He suffered and died, for our sake.
Those who have blessed by Jesus demonstrate their faithfulness by acts of loving-kindness. God’s charge to care for the poor and the disadvantaged can be found throughout scripture, but it’s especially evident in the ministry of Jesus. In Matthew’s Gospel, Christ showed that God's kingdom had arrived by His healing of the sick, his welcoming the despised, and his providing food for the hungry. His disciples carried on his ministry by doing likewise. Jesus’ followers provided food, and drink, and a word of welcome. They provided clothing, and nursing care, and visitation, and much more. But, when you think about it, that’s just the way it is in the Kingdom.
God’s people will be surprised by the depth and the breadth of the good works they did during their lifetime. They will be surprised by the fact that Jesus was present in those hidden moments of ministry, graciously receiving from our hands the mercy we didn’t even know we were giving. Matthew points out – repeatedly – that good fruit comes from good trees. Good fruit doesn’t come from the tree trying hard. It’s just what healthy trees do!
In our text, Jesus promises to be with those who are in greatest need. Our greatest need is the forgiveness of our sins and the restoration of our relationship with God. Our God, as I say, is a God of surprises. He didn’t come to reign over humanity at Athens or Rome or any of the other major cities where one would expect God to arrive, but rather – surprise! – He came to identify with us by being born in lowly Bethlehem in the form of a vulnerable infant. And God didn’t come to conquer the world with military or political might, but instead – surprise! – in the scandal, shame, and pain of the cross. God continues to come where we least expect God to be: in the plight of the homeless, on the side of the poor, in the face of the needy, and in the company of the imprisoned.
The God we know in Jesus is revealed, not in power but in vulnerability, not in might but in brokenness, not in judgment but in mercy. God is with us in the church. He is made manifest in the ordinary elements of bread and wine. He speaks to us in the words of His book. He is there in the seemingly small gestures of mercy we offer to each other each and every day. We now see the world through new eyes. Christ calls us to love wholeheartedly — to love God with heart, soul and mind, and strength, and to love our neighbors as ourselves (Mt 22:36-40). His love moves us to works of mercy and compassion. As I say, that’s the natural, normal way that things work in His Kingdom.
In our text this morning, we hear another theme that runs all the way through Matthew's Gospel – and that is the theme of discipleship. We heard that theme back in Jesus’ Sermon on the Mount – His call to an obedience that is not prescription or law or sacrifice but a joyful living in mercy without calculation. This joyful living and service takes us to unexpected places. It takes us, first of all to the cross where we ponder Jesus’ sacrifice for us and the profound meaning of that sacrifice; but it takes us to the suffering of others, to address challenges found in families, and in communities, and in the world at large.
You and I live in a society that is generally self-serving, with many people operating on a W I I F M (“what’s in it for me”) mentality. But, as we have seen already this morning, things are very different in Jesus’ Kingdom. Throughout the Gospel of Matthew, Jesus' words and His actions have announced and illustrated what the kingdom of God looks like. Jesus is our Gracious King. He’s not like the other kings of this world. He brings peace. True peace. As a matter of fact, He’s the Prince of Peace. He sees and understands human needs – needs of both body and of soul. He hears the cries of the oppressed. In His kingdom, His will is that no one should be hungry, naked, sick, or alone. I close with this: You and I are the King’s messengers, his ambassadors, his servants. And remember this: when we serve the least of these, our brothers and sisters, we are serving Him. Amen.
Let’s Pray: DEAR HEAVENLY FATHER – Prepare us for your arrival and for the day of judgment. Enable us to look forward to that day with great joy and anticipation. In the meantime, guide and motivate our service to You and to others in your name. Amen.