The text for today is Matthew 25:31-46.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ!
It was 3:00 a.m. A piercing scream woke me. I thought it was the fire alarm, until I realized it was my own sweet baby daughter. Through the fog of my interrupted sleep I somehow realized that I was not equipped with the physical ability to nurse the famished little girl, especially at such an ungodly hour.
So I nudged Aimee, who never has been as light a sleeper as I am. “She’s awake,” I said. Her response came so quickly I can only imagine that she had been rehearsing it every day while she’d been taking it easy in the hospital. “What’s your point?” Always the patient one, I said calmly and quite rationally: “She’s hungry. I can’t feed her. I don’t have the right equipment.”
Again, it was like she had it all planned out. “Well, she probably also has a dirty diaper and the last time I noticed you still had hands and feet. Why don’t you walk in there and change her? Then you can bring her to me.”
What should I say next? I was fully awake by now, and the ramifications of this one decision hit me like a ton of bricks. If I got up now to change the baby’s diaper, I would set a precedent that could actually apply for the next ten years or so, depending upon how many more children we had. But I did not know how to answer. I have to admit I felt a little taken advantage of. Relaxing in that hospital bed, she obviously had more time to think this all out than I had. So I got up to change the baby—a smile on my lips, a song in my heart. Or something like that…
Now to be honest, this was not the first time I was ever up at 3:00 a.m. But it’s a lot different to still be up at 3:00 a.m., as opposed to be awakened from a sound sleep at 3:00 a.m. Obviously the two women in my life at that point were somehow conspiring together. The aromatic odor that met me as I stumbled into the baby’s room suggested my wife had been right about at least one thing. I fumbled around for a bit and finally got her diaper changed. Then I brought our fresh smelling little girl into her mother for feeding. Of course, she got to snuggle her and tell her what a good girl she was. It all seemed a bit unfair.
Now, I’m not looking for pity or praise. Everyone who has changed a baby in the middle of the night has those same stories. I was this little girl’s father. It was my responsibility. And so, I did it. Then why do I tell this story? What does getting up at 3:00 a.m. to change a dirty diaper have to do with sheep and goat besides the rank odor?
Because it teaches you everything you need to know about good works.
You see… it’s not the grand, impressive works of the rich and the powerful that God commends, but the simple, humble works of the Christian who is simply going about the work of his or her vocation and in the course of their vocation also feeds the hungry, clothes the naked, and visits the sick—the sort of things that for the most part generally go unnoticed by others.
This is a wonderful text by which to learn of the doctrine of vocation. God gives us our vocation, that is, our place in society, in the family, in the Church, in order to serve other people. Vocation is how God takes care of creation and people until Christ returns in glory. It is how God feeds the poor, welcomes strangers, clothes the naked, comforts the sick, and visits the prisoner.
What’s more, God values each vocation equally. Whatever station in life to which God has called you has been made holy by God and set apart to be used to provide for the needs of your neighbor. Christians recognize the fact that all we are and have is given to us by God for the express purpose of taking care of others in this world as we look forward to the day we will share in Christ’s glory. But the doctrine of vocation extends not only to Christians; it covers unbelievers as well. In our text both the sheep and the goats tended to the needs of others.
God uses even the vocations and works of unbelievers to care for people. Even unbelievers get up in the middle of the night to change their children’s diapers. (Otherwise it would be really easy to tell the sheep from the goats… the goats would be the ones with the smelliest children.) Even unbelievers visit the sick and the imprisoned. Even unbelievers clothe the naked and feed the hungry. Unbelievers are quite often very nice people. In fact, many unbelievers would put you and me to shame with their good manners, kindness, and generosity.
Which brings us to a complaint often uttered by those outside the church and often used by inactive members as the reason they don’t go to church: Church is full of hypocrites. People talk about love and goodwill and all that, but when you actually look at the pews you see that they are full of people who don’t begin to live up to the high ideals that people expect.
Maybe the Church is a little bit disappointing because you expect people here to be different than in the world. You expect everyone to be happy and generous and willing to sacrifice themselves for the needs of others. And then when you take a good, hard look you discover that not everyone is happy, that many people are stingy in their giving, a number of them are unnecessarily critical in their speech, and very few make sacrifices without complaining.
Welcome to the real world. Actually, welcome to the real Church here on earth, where people are at the same time saint and sinner. Welcome to this congregation, full of real people with all their failings and frustrations and sins and shortcomings. You will only get disappointed and discouraged if you expect anything of people inside the Church that you don’t find outside the Church.
In the Church you do not necessarily find people that are very different on the outside than people who are in the world. In the Church, however, you do find a God that is different from the god of this world. That is what those who don’t come to church because of the hypocrites are completely missing.
You don’t come here to this place to be around good people. You can go down to the local bar or the ball game for that. You come to the Church because here is the only place where you can find a God who is good—a God who comes in ordinary everyday ways through ordinary everyday people to serve His people, giving them faith and guarding and keeping them in that faith unto eternal life.
You see… even Jesus had a unique vocation. The Son of God was called to bear the sins of the world upon His shoulders, to obey God’s will perfectly in our place, and to suffer shame upon the cross as a perfect substitute for you and me. God, wisely, has not placed such a vocation on you or me. It is a calling that only He could fulfill and accomplish on our behalf.
In His vocation as Messiah, our Lord used certain means, namely His own human body, the cross, and the empty tomb to set us free from sin and death, and give us the promise of our own resurrection and eternal life in the glory of heaven.
Of course, God the Father and God the Holy Spirit also have vocations. In the Creed we ascribe to the Father our creation and preservation; and to the Holy Spirit our calling and keeping in the one true faith. Just like the Son, the Father and the Spirit do these things through means. Through means of the vocations of our parents God created us. And through means of the vocations of not only our parents but everyone from farmers to the President of the United States, God continues to preserve our lives in this world.
The Holy Spirit also uses means to accomplish His vocation in our lives. We call these the “means of grace,” since through them He brings to us the love and forgiveness of God. The Word, through which He speaks God’s love and forgiveness into our ears. Baptism, through which He pours God’s love and forgiveness over our heads and into our hearts. And Holy Communion, through which He puts God’s love and forgiveness into our mouths.
Through these means of grace, God guards and keeps His people in the one true faith unto life everlasting. In these means of grace, God is forgiving our sins, making us His children, strengthening us in faith, and keeping us in that faith unto life everlasting. So that we may know His love and forgiveness, God has established a place where we can know for certain that we are receiving the means through which God is for us and serves us. That place is the Church.
Here in the Church you will find that people are pretty much the same as what you will find in the world. But only here, in the Church, can you find a God that is completely different from the god of this world. The god of this world focuses upon you and tells you only about where you have failed or gives you a false confidence that you are succeeding. The one true God uses the means of grace to tell you about how He loves you, how He fulfilled the Law for you, how He died and rose again for you, how He rules over all things in this world for you, how He washes you clean of sin, how He feeds you His very body and blood.
So you see, the Church is not about how people act; it is about how God acts. Here, in worship your vocation is simply to be a hearer, a receiver of what God promises through Word and Sacrament. Here in the Church, God serves you through the voice and body of His called and ordained servant—another common, ordinary sinner just like you, who has been given the vocation of pastor.
And when God serves us by the means of grace, He fills up our hearts and minds with what He has done for us in Christ, rather than what we do ourselves. Jesus, Jesus, and only Jesus, is the message of the means of grace. And so much does the Holy Spirit fill our minds with Jesus’ work for us, that we forget the good works God enables us to do as we go about our vocations in this world.
Which brings us back to the sheep and the goats. Notice that they are separated before there is any accounting of good works. Nor does the King note anything negative about the sheep—nor anything positive about the goats. It’s not a case of having done both good and bad, with the one outweighing the other. In fact, they could have been doing pretty much the same things. The difference between those on the right and those on the left is faith and unbelief.
The Bible says that “without faith it is impossible to please God.” In other words, when we live by faith in the Savior, God sees only the good that we do. All of our sins have been washed away in the blood of Christ. As for the damned, even their best deeds amount to only so many “filthy rags.” None grew out of holy motives because none came from holy hearts. So the difference between the sheep and the goats is not a matter of their outward works, but God-given faith.
Through His means of grace, the Holy Spirit has created faith in the hearts of the sheep and that faith has so filled up their hearts with Jesus that they are caught off-guard when the King commends them for their good works. “Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You something to drink?” The Christian regards his own works as so insignificant that they aren’t even worth mentioning when compared to what Jesus has done for us. And that is certainly true. But through these insignificant works we serve Jesus by serving others.
In Christ, all the sinful works of the Christian have been forgiven and cast away as far as the east is from the west and God remembers them no more. The only thing remaining is our good works, washed clean and made holy in the blood of Christ. It is these works that testify on our behalf in the judgment.
Contrast this with the unbelievers. Having rejected the Word of Life, their hearts are filled with themselves. Oh, God still uses their works to serve the people of this world, but it is those very works that fill up their heart and drive the Holy Spirit out. And so they say, “Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to You?” “Look, Lord,” they are saying, “I’ve been a good person.” And so they may have been. But it is faith that fills the heart with Jesus and justifies the sinner. And it is faith that they lack, so their sins are unforgiven. God doesn’t see their good but only their wickedness. “‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment.”
So in the end it is not by works that we will be judged—the sanctified works of the sheep are simply the evidence of the faith that God has created and nourished within us. As we live in this world, it may not look on the outside like we are any different than the people of the world—we hold the same kinds of vocations—but it is what God has declared us to be that makes the difference.
Through His Holy Word and Baptism, God has recreated us and bound us to Christ, giving us faith and hope in Him. Through Holy Communion, He feeds and nourishes that faith and gives us constantly the forgiveness of sins—which we need, for even the good works of God’s people are still stained by sin in this world.
The time is coming when we will be completely free of sin and all our works will be perfect, but only in Christ, only because of what He has done. In the meantime, we live by faith and in that day when this life is finished and our vocations have run their course, by the grace and mercy of our almighty God, we shall be gathered to His right hand in glory and hear Him speak those gracious words: “Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”
Even today, you hear the basis for this wonderful promise of eternal life with the Father. It is not your good works, but the Lord’s work of righteousness credited to you by grace through faith in Christ that saves you. Solely for Jesus’ sake, you are forgiven of all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Unless otherwise indicated, all Scripture quotations are from the Holy Bible, English Standard Version, copyright © 2001 by Crossway Bibles, a publishing ministry of Good News Publishers. Used by permission. All rights reserved.