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Sermon for Christ the King Sunday – November 26, 2023

Matthew 25:31-46

Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.

In our gospel reading for this morning we find Jesus at the end of his earthly ministry. His passion and death are right around the corner, and before he goes to the cross, Jesus gives his disciples, and us, a glimpse of his coming again. He will come in glory, he tells us, with all his angels with him. He will return as the king of heaven and earth, sitting on his throne of glory with all the nations gathered before him. He will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. The sheep will be at his right hand, and the goats will be at his left. And the king will say to the sheep, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world,” while the goats will be told, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and all his angels.”

At this point you might be wondering to yourself nervously: “Am I a sheep, or am I a goat?” You might be asking yourself, “What can I do to make sure I’m in the sheep category when Christ returns?” You might be tempted to think that what makes a sheep a sheep is the good things they do. You might think that the ticket into the good place is to be earned by feeding the hungry and giving a drink to the thirsty and clothing the naked and caring for the sick and visiting the imprisoned. You might start panicking that you haven’t done enough of those things to avoid the bad place.

But this is to get this vision Jesus gives us, this glimpse of his coming again in glory, all wrong. Before Jesus mentions anything about what the sheep have done, he spells out what has made them sheep. Jesus says, “Come all that are blessed by my Father.” Who is blessed by the Father? Those who have received the salvation he has provided freely as a gift through his Son! Those who are blessed by the Father are those who have received Jesus in faith! That’s what Jesus has been saying over and over again up to this point!

Jesus then points to an inheritance that is given to the sheep. An inheritance is not something you earn. An inheritance is not wages for a job performed, for hours you have put in. An inheritance is something you are given because someone has died. This is precisely what Christ is just about to do! He is the Good Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep, so that all who receive him in faith would have eternal life.

Finally, Jesus says this kingdom he has in store for his sheep was prepared for them before the very foundation of the world. It was  not prepared for them after they proved themselves through their good works. It was already established for his sheep well before they had even baa-d their first baa.

The sheep in this vision, then, are not sheep because they have performed good works. They perform good works because they are sheep! Just look how surprised they are when those good works are mentioned. They didn’t even realize they were doing anything special. “When did we serve you, Lord?” they ask. “When did we do these good things for you?” And the king replies, “When you did it to the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”

We’ve probably all seen those stories when a citizen does something heroic – maybe saving someone by doing CPR or the Heimlich maneuver, or rescuing someone who fell in a river, or bravely tackling an assailant unleashing mayhem on a crowd. They always end up on the news, and they almost always say something like, “I didn’t mean to be a hero. I was just doing what needed to be done. I didn’t think about it. It just seemed like the right thing to do.”

In the same way, Jesus’ sheep don’t perform good works because we’re trying to impress anyone. We don’t do it because we are calculating the rewards or benefits the king might bestow. We don’t do it to earn anything. We do it because that’s just what sheep do. As Martin Luther himself said in his commentary on Romans, “Faith is a living, busy, active, mighty thing, such that it is impossible not to do good works constantly.”

It is the goats who calculate rewards and benefits. It is the goats who only do good works because of what it might get them. “Oh, that was you?” they say to the king. “We didn’t know! If we knew, we would have helped!” Do you see what is happening here? The goats have turned good works into a way to earn favor with the king. This is the way of the law. And it doesn’t turn out like they thought it would.

The sheep, on the other hand, are equally oblivious to the fact that when they serve a world in need, they are in fact serving their king. That isn’t why they do it! They don’t do it to curry favor. They don’t need to! They are already sheep, and they are merely doing what sheep do.

When we respond to human need, we are serving our Lord and King. This King of ours hides himself in the people around us, where we serve him through the callings of daily life. So when you bring groceries for the food pantry, you are feeding Jesus. When you bring coats or socks to our clothing drive, you are clothing Jesus. When you make beautiful quilts for strangers on the other side of the world, you are making quilts for Jesus. When you are up half the night with your sick child, or are caring for an ailing spouse or parent or friend, you are taking care of Jesus. I can’t tell you how many times I’ve made visits to church members at the hospital or nursing home or in their homes and have found that someone from our congregation has already been there. When you make those visits, you are visiting Jesus himself.

Our King Jesus hides himself in the human needs all around us, and it is there that we serve him – but we don’t do it because we’re trying to earn points or ensure our place in the coming kingdom. We do it because it needs to be done. We dot it because that is who we are as people who have faith in Jesus. We do it because God has already made us sheep, and that is just what sheep do.

If you hear this parable today, this glimpse of the future that Jesus gives us, this glimpse of his coming kingdom, and start looking at yourself, trying to discern whether you’re really a sheep, maybe beginning to panic a little bit, you are putting your focus in the wrong place. Look instead to your King Jesus and to what he has already done to make you his sheep.

You have been blessed by God the Father. He has given you his dear Son to be your savior, to forgive your sin, to reconcile you to himself. The moment you receive Jesus in faith you are a sheep.

As a sheep, you have been given an inheritance. Jesus died for you, and you have inherited his life, his righteousness, his glory, his kingdom. He is the Good Shepherd who laid down his life for the sheep.

Christ’s kingdom was prepared for you from the foundation of the world, before you ever lifted a finger in his service.

The parable we hear today is the last parable Jesus tells before going to the cross. The next words out of his mouth are about his crucifixion. And so our eyes are led away from ourselves, from concerns about our own judgement, to the cross – the true source of our salvation.

It is on the cross that Jesus reveals himself most fully as king. It is on the cross that he takes on the crown of thorns, suffering for our sake. It is on the cross that Jesus is enthroned on high, even as he takes our sin upon himself.

As we look to the cross and see the sacrifice our king has made for us, we can’t help but want to live as his loyal subjects, carrying out his will in the world. As we behold his love, we can’t help but have him begin to rule our hearts and our lives. As we receive his grace and mercy through Word and sacrament, we are blessed by the Father, we receive the beginning of our inheritance, we are given a glimpse of the kingdom he has prepared for us, and we are assured that we are indeed his precious sheep.

And then, when we hear the words, “Go in peace, serve the Lord,” we go back to our daily lives to do the things that sheep do.

Thanks be to God. Amen.

Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer

Oak Harbor Lutheran Church