April 7, 2019 Sermon
Journey to the Cross:
First Scripture Reading: Matthew 25:31-40
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34 Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35 for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38 And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39 And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40 And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.’
Second Scripture Reading: Matthew 25:41-46
41 Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Message – “Journey to the Cross: Two Kingdoms”
Yet ANOTHER Judgment parable?
Actually, no. For the past three weeks, we’ve been reading and interpreting judgment parable from Jesus. These parables have come from a group of parables Jesus told while in Jerusalem during the final week of His life. And these parables provided deep truth upon deep truth to reveal some important information about something called The Judgment, which is the time or process by which God will determine whether or not each of us receives an eternal life with God or, well, something else.
Through the parables of the past three weeks, Jesus has revealed:
- Everyone who receives God’s grace will receive exactly the same gift of grace, the same eternal life with God as everyone else who receives grace.
- There will be some unexpected guests at the party of eternal life with God because God invites everyone, and everyone who accepts will gain entrance;
- God’s criteria for “acceptance” has to do with a faith that is more than mere spoken words, has to do with a faith lived out, and the determination of our acceptance is to be made by God and God alone – in other words, no human agency gets to grant or exclude anyone from eternal life with God;
- And, this acceptance, this faith lived out, it’s all about living lives of readiness, trying to live each moment out of love for God and love for people.
Which brings us to today’s Judgment story. Notice, I said “story”, not “parable”. While this story might sound an awful lot like a parable, it’s not a parable…for a reason I began to explain last week.
I’ve told you before that a parable is a story told to reveal a single point, a single deep truth. And this is true – the whole single-deep-truth-thing is what distinguishes a parable from an allegory. But there’s more to defining a parable than just what distinguishes it from an allegory. In a parable, the story that reveals a deep truth is rooted in this world, in familiar everyday scenes and events of this world. Parables utilize familiar, this-worldly scenes to point to deep truths about something that is BEYOND this world, so beyond this world and our experience that we need an everyday analog to help us understand. Remember, Jesus told stories very much rooted in this world – stories of a landowner and his laborers as well as stories of wedding banquets – to reveal deep truths about something beyond this world, the coming Last Judgment and an eternal Heavenly realm with God. That’s how parables work.
But look at today’s story. That CAN’T BE what this is. There’s nothing this-worldly, nothing we can relate to, about the Son of Man showing up on the scene in his glory, seated on a throne, with all the angels with him. I mean, have you ever seen something like that? Do you think first century people had ever experienced something like that? Does this sound like a familiar, everyday kind of scene? No, this is something else. The story begins not with something THIS-worldly but something OTHER-worldly – to people, anyway. The other-worldly scene that provides the setting for this story is The Judgment, itself. Some people call this kind of story an apocalyptic drama because it is set in what we tend to call the end times.
And the timing of Jesus’ telling of this story is interesting, as well. This story comes at the END of the final discourse of Jesus’ earthly ministry, a final discourse in which Jesus told a long series of six parables about The Judgment. But suddenly, with his seventh and last story of the discourse, Jesus turns His familiar formula of stories rooted in the present to teach deep truths about the future upside down. Jesus provides a story rooted in that very future he’s been pointing to throughout this discourse.
Which should lead all of us to wonder why Jesus might turn His formula upside down! The answer is shockingly simple…an answer you will never forget.
Jesus had been telling stories set in the present to reveal deep truths about the future. He’d been doing that throughout His ministry, but here, at the end of His earthly ministry, Jesus upped the concentration of these types of stories. So that now, when Jesus tells a story set in the future, His disciples would GET that this story is told to reveal a deep truth about the present. THAT’S why this story is set in the future – to tell us that the deep truth being revealed in it will be about the present, about NOW. Which, I would imagine, completely changes the way so many people have thought about this story.
Y’all with this drama set in the time of The Last Judgment, Jesus reveals a deep truth about today: the best way to live while on this earth, the way to live that constitutes following Jesus, the way to live a life of preparation, can be found in whatever Jesus means by:
- Giving food to the hungry;
- Giving something to drink to the thirsty;
- Welcoming a stranger;
- Giving clothing to the naked;
- Taking care of the sick;
- And, visiting the imprisoned.
When Jesus tells about separating people the way sheep and goats are separated by a shepherd, when Jesus talks about the Son of Man sending the sheep to one kingdom and the goats to another kingdom, it sounds to our human ears like Jesus is telling us about the two kingdoms that will exist for people after we depart from this earth. And while that’s what’s going on in the story, Jesus tells the story to teach us about two kingdoms that exist very much while we’re on this earth, right here, right now.
When you do the kinds of things Jesus mentioned, when you live to help people who have need, you live into one of those two kingdoms. Throughout His ministry, Jesus called it the Kingdom of Heaven. Jesus described it as a wonderful, marvelous place, the kind of place where you feel blessed by God, the maker of everything, the kind of place you would sell everything you own to enter into. And when you don’t do the kinds of things Jesus mentioned, you live into the other of those two kingdoms, the kingdom where you feel accursed, where each moment feels torturous, like living in fire, a kingdom here and now that feels equivalent to a place of eternal death, eternal punishment.
Y’all, the deep truth Jesus reveals in this story is that those two kingdoms, the Kingdom of Heaven and what we in the Church have come to refer as the Kingdom of Hell, they are not two kingdoms reserved for the future, for AFTER The Judgment, no, they are two kingdoms that very much exist in the present, on THIS earth, in this lifetime.
And you, me, we, by our ACTIONS, the actions that reveal our true faith, get to choose which kingdom we will LIVE into.
By the way, if you’ve ever wondered how Jesus could tell such a story that emphasizes action, works as the deciding factor with regard to getting into Heaven or Hell, given that we all KNOW Jesus emphasized justification by faith over justification by works…you now have all the information you need to formulate an answer. This story is set in the End, but it’s not revealing truth ABOUT the End; it’s about the here and now, and it’s revealing truth about the here and now. How you act NOW determines which kingdom you live in while on this earth. Your faith in Christ will determine what happens in the future.
But let’s get back to the two kingdoms for a while. They are important. Jesus tells us there are two, count ‘em, TWO kingdoms: what He calls the Kingdom of Heaven and what we’ll call the Kingdom of Hell. That’s it, two kingdoms, no less and no more.
This is important. Modern people, we want there to be more than two kingdoms, don’t we? There’s the kingdom for the people who do what Jesus commanded, who actively love people by caring for their needs. And there’s the kingdom for the really bad people: the murderers, the rapists, the people who spend their lives trying to lie and cheat and steal and trick everyone else. We seem to get that these two kingdoms exist. But then we seem to want there to be another place, a place for all the relativistic folks, a place for all the people who aren’t sure what’s right and what’s wrong, even a place for all the people who aren’t mean-spirited or bad or really hurtful but who would just rather spend their lives quietly enjoying life for themselves and their families without doing too much to help or hurt anybody else. These people, since they don’t do the kinds of things Jesus says places you in the Kingdom of Heaven but the things they do aren’t SO bad, they must be living someplace OTHER than the Kingdom of Hell, right? There’s got to be a separate kingdom for those people, right?
Stop for a second. Remember, we’re not talking about eternal life with this story. We’re talking about the available kingdoms on this earth. So for all the relativistic not-too-good but not-too-bad people out there, what Jesus tells us today isn’t about the eternal plight of these folks. Other stories deal with that. No, Jesus sheep and goats story is about the PRESENT plight of these folks, and everyone. And Jesus says there are two, only two kingdoms. And Jesus says the only way to get into the good kingdom, the only way to enjoy life on this earth, the only way to really LIVE, is to…help…other…people. You either help people or you don’t. Notice, it’s not help people or hurt people. You either help meet people’s needs, or you don’t help them. There’s no distinguishing between the people who don’t help and the people who actively hurt. They ALL live presently in what Jesus describes not so much as the Kingdom of Hell but as the Kingdom of the Devil, what we would call hell on earth.
Does that shock you? Does that surprise you?
Honestly, it doesn’t surprise me at all.
- I think back to the times in my life when I have lived primarily selfishly, especially back in my days as a successful businessman. I had it all. I had money, I had a sense of success and this-worldly worth. There were people around me who wanted to BE me. Once I met and married Susan and we had a son, Cole, I was even surrounded by people I loved and enjoyed. But I didn’t feel like I was really living, fully living, experiencing what Jesus called new life UNTIL I started helping people more than I was living for myself.
- And sometimes I get on Facebook and, wow, what a downer getting on Facebook can be. I’m not saying there’s anything inherently wrong with Facebook or social media. I’m just saying I read the posts of people who I’m sure think of themselves as “good people” or at least as “not bad people”. By their standards, I’m sure they are. By society’s standards, I’m sure they are. And, hear me when I say this, I’m not judging them. But I can read the sadness, the despondency, in their posts. I can hear all these people longing for life in the Kingdom of Heaven but so completely unaware of what they need to do to live into that Kingdom. They write and act as if they can find real life by being selfish, by judging people, by calling attention to themselves, by crying out for ever more attention. And then they periodically post things revealing that they wonder why they aren’t experiencing the life for which they long. All they would have to do is stop crying out for attention and go DO something to meet somebody else’s needs.
- I encounter people in congregations, not just those I serve but other congregations in this community and across communities, and they profess Jesus as their Savior, which is awesome, but they wonder why life feels so darn unfulfilling while on this earth. They complain about how they pray and the read the scriptures and they worship and in these ways place God first in their lives and yet they don’t feel like they’re really enjoying this life the way Jesus makes it sound like they should. And I reflect within myself – and sometimes outwardly to them – how it seems they need to live out the second part of what Jesus called The Greatest Commandment: loving your neighbor as much as you love yourself.
- And I encounter many other people, some who profess to be Christians and others who don’t, who really love people down deep inside, who care about people deeply and really, really want the best for people…but who don’t actively DO anything about this deep caring, this perceived deep compassion. And they wonder why it doesn’t feel like they’re living.
I hope you see where I’m going with this. There’s a reason so many people – maybe even you – don’t feel like they are living into the amazing place, the amazing life, Jesus describes as the Kingdom of Heaven while here in this life. There’s a reason so many followers of Jesus even cling to hope in a future life while dismissing the importance and potential joy to be had in this life. Somehow, we’ve lost sight of what Jesus tried to teach us through this amazing story, this LAST story before he went to the cross and so a MOST IMPORTANT story.
While it’s true that Jesus’ righteousness makes us righteous, so that we don’t need to rely on our own righteousness when The Judgment comes, and while it’s true faith is what saves, not works, it is ALSO true that the way to live best while on this earth, the way to live INTO the Kingdom of Heaven right here and right now, is by DOING acts of love for others, by taking care of the needs of others that you can do something about. That’s the way to truly live on this earth for two simple reasons: (1) God made us to feel alive when we help other people. You might think God made you to find happiness and contentment in playing video games or binge watching television or surfing the web or even grabbing as much power and attention for yourself as possible, but, none of that is true. God made you to enjoy helping people. How do I know? Because Jesus told me; Jesus told us all. And the second reason helping people is the way to truly live is this: (2) when more and more people start spending their lives helping people, then ALL of our needs get met. And folks, life in good and proper relationship with other people and with God, along with having all of your needs met…that’s, well, Heaven on Earth.