Sunday, November 23, 2008

The One Thing

Last Sunday of the Church Year
Twenty-Eighth Sunday after Pentecost
November 23, 2008
Matthew 25:31-46

What shall we talk about? Today is the Last Sunday of the Church Year—what should be our focus on this day? We’ve come to the end of the Church Year —does it make a difference in your day to day life? Will it impact the decisions you make this week at work and in your home? Will it affect the outcome of the Chargers game tonight? Should we follow the Church Year like we do the weeks and months and seasons?

The Church Year is a guide, a help, a way to focus us on Christ and the salvation He brings in His life, suffering, death, and resurrection. In the case of the Last Sunday of the Church Year we are mindful that even as the Church Year has come to a close, so will this life. Our Lord will return in glory on the Last Day.

So what shall we talk about? If you knew that this were the last day on earth what would you talk about? If you knew that Christ was coming again in glory today and that you were being welcomed into the eternal glory of heaven this day, what would be your hope? There are many things to talk about; many things we could focus on. We could talk about doctrine. About how doctrine applies to life. About how to evangelize. How to strengthen our daily Christian life. The Church Year. The Bible. The different denominations in the Church.

Jesus Himself talks about a lot of things. But if you examine His teaching closely you will see that it all comes down to one thing. When all is said and done there really is only one thing. It’s the one thing that makes His Return in glory on the Last Day glorious. Jesus can’t help but talk about it because it’s the very essence of who He is.

It is the Gospel. With Jesus there isn’t an emphasis on moral living or steps to a better walk with Him or principles of evangelizing your non-Christian neighbors or ways you can get along better with your family. He may touch on those things. But those are not what He’s really teaching. No, it is always and ultimately the Gospel. The one thing that matters.

He does this in the Gospel reading for today, the Last Sunday of the Church Year, in which He pictures the Last Day, Judgment Day. Is His message to us that we ought to serve others because in so doing we are really serving Him and will thereby gain eternal life? Is His message to us that if we don’t serve others than really we’re not serving Him and will be punished eternally for that?

It may appear that way. But if that were it, then it wouldn’t be Gospel. And Jesus loves the Gospel. The one thing He always drives home is the Gospel. What is the Gospel? Why is the Gospel the main thing? How is this picture Jesus gives us of the Last Day teaching us the Gospel? Does the Gospel remove responsibility from us to live a moral and godly life? Does the Gospel take away our need to serve others?

All these questions are answered in the Gospel. The Gospel is, at its core, the suffering of Christ in our place. It is the action of God of saving us by forsaking His Son and welcoming us into His eternal Kingdom. The Gospel is the heart of the Bible. It is the heart of God. We cannot know God apart from the Gospel. We cannot be saved apart from the Gospel. The Gospel is the way God has restored His relationship with us.

Broadly speaking, it is God’s love for us. It is everything God has done and does for us to provide for us, care for us, and love us. But there is no Gospel apart from the suffering of Christ. We do not know the love of God toward us apart from the suffering and death of Jesus. Any attempt to appease God with our moral life falls flat, because there is no standard we can achieve that matches the sinless life and sacrifice of Jesus Christ Himself. That is what appeases God and draws His compassion toward you.

The picture Jesus paints in the Gospel reading is Gospel. It is not an exhortation to good works and serving others and pleasing God; although those things are certainly there, because those things flow directly out of the Gospel. But they don’t produce the Gospel. They don’t achieve salvation. They don’t catch God’s eye and make Him turn toward you in appreciation or with the intent to reward you. The problem we run into in interpreting the picture He paints is what we force upon it, not what Jesus Himself is giving us.

And what is He giving us? The Gospel. The one and only thing in which there is salvation. The one thing in which we have hope. The words that come out of His mouth to those on His right are these: “Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” The Kingdom the sheep on His right receive is not one that God has prepared in response to anything they have done or any morally upright lives they have lived. It is a Kingdom which was prepared before they were ever around. Before they even knew what it is to help someone in need. The Gospel has nothing to do with us doing good works when it comes to our salvation. We are not saved by good works, but we are saved for them.

That’s why He continues in this way: “For I was hungry and you gave Me food, I was thirsty and you gave Me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed Me, I was naked and you clothed Me, I was sick and you visited Me, I was in prison and you came to Me.” Jesus isn’t talking about what we do that gets us into haven. He doesn’t say, as the Word of God clearly says, Be perfect for I the Lord your God am perfect, that you were perfect. No, He talks about the small ways they served the least of these. You didn’t fix their problems, you simply helped them out in small ways.

This is the way it is with our Lord. His glorious spiritual blessings are given in simple ways. He comes to us in the nakedness of our sinful nature and clothes with His own righteousness in Baptism, just as He has done so today with Jeffrey. He comes to us in our spiritual hunger and feeds us in a simple way, with bread and wine, in order to give us His Body and Blood.

With God the one thing is never slippery, or general, or out of reach. It’s not just God’s love for you, but God’s love for you in Christ. It’s not just that God gives you His grace, it’s that God is gracious to you in His only-begotten Son. It’s not just that He would have you believe in true doctrine and learn the Scriptures, it’s that all of that doctrine and every Word of the Scriptures is bound up in the Gospel, delivering Christ to you.

That’s the one thing we have that will get us through on the Last Day. It’s the one thing we have that will remain when all else is destroyed. It’s the one thing we have when we’re tempted to look in satisfaction at all that we’ve done and instead say with the sheep on His right, “Lord, when did we do those things to you?” and look to those simple ways in which our Lord comes to us with forgiveness—Baptism and His holy Supper. For with Him, it’s always about the Gospel. By this Gospel it is the same with us and we see today, on the Last Day, and for eternity that it is always about Christ. Amen.


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