Sermon for the Last Sunday of the Church Year based on Matthew 25:31-46
Dear sheep of the Good Shepherd: grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and our Lord and Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
On Judgment Day, judgment will be based on works. Don’t be too shocked by that. Second Corinthians 5 says, “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive what is due for what he has done in the body, whether good or evil.” (v. 10) Romans 2 says that on the day of wrath when God’s righteous judgment will be revealed, He will render to each one according to his works (vv. 5-6). In John 5, Jesus says on Judgment Day all the dead will hear His voice and be raised from their tombs and come out, those who have done good to the resurrection of life, and those who have done evil to the resurrection of judgment (vv. 28-29). On Judgment Day, judgment will be based on works.
When was the last time you fed the hungry and gave drink to the thirsty? When was the last time you clothed the homeless, and even more, welcomed them into your house, though they were strangers? When was the last time you visited the sick or those in prison? Where are these good works by which you will be judged on the Last Day? I hope your answer is, “What good works?” rather than “When have I failed to do good works?”
Jesus does not teach about Judgment Day primarily to encourage you to do good works. In our lesson from St Matthew’s Gospel, Jesus did not teach the disciples about the final judgment just before He was arrested and crucified because He was hoping for good works from them. He knew what would happen. He even told them ahead of time what would happen. The disciples would not feed Him when He was hungry or give Him a drink when He said, “I thirst.” The disciples would not clothe Him when He was naked and lots were cast for His clothing. They said He was a stranger they did not know. He was a prisoner on trial who they did not visit. He was sick with wounds to which they did not tend.
On Judgment Day, what do you think the disciples will say to Jesus when He says to them that they fed Him when He was hungry, gave Him drink when He was thirsty, welcomed Him and clothed and visited Him when sick and in prison? They will say, “When? When did we do any of these things that you say we have done?”
No disciple of Jesus will lay claim to good works he has done on Judgment Day. No believer will tell Jesus, the judge of the living and the dead, that he has done what God’s Law demanded of him. No sheep of the Good Shepherd will say that he has fulfilled God’s Law; that he has loved God with his whole heart, soul, and mind, and his neighbour as himself.
Unbelievers will. The goats will say, “When did we ever fail to do what we should have done? We’ve done so many good things in our lives, how dare you suggest we have failed to do something we should have done? We’ve done it all and then some.” They see no need for grace, mercy, or forgiveness. They think they’ve earned eternal life for themselves. In reality, they will go away to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
Even though you will be judged on works, the truth is that on Judgment Day, your good works will not save you. Even if you fed all the hungry you could find and gave them drink; if you opened your home to every stranger and refugee and clothed them with your own clothing; if gave all that you have to the poor and volunteered at the hospital and prison; if you gave all your money, all your time, all your talent; even if you donated all your blood that you could every chance you got, your good works will not save you. It will not be enough. It will not even set you apart from the man who never so much as lifted his finger to help anyone in need.
How do we know this? Because “By works of the Law no human being will be justified in [God’s] sight.” (Rom. 3:20) “Yet we know that a person is not justified by works of the Law.” (Gal. 2:16) “Now it is evident no one is justified before God by the Law.” (Gal. 3:11) “Good works cannot avert our doom, they help and save us never.” (LSB 555 st. 1)
We have to pay attention to what Jesus actually says when He teaches about Judgment Day. The very first thing that will happen on Judgment Day is Jesus separating the sheep from the goats. Before any judgment is pronounced, Jesus will stand His own on His right hand and the unbelievers on His left. He will call His dear sheep “blessed by My Father,” and will tell them to inherit the kingdom prepared for them from the foundation of the world. Yes, from the foundation of the world. Before we did anything good or bad; before we were conceived and had a chance to do a single work, good or evil, we already had God’s eternal kingdom prepared for us.
Revelation 20 also helps to shed light on Judgment Day. John has a vision of the Last Day. It says that the books were opened, and the dead were judged by what was written in the books. But there is another book, the book of life. If anyone’s name was not found written in the book of life, he was thrown into the lake of fire. Those whose names are written in the book of life inherit the new heaven and the new earth and will dwell with God and be His people, with every tear wiped from their eyes, where death will be no more, neither mourning, nor crying, nor pain (Rev. 20:11-21:4).
The works written in the other books don’t save or condemn those whose names are written in the book of life. What you have done or left undone, good or evil, cannot save or condemn you. What matters for you is that your name is written in the book of life.
Those whose names are in the book of life will also be judged based on works, but not their own works. Those whose names are in the book of life will be judged by the works of Jesus. Baptized into Christ, we are covered with His righteousness that covers all our sin. All of His good works get credited to us.
On Judgment Day, Jesus will call us “blessed by My Father” and to inherit the kingdom prepared for us from the foundation of the world. He will say that we did all kinds of good works, but we will not lay claim to them to set them against the judgment of God. We will cling alone to the merits of Jesus and His righteousness. We will answer Jesus, “When did we ever do anything for you? Do not open up the books of works! We have no desire to be judged based on our works. Open instead only the book of life, where our names are written. Judge us based on Your works, not ours.”
Are you uncertain about your name being written in the book of life? Have you been around Baptism, Absolution, and the Lord’s Supper so long and you still do not realize that Jesus makes you holy and righteous through these means? Baptism is not just plain water, but it is the water included in God’s command and combined with God’s Word; it works forgiveness of sins, rescues from death and the devil, and gives eternal salvation to all who believe this, as the words and promises of God declare. Yes, Baptism saves!
Absolution is not just the plain word of man, but the voice of Christ Himself, commanded by Him to be spoken in His stead to forgive sins and open the gates of heaven.
The Lord’s Supper is not just plain bread and wine, but the very body and blood of Christ, given and shed for you for the forgiveness of sins.
Through these means of grace Christ gives you His righteousness. Through these means Christ gives you all of His good works and covers your sins. Through these means Christ declares you righteous, blessed by the Father, having fulfilled every good work, and an heir of the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
Do not forget who the Judge is on Judgment Day. It is Christ Jesus your Lord who took on your flesh to live and die for you. It is your Good Shepherd, who gave His life as a ransom for yours. It is your High Priest who knows and sympathizes with your weaknesses and infirmities and thus paid for your sins with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death.
On Judgment Day, Jesus will declare you righteous and give you eternal life because you are His sheep and He is your Good Shepherd. He will judge you based on His works, not your own, so you know that you will inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. Eternal life is your promised inheritance because Jesus earned it for you and gives it to you freely. Amen.
The peace of God which surpasses all understanding will keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.