Today marks the second message in the series that we’ve begun called The Hole in Our Gospel. And as you know – in fact how many of you are involved in one of the small group studies where you’re going through this thing in a little more detail. Can I see your hands? That is great! Can I share this with you that we have well over 100 adults and youth that are involved in this study? There’s something about getting the congregation all on the same page, especially during this season of Lent and focusing in on the same material that I think enables the Holy Spirit to drive a stake even deeper into our hearts.
Thomas Jefferson – one of the founders of our country. Great statesman. I’m sure many of you have been downtown and seen the Jefferson Memorial; it’s a beautiful and significant place. Thomas Jefferson had high regard for the Bible, except there were parts of the Bible that bothered him. And so what he literally did is he went through the gospels and he took a pair of scissors and he cut out of the gospels anything that had anything to do with the supernatural. So any references to angels, any references to eternal life, any reference to the Virgin Birth or to the resurrection of Jesus Christ, he just clipped them all out. And what was left he put together into what is now called the Jefferson Bible.
When you read his gospels, his gospels end this way: “Now, in the place where he was crucified, there was a garden; and in the garden a new sepulcher, wherein was never man yet laid. There laid they Jesus. And rolled a great stone to the door of the sepulcher, and departed.” And that’s it. That’s the end of his gospel. No resurrection. No eternal life. No hope. Jefferson cut those verses out because – well he didn’t believe in them. He just didn’t think they were true.
Now I don’t think there would be many of us today that would be so brazen to actually take a pair of scissors to the scripture. But sometimes, sometimes we almost act that way. By ignoring scriptures we don’t particularly care for or scriptures that challenge us to the point that we just don’t want to take them very seriously. In fact some churches, some Christians have done that with regard to the matter of salvation and world missions and evangelism and they haven’t seen an adult convert in their church in years. Other churches, other Christians have lost sight of just how much the Bible has to say about ministering to the poor and serving the needy.
Do you know that there are over 2,000 verses in the Bible that speak about God’s attitude toward poverty and justice? I say that just to tell you, it’s a big deal in the Bible. And today we are going to be looking at one of those passages. You’re probably familiar with this passage. And it might be, very honestly one of those passages that you’d kind of like to ignore because it is an uncomfortable passage.
If you were honest, you might wish it was cut out because it may hit a little too close to home. As Mark Twain said, “It’s not the parts of the Bible I don’t understand that bother me; it’s the parts I do understand!”
Let’s take a look at these words of Jesus from chapter 25 of Matthew’s gospel. You heard them read a moment ago.
Here’s the context. Jesus is near the end of His ministry. And toward the end of His ministry, right before He goes to the cross He does extensive teaching about the end times; about the judgment. He warns us to be ready for the Day of Judgment. Nobody in Scripture spoke more about judgment than Jesus Christ.
Now most folks when they write their letters to the editor of the newspaper and they’ve got bones to pick and they’re talking about what the Bible says, very seldom do they talk about this. Jesus spoke of sin that could not be forgiven. Jesus spoke about the danger of losing one’s soul forever. Jesus spoke about spending eternity in outer darkness where there’s perpetual weeping and gnashing of teeth. No pictures of judgment were more intense or more sobering than the pictures that Jesus painted. And yet nothing Jesus said, nothing that Jesus did was inconsistent with His gracious love.
He wept over the impending judgment that was coming on Jerusalem’s people. Love always desires to protect those that it loves from harm. That’s why Jesus spoke about judgment. It wasn’t and isn’t His wish, nor the Father’s wish for anyone to perish, the scripture says, but for everyone to come to repentance.
And so we come to Matthew 25: The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. It’s a sketch of the judgment which comes when Christ returns. The sheep and the goats are metaphors for the righteous and the wicked. Matthew 25:31, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, (This would have been cut out of Jefferson’s book) he will sit on his glorious throne.” Notice that the sovereign judge who makes the distinction between the separation of sheep and goats will be Christ himself, the Son of Man.
Earlier in John 5:22 Jesus had said this; “Moreover the Father judges no one but has entrusted all judgment to the Son.” God the Father has delegated the task of judging all humanity to Jesus Christ.
Now the rest of the story, verse 32. “All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left. Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’ The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
“He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
“Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.” The words of Jesus.
Now the big picture here I think is clear to see. We get a glimpse of the final judgment at the end of history when Jesus judges humankind.
Look at this passage with me briefly together. First of all it begins with a great gathering. Verse 32. These are remarkable words. “All the nations will be gathered before him…” All throughout the New Testament there is this affirmation that one day every soul will acknowledge that Jesus Christ is Lord.
Paul put it this way in Philippians (Philippians 2:10-11). He said, “Every knee shall bow and every tongue confess that Jesus Christ is Lord.” Every person will bow one day and acknowledge “Jesus, you are the Lord, the Son of the Living God.”
This great gathering now has a purpose. Verse 32 says, “He will,” (haunting words), “separate people one from another.”
If you didn’t know the story there could be a tremendous sense of anticipation here. Maybe even some trepidation. “Did I make it? Will I make it? Am I going to the left or right? Am I one of the people of God or am I not?” Whatever the expectation is there is a surprising turn of events that happens in this story.
The great gathering now turns into the great test. And the test is whether or not the people responded to the King when he was in distress. He said to them, “I was hungry. I was thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick, imprisoned.” And the people are thunderstruck! “When were you like this? When did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked? When?
And the answer that Jesus gives ought to shake every single one of us. And it ought to cause us to stand at attention. Because this is what brings about the great separation.
The relationship that this multitude of people - let me put it another way – the relationship that we have with the King is not dependent upon fate. It’s not dependent on the whims, the arbitrary whims of the King. it is dependent upon the decisions and the actions of the people themselves. From the beginning of scripture to the end God never overrules the personal choice making abilities of human beings. Never.
And the great separation that comes is whether the people responded to the needs of the king and the answer to the question that all of them had was this, “When did we see you hungry? When did we see you as a stranger?” and the answer is as natural as life itself and yet its shockingly surprising to the gathered multitudes. You heard the answer. He said, “Whenever you saw the distress of my brothers and sisters and you responded, you responded to me. And whenever you saw the distress of my brothers and sisters and you ignored it, you ignored me.” And then there’s this great separation that occurs. That’s the big picture.
The great gathering of the multitudes of all the nations. The great test followed by the great separation.
Now let’s look at the passage a little more carefully here because I think there are at least two significant elements.
First of all we are told that we are judged by our walk and not by our talk. Not by what we say but by what we do. Not by what we espouse to believe but how we actually act.
Now I want you to listen to me really careful here in these next couple of moments because I would hate for you to misunderstand what I’m saying. So hang with me here.
Jesus the king invites the righteous into His kingdom based upon what they did. Look at verses 35 and 36. “For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink,” so on and so forth. And then the king sent out the accursed into the eternal fire based upon what they did not do. Verses 42 and 43, “I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,” and so forth.
Now catch this and catch it well. Christ does not condemn this latter group because they failed to serve him, nor does he save the others because they did right and they did serve him. They are cursed because they rejected Christ just as those who enter the kingdom are righteous because they accepted and put their trust in Jesus. And the evidence that those rejected people never belonged to Christ will be that they did not love and serve and serve His people. Proof that those do belong to Christ is that their lives are marked by a compassionate action.
Now more on this in just a moment. We are judged by our walk not our talk; by our actions not our words. Every judgment scene in the New Testament including the one that we’re looking at today is made on the basis of deeds.
Listen to these scripture verses: Matthew 16:27, “For the Son of Man is going to come in his Father‘s glory with his angels, and then he will reward each person according to what they have done.”
John 5:28-29, “Do not be amazed at this, (The words of Jesus) for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out—those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned.”
And there are a number of others just like these. One commentator said this, “God will separate his obedient followers from pretenders and unbelievers. The real evidence of our faith is the way we act.”
Now does this mean we’re saved by good works? NO! A million times no! Get that straight. Salvation we’re told in Ephesians 2:8 is by grace through faith alone.
Paul in writing to Titus in Titus 3:5 makes this statement, “He saved us, not because of righteous things we had done, but because of his mercy. He saved us through the washing of rebirth and renewal by the Holy Spirit.”
So how can we be saved by grace and yet judged by works? It’s as simple as this: At the final judgment the only thing that will really matter is our relationship with Jesus Christ. And our relationship with Jesus is based upon our walk with Him not our talk about Him. How we live our lives reveals what we really believe about Jesus.
You say, “But I prayed a prayer with my mom when I was a kid. I prayed a prayer at a youth camp.” I want to say it again, if you have received Christ the evidence of that will be a transformed life and how you and I live. The good works has less to do with the ethical actions than it has to do with living a life of mercy.
The sheep acted in tangible loving ways toward the poor, the sick, the imprisoned, the vulnerable. The goats did not. The goats are punished not for the evil that they did but for the good they did not do. Their behavior betrayed the fact that Christ wasn’t really alive in them. Genuine faith will have evidence of a transformed life. The roots of faith planted in the soil of Christ will have the fruits of compassion and mercy and justice. And when the day comes that’s the kind of fruit that Jesus the Son of Man, sitting on His throne, making judgment, that’s the kind of fruit that He looks for.
Now there’s a second significant element here. What we do to the least we do to Jesus. Look at verse 37. “The righteous will answer Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? When did we see you a stranger and invite you in… The king will reply, truly I tell you whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine you did to me.”
And the Bible says the sheep are shocked. The sheep are surprised. Why? They didn’t recognize the Lord. They didn’t realize that when they were helping the least of these that Jesus took it personally. By contrast the goats were equally surprised to the discovery that they overlooked the king. They asked the opposite question. Or really the same question. “When did we you hungry? When did we see you thirsty?” The point is this. Jesus says when you did not do it to the least you did not do it to me.” Jesus takes it personally.
According to the world’s religions sin is doing something wrong or doing something bad. But the Bible says that’s not only sin. Sin also includes not doing good; not doing right.
James puts it this way in James 4:17. “If anyone then, knows the good they ought to do and doesn’t do it, it is sin for them.”
So who are the least? Jesus uses six descriptors.
He says, “Well they’re the hungry.” Maybe they’re experiencing famine such as over in Somalia right now. Maybe they have lost their job and the unemployment benefits have run out and they just flat out don’t have enough money for food. Maybe they are like millions of people who live on what’s called the “0. 0. 1. Plan.” Zero for breakfast. Zero for lunch. Rice and beans for dinner. That’s what they live on day after day. They need food.
Another descriptor is they’re thirsty. There are people, many of them children who are already working fulltime jobs. And their fulltime job looks like walking for miles, hours each day to get a bucket of water and take it back home. And the bucket of water that they take back home is contaminated water, worse than the water in your toilet. They need wells. They need clean water.
He talks about the strangers; outsiders, people that are different, people that are foreign, people that sound different, look different. Maybe they even have a different belief. They need a place to be invited. They need a place to belong.
Or those without clothing. Millions of people today in our world don’t have shoes. And the only clothes they have are the clothes on their back. And the ironic thing about it is that many of them are making the clothes that you and I have in our closets. They need to be clothed.
Then there’s the sick where millions of people are dying from diseases that are treatable and even preventable. Something as simple as a net under which to sleep to keep the mosquitoes off. They die from AIDS and dysentery and malaria. There are millions dying in pain. They need care. They need compassion. They need a touch. They need medicine.
And then there’s the imprisoned. There are many who are locked away from society and church and many of them deserve to be there. Some don’t. Some are imprisoned around this world because of their faith. But in either case, either way they need someone to walk into their dark world and shine a light there.
There all examples of the least. They’re on the edge of survival. They’re powerless. They’re outsiders. Listen to what the Bible says about serving those in need. Deuteronomy 15, ―If anyone is poor among your fellow Israelites in any of the towns of the land the LORD your God is giving you, do not be hardhearted or tightfisted toward them. Rather, be openhanded and freely lend them whatever they need…Give generously to them and do so without a grudging heart.”
Or down in Deuteronomy 10,”He defends the cause of the fatherless and the widow, and loves the foreigner residing among you, giving them food and clothing. And you are to love those who are foreigners, for you yourselves were foreigners in Egypt.‖ Deuteronomy 10:17-19
Imagine your life; picture your life like a puzzle. I think what the Bible is saying to us is this: If somehow the least of these are not on your radar screen, are not a part of your life, then you’re like a puzzle as far as God is concerned that’s missing a couple of pieces. There’s a hole in your gospel. If you’re cutting the least out of your life then there’s a hole in you. There is no whole - W.H.O.L.E. – no whole gospel without compassion and justice being shown to the least.
Now I would tell you for Robin and me the primary means we try to funnel resources to the least is through our giving to the church. Why? Well for one thing we can do more together than any of us can do individually. For another thing I leave having very high confidence that my money’s being invested in legitimate ways that’s serving the whole gospel i.e. physical needs as well as spiritual needs – presenting the gospel of Christ. So that’s a big deal.
But then I’ve also got to find myself saying, “Randy keep your eyes open because a week doesn’t go by that you don’t run into somebody that might qualify as the least or to put it another way ,that might qualify as Jesus in your midst.”
I close with three couplets. The first concern two important questions. Why are these people condemned that Jesus is speaking about here? Again it is not because they failed to serve Christ, it’s because they never surrendered their lives to Christ as evidenced by loving and serving others.
The second question: “Who are the least in your life?” If you were pushed – and this may come out as your giving time and energy and thought and prayer in your study group – if you’re pushed to identify who are the least in your life, who would you put down? And how are you reaching out to them? Maybe it involves a prayer that says, “O God, I walk through life with blinders on. I don’t see anybody like that. God take away the blinders.”
I would say part of it as our thinking about the least, at the very least would you pray about your part in serving in missions.
Then there are two powerful statements. This pretty much wrecked me this week when I was in my study and going through this. The first was that word in verse 34 where Jesus says, “Come. Come. Come!” Put in sharp contrast with, “Depart from me.” You say Randy do you believe that that’s actually going to happen? Yeah, I do.
Can you fathom the incredible consequences of these words? “COME! Come to me!” “Depart from me.” All throughout the gospels Jesus invites people to follow Him. One of the most familiar statements in the New Testament is when He says, “Come to me all you who labor and are heavy laden and I will give you rest.” But now in Matthew 25 the time that Jesus is speaking about, now the time for invitation is over. Now the time for accountability has arrived. And when I reflect on those words spoken to those who never developed a heart of compassion, who never surrendered their lives to Jesus. And when I hear those words, “Depart from me.” I tremble.
Finally two significant decisions. The first is receive Christ. Respond to the words of Jesus when He says to you, “Come.” I offer to you today Jesus. And I say on His behalf, “Come. Surrender your life to Jesus Christ. Come.” And the second is serve the world. Find some way to put your faith into action. Think by name of someone who is least in your life. Do you have it? Now commit to reach out to them this week in a tangible act of compassion, care, and love. Receive Christ and serve the world. And so here at Sterling we’re talking more and more and more and more about embracing the mantra of being a people who are loving God and who are loving people and who are serving the world. Why? Because that’s the whole gospel.
Sermon Topics: Loving our neighbors