Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord,
This morning’s gospel invites us to reflect on three basic questions about our lives: Who are we? What does God want us to do with our lives? What will become of us?
Supposing someone asks us to identify ourselves. We would give our names, where we live, whether we are married or single, whether still working or retired. We might tell a little bit about our biographies and what we’re interested in. There’s a lot more to who we are, of course, and we might go on if we have the chance. We are sheep in God’s flock, citizens of the heavenly kingdom, sisters and brothers of our Lord. The gracious, loving, everlasting Heavenly Father claims us as his own for Jesus’ sake because of our faith in his Son. He declares that we are righteous in his eyes and without fault. Our sins are forgiven, and so the death and judgment of which Jesus speaks in our parable don’t frighten us. We confessed our sins a few minutes ago and accepted our Heavenly Father’s pardon. He has thrown our transgressions so far away that he cannot see them. The blood of Jesus washes us clean.
God’s mercy will reach its fulfillment on the Day of Judgment, which Jesus described in the parable. The heavenly king doesn’t remember the bad deeds of his sheep, only the good ones. Somebody put it this way: God’s sheep already have his verdict in their favor. He blesses us with all the gifts of his grace: forgiveness in Christ, the fellowship of other believers, hope, strength, the ability to love, and persistence.
The promise of Christ’s return fills us sheep with joy and courage. His parable sets before us a description of God’s love for his people. He forebears; he overlooks; he sees the faith he has put in our hearts. Belief in our loving Heavenly Father is a wonderful thing. Some folks wander for years and never come to rest in his embrace. St. Peter’s people don’t have this problem. We are the beloved sheep of whom he takes care. This is our identity.
This brings us to our second question – what Jesus expects his sheep to do. To begin with, Jesus said in the Gospel of John that the work of God is to believe in Him whom He has sent, that is, believe in Christ. Paul lists some of the traits of the Christian heart in one of his letters: joy, patience, love, inner peace, self-control, goodness, faithfulness. The Lord mentions in this morning’s parable some actions that arise when we have these qualities in our souls: easing hunger and thirst, clothing the naked, visiting the sick and people in prison. Basic things – physical needs like clothing and nourishment and companionship, the sorts of things that anyone can do and the St. Peter’s people excel at.
Though they do not save us, the good works God’s people do are important. We help our neighbors, not so as to win God’s favor, but to express our thanks for the friendship he has given us as a free gift. When we visit a shut-in or spend time with someone in trouble or help needy people with food and clothing, we show our confidence that God favors us and that we are safe in his care. Our good works aren’t ways for us to make an impression on God, for we could never measure up to his demands. They are signs that the Father has chosen us as his own for the sake of his Son.
The sheep of Jesus’ parable teach us a lesson. They don’t boast about their good deeds, because they know they haven’t done anything to earn recognition from God. They are modest and happy to be in the heavenly king’s presence so they don’t clamor for certificates of merit. They are genuinely surprised, in fact, that the king noticed something they did. This is true to life. Believers are likely to be critical of themselves and always aware of their shortcomings, often in a state of repentance. The Holy Spirit works on us to teach us our failings. We aren’t complacent or self-satisfied. We never become so undisciplined that we say to ourselves that God can’t do without us. It’s the goats in the parable who are pleased with themselves. I once listened to a radio and heard someone say this: “It is man’s work to heal God. The question is not – why doesn’t God save us? The question is – how do we save God?” This man may have had a high opinion of himself, but he thought like a goat. He had the best intentions imaginable, yet he was so full of himself that he didn’t leave room for the Almighty God and his eternal Word.
Here’s another example. When I was working in Sudbury, I once talked with a highly-educated executive in the biggest mining company in the city. He had many advantages, friends, an active brain, money coming in. After I told him what I did for a living, he said in a very friendly way that he didn’t believe in God, but if he did, he was certain that God would let him into his heaven because of the wonderful life he led. Pure goat talk.
It’s part of human nature to want to be active and important in the world. People everywhere are busy – being useful, taking the lead, solving problems, helping themselves and others. Human beings are highly resilient. We get knocked around and we get back up on our feet, into the battle again. Our faith encourages us to keep busy, of course, and most Lutheran people like to be on the go so long as they are able. But we make a distinction. Our activity doesn’t come from a desire to gratify our egos or to set ourselves up for others to admire. Our good works are fruits of our conviction that we are god’s sheep, disciples of the One who lived and died for us. We don’t fear where we will stand when Jesus returns. God sees our faith, which moves us to repent of our sins and take hold of our Lord eagerly. He assures us that it is his intention that we stand with the sheep on the last day. He pardons the interference that we put between ourselves and him and strengthens us so that we do the works that please him and always with the knowledge that we are his humble sheep.
We rejoice, then, that our Heavenly Father gives us identities as his sheep and that he finds meaningful things for us to do. He also tells us what will become of us.
Script teaches us that from the foundation of the world, even before the Lord made the stars, the lakes, and the forests, Jesus prepared a heavenly place for his sheep. When he returns we will receive in actuality what we now have by promise – a green pasture in the kingdom of heaven, where there will be no more suffering or tears or grief. All God’s children will be at rest and at peace, surrounded by everlasting joy and love. Moreover, we will not be in subjection in any way. We will reign as kings and queens alongside Christ. Paul wrote: “There is laid up for me the crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, will award me on that day, and not only to me, but also to all who have loved his appearing.” And James, our Lord’s half-brother said, “Blessed is the man who endures trial, for when he has stood the test, he will receive the crown of life, which God has promised to those who love him.”
A time is coming when we will exchange our earthly cares and our cold-weather clothing for robes of righteousness. If by God’s grace we stay with him in faith – and it’s his intention that we do so – he will bless us with crowns as splendid as any that kings and queens now wear.
As we said before, it‘s a wonderful thing to have faith in a loving God. The Father will nourish us the way a shepherd feeds his sheep. He will keep calling us his own beloved children. By his leading, we will carry out his will as we look ahead to the glorious life that’s coming. We ask him for the depth of character not to take his promises lightly and to keep us in his flock so that we may be with him on the wonderful day that’s coming. In His name, we rejoice. AMEN.