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Monday, November 2, 2009

Looking Back (Matthew 25.31-46)

November 1, 2009
Sermon by: Robert Austell
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We have been looking at how Jesus lived out the declaration of John 1:14 that he was the Word of God in the flesh, revealing to us the glory or presence of God, full of grace and truth. Today we look at a parable he told, set at the end of time at the judgment. From that vantage point, Jesus teaches on living faith – what it means to be faithful. This parable raises the important questions for each of us to consider, “Am I faithful? Is my faith alive?”

I want to take a few moments to clarify what this passage is and is not teaching about good works and salvation, then think with you about our own faith and faithfulness.

Judgment and Salvation

It is hard to read this passage and not think we are judged simply by our good works. This is how many people view judgment, God, Heaven, and Hell. At the end you stand before God and He “weighs” your life – if you have done more good than bad, you get to go to the good place; if not, you go to the bad place.

If this were the only Word we had from the Lord, I suppose we might end up with such a scenario, though even then one has to realize this is metaphorical language, since we aren’t actually sheep and goats. There are also things to unpack about “nations” and about “the least of these my brothers” which some take to mean followers of Christ like the disciples.

But here’s the broader response to such a weigh-and-pay view of judgment: the Bible, the New Testament, Jesus, Paul, and even James, present different language of faith and works that is nonetheless remarkably consistent. There is only one “good work” and that is the perfectly faithful obedience of Jesus the Son to God the Father. Through faith in him – that is, trusting, obeying, and following after Jesus – we are made right with God. That’s what “righteous” means – right with God. It is through faith in Jesus.

So what is going on here with talk of good deeds, righteousness, judgment, and consequences? Jesus is saying that one’s faithfulness is evident to God. I use the word “faithfulness” because it pulls together in one word the saving faith Paul writes about so much in Romans and other letters and the living obedience James writes about so much in his letter. Faith without works is dead; and works without faith is just… being temporarily helpful. Jesus, Paul, James, and all of Scripture testifies that true faith is living faith, shown in obedience and action, and witnessing to the active presence of God’s Spirit in one’s life.

A Picture of Faithfulness

So in that greater context of saving faith and living obedience, Jesus gives us a picture of faithfulness (and unfaithfulness) in this story. Those who showed themselves to be faithful were living examples of the Great Commandment. They loved God with all their heart, soul, mind, and strength; and they loved their neighbor as themselves. That’s what we have been talking about for a number of weeks now, and especially last week – cultivating a living faith marked with obedience to Christ and participation in his mission to the world. And in this parable about looking back from the end, Jesus gives us some very specific examples of what faithfulness looks like. This isn’t an exhaustive list; it is a representative list. And this isn’t what saves you (or the sheep in the story); rather these are signs of salvation, like fruit on a healthy tree.

“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; naked, and you clothed me; I was sick, and you visited me; I was in prison, and you came to me.” (vv. 35-36)

Let me offer you a more context-specific list of examples, taken from our conversations in recent weeks:

“I was desperate for a job and you offered to pray for me at the Barnes and Noble.”

“I was looking for a solution to a problem at Caribou and didn’t know where to find it, and you came and offered one, come to find out you were just following God’s lead.”

“I live here together with five other guys in a group home, without a lot of friends, and you welcomed us into your family.”

See where I’m going with all this? This parable is right where God is leading us and right where faith leads us – to follow after Jesus.

Two Things Faithfulness Is Not

Faithfulness is not doing good deeds apart from saving knowledge of Jesus Christ. That’s a hard, hard message to hear, especially because we legitimately admire folks who sacrificially help those in need. And those good deeds are truly helpful, loving, and sometimes even “save” people from harm, desperation, and even death. And on a human level, we should all urge one another to do good things. But that is not the point nor the message here. If we try to connect good deeds straight to salvation, we get back to the weigh-and-pay salvation model, and that truly is a hopeless model for salvation. Who really measures up?

But neither is faithfulness “getting saved” and kicking back in your comfy easy chair. Scripture simply won’t let you off the hook on that. James calls that “dead faith” and says it is no faith. It’s like one TV show I saw recently where a woman finally consented to marry a man as long as they didn’t have to have a public ceremony, she didn’t have to wear a ring, they would live apart, and they wouldn’t tell any of their friends. Married: really?

Or here’s another illustration – perhaps Halloween is the only time of year I’d even try this one out, but I think it gets the point across. I remember watching some scary movie at one point as a teenager and there was a vampire and a vampire-hunter. Bear with me kids, they aren’t real; just make-believe. Here’s the point: in all those stories, these monsters are supposed to be afraid of crosses, garlic, and the like. So this one guy decides to get all decked out in that stuff, but when the monster shows up, he isn’t put off by any of it. And his comment to the poor garlic clad guy was, “That stuff has no power or potency because you have no faith.”

That’s why faith can’t just be praying a “magic prayer” 20 years ago or signing a card or joining a church. Faith is resting and trusting wholly on Jesus Christ, but faith by its very nature looks to Jesus with attentiveness, obedience, and readiness to go wherever he leads, for hope is in Christ alone! So, faithfulness… that’s what faith looks like in real life!

Looking Back

As Jesus puts us in the place of a final judgment to look back on our own lives, he is interested to help us understand what living faith looks like and to cause us to ask whether we have been faithful. Do we understand what faithfulness is? It’s really important – life and death important!

And to avoid any confusion, let me say this one more time: it is the faithfulness, obedience, and perfection of Jesus that saves us. We are not saved by empty faith; nor are we saved by doing good deeds. We are saved by faith in Jesus Christ, sent from God to live among us to reveal God to us. And real faith – living faith – is marked by love of God and love of neighbor. It is trust, not just belief. You can understand that a plane flies, but you haven’t trusted it until you get on it. You can believe that surgeons help people and even save lives, but you have not trusted one until you go under the knife. Real, living faith is faith lived out – following after Jesus and following after God. That’s what we are talking about and trying to cultivate here in our life together. That’s also why Jesus told this parable – not to scare you or shame you, but to explain what real, living faith looks like.

Faithfulness – it’s what I long for: for me, for you, for us in our shared life together as followers of Jesus Christ. Amen.

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