You may have noticed that my brothers have allowed me to choose a different gospel lesson from the one designated for this day. I chose this passage from Matthew because I want to talk about judgment. Now before you say, “Oh-oh, what are we in for now,” I want to assure you that I rarely deliver ‘fire and brimstone’ sermons and that, in spite of my background as a Calvinist, I am not likely to preach a sermon entitled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”i Judgment is not a favorite theme of mine.
I suppose that if I were to write my own gospel, “The Gospel According to David,” I might be tempted to delete from my scriptures words like these about God’s forthcoming judgment. I might be tempted to take a passage like the one we’ve read and simply cut out all the language of judgment. I think I’d like it better if all the sheep and the goats were allowed to bleat or bah their way into heaven, aided by God’s grace. The problem is that the gospels are replete with the prospect and promise of judgment. Jesus does not dissociate himself from this image of the Son of Man who will call us to account on the last day, separating the sheep from the goats, the wheat from the tares (Mt 13:24-30), the good fish in the catch from the bad (Mt 13:47-50). Today’s gospel passage is one of those ‘hard sayings’ from Jesus’ own lips about the “last judgment” of God. But I think this passage is also about the “first judgment” of God, and it speaks to you and me, here and now.
In a sense, we could say that you and I have already been ‘judged’ by God. We have already been ‘judged’ to be lost sheep. We have been judged to be lost sheep, helpless and hopeless; on our own, prone to wander into danger and trouble. We have already been judged, and in God’s judgment we need a Savior. We need to be saved, we need to be found and rescued, we need to be carried or led into a safe shelter. And we need this now, today – each one of us. We have already been judged by God, and the nature of that judgment is that it is a judgment of love. In God’s judgment we need saving and we are worth saving, and we cannot do it ourselves. In God’s judgment we need to be rescued. I suppose it’s something like the judgment that good parents or wise teachers make when they see that a child needs to be rescued, lifted out of trouble and danger, and brought back to a place of safety and warmth, a place where love can hold and heal and help. God knows that we need to be saved.
Listen again to this gospel passage. It is certainly about our need to welcome the hungry, the naked and the poor. It is certainly about our need to see and serve Jesus in our neighbors, especially those who come least and last on our list. But we can only see and serve Jesus in our poor neighbors if we recognize and experience that this is how Jesus sees us — sees you and me. “We love,” the letter of John tells us, “because he first loved us” (I John 4:19). When we have been fed and our thirst has been quenched, when we have been clothed and visited and helped, when we have been saved, when we have known ourselves to be welcomed and loved, then we will be able to offer others the gifts that we ourselves have received, to comfort them with the comfort with which we have been comforted. We will be able to love with the love that has been given to us (I John 4:11). Listen again to this gospel story. God’s judgment is for you. You need a Savior. This is your story:
Jesus says, “I was hungry…” Hungry where? In you. When? Now. For what? I suspect that in some way you are starved just for the staples of life; most of us are. Maybe you are hungry for hope, because you can’t see your way out of the situation you’re in just now. Or maybe you’re hungry to trust, because you’ve been disappointed and hurt so many times. Or maybe you’re hungry for friendship and for love, because you’re feeling so alone and vulnerable at this point in your life. Jesus says, “I was hungry…” and that hunger is in you. He has identified himself with the hunger that is in you. He has made himself one with those who hunger, including you.
And Jesus says, “I was thirsty…” Have you ever in your life so thirsted for what was right? In a world torn by violence and strife, polluted by hatred, fear and prejudice, marred by moral compromise and sin, have you ever so thirsted for righteousness? Jesus says, “I was thirsty…” and that thirst is in you. He has identified himself with the thirst that is in you.
Jesus says, “I was a stranger…” And haven’t you known something of what it is to be a stranger? You live in the wealthiest nation in the world and have every benefit life can offer and you are surrounded by family and friends and neighbors and yet you feel sometimes so very alone, so very much like a stranger in the world, so little known or understood or appreciated, so very much on the outside. Jesus has identified himself with the stranger, which you know is also you.
Jesus says, “I was naked…” And perhaps you know how it is to feel exposed and vulnerable, to feel naked and ashamed. Maybe you know what it is to be covered with the garments of degrees and titles and achievements and honors, and still to know that really you are naked? Everything you thought would cover and protect you and keep you warm turns out to be as nothing, like the emperor’s new clothes; you have recognized your nakedness and vulnerability in the world and before God. Jesus knows this about you, too, and he has identified himself with your nakedness.
And Jesus says, “For I was in prison…” And perhaps you are in a prison too, held captive in a miserable marriage or a dead-end job or an impossible relationship with your rebellious son or daughter, and you would give anything to be out of it and free, but you are caught and there is no easy way to freedom and happiness and peace. Or maybe you’ve been captured by alcohol or drugs or some other sort of addiction, or you are under the power of some besetting sin, and you’ve struggled but haven’t made it and you feel like you’re in prison and you can’t escape. Or maybe you’re living with an enormous mistake you made way back, which no one, even you yourself, can forget and which few will forgive, and you’re a prisoner of your past and cannot get free to begin anew. Jesus says, “I was in prison…” because he has identified himself with those who are in bondage and cannot get free. He knows and understands. This gospel passage is, undeniably, a word of judgment. But can you hear it not only as a judgment on what we have failed to do for others or what others have failed to do for us, but as a judgment that recognizes what we cannot do for ourselves? That is God’s judgment too, the judgment of love that says that you and I are like lost sheep who are in need of a Savior. We are like lost sheep who have wandered into dark and dangerous places and we need to be rescued and lifted out of those places and restored to the safety of the Shepherd’s care. We need a Savior. And Jesus says, I have come to bring good news to the poor, and to proclaim liberty to the captives and to let the oppressed go free. I am the Savior you need.
The only way we can see Jesus in others, in the hunger and thirst and nakedness and estrangement and imprisonment of others, is to have known him ourselves and to have met him in those very places in our own lives. The only way we can touch Jesus in others is to have touched him in the broken places of our own lives, the very places where he has come to seek us out and to offer us salvation.
Jesus is the shepherd-king, the one who tends and cares for the frailest sheep of his flock. He is the king who does justice to the weak and the poor, who defends and protects them, and who always acts with mercy, compassion and tenderness.
For he shall rescue the poor man when he cries out,
(the psalmist tells us)
and the afflicted when he has no one to help him.
He shall have pity for the lowly and the poor;
the lives of the poor he shall save. (Psalm 72:12-13)
He is the king who feeds the hungry, who satisfies the thirsty, who clothes the naked, who welcomes the stranger, who visits the prisoner. And when he comes in his glory he will introduce into his kingdom those who have acted as he did.
is not of this world,
since you carry
this world on your shoulders,
as a shepherd
his lost sheep.
To show your dominion,
no other scepter
than your cross.
No other strength
than your mercy:
no other right
than your victorious love.ii
Hear what God says to us through the words of the prophet Ezekiel: “I myself will be the shepherd of the sheep,” says the Lord God, “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak…” “I will feed them with justice,” says the Lord. (Ezekiel 34:15,16)
Here is the Savior you need.
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