Click here to listen on Spotify
Hope Lutheran Church
November 26, 2023
He came once before. He’ll be back.
The first time Jesus came, he came as a baby. He was born in a barn to poor parents. He was wrapped up in rags and laid down to sleep in a feeding trough for animals. Hardly anyone noticed it when he was born. The first time Jesus came, he grew up in a town that really wasn’t all that worthwhile. When he got older, he didn’t have many followers outside a few close friends. He was hated by his own people. He was betrayed by his own friends. He was tortured and ridiculed and beaten. He stood on trial and was accused and judged for crimes he never committed. He was killed on a cross, like the worst of criminals.
That was the first time he came. But he’ll be back. And when he comes back, he’s not going to come back as a baby lying in a manger. He’ll be back as a glorious king seated on his throne. He’s not going to come back with just a small group of followers, he’ll be back with a host of angels at his side. He’s not going to come back to be rejected and thrown out and disregarded by people. He’ll be back as the ruler of heaven and earth and everyone will be forced to acknowledge that he was LORD all along, whether they believed in him or not. He won’t come back to be judged. Rather, he’ll be back as the one who judges.
“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 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.”
The prophet Daniel, who we heard from in that first reading, hundreds of years before Jesus was even born, he got a glimpse of that day when Jesus will be back. Daniel, he has this this vision of what it will look like on that Last Day. He sees what it’ll be like on that day when Jesus returns in all his glory and power. In this vision, Daniel looks and there before him, a heavenly court case is unfolding. There are thrones in place. God is there. There’re angels as far as the eye can see. Everyone is seated, and then, Daniel says, the books are opened.
What was written in those books Daniel saw? They’re books filled with everything I’ve ever thought or done or said. Every sinful thought I’ve ever had. Every hurtful word that’s come out of my mouth. Every unloving thing I’ve done to someone else. It’s all going to be there. And even the sins I like to think I can hide. The ones no one else knows about. They’ll all be there. Written down and waiting to be judged in this court case.
That’s a scary thought, isn’t it? Because he’ll be back. And when Jesus comes back, he’s going to come as the perfect judge who separates the sheep from the goats. He’s going to separate the righteous from the unrighteous. And his judgment is going to be final. There’s nothing that will change his decision once its been made. In the court of heaven, there will be no gray area. Just one or the other. Either righteous or unrighteous. A sheep or a goat. Heaven or hell.
And if all those things are written down in those books, all those things I’ve done throughout my life, how do I stand a chance being counted with the righteous? What’s keeping me from being numbered among those whom Jesus will say, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
Jesus tells us today. Listen to what he says: “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.’”
Now, when we first hear that, doesn’t it sound like Jesus wants us to work harder? Doesn’t it sound like we’re saved by our actions, and not God’s grace? Have you ever wondered what exactly Jesus means in this section?
There are plenty of people who have read verses like these and concluded that they need to work out their own salvation, that they need to save themselves. And maybe you and I, we read these verses and it sounds a bit troubling.
I mean, we just celebrated the Reformation. And what was that all about? It was about returning to the truth that we’re saved by grace apart from works of the law. It was about teaching people that there’s nothing we do on our own to earn salvation for ourselves. But we read these verses and it sounds an awful lot like Jesus is telling us that this is something we need to work out on our own.
But did you notice what Jesus tells us he will say first when he comes back to judge? Listen to Jesus again: “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.’”
Do you see it? Before anything else happens, before Jesus talks about all of the things the righteous have done, he calls them “blessed by my Father.” Jesus says you already are righteous. He says this inheritance he has for you is already yours, and it was prepared for you long before you ever even could have had a chance to do anything that earned or deserved it.
That’s so backward, isn’t it? Because we’ve been saying this is court case before the perfect judge Jesus himself, right? And how do court cases normally work? Normally, we expect the evidence to come forward first. We expect the judge to look over and closely examine the evidence. Then the judge gives his final verdict on how the case will be decided.
But how does it work here? How does it work before judge Jesus? He gives the verdict first. Before he goes to look at the evidence, he already has his decision. He’s already declared you “not guilty.” He’s already given you a place at his side forever. He’s already told you where you stand.
How can he do that? When he comes back, why can he bring out that verdict before there’s any evidence? It’s because of what Jesus did when he came that first time. Jesus came that first time because he knew there was no way we could save ourselves. He knew that no amount of work on our part could save us from our sin.
And he did that because it was never supposed to be this way. Because when God created the world, there was never supposed to be pain or suffering or death or hurt or trouble or hardship. There was never meant to be sickness or hostility between people. There was never meant to be sin.
And so when Jesus came that first time, he gave up all the power and honor and glory he could’ve rightfully claimed for himself. He lived a perfect life in our place. He humbly and willingly walked to the cross to give his life up for us. And he did that to save us from the sin that’s so evident in our lives. So now, when those books are opened on that Last Day, Jesus won’t see all the sin. All he’ll see is the perfection he’s credited to us. The life he’s given to us. And he’s given us faith to believe all that is true. So we can know where we’ll be on that day when he’ll be back.
But then what’s the relationship between the verdict Jesus gives and all those other things Jesus mentions?
After all, he said “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.” What do we to make of that?
Well, it’s the evidence of the faith we have been given. Jesus is telling us that people who know where they’ll be on the day he returns, they can’t help but live in a way that shows it. Their faith in what Jesus has done for them shows itself in ways that serve others. And Jesus says that when you do those things out of faith, really, you did those things for Jesus himself. “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.’”
And notice, Jesus doesn’t point to anything all that spectacular, at least not by worldly standards. He points to simple, everyday things. Giving food to someone who is hungry. Giving a cup of water to someone who is thirsty. Simple things.
Maybe for you, when Jesus comes back, he’ll point to that time you reached out to someone you knew was hurting and needed someone to talk to. Maybe he’ll bring up the countless hours you as a parent spent taking care of your children. Maybe he’ll bring up the time you invited a friend or family member to join you for church. A meal you took to someone you knew was going through a tough time.
These simple, sometimes everyday things that you did, not because you were looking for any sort of reward or recognition, but because you did them out of faith in what your Savior has done for you. These are the things Jesus says he will notice when he’ll be back. Because when you did them for others, really, you did them for Jesus himself. And Jesus treasures every one of them.
Jesus, he’ll be back. And when he comes back, he’s going to judge. But you and I, we can look forward to that day. We eagerly await that day when we’ll go to join our Savior’s side to be with him and all those who have gone before us. We look forward to that day because we know what the verdict will be. Because the one who’s coming to judge, he also came to be the Savior we need.
So that when the books are opened, all Jesus will see is the perfection he’s credited to us. The life he’s given to us. And in the meantime, until that day when he’ll be back, out of faith we give thanks and praise to him for what he has done as we serve others and, ultimately, serve our Savior.