Saturday, November 22, 2014

Everything Will Be Clear

Matthew 25:31-46
Christ the King
November 23, 2014
William G. Carter

When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’

This is how everything will end. It is a scene of the second coming. This is obvious in the first phrase: "When the Son of Man comes in his glory.” That is code language for the end of time, for the day of the Lord, for the final judgment. Biblically speaking, it points to the same event. Various Bible writers all share different glimpses of the ultimate revelation of God in Jesus Christ. It will be the end. The Second Advent.

It is an appropriate picture on a day we proclaim the kingship of Christ, when we sing of the dominion of Jesus. His final coming will be an event of great rejoicing, particularly for those who have been waiting for it and for those who have been put down by the cruelty of the world. Everything will be made right. That is the sovereign true truth of God's kingdom.

To listen to many Christians speak of the second coming of Christ is to hear great excitement. Some are so excited that, in their anticipation they hunt around for a lot of predictions and string them together so they can know with clarity when he will come. They don't really know the time or place, but they make it sound as if do. Even Jesus says he does not know the time or the place when the second coming will occur, but some people down in Texas will announce to you what Jesus himself doesn't even know. Take this as a sign of their excitement.

To read this final decision in the 25th chapter of Matthew is to learn of a great surprise. And here is that surprise: Jesus has been among us all along. Isaiah promised this when he announced the Christmas Child. “He shall be called Emmanuel,” that is, God with us.[1] And the grown-up Jesus announces it in his great commission as he says, “I will be with you always, even till the end.”[2]

In today’s vision of the end, Jesus reveals where he is hiding. He is in the poor. He is in the prisoner. He is in the hungry. He is in the stranger. It is a great surprise, even among those who wait for him to come. According to the text, everybody does not see Christ the King when he is already among them.

Maybe that sounds strange to you. But it is the universal truth, according to Jesus. Nobody sees the King. John the Baptist didn’t see the king. According to Matthew, John was in prison and sent a question, “Are you the one who is to come, or should we wait for another?” In spite of his fiery sermons, he had his doubts. Jesus replied, “The blind get their sight, the lame walk, lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, and the poor have good news given them. Go and tell John this.”[3] We don’t know if John understood.

And John isn’t the only one. Jesus goes on to say, “This generation is like children in the marketplace, playing a game, and calling out, ‘We played the flute for you and you did not dance. We wailed and you did not mourn.” The people who wanted a Messiah were not expecting Jesus, who ministered to those in pain.

What were they looking for? What was John waiting for? Someone grand and glorious? Someone mighty and triumphant? The Christ they get will go to the cross, immediately after speaking of the sheep and the goats.  It takes a miracle to understand the mystery that the apostle Paul once described this way: “Though the Lord Jesus was rich, he became poor, so that by his poverty you might become rich.”[4]

It is easy to miss. According to the parable, everybody misses Jesus for he hides among the poor, the outcast, the people with the greatest needs. And anybody who focuses on the glamour and excitement of the Second Coming will probably miss the First Coming. Remember the first coming? Jesus was born a peasant, lived in a small village for thirty years, and spent the remaining years of his life healing the sick, feeding the hungry, and telling the Gospel truth to the mighty and the self-satisfied. The one chance he had to ride a strong white horse, he selected a humble donkey.

And it’s easy to miss him because of our own tangled spirits. Ever notice how easy it is to dodge the humanitarian question? See the man without a job, judge him as lazy, and never invite him to eat at your table. See the young woman pushing kids in a cart through the dollar store and comment on how dirty are their faces, when you could approach them and ask their names. It really comes down to this: do you care for others in tangible way or are you avoiding them?

As we discovered this autumn, Matthew is addressing a lazy church. He shares the words of Jesus to people who say the right things, yet they bear no evidence that they believe them. In Matthew’s congregation, it's a hundred times easier to talk about forgiveness than to forgive. It's a thousand times easier to cheer on generosity without ever reaching deeper into your own pocket. Yes, you are the chosen ones of God in a self-destructive society, yet you yourselves persist in the world’s selfish ways.

So Jesus says, again and again, “Not everyone who says ‘Lord Lord’ will get into God's kingdom.” How can he say this? Because it is God's kingdom and God sees perfectly what is on the human heart. He wants us to change, and this last story in Christ’s ministry is our warning.

Here is how everything will end. The king will come and sit on the throne. Then he will separate the sheep from the goats. All will be sorted on the basis of one question: Did you care for those in greatest need? This is how world will end, not with a whimper or a bang, but with the king and a question.

The king will not care where we live; what he sees is whether we have extended ourselves to those in need. He will not take notice of how much money we have saved, but see he sees perfectly if we have used our money to alleviate human suffering. The king is indifferent to whatever political party we affiliate, but he is crystal-clear in seeing whether we have made a difference for those who are in pain. He doesn’t care if we call yourselves “liberal” or “conservative;” what he looks for is whether we have ever actually put ourselves out for people who need help. There is no escaping his question.

This is the king, Christ the King, who tells us that he dwells among the hungry and the thirsty and the stranger. He cuts through every excuse and slices through every sidestep. He already knows whether the content of what we do is matching the content of what we say we believe. In case we forgot the question, here it is again: did you care for those in greatest need?

It is a question that is always current. Did you see the recent survey on generosity in America? We live in a time when the gap between the rich and the poor is increasing exponentially. The survey reveals that the ultra-rich are giving less of their income to charity than they ever have, and those who are poorest are contributing a far greater percentage of what they have. The principle seems to be the closer we live to those in need, the more we extend ourselves to them. But if we remove ourselves in protective comfort, we leave the most vulnerable brothers and sisters to fend for themselves. And Jesus the King is watching.

Do we care? Does our faith find expression in specific works of compassion? It’s going to take much more than throwing money at those in need. It’s going to take some time. Caring means to learn somebody’s name, to listen to their stories, to discern the truest need, and to care in the most appropriate way. We don’t want to enable but to empower. We can give those in need the dignity that comes with being children of the king. That takes a lot of work. It is easier to play it safe and do as little as possible.

I remember a painful moment when I was a theology student, working part-time in a church in Plainfield, New Jersey. Right before I was to assist with a worship service, a stranger appeared at my door. It was the door of the closet that we called the Intern’s Office. This man was in bad shape, hadn’t slept, had nothing to eat. He gave me the whole story. But I was in a hurry to put on my robe and get into the church service, so I reached into my wallet, gave him a ten dollar bill, and went off to worship Jesus.

After the benediction I told my boss what I had done. He looked annoyed. Far more savvy in the ways of city streets, he asked me three questions. First, “Why did you give him cash, which he could use for anything?” That never occurred to me. Second, “Did you feel manipulated that he showed up precisely when you had little time to help?” Well, yes, I did. Then came the devastating third question: “What was his name?” I never asked his name; I gave him the money to get rid of him.

“Don’t worry,” my wise old pastor said. “I’ll tell you his name. His name was Jesus and he will give you a second chance.” He was right about that.

Contrast that to the story someone told in an adult class on Wednesday night. In retirement, a woman is assisting elderly people who have concerns about health insurance. They are fearful about their future, worried about their needs. And our friend sits down to listen to their fears and to help them discover the resources that they need. She said, “It is one of the most satisfying things I have ever done with my life.” She cares.

Jesus says all of us will face the same final exam. Remember the final exams you have taken? Well, this one will consist of one question: did you care for those in need?  That single question reshapes every moment of our lives as a test. If Christ is with us always, if he is hiding among those in greatest need, how will we serve him today? And what will we do tomorrow?

(c) William G. Carter. All rights reserved.

[1] Isaiah 9:14
[2] Matthew 28:16-20
[3] Matthew 11:2-6
[4] 2 Corinthians 8:9

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