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Sermon for the Last Sunday in the Church Year

Augustana, 2011

Click here for mp3 audio 62 Sermon for Last Sunday.mp3

 Note:  This sermon too, was inspired by many ideas from Rev. Dr. Schmitt as published in the Concordia Pulpit Resources volume for this quarter.

Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord, Jesus Christ.  Amen.

In 2006, scientists gazed into the heaves.  A spacecraft was returning from a seven-year mission and brought with it particles of dust from a comet.  Having gazed into the heavens, the scientists now gazed through microscopes at the dust of heaven, hoping to discover within this material clues to the meaning of life.

Before scientists became the final court of meaning, however, artists were busy gazing into the heavens, creating paintings of a different court and a different day: the Day of Judgment, when Christ would return to earth and reveal for all people the meaning of life.

Taking a quick glance through paintings of the last judgment, one discovers a common theme.  The heavens are torn apart as Christ descends on a throne and the earth is breaking apart as the dead rise from their graves.  While the paintings are usually too busy, with many human bodies mixed together with many angels an many demons, one factor is fairly consistent.  If you look closely, if you stare at the face of just one human being, you’ll find on that face the look of discovery.  People look as if they’re waking from sleep and only beginning to discover the deeper meaning of the world, of their Lord, and of the life and that once surrounded them.

Today we will look closely at Matthew’s Gospel, and in it experience for ourselves some of that Last Day’s sense of discovery, because in this parable of the last day, Jesus reveals the mysteries of eternal life.

In the parable, Jesus speaks to His disciples about the end, and yet his words talk about the beginning.  Notice how Jesus describes the kingdom of heaven.  He says, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (v. 34).  In contrast, as Jesus speaks to the wicked, He does NOT say, “Inherit the punishment prepared for you from the foundation of the world.”  Instead, He says, “Depart… into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (v. 41).

God never prepared hell for His human creatures.  No, from the very beginning, God’s intentions were always that humanity would live in eternal fellowship and blessedness with Him.  Now one was ever predestined to hell.  All were created to live with God and rejoice with Him in His creation.  Those who go to hell go there by their own choosing, for they have rejected Jesus and God’s original design for all people in Him.

While some might feel that this parable is about the end of the world, it does not offer us a picture of the world ending at all.  Instead, Jesus offers us a discovery of the world, as God intended it.  God’s original desire was for all humanity to live in relationship with Him, as the day when  Christ returns will be the day when God’s dreams for His creation finally and fully come true.

People often misunderstand Christianity.  They think it’s all about escaping this world in order to live in the next.  They stand at a distance from this world wanting to escape physical existence so that they can go on, as disembodied souls, to eternal life with God.  Yet that is not was is plainly taught in the Scriptures and it is not what we believe, teach and confess.  Every time we confess the faith, we confess the resurrected body, and we declare our confidence in the “life of the world to come.”

The mission of Jesus Christ was to being all people into God’s kingdom.  Although we had turned away from God, rejecting His authority over us and falling into sin in the Garden of Eden, God the Father turned toward us, still claiming us as His own.  Out of His great love, He sent His Son, Jesus Christ to restore the rule of His kingdom.

Baptized into the death and resurrection of Jesus, our new life with God begins.  In Him, there will be a new creation, and we will be raised to live in the world as God originally designed it to be.  Until that time, we live as stewards.  We care for this world as those who have discovered in Jesus what God intended His creation to be.  We trust in, we live in and we long for God’s new creation in Him.

As Jesus speaks with His disciples about the end, notice how he opens their eyes to the rule of God in Him.  As one listens closely to the text, one discovers the fullness of God in Jesus.  He appears first as the Son of Man, that great figure from the prophet Daniel who has now finished God’s word and is therefore seated on His throne.  Then, He appears as a shepherd, with all the nations as His flock, now separating sheep from goats.  Soon the shepherd becomes King who is also the Son of God, the Father.  His rule extends over all nations and throughout all time.  This King, however, is hidden in the suffering of this world, just as Jesus would soon be hidden in the events of His suffering and death.  Jesus claims all who follow Him in faith as members of His family and, until that Last Day, He is known among them by His Word.

While some might feel this parable puts Jesus at a distance, descending from heaven at the end of time, it actually reveals Him as very close to us—even today.

He is the Lord of all nations.  God the Father has chosen Him to rule over all things and to bring to fulfillment His desire to save all people.  For this reason, He has fulfilled prophecy.  He came in our midst to bring about the forgiving, saving rule of God in His life, death, and resurrection.  Though He ascended into heaven, Jesus continues to speak among us now through His Word, claiming as His family all who trust in Him and shepherding them like a flock, until that day when He returns to divide those who trust in Him for righteousness from those who do not and to give to the faithful the long-standing desire of God, namely the gift of eternal life.  Jesus has not left us on our own in this world, but rather He comes to us in His Word both read and preached and continues to rule in our midst, proclaiming to you the forgiveness of sins and this everlasting gift of eternal life in Him.

This parable is the last of Jesus’ sermons in Matthew but if you listen closely, you’ll hear how it takes you back to the first sermon, the Sermon on the Mount.  There, in the blessings of Jesus, we see the people God has called His own in this world.  Though they are without any spiritual resources, rejected, persecuted, mourning, hungry and thirsty for righteousness, they are God’s own people and they receive the promise of His everlasting blessing.

Now, at the end of His ministry, Jesus reveals again a people, “blessed by my Father.”  These people have already been made righteous in God’s sight by faith in Jesus and now they are found  yet again among those suffering in this world.  Only this time, they are sharing God’s mercy with those who suffer.  Their merciful acts of faith come as a shock to them when Jesus reveals these good works.  In an even more amazing revelation, Jesus unveils His hidden presence among those “my brothers,” who were hungering and thirsting, strangers, naked, sick, and imprisoned in this world.

When you look at the paintings of the last judgment, the faces of the people are filled with wonder and awe.  Artists have captured their discovery of the majesty of Christ when He returns to rule.  Yet Christ paints an even more astounding picture in this parable.  For you, who have been made righteous by faith in Christ Jesus, there will be an even more astounding wonder on that day.  God will reveal the good that you have done and His presence in your life now in ways that exceed your understanding.

Like the righteous in this parable, God’s people will never know the depth and extent of the good works they have done during their lifetime.  On that Last Day, however, the Lord will reveal His good works of mercy performed through their lives in this world.  In addition, he will also reveal that he was present in those hidden moments of ministry, graciously receiving from our hands the mercy we didn’t even know we were giving.

In 1304, Giotto di Bondone began working on a series of frescos in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua.  At the very back of the chapel is the largest scene, the Last Judgment.  It is a fresco, which means that Giotto and his assistants painted it on wet plaster.  By necessity, the painting was done quickly, but the image they produced was eternal.  Christ returns in judgment.  The scene covers the whole wall, with those raised to eternal life on the Christ’s right and those raised to eternal punishment on Christ’s left.  At the bottom of the image, underneath the cross, is the doorway by which worshippers would return to this world.  The last image worshippers see as they enter back into the world is Christ returning in glory.  Imagine what that would be like.

Although we have no such painting over our doors here as we walk out of the church, we do have this Gospel.  Our Lord gives us a picture of the Last Judgment to shape our life in this world today.  As you walk through the door, opened by the cross, you enter God’s world with deeper understanding.  You see things differently—the creation of this world, your Lord, even your life of service in His kingdom.  Assured of your salvation, you now rejoice in these hidden blessings of God, this vision of life, present and eternal.  Go then blessed by God.  Amen.

The peace of God which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds through faith in Christ Jesus.  Amen.

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