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Sunday sermon 22 March 2015 – sheep and goats

Reading: Matthew 25: 31-46

Sermon

We are reaching the end of Jesus’ ministry in Matthew’s gospel – just before he faces his Passion. Chapter 26 verse 1 says this: When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, “As you know, the Passover is two days away—and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.” (Matthew 26:1-2)

It’s a turning point. And it’s interesting that this last teaching – in Matthew’s gospel anyway – is this parable of the sheep and the goats.

Coming to New Zealand for us was a very interesting experience. I used to joke about it when asked whether I would consider ministering here: “Oh too many sheep” I would reply. “I’ve got my hands full already!”

And when we did arrive in Wellington, it was quite a while before we actually saw sheep. I remember my wife getting quite excited when it happened – on the way up the Hutt River Valley towards Kaitoke Regional Park – one of our favourites and the site of the set of Rivendell in the Lord of the Rings.

Sheep and goats.

This is a parable isn’t it? The comparison is in verse 32: “…he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”

That’s about as far as the comparison goes. There is no other link – not even the tails up of the goats and tails down of the sheep (or is it the other way round?) give us anything to compare or relate to.

Here’s the fascinating thing. I mean you would want to be a sheep on that day would you not?

It’s time to resurrect my first song I taught the children here:“I just want to be a sheep, baa ba ba baa. I don’t want to be a goat, no no no no, cause goats have got no hope, I don’t want to be a goat.”

Of course we teach the children about following Jesus as good little sheep – but we seldom talk about the eternal punishment awaiting the goats. Eternal punishment! Unlike their time-out in the corner etc.

Some thoughts came to mind this week. Here they are.

  • Okay it’s just a simile about separation.
  • This will happen at the end of things? Yes/no?
  • The sheep and goats will coexist (as they often did grazing together) – which means that the sheep and goats are in the church together? Right?
  • Does that mean that some of you are going to the eternal fire! Right?

Well I don’t know. Have a word with the person next to you and ask them – is it you? Will it be you? What do you think of this parable?

(Pause for discussion.)

(That sounds like the last supper and Jesus trying to root out his betrayer – and they all say “is it I Lord?”)

HOW DO YOU READ YOUR BIBLE THEN?

  • Is this the last judgement?
  • Is the judgement based on ethical behaviour – and not faith or a lack of faith?
  • I thought we were saved by grace through faith (Ephesians 2 says after all: “For it is by grace you have been saved, through faith—and this not from yourselves, it is the gift of God— not by works, so that no one can boast (vss 8-9).)
  • So do you think Paul wrote Ephesians before Matthew wrote Matthew?
  • Did Paul even know what Jesus taught on this matter?

Well it’s more complex than that really. This parable or story is I mean.

  1. For one thing, the righteous in the account and the goaties have no idea when they did or did not do the right thing by Jesus – or to Jesus, when they were doing these things to the least of his brothers – or in the case of the goaties NOT doing these things. This needs some further thought.

Both reply to the King/Judge – “when did we do this/when did we neglect to do this”. They didn’t have a clue. (See verses 37 and 44)

Mat 25:37  “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink?

Mat 25:44  “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’

The sentences seem to mean the same – but they don’t of course. The first means that they could not make the connection between the good they did and Jesus. They are “righteous” – and the Son of Man knows this – because they have been doing these important acts.

The second is an excuse. As Bonhoeffer has pointed out – an excuse for doing nothing. It’s almost as if they are saying – “now it’s not our fault if we couldn’t identify you” – a bit like the undercover boss programmes on TV. “I’ve I’d known it was the boss in disguise I would have behaved differently.”

  1. Secondly, who are the intended recipients of these acts of mercy and kindness? The least – Christians only, or the least – all created people. What are the chances of the Christians being hungry, thirsty, a stranger needing hospitality, needing clothes, sick and needing help, and in prison and needing some love and care?

Surely the Christians should be employed, wealthy and self-sufficient? When you listen to first world Christians and how scathing they can be about the unemployed who are on benefits, you would assume that we are all prosperity cult members.

And prisoners – nah Christians stay out of trouble. Yeah Right!

In our western arrogance we often see these people (especially unemployed and in jail – maybe not so much the sick) as those people over THERE!!!! – To whom we can give a few dollars on line. Which I do to of course. If you haven’t given something to the people of Vanuatu, then I reckon you could be in trouble here!

Commentators and New Testament students debate as to whether the people we should be helping here in Matthew 26 are family (church family) or simply all created people who land in trouble.

Calvin says – focus on the church, but remember it also applies to others!

Like Paul in Galatians:

Gal 6:9  Let us not become weary in doing good, for at the proper time we will reap a harvest if we do not give up.

Gal 6:10  Therefore, as we have opportunity, let us do good to all people, especially to those who belong to the family of believers.

THE RIGHTEOUS

When Jesus refers to the righteous – he’s talking about people who have responded to faith – chosen to follow him – and do his will!

The trail goes back to the earlier verses in Matthew’s Gospel.

Mat 12:47  Someone told him, “Your mother and brothers are standing outside, wanting to speak to you.”

Mat 12:48  He replied to him, “Who is my mother, and who are my brothers?”

Mat 12:49  Pointing to his disciples, he said, “Here are my mother and my brothers.

Mat 12:50  For whoever does the will of my Father in heaven is my brother and sister and mother.”

He has this family identified by obedience really!

Go back further in the Gospel and you find this:

Mat 7:15  “Watch out for false prophets. They come to you in sheep’s clothing, but inwardly they are ferocious wolves.

Mat 7:16  By their fruit you will recognize them. Do people pick grapes from thornbushes, or figs from thistles?

Mat 7:17  Likewise every good tree bears good fruit, but a bad tree bears bad fruit.

Mat 7:18  A good tree cannot bear bad fruit, and a bad tree cannot bear good fruit.

Mat 7:19  Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.

Mat 7:20  Thus, by their fruit you will recognize them.

 Mat 7:21  “Not everyone who says to me, ‘Lord, Lord,’ will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only he who does the will of my Father who is in heaven.

Mat 7:22  Many will say to me on that day, ‘Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and in your name drive out demons and perform many miracles?’

Mat 7:23  Then I will tell them plainly, ‘I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers!’

Mat 7:24  “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.

And of course we go to another simile (comparison using the word “like” or “as”).

Building your house on the rock is about building your life on the WORDS of Jesus! (I remember preaching on that right here!)

The bottom line in this account is that the king is the Judge.

And we will give account.

And when we follow Jesus we should be doing Jesus stuff.

And the key identifier is probably this one thing: mercy.

Matthew 5:7 reminds us: Blessed are the merciful, for they will be shown mercy.

And Luke 6:36:   Be merciful, just as your Father is merciful.

It has no meaning – this Christian faith – if we are unchanged. Selfish. Like goats with our tails in the air so proud of ourselves – when we should be like sheep with our tails between our legs (or down anyway) because it’s not about us really.

So there it is.

Don’t end up with the devil and his angels. If you can’t get the idea of fire in your head, then listen to Jesus words to the reprobates: V41 – Depart from me….

Amen.

Sunday sermon 6 November 2011 – Ready or not?

(A sermon from the 2011 archives following the Revised Common Lectionary on the same passage as that of 8 March 2015. This passage is placed in a different position in the Narrative Lectionary).

Reading: Matthew 25:1-13

Mat 25:1 “At that time the kingdom of heaven will be like ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom.
Mat 25:2 Five of them were foolish and five were wise.
Mat 25:3 The foolish ones took their lamps but did not take any oil with them.
Mat 25:4 The wise, however, took oil in jars along with their lamps.
Mat 25:5 The bridegroom was a long time in coming, and they all became drowsy and fell asleep.
Mat 25:6 “At midnight the cry rang out: ‘Here’s the bridegroom! Come out to meet him!’
Mat 25:7 “Then all the virgins woke up and trimmed their lamps.
Mat 25:8 The foolish ones said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil; our lamps are going out.’
Mat 25:9 “‘No,’ they replied, ‘there may not be enough for both us and you. Instead, go to those who sell oil and buy some for yourselves.’
Mat 25:10 “But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut.
Mat 25:11 “Later the others also came. ‘Sir! Sir!’ they said. ‘Open the door for us!’
Mat 25:12 “But he replied, ‘I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.’
Mat 25:13 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour.

Sermon
We are a rechargeable generation! Everything we used can be recharged and carried around with us! Even laptops have portable chargers which you can pre-prepare and have with you to top up your batteries when you work out on the road or in the bush – or even better on the beach!

As an aside – one of my predecessors in my last African parish used to prepare his sermons on the beach and then come back to the church and have a shower – they put a shower off his study! I never did know whether he wrote anything down. These days you could write the sermon on a portable device.

The 10 maidens – also translated as virgins – were all out on the road, so to speak. They were waiting for the bridegroom to arrive – and this was a normal procedure for a wedding in those days! The wedding was not a one hour business – but took place over a couple of days and was a great celebration (remember that Jesus did his first miracle at Cana in Galilee – at a wedding.)

And when the bridegroom came back – presumably after negotiating matters with the bride’s parents – the bridesmaids would be waiting with torches lining the path.
At least that’s how I think it happened! There seem to be conflicting views as to who would go where! It seems that once the groom arrived the whole lot would process back to his house for the ceremony!

Either way it was a big occasion described by William Barclay as “the gladdest week in all their lives” – and of course with no other entertainment in their fairly ordinary lives the people knew how to party! (Remember the astonishment of the people at the wedding in Cana of Galilee – that the best wine was produced last – as usually you would start with the best wine and people wouldn’t care later in the feast!)

PREPAREDNESS
This was the key issue – half of the team were not organised and prepared.
They assumed things would be fine just with the oil in their lamps.
They were foolish. Literally – morons – in the New Testament language.
The problem was that five of them did not bring their chargers with them – no spare batteries either! No oil for their lamps.

They weren’t properly prepared! (Maybe Baden Powell would have helped them – seeing that BE PREPARED is the motto of the Cub-Scout movement!)

Are you prepared for ANYTHING? It’s a great question.
Are you ready for anything?

Matthew 25:2 Five of them were foolish and five were wise.

All ten are appropriate people for the task. People of integrity – ten virgins. Sadly you would battle to find suitable candidates today in our overly free society.

There is no question of their qualifications – their standing. But five are literally morons (in the bible language) – foolish, and five are wise.

Reminds me of another time Jesus taught on wise and foolish people. Do you remember that one? It was about what they built their lives on! Yes – they were to build their lives on the words of Jesus.

The houses built on foundations – sand versus rock: Matthew 7:24 “Therefore everyone who hears these words of mine and puts them into practice is like a wise man who built his house on the rock.

Now when it comes to weddings there are no short cuts. Well there is always the option to elope. I saw a picture of drive-up weddings – like driving through a restaurant!
We would love some (cheaper) short cuts to weddings. THAT SELDOM HAPPENS!
Unless you run away – your particular culture will determine what kind of wedding you have (and your in-laws!)

I thought of talking about the key issues – in one of those rhyming sermons that slick preachers produce. Like these: the KEY ISSUES are:
1. Wedding gear
2. Watchfulness
3. Waiting
4. Weady for anything…  🙂
Clearly that didn’t work!

So I thought of the KEY PEOPLE: So who are the key people in the story?
Bride
Groom
10 maidens
That’s probably enough! The key people and who they represent (there are few debates about this in the interpretation of the parable).

Bride – the church as the bride of Christ
Groom – Jesus
10 maidens – we who are waiting for his second coming.
Or are we? I sometimes wonder whether we really believe He will return?
Do we really live each day as if it were our last? How prepared are we?

And is this just about being prepared for death – or the second coming of Jesus?
Or is there an added layer of expectation that we are missing here?

The delay is in THE FULLNESS OF THE COMING KINGDOM OF GOD.

It’s about preparedness – yes
It’s about patience – although they were all waiting!
It’s about alertness – although they were all pretty sleepy and in fact fell asleep!

So what made the wise ones wise and the foolish ones headed for disaster?

What made them foolish?
Not being prepared essentially
The wise ones?
Thinking ahead
In it for the long haul
They had THE OIL

I love the song we did with the kids today – “Give me oil in my lamp keep me burning” – it’s a great song but like many songs its theology is a bit dodgy.

Why? Because while we are dependent upon God for our energy – like your supplier of electricity and gas at home – you have to get it connected and pay for it!

No we can’t earn salvation.
But we are responsible for our discipleship – our learning and getting equipped.

The 5 foolish lasses could not blame anyone else but themselves for not being organised – not thinking ahead – and not being in it for the long haul.

I only found one person who made a strong link between the symbol of the oil in this parable and the Holy Spirit!

What I did find is a lot of people referring to the need for preparedness and spiritual discipline – of living our lives with the right kind of orientation
– The wisdom that comes from building your house on the rock – on the words of Jesus
– Of hanging your door on the right hinges (loving God and neighbour)
– And faith IS linked to the oil –and there is good evidence for that as the foolish ones cannot get into the wedding banquet on the strength of someone else’s oil!
– Some link FAITHFULNESS to the oil – that while waiting for the Kingdom to be fulfilled – while waiting for Christ’s return – we should faithfully listen to his words and do the works that he prepared for us to do (Ephesians 2).

And of course SERVICE which we talked about last week is part of faithfulness. It is the sign of the Kingdom that Jesus seeks – that we be great by serving and being there for others.

– And living HOPEFULLY is a good thing too – because the expectation of the wedding feast – means that we are prepared for the long haul KNOWING that its worth it!

THE TRAGEDY OF THIS PARABLE
Mat 25:10 “But while they were on their way to buy the oil, the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut. PP9-1
Mat 25:11 “Later the others also came. ‘Sir! Sir!’ they said. ‘Open the door for us!’ PP9-2
Mat 25:12 “But he replied, ‘I tell you the truth, I don’t know you.’ PP9-3
Mat 25:13 “Therefore keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour. PP10
How do we do as a church – when it comes to keeping watch?

What do you think we as a church should do to be be watchful? (3 MINUTES DISCUSSION)

My thoughts to conclude:
1. Being watchful does not mean being obsessed with predicting the end of the world. Too many people have tried that.
2. Being watchful means appreciating each moment and each day with gratitude. Note what Paul writes to the Thessalonians. After telling them this:

1Th 5:1 Now, brothers, about times and dates we do not need to write to you,
1Th 5:2 for you know very well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night.
1Th 5:3 While people are saying, “Peace and safety,” destruction will come on them suddenly, as labor pains on a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.
1Th 5:4 But you, brothers, are not in darkness so that this day should surprise you like a thief.
1Th 5:5 You are all sons of the light and sons of the day. We do not belong to the night or to the darkness.
1Th 5:6 So then, let us not be like others, who are asleep, but let us be alert and self-controlled.

He says this – some very practical things as they were watchful:
1Th 5:16 Be joyful always;
1Th 5:17 pray continually;
1Th 5:18 give thanks in all circumstances, for this is God’s will for you in Christ Jesus.

And in addition: 1Th 5:19 Do not put out the Spirit’s fire;
1Th 5:20 do not treat prophecies with contempt.
1Th 5:21 Test everything. Hold on to the good.
1Th 5:22 Avoid every kind of evil.

It’s about living a close relationship with the Lord – trying to hear from him – and doing the other things like serving him with faith and faithfulness in the power of the Holy Spirit!

We need to have enough oil to keep going! And when the end comes – whether we are here when Jesus returns – or whether we die in our sleep tonight – or some other interesting experience ends our life – we will be ready! That’s being wise!

It’s foolish to run around looking for oil when it’s too late!

Amen.