God loves us beyond measure, beyond death: in that love we are free to live the abundant life of love in caring for what God cares for and healing the world.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
Christ the King, the Last Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 34, year A
Texts: Matthew 25:31-46; Ezekiel 34:11-24
Sisters and brothers in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
It was Christmas break in my first year of college, and, out with friends, I was anxious about the time.
It was nearly 11:00 p.m., so I hurried home.
Now, in high school the curfew dance with my mother was long-standing. The rules were clear, the expected times never in doubt. My arrival, well, was not always in keeping with expectations. My mother had all sorts of techniques in this dance. She was brilliant with sarcasm: “I didn’t realize your girlfriend moved to Sioux Falls.” Or, “I didn’t hear the storm, but it must have knocked down all the phone lines.” And then came the judgment.
But the pinnacle was one night when I was over two hours late and certain that this time I’d won. The house was dark, not a creature stirring. I didn’t realize my trial was scheduled for breakfast. My father was the attorney, but my mother mastered the legal principle that you never ask a question you don’t already know the answer to. “So, what time did you get home?” Confident, but offering humility, I said, “I think I was about ten minutes late, sorry.” “You sure you don’t want to rethink your answer?” Of course: she’d woken up, looked at the clock, and went back to sleep the sleep of the just.
But here’s what was strange about that December night I was home from college. I no longer had a curfew. I’d asked my mother and she said, “You’re an adult. You probably stay out late at college. But I worry about you lying in a ditch, so call if it’ll be after 1 or 2, so I can sleep.” At about ten I started thinking about getting home, so she wouldn’t worry. I had complete freedom to do what I wanted. But what I wanted was for her to not have to fret.
It’s all a question of motivation, isn’t it?
As parents, we learn that fear and threats don’t motivate good behavior.
Children don’t respond as well to threats as to love. Most of us don’t react well to anger and wrath and accusation. When I finally grasped that what I didn’t want was to hurt my parents, that it was their love for me that mattered, it was a revelation.
So why do we think threats are how God means to make us good? True, there’s a lot of wrath and anger in Scripture. Today we’ve got Jesus’ parable with a serious judgment at the end, and Ezekiel hurling God’s anger at selfish, greedy, polluting sheep who harm the other sheep. If you want to find anger from God in the Bible, you can.
But God’s a better parent than we ever could be. Anger’s never the last word.
God knows what will draw us into love of God and neighbor.
From Genesis to Revelation, anger, wrath, threats aren’t God’s last word. God cannot let go of us, because God loves us. So Ezekiel, after promising judgment between sheep and sheep, ends promising that a new David, a divine Shepherd, will feed and care for the whole flock. Even the ones who were judged. At the end of Jesus’ parable, remember it is the king himself who dies on the cross. God in Christ enters human suffering, with the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned. Where people are in pain, that’s where God will be. Even if it means going into hell for us.
This is the last word of the Scriptures, God’s love for us that reaches its height at the cross and resurrection. Yes, God gets angry at us. But God’s bottom line is always that we are beloved, cherished, worth dying for.
And God sees astonishing love in us, Christ in us. At the cross God means to love us into the people God already sees. To motivate us through undying love to become Christ ourselves, loving God and neighbor with everything we have.
When we persist in seeing God’s law as our enemy instead of as God’s promise of life, we reveal our immaturity.
When we insist on playing the judgment game, when we continue to resent being asked to do anything, we’re still children.
Martin Luther gave us a great gift: he saw God’s grace and mercy overriding all judgment. We are loved and healed by God without our earning it. But Luther only got us half-way there. We’re still stuck on seeing God’s law as harsh, and God as threatening judge.
We know we’re loved in Christ, forgiven. But we still believe the lie that God’s law is unattainable, an undoable thing, that we can’t live as God asks.
So we ignore Jesus’ obvious point in these parables and, instead of living in love as Christ taught, we worry about the parables’ judgment. It’s my old curfew game: fearing punishment, instead of living in love.
But when we realize that the Triune God’s love for us, completely unearned, is real and cannot be taken away from us, we grow up into the people God already sees in us. We see God’s law as gift, because it comes from the God who loves us. We see blessing and joy in God’s rules, because they mean safety for us and for others, abundance for us and for others, grace for us and for others.
When we quit playing judgment-avoidance, we see a simple truth: we see where we can serve the God who loves us and wants the best for all people.
There’s a huge gift in these three parables we’ve just heard: all the characters are at the end, and there’s no more time to act. But we are not at the end, we’re in the middle.
The bridegroom is still coming, the master and king haven’t returned. So we know exactly what we can do: the action of these parables. And we know exactly what the bridegroom, master, and king does: dies on the cross for us and for the world. There is literally no reason for us to be afraid of God. We know all we need to know about God. This is a gift!
Every one of these servants today wanted to serve their king; some didn’t have any more time. All the bridesmaids wanted to be in the wedding party; some didn’t have any more time. The only one in these parables who didn’t want to serve was the third slave last week. And notice: he plays the judgment game, acting in fear of his master.
Likewise, I don’t know a single person here who doesn’t desire to serve Christ faithfully, to be Christ. Well, we still have time. And we know what to do!
Keep our lamps lighted with God’s oil of love so people can see the coming of the Christ who loves them and brings justice and righteousness to the whole world. We can do this.
Use God’s wealth together, and serve God’s beloved, all who are in need. Transform the world with the abundance God has entrusted to us. We can do this.
And see Christ in people who are hungry, or thirsty, in strangers and aliens, in those with no clothes or homes, in those who are sick (especially those without insurance), and folks who imprisoned (especially those wrongfully or unfairly incarcerated in our unjust system). We can do this.
If we want, we can react to these parables with fear and guilt.
We can fear God’s wrath, get discouraged at how harsh Jesus sounds. But if we do, we’ve stepped away from Scripture. If you want to feel wretched about what a failure you are, you can. But God’s Word doesn’t agree with you.
Because you are beloved to the Triune God, beyond measure, beyond death. Nothing can separate you from God’s love, a love that goes into the outer darkness, the weeping and gnashing of teeth, even the fires of hell.
God sees in you an astonishing potential to heal this world, to bless others’ lives. God sees Christ in you, sees Christ in us together.
Together we can light our lamps so Christ is seen and justice flows, together we can learn to use God’s wealth for the sake of the world, together we can care for Christ in all who are in need.
There is no greater motivation than that we are loved, no greater joy than knowing what we can do, no greater hope than hearing that in our love in this world we are serving Christ.
Maybe it’s time we rejoiced in this and grew up into the people God already sees in us.
In the name of Jesus. Amen