Jesus on the Return of the King, Part 3

Let us pray:

In the divine silence of our souls, help us, O Lord to discern the calling of your voice, that we may be obedient to your will for us in this time and place, now, in the midst of the ongoing beginning of your Heavenly Kingdom. Amen.

Today is Christ the King Sunday. All Hail the power of Jesus’ Name! Today we recognize that it is Christ who reigns: Over us, and over all the earth with all the power of the Most High. His hand is over us, his Kingdom has no end, and today’s Scripture reminds once again that our place in this Kingdom, while secured by our faith in Him, is by no means a ticket for coasting along, whether it is a new-found faith or a life-long pursuit of holiness.

We finish our exploration of Matthew’s Gospel today; marking the end of our liturgical calendar. Next Sunday is the first Sunday in Advent, the first Sunday in the new liturgical year –beginning with four Advent Sundays in a row leading up to the commemoration of the birth of Jesus Christ on Christmas Eve.

Today’s parable, arguably relating to next month’s Advent themes, can make some people squirm just a little bit, and understandably. At first glance, what jumps out all too readily to our eye is the theme of judgment. Will the return of the King really bring about some cosmic sorting of the so-called sheep and goats? How do we know if we are sheep or goats? Will the goats really be sent away into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels?

Yikes! How are we supposed to deal with that? Let us examine a few commentator’s thoughts:

John Buchannon tell us,

Students of the New Testament know that [this is] the only description of the last judgment… There is nothing in it about ecclesiastical connections or religious practices. There is not a word in this passage about theology, creeds, orthodoxies. There is only one criterion here, and … it is whether or not you saw Jesus Christ in the face of the needy and whether or not you gave yourself away in love in his name.[1]

Mark Douglas tells us,

The one who sits “on the throne of his glory” (v. 31) and has the power to separate the sheep from the goats is also the one who lends his identity to “the least of these.”[2]

Thomas Stegman writes,

Jesus teaches that God’s reign—the full revelation of which we await—is characterized in the present, not by powerful works and miracles, but by deeds of love, mercy, and compassion, especially toward those most in need. Jesus’ kingly ministry is to be reflected in his followers’ exercise of shepherding care.[3]

Lindsay Armstrong tells us,

…This Scripture testifies that salvation is something we discover, often when we least expect it. In Matthew 25:37-39, the righteous are surprised to realize they had cared for the King of creation; evidently, they simply shared who they were and what they had freely, without calculation or expectation. In verse 44, the unrighteous are shocked that they missed opportunities to show love to the King; had they known God was in their midst, they would have done the right thing. [4]

Which leads me to ask, how do I keep myself from falling into that same predicament? How do any of us? Lindsay goes on to suggest, “…the King is looking for a natural overflowing of love…this is the kind of love Jesus has come to demonstrate and share.”

All of these commentators have valid points, and we may find echoes of our own theological perspective in one or the other of them. I have chosen not to quote any of the more black and white commentators who do express a dichotomous heaven and hell interpretation for this text. My heart aches for those who see the Almighty as one who rules with an iron hand. I personally prefer the scriptural illustration Matthew records two chapters earlier when Jesus says, “Jerusalem, Jerusalem, the city that kills the prophets and stones those who are sent to it! How often have I desired to gather your children together as a hen gathers her brood under her wings” (23:37).

With that in mind, let me remind you that parables are stories often spoken in hyperbole; that means that for the sake of teaching a central truth, illustrations within the parable are intentionally blown out of proportion, even unrealistic. We tend to forget this from time to time; especially when we read a story like this one that screams at us of judgment and damnation. Is Jesus really threatening eternal fire if we don’t toe the line?

Look at it this way: What do we know about Jesus and the character of God? Jesus ate with sinners, seeking out lost sheep. Jesus looked with compassion on the predicaments of the entrapped. Jesus worked miracles of healing, speaking with the authority of God and taking upon himself divine roles of Revealer, Redeemer, Reconciler, Mediator. Jesus died for us, taking our own finitude and incompleteness with him to the grave, rising in wholeness that we might also rise with him and be made whole, a new creation before God. In short, Jesus does everything in his power – which is considerably more than our own human power – that we might not be excluded from the Heavenly Kingdom offered to us that is now and is yet to be fully realized.

To me, that speaks of a character of deep love, compassion, and grace. Judgment leading to damnation just does not seem to match. Which brings me to this: What exactly should we, or do we, believe as Reformed Christians? First of all, I don’t think it is the job of a pastor to tell you what to believe or to law down the law. I do think it is the job of a pastor to wrestle with scriptures and seek meaning; to invite you into wrestling with the scriptures yourselves and finding truths to live by, and to explore those truths together in community.

Each of us has our own particular journey of faith, and to a certain extent must work out our own salvation with fear and trembling. The Community of believers helps us on our way, challenging us to learn and grow, inviting us to take another step upon the road, and if needed, to lean on one another for a time in our journeys together.

Let me share with you my own personal statement of faith, which I read at Presbytery prior to their vote November 15th.

(Statement of Faith)

Bringing this back to our text for today, Matthew ends his final set of teachings by Jesus with these parables about the coming of the King, for me, this speaks to an eventual Second Coming of Christ.

I hope over the past three weeks you have seen central truths revealed in these story illustrations. Central truths such as: doing justice, loving mercy, and walking humbly with God; keeping watch and waiting in faithfulness for our King to return; acting in all ways as true disciples of Christ by serving others and inviting others to join us as the Kingdom of Heaven continues to unfold. And I hope and pray, for all of us, this is Good News.

May all glory be unto God and unto the one who lived, died, and rose again for us, even Him who is the Christ. Amen.

[1] Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary – Feasting on the Word – Year A, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ).

[2] Ibid.

[3] Ibid.

[4] Ibid.

About Scottrick

Parent ~ Pastor ~ Poet ~ Author
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