People have told you and me that if something is worth doing, it is worth doing right. But sometimes in order to do it there is also a secret, kind of like insider trading. This reminds me of the story of two old guys who go fishing. It was a rather chilly day, and they went to their favorite fishing spots on the river bank. They sat and fished for several hours, but not a single bite. Along came a young boy, who sat down on the same river bank to fish. And he started catching fish one right after another. One of the old men walked over to the boy and asked, “What are doing to catch all those fish?” The boy mumbled something, but the man couldn’t understand what he was saying. The other man came over and asked the same question, and the boy mumbled his answer again. Finally one of the old guys said, “Son, we are both hard of hearing. What did you say?” The boy spat several worms out of his mouth into his hand, and said loudly, “You have to keep your worms warm.” The principle of doing it right is important. But sometimes there is a trade secret, maybe like keeping the worms in your mouth so they stay warm. And this principle of getting it right has everything to do with our gospel lesson this morning.
Today is the last Sunday of the church year; it is Christ the King Sunday. If there were one last sermon to preach, one last time to tell the story, what should we choose? Do we warn or do we comfort? It is interesting to note that this parable we heard today is the last public message Jesus tells the crowds around him before he is betrayed, arrested, and crucified.
The parable we heard today is the 3rd in a row he has told his disciples and the crowds about the end times; the end of the world and what will happen. All of them are intended to be a warning to his disciples and to us. The first parable is the one dealing with the 5 foolish and the 5 wise maidens. The second parable deals with the master giving his servants the talents and then the parable we heard today about the sheep and the goats.
Every week in our prayer of confession we confess that we have sinned by what we have done and by what we have left undone. It is interesting to note that in each of these parables the sin that causes these people to be condemned for eternity is the sin of omission, that is, what we have left undone. In the first the foolish maidens fail to come prepared; they fail to persevere. In the second, the third servant fails to use the talent and ability he was given; instead he buries his talent, his ability and does not use it. And in the third, the goats fail to care for those who were in need. It is interesting, is it not that in the end, on the Day of Judgment, what we did not do is what will count the most against us?
Today’s parable is the one of the sheep and the goats. This parable is known by a number of different names, the sheep and the goats, the judgment of the nations, the final judgment, but I like the title, the Great Surprise. It can be called the Great Surprise because both the righteous sheep and the unrighteous goats are surprised. The sheep are surprised because they were not aware they were doing anything special. They were simply doing what needed to be done. There were people who were hurting and in need of some sort so they stepped in and helped. Someone was hungry, someone was thirsty, someone was lonely, someone was sick and so the sheep stepped in and helped. It was no big deal, they just did it; they didn’t even keep track of it; they didn’t even remember doing it! On the other hand, the goats are surprised too. They didn’t seem to know that they were supposed to be keeping track of someone else’s needs; they didn’t think these other people mattered that much. They did not even notice if these people were hungry or thirsty; or if someone was lonely or sick. The goats were concerned about other things; the goats may have been busy but they were not concerned about those around them who they thought were not important.
As we hear Jesus’ parable of the Great Surprise, we are struck by the adverb “when.” ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry? Or when did we see you thirsty? Or when did we see you naked or sick?’ Both those who see the needs and those who fail to see or perhaps care about the needs around them asked the same question, “When?” Those who helped didn’t remember helping; those who did not help others did not remember seeing people around them they needed to help. So the common question of all on the last day is “When? Lord, when?”
In this story of the great surprise all call Jesus Lord. All of them know who he is. Both the sheep and the goats would call themselves Christians. You see it is not enough to simply say Jesus is Lord. It is not enough to say the right words. No, it is about we do. It is about how we live. You see it is how we treat others around us that show whether or not we really believe Jesus is Lord and are following him. According to Jesus, there are two kinds of people at the end of the age, those who do things for people in need and those who do not help people in need. Or perhaps we could say, those who see people in need who need to be helped and those who see those in need who are not worthy of being helped.
At the start of this message we talked about getting it right, about a trade secret. Everyone agrees that it is important to get our lives right but what is the secret? That is the secret. Christianity must be lived out. It is not simply words, but it is words and actions. The particularly fascinating and perhaps troubling thing about the parable Jesus tells is the fact that those who do not help others, do not even seem to realize they haven’t been missing the point. They have this blindness; they do not realize that they are not caring; they do not realize that these people are important. Remember in the reading they say, “When didn’t we do that?” Perhaps these people are too worried thinking about their own needs, their own wants, their own schedules to have time to be concerned about others particularly for those who they feel are not worthy of their help. For us, if we take this parable and the warning within it seriously, there are two questions we need to ask ourselves. The first is, ‘Do I see the needs of people, people made in God’s image around me?’ And the second is, ‘Do I help those I see in need?’ And we need God’s grace in both areas because it is all too easy to be blind. And it is all too easy to excuse inaction.
Three parables on the end-times, and they are all sobering because when we die and stand in front of the Judgment Seat of Jesus Christ the King, there are no ‘do-overs’ it is too late. No, “oops, I guess I really should have been more concerned, more aware of the people and the opportunities to serve those around me.” It will be too late. These are the last three parables Jesus tells us before he goes to the cross; in the first the person is foolish not to prepare for what was certain to come. The second the person is lazy and has excuses for why he has not used the talent or ability that he has been given, but the third group is blind. This group doesn’t even seem to realize it has missed the way. This last one to me is the most sobering.
So do you know the secret? The secret to getting it right; it is simple. We must live out our Christianity; it is boots on the ground, it’s seeing and helping those who are in need. May God grant us the grace to have the will and desire and strength to live out our Christianity. Amen