That was you?

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“Whatever you do for the least of these, you do for Me,” Jesus said. We meet Jesus when we love the least—Keep your eyes open for opportunities to love Jesus—It’s the way to JOY!

December 9-10, 2017
Pastor Joe Wittwer
JOY: The Outward Focused Life
#5—That was You?

Introduction and offering:

ILL: Martin was a Roman soldier in the mid-fourth century and a Christian. One cold winter day, as he was entering a city, a beggar stopped him and asked for alms. Martin had no money; but the beggar was blue and shivering with cold, so Martin gave what he had. He took off his soldier’s coat, worn and frayed, and he cut it in two and gave half of it to the beggar. That night he had a dream. In it he saw Jesus in heaven wearing half of a Roman soldier’s cloak. One of the angels said to him, “Master, why are you wearing that battered old cloak? Who gave it to you?” And Jesus answered softly, “My servant Martin gave it to me.” Martin went on to become a bishop and is revered as St. Martin of Tours.

“My servant Martin gave it to me.” What we do for the least of these, we do for Jesus.

We are continuing our series, JOY: The Outward Focused Life. The way to joy is to live Jesus, Others, You. Put Jesus first, and others before yourself. Jesus wants to help you get over yourself, get beyond your selfishness, and find the joy in focusing on others instead of yourself.

Today we are going to read one of the most famous of Jesus’ stories—although it’s not really a story, but more a prediction of what’s coming and why. Buckle up!

Matthew 25:31–46

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

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? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’

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?’

45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’

46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”

This seems fairly simple and straightforward, but Biblical scholars find it fraught with difficulties. One entire book devoted to this passage cites 32 different interpretations—32! For example, one big interpretive problem is who are “the least of these brothers and sisters of mine?” Is it anyone who is poor? Or does it refer to the Jews—Jesus’ brothers by race? Or to Christians—Jesus’ brothers by faith? Or more specifically to Christian missionaries? And an even bigger hurdle is how this passage fits with the gospel of salvation by grace, not works. At first glance, this seems to say that at the final judgment, you are saved and go to heaven because you cared for the poor—period. And if you didn’t, you’re going away to eternal punishment! I’ll address that issue as we focus on three Big Ideas: the judgment, the evidence and the surprise.

Offering here.

There are many reasons for giving and being generous. See if you can spot two in this verse. These are the words of Jesus.

Luke 6:38 Give, and it will be given to you. A good measure, pressed down, shaken together and running over, will be poured into your lap. For with the measure you use, it will be measured to you.

The first reason is found in the first word: Give! It’s a command from Jesus. So one good reason to give is because Jesus says to, and as His followers, we do what He says. Jesus commands us to give. That’s simple.

The second reason is in the next phrase: “and it will be given to you.” Jesus appeals to our self-interest. Give and you’ll receive. Give and it will be given to you—even more will be given to you. God loves to give to the generous. You can’t outgive God.

While you give, let’s dive into this Scripture.

  1. The judgment: Jesus will separate people.

Matthew places this at the end of a series of stories about the second coming of Christ and the end of the age in Matthew 24-25.

31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.

Jesus is only days away from being crucified like a common criminal, the most disgraceful death imaginable, and He predicts that He is going to come in glory with all the angels, and sit in judgment on all the nations. He died in disgrace, but He will come again in glory and judge the nations. Jesus is coming back! People have constructed all kinds of scenarios to describe when and how this will happen. There are three things that are very clear in the Bible and that I want you to know about the second coming of Christ.

  1. Jesus is coming again.
  2. No one knows when.
  3. You must be ready.

And this story underscores that last point. When Jesus comes, He will separate the people like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. Jesus is referring to a common practice. At night, a shepherd would move the goats under cover because they were more susceptible to the cold, and leave the sheep outside. Jesus uses this as a metaphor for judgment. At the judgment, He is going to separate people into two groups. Notice the contrasts between the two groups:

  • Sheep and goats
  • Right and left
  • Come and go away
  • Blessed and cursed
  • You did and you didn’t
  • Kingdom prepared for you and eternal fire prepared for the devil
  • Eternal life and eternal punishment

What a stark contrast!

This idea of a final judgment runs through the New Testament, from Jesus to Paul to Peter to John. We just read one of many from Jesus; how about Paul, the apostle of grace? Here is part of his preaching in Athens.

Acts 17:31 For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.

There is a set day of judgment when God will judge the world with justice by Jesus. Paul wrote the Corinthians:

1 Corinthians 4:5 Therefore judge nothing before the appointed time; wait until the Lord comes. He will bring to light what is hidden in darkness and will expose the motives of the heart. At that time each will receive their praise from God.

There is an appointed time when God will judge not only our actions but our motives. This will happen when Jesus comes again.

2 Corinthians 5:10 For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.

We will all appear before the judgment seat of Christ. Notice that in all these verses, it is Jesus who is the judge—just as He said in this story. That’s Paul—and there are many more. Here’s one of many from Peter.

1 Peter 4:5 But they will have to give account to him who is ready to judge the living and the dead.

There is a judgment coming when people will have to give an account to God. And of course John writes about the final judgment in Revelation 20.

Revelation 20:11–12 Then I saw a great white throne and him who was seated on it…12 And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books.

All of the Biblical authors agree that there is a day of judgment when God through Jesus will judge the world. Theologians have debated the number and type of these judgments—who will be judged when and on what basis. There are different opinions, but they all agree on this: there is a day of judgment. I have one life to live and I am accountable to God for what I do with what He gave me. There are many passages that teach this.

This is obviously not the only passage that describes God’s judgment, but this one makes it sound like we will be judged, and go to heaven or hell, based on only one criteria: did we help the least of these? We say all the time that the gospel, the good news of Jesus, is not DO but DONE. It’s not about what we do for God, but what He has done for us in Christ. We are not saved by our good works, by our merit, but by God’s grace.

Mark Twain said, “Heaven goes by favor (grace). If it went by merit, you would stay out, and your dog would go in.” A friend of mine who recently had to put his dog down told me, “He was the best human being I know.” If heaven went by merit, my dog would go in and I’d be out! Thank God it goes by grace.

But this passage makes it sound like we’re saved by works, and particularly one kind of work: love for the least of these, kindness to the poor and marginalized. Let me ask you: how much do you have to do to get into heaven? How good is good enough? I used to think that at the final judgment, God would put all the good I’ve done on one side of the scale, and all the bad on the other. If the scale tipped to the good, I’d go to heaven. If it tipped to the bad, then the floor would open up, and I’d slide straight into hell—don’t pass go, don’t collect $200—straight to hell. Based on that, are you going to heaven or hell? Who knows? You won’t know until God brings out the scales! Pretty scary—so you better get busy! But look again at verse 34:

34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.

Take your inheritance. An inheritance is something you didn’t work for or earn; an inheritance is a gift secured by the death of another. And an inheritance presupposes a relationship. When I die, I’ll leave my vast fortune to….who knows? Whoever. Of course not! I’ll leave it to those I love—to my children.

Romans 8:17 Now if we are God’s children, then we are heirs—heirs of God and co-heirs with Christ, if indeed we share in his sufferings in order that we may also share in his glory.

We are God’s children, and God’s heirs. An inheritance presupposes a relationship. So the sheep in Jesus’ story are people who have a relationship with God; they are God’s children by faith in Christ; they are His heirs, recipients of His grace. They are followers of Jesus, and they are going to heaven, receiving their inheritance because Jesus died to make it possible.

If this is so, then it means that the good works done to the poor are not the criteria for salvation, but the evidence of being saved. In other words, these sheep are not blessed because they do good works; they do good works because they are blessed by God’s grace. The good works are the evidence of their salvation not the cause. Look at v. 35:

35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat

“Come, take your inheritance…for I was hungry, thirsty, and so.” One commentator pointed out: “I can say: ‘It has rained for the atmospheric conditions were right for rain’, or ‘It has rained for the streets are wet’. The ‘for’ in (the first) case gives the reason for the rain, and in the other case, the evidence for it. It is in the second sense that the “for” of verse 35 must be understood. The Judge points to the works of verses 35 and 36…as evidence for the position assigned to the sheep.”[1] The good works are the evidence of their salvation not the cause.

Jesus is coming again. And when He does, He will judge the world. You want to be on the right side of that judgment. How can you do that? By believing in Jesus, accepting the gift of His grace and following Him. When you do that, He changes you, and you become a different person…and there is evidence of that change.

  1. The evidence: love for the least.

35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’

Let me say it simply: if you are a Christian, this is how you behave. Want to know if someone is a believer? Do they love people? Do they love the least of these: the hungry, thirsty, naked, the stranger (the foreigner), the sick and imprisoned? Jesus said that the great commandment is to love God with all we’ve got and to love our neighbor as ourselves. Love everyone always. Love is doing what is best for another no matter what it costs you.Love is the most sure evidence of God’s saving grace in our lives.

I want you to notice the who and the how this love expresses itself.

The who: the least of these brothers and sisters of mine. We’re not going to debate whether these brothers and sisters of Jesus are only other Christians, or are people in general—for there are plenty of verses that encourage us to love both. Love everyone always. What is clear is that these people are the least: the hungry, thirsty, poorly dressed, strangers or foreigners, sick and in jail.

The least are the poor: the hungry, thirsty, and poorly dressed. Are the poor marginalized, looked down upon? I won’t ask for a show of hands, but how many of you have ever thought that poor people must be lazy. I admit that I’ve thought that.

ILL: I was forever cured of that judgment when I went to Kenya, and saw extreme poverty and saw that they worked incredibly hard and were remarkably resourceful. They were doing a lot with very little. It changed the way I viewed the poor.

Are some poor people lazy? Of course. So are some rich people and some middle class people. But the poor often get this rap—they are looked down upon, they are the least.

The least are the strangers, or foreigners. They are different. Maybe it’s a different culture, different race, different language, different customs and dress, different values. But they are different—and different makes us nervous, makes us suspicious. This is a big deal in our culture right now. We are predominantly a nation of immigrants who are afraid of immigrants. As Christians we need to step up and love the stranger, love the foreigner, love the refugee and immigrant. We need to lead the way in loving those who are different from us. We say it all the time: move toward the other. Rather than avoiding the person who is different, Christians move toward them in love.

The least are the sick. While we may not look down on the sick, we may want to avoid them. We avoid them because we don’t want to catch something, but also because we don’t know what to do, what to say. They make us uncomfortable. The sick are often lonely. They are the least.

The least are the imprisoned. In Jesus’ day, people despised those in jail. It’s not a whole lot different today.

ILL: Our city council just passed “ban the box” legislation. On job applications, there is a box asking if you’ve ever been convicted of a felony. If people check that box, they often don’t even get an interview for a job. For many people, their felony was years ago, but they don’t even get the chance to explain that. Consequently, having a felony on your record can be a death sentence in the job market. Hence—ban the box. Give people a chance to interview.

Whether you agree or not with our city council’s decision, the point is that those in jail or who have been in jail are looked down upon. It was that way in Jesus’ day; it still is. And Jesus calls us to love them.

This is the who: the least are those who are marginalized, ignored, avoided, despised and rejected. We follow a Savior who was despised and rejected. He moved towards the least and loved them. He moved toward you, and when you experience His grace and love, it becomes natural to forget about yourself, and move toward the other.

That’s the who; here’s the how. They fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, shared clothes with the poorly dressed, welcomed and invited in the stranger, looked after the sick and visited the imprisoned. These are all simple things to do. This is not rocket science. This is not huge or difficult. It’s small and simple. Is someone hungry? Feed them. Is someone lonely? Be with them. Is someone sick? Look after them. This is help in the most simple, practical ways. Anyone can do this.

When Jesus gets ahold of you, He starts changing you from selfish to selfless, from me-focused to others-focused. You start loving people like He does. This love is the evidence of a changed heart.

1 John 3:16–18 This is how we know what love is: Jesus Christ laid down his life for us. And we ought to lay down our lives for our brothers and sisters. 17 If anyone has material possessions and sees a brother or sister in need but has no pity on them, how can the love of God be in that person? 18 Dear children, let us not love with words or speech but with actions and in truth.

1 John 4:19 We love because he first loved us.

Love is outward focused. Love is doing what’s best for others no matter what it costs you. And this love expresses itself is the simplest and most practical ways. See a need? Meet it in Jesus’ name. We love because He first loved us. Our love for the least of these is the evidence of God’s love in us.

The judgment, the evidence, and…

  1. The surprise: “That was You?”

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? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’

40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’

The surprise is…that was Jesus! That person you fed was Jesus. That person you listened to was Jesus. That person you visited was Jesus. That person you cared for was Jesus. Mother Teresa said, “In the poor, we meet Jesus in His most distressing disguises.” Every one of us have regular opportunities to love Jesus disguised as the poor, the lonely, the hurting, the refugee, the marginalized.

ILL: Patricia Miller worked in the ER of a large hospital. Years of emergency room exposure had taken its toll, and she had become indifferent.

Then God intervened.

She was registering a young woman who had overdosed on drugs and attempted suicide. Her mother sat before Patricia, unkempt and bleary eyed from being awakened in the middle of the night by police. She could barely speak above a whisper.

“Hurry up,” thought Patricia, as she took the information. She finally finished the report and went to the copy machine—and that’s where God stopped her. “You didn’t even look at her,” the Lord said. He repeated it, gently: “You didn’t even look at her.”

She suddenly felt God’s grief for this mother and her daughter. “I’m so sorry, Lord,” Patricia whispered.

She sat down in front of this distraught mother, and covered her hands with her own, looked into her eyes, and whispered, “I care. Don’t give up.”

This mother wept and wept. She poured her heart out about the years of dealing with a rebellious daughter as a single mom. Finally, she looked up and thanked Patricia.

Patricia’s attitude changed that night. Jesus showed up in her hospital, disguised as a heart-broken mother. Jesus came not only to help that mother, but to set Patricia free to care again.

“Whatever you do for the least of these, you do for Me,” Jesus said. We meet Jesus when we love the least—and when you meet Jesus, guess who changes? You do! That’s what Patricia experienced. And you will too.

Keep your eyes open this week for opportunities to love Jesus—meeting Jesus will change you. It’s the way to JOY!

[1] Q. Hamann, in Morris, L. (1992). The Gospel according to Matthew. Grand Rapids, MI; Leicester, England: W.B. Eerdmans; Inter-Varsity Press.

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