Do I Measure Up?
The Second to Last Sunday of the Church Year (Trinity 26) – Pr. Faugstad sermon
Text: St. Matthew 25:31-46
In Christ Jesus, “who gave himself for us to redeem us from all lawlessness and to purify for himself a people for his own possession who are zealous for good works” (Ti. 2:14), dear fellow redeemed:
When candidates for political office are on a ballot, they find out what the members of their community think about them. Short of receiving 100% of the vote, I imagine this could be a discouraging thing for the candidates. Even those who receive 80% of the vote must wonder why 20% of the people don’t want them to serve. Even more so if the vote is split nearly in half. The winning candidates always throw big victory parties, but they have to deal with the reality that 49% of the community preferred that they lose.
Now what if you were on a ballot, but not for political office? What if it was your eternal fate that was up for a vote, and the voters were the people around you, your neighbors? These neighbors would include the members of your family and of your church, the people who live next door, your co-workers, and the people you communicate with online. If their positive or negative vote resulted in your being sent to heaven or hell, what do you think the result would be?
I imagine this would make us all a bit more careful about what we say to others, and we would be more purposeful about acts of charity and kindness. Or, like good politicians, we might make promises about what we will do for others if only they will make a commitment to vote “yes” for us. Overall, we would make it known that we planned to be very generous with our positive votes, and that we would expect the same treatment in return.
But let’s say the bar is even higher. What if your entrance into heaven required a unanimous “yes” vote from your neighbors? And what if they were required to answer honestly whether you had always been helpful, whether you had always been kind, whether you had always shown the love for neighbor that God requires in the Commandments? Would you measure up?
This is a fair question to ask when reviewing today’s text. Jesus says that the difference between “the sheep” and “the goats” on the last day is what they did or did not do. This sounds a lot like the scenario I just described, except that it is not our neighbors voting for us, but Jesus Himself. Jesus decides who has properly served “the least of [His] brothers” and places them on His right to inherit heaven. But those who have not served “the least of these” go to His left and are condemned to hell.
What is it that separates one group from the other? “Well that’s easy!” someone might say. “The good people go to heaven and the bad people go to hell.” This seems like the obvious answer. But who decides what “good” means? Aren’t there Muslims, Buddhists, and even atheists, who do what would be considered “good” things? “Well okay,” comes the reply, “it is the Christians who go to heaven, and everyone else goes to hell.” But does everyone who says he is a Christian do good things? And how much good exactly does a Christian have to do to make the cut?
If the Lord said that we must “be as good as you can be,” it would be up to anyone’s interpretation how much goodness was required. We would hope that Jesus would take into account our environment and the difficult people around us, along with our natural weaknesses. We would expect Him to set the bar right around where we set it—with the understanding that the bar might go up or down depending on extenuating circumstances.
But would our amount of goodness be good enough for God? We could never be sure. Many people live with this uncertainty. Their life is punctuated by guilt for the wrongs they have done and by the pressure to make up for the wrongs. They hope that they measure up, but they are uncertain of the standard.
When I think of “measuring up,” one picture that comes to mind is children at the fair. They want to go on all the rides, but they learn that different rides have different height requirements. Just about anyone can go on the carousel. But in order to get into bumper cars or ride on something a bit more stomach-churning, a height requirement has to be met. These are the times that young children show excellent posture as they try to stretch themselves upward to reach that line.
The standard God sets for us, the line to reach up to, is not almost within reach. It is not “be as good as you can be.” The standard for getting ourselves into heaven is far above our heads. It is nothing less than perfection. Jesus says that “not an iota, not a dot, will pass from the Law until all is accomplished” (Mat. 5:18). And the apostle Paul citing the Old Testament Scriptures concludes, “For all who rely on works of the law are under a curse; for it is written, ‘Cursed be everyone who does not abide by all things written in the Book of the Law, and do them’” (Gal. 3:10). No matter how hard we try to stretch ourselves up to God’s line, we “fall short” of it (Rom. 3:23). We do not measure up.
So if all people have fallen short of God’s standard, how could anyone be placed at Jesus’ right on the last day? Those who are grouped with the sheep wonder the same thing. Jesus goes through the list of how they fed Him and gave Him drink and welcomed Him and clothed Him and visited Him. And the righteous reply, “Lord, when did we do all these good things for You?”
Jesus says, “as you did it to one of the least of these My brothers, you did it to Me.” He says that He counts service done for your neighbor as service for Him. So when you provide for your family and feed and clothe your children, or when you donate to help the poor, you are feeding and clothing Him. When you show kindness to a stranger, you are showing kindness to Him. When you visit the sick and the hurting, when you have compassion for those below you and those whom everyone else has rejected, you are doing these things for Him. This is surprising. You don’t even think about most of these things. But Jesus considers them to be great works done for Him. What an encouragement this is to look for opportunities to serve your neighbors!
At the same time, you can think of many opportunities you have missed, many times that you have not loved the people around you like you should—times that you disrespected your parents, despised your spouse, ignored your children, and acted unkindly toward others. If Jesus was behind your neighbor waiting for you to do the right thing, that means you failed Him. You worry that this might land you in the other camp on Judgment Day, the camp of those whom Jesus condemns.
But you are saved neither by what you have done nor by what you have failed to do. Whatever the measure of your works, they are not enough. You are saved by grace, for Christ’s sake, through faith—by God’s undeserved love, because of what Christ has done for you, through the faith worked in you by the Holy Spirit. Listen to what the Scriptures say:
- “We know that a person is not justified by works of the law but through faith in Jesus Christ” (Gal. 2:16).
- “For by grace you have been saved through faith. And this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God, not a result of works, so that no one may boast” (Eph. 2:8-9).
- “But if it is by grace, it is no longer on the basis of works; otherwise grace would no longer be grace” (Rom. 11:6).
- “He saved us, not because of works done by us in righteousness, but according to his own mercy, by the washing of regeneration and renewal of the Holy Spirit” (Ti. 3:5).
You are judged not by your works, but by God’s grace, which is yours through faith. This is the difference between the sheep and the goats, between believers and unbelievers. Though unbelievers may have done things in their lifetimes that appeared to be “good,” they are condemned because they did not do those things for Jesus. They rejected Him as their Savior, and therefore they could not please Him. “Without faith it is impossible to please [God]” (Heb. 11:6).
But through faith, your works are pleasing to God. This should motivate you to want to do them—you want to please your Lord and Savior. You do these works not primarily because you fear God’s wrath or are trying to prove yourself to Him, but because you love Him. You love Him because of the great love He has shown to you.
Your Savior went to the cross for you and poured out His blood to wash away all your failings toward God and neighbor. In place of these sins, He gives His righteousness, which completely covers those who trust in Him. This is why He will credit the sheep with perfection on the last day. He sees them as though their sins had never occurred. He sees them as though He were looking at Himself. He sees in His beloved sheep no spot, no blemish, no wrong. There is no question in His mind who belongs on His right. They are the righteous ones who trust in His righteousness and not their own.
So if you wonder whether you measure up before God, these words of Jesus clearly show that on your own, by your own efforts, you do not. But in Him, you do measure up. By faith in Him, you will be among those at Jesus’ right who hear Him say, “Come, you who are blessed by My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” And then you will never hunger or thirst or be in want or worry about your standing with God, because then you will be in His glorious presence forever.
Glory be to the Father and to the Son and to the Holy Ghost; as it was in the beginning, is now, and ever shall be, forevermore. Amen.
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(“The Last Judgment” painting by Fra Angelico, c. 1395-1455)