Christ the Sunday - 2020a
Old Testament - Ezekiel 34:11- 24
New Testament - Matthew 25:31-46
“It’s Going to Be Okay.”
INTRODUCTION: When it comes to the Bible, goats just can’t catch a break.
For reasons that aren’t really clear, goats, unlike sheep, often have some pretty negative imagery associated with them. In the book of Zechariah, for example, the rulers of Israel who don’t provide proper care for the people under their protection are compared to male-goats that ruthlessly harass sheep.
The same goes in Ezekiel this morning. After decrying the way the leaders have failed to tend to the sheep, God announces that he will judge between the “sheep and sheep, rams and he-goats.” The he-goats, again, being the rulers who have trampled on the people.
“Must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet,” asks God of Israel’s rulers, “and must they drink what you have fouled with your feet?”
And then there is the Day of Atonement in the book of Leviticus. On one of the holiest days of the year, Aaron was to cast lots between two goats. Depending on how the lots fell, one of the goats was to be sacrificed for the people’s sins, while the other was to be a scapegoat - the goat, in other words, was to be driven out into the wilderness to symbolize the sins of the people being taken away.
So important was the notion of the people’s sins being carried away by the scapegoat, a strange tradition even developed over the years. According to the Jewish Mishnah, a man was to be paid every year to lead the chosen scapegoat out of town in order to throw it off a cliff to ensure the goat couldn’t wander back into town bringing the people’s sins along with it!
So goats just can’t catch a break in the Bible. While they were important for their commercial value, they also, for reasons scholars still puzzle over, often had all kinds of negative imagery associated with them.
Is it any wonder, then, that there are many non-biblical traditions floating around that also associate goats with the devil and evil in general? If you want to have fun for a few hours, just google goats and the devil. Talk about a strange and whacked out corner of the internet!
ONE: But most famously, of course, there is that well-known passage from chapter 25 of Matthew’s gospel.
A hypervigilant cat when it comes to discipleship, throughout his gospel Matthew is constantly warning about a final day of judgment for those who are, shall we say, a tad lackadaisical in their faith. And in chapter 25, Matthew finally gets to his long predicted judgment.
With Jesus arriving perched on a throne surrounded by angels, the separating begins. The nations are called forth and the people divvied up. Those that qualify as sheep are placed on Jesus’ right side while those that are goats end up on the left. And just like in so many other parts of the Bible, it’s the goats that get the short end of the stick.
“Get away from me!” says Jesus to the goats. “For when I was hungry, you gave me nothing to eat; when I was thirsty, you gave me nothing to drink; when I was an alien, you didn’t welcome me; when I was naked, you left me that way; and when I was sick and in prison, you didn’t visit me.”
The sheep, on the other hand, well, they get all the praise and honor. So once again the goats just can’t catch a break.
TWO: Well, as the good Protestants we are, understandably so, a bit thrown by such talk, aren’t we?
After all, the fate of both the goats and sheep seem to be tied directly to their deeds. It isn’t what they believe, or even confess that seems to matter, but rather what they have actually done with their lives.
So it can be strange to hear such talk. For all our lives we’ve been told we’re saved by grace, right? It’s not works that get you right with God we hear over and over, but rather the freely given grace found in Jesus Christ. And yet, there’s Matthew in this odd scene basically saying just the opposite. Apparently, there is more to the faith than, well, simply having faith.
Ya see, here’s the thing. We can forget that just because we might be freely forgiven by God, that doesn’t mean we still won’t also be judged. Yep. There is little doubt one of the unintended consequences of the Protestant faith is the idea that deeds no longer matter. For even today there are good Protestant people with all the faith in the world who are blatantly indifferent to the suffering of others and sometimes just plain cruel.
But Matthew is clear. Being freely forgiven doesn’t mean we’re still not going to be judged. And we’re to be judged, my friends, by Christ’s own life and his call for us to also live lives of mercy, compassion, and love just like he did. For it’s not as if discipleship simply boils down to saying “Yes!” to Jesus’ call and then sitting around twiddling our thumbs while waiting for his return.
Nope. Turns out answering the call to follow Jesus is just the beginning. For with the decision to follow, we’re also expected to begin adopting certain ways of behaving as well. “Perhaps this is what the parable is trying to tell us,” says one man. “We will not be judged by a rule book banked in heaven, kept to the last, and unlocked for a list of our sins, but rather by Christ’s own call to love, to show mercy, to care not a little but a lot.”
THREE: On September 11, 2001, as the Twin Towers were burning and smoke was billowing out of the Pentagon, roughly 400 international flights headed to America suddenly found themselves in a bit of a pickle.
With the nation’s airspace closed, air traffic controllers and airports in Canada suddenly found themselves scrambling to try and find places for the 400 plus international flights to land that had been headed for the US. Planes mid-flight, mostly crossing the Atlantic, unexpectedly found themselves being told to land in cities like Halifax, Ottawa, Montreal, Winnipeg, and Calgary.
But some? Well, some also found themselves being told to land at the International Airport in Gander, Newfoundland. A town of 10,000 people, Gander, in the 50s and 60s, was a bustling little place. The last refueling stop for planes making the Atlantic crossing at the time, the town buzzed with air traffic. And because it was the last refueling stop for all kinds of commercial planes, Gander, for a while, was actually home to the largest airport in the world.
Unfortunately though, beginning in the 70s improvements in planes meant the stop in Gander was no longer needed before crossing the Atlantic. And so the town began to fall on economic hard times. Instead of landing in Gander, planes soared overhead and with them the humans and business traffic they used to bring.
And yet, on September 11, 2001, 38 international flights ended up landing in the small, economically depressed town of Gander depositing just under 6,600 passengers and crew members in a town with 10,000 citizens.
FOUR: In a great book called The Day the World Came to Town, Jim Defede tells the story of Gander and how the town pulled out all the stops to welcome 6,600 strangers.
While Newfoundlanders are fiercely independent people because of living on an island in the upper northeast corner of Canada that is one stop from nowhere, that doesn’t prevent them from going out of their way to offer help when needed.
Or as Defede writes of the people of Gander on September 11, “They placed their lives on hold for a group of strangers and asked for nothing in return. They affirmed the basic goodness of [people] at a time when it was easy to doubt such humanity still existed. If the terrorists had hoped their attacks would reveal the weaknesses in western society, the events in Gander proved its strength.”
And so what makes the book so engrossing is the various machinations the people of Gander have to go through to accommodate so many strangers on such short notice. Just about every civic group, public building, and church in town got used in one or another. Smaller towns around Gander were also called into action as well.
At the town’s community center a row of cars stretched for two miles as residents lined up to bring blankets and pillows. The local pharmacist worked with the surrounding drug stores and pulled together a stick-pile of medicines and 4,000 tooth brushes, while other stores donated thousands of dollars of other basic necessities.
The high school, the Lion’s Club, churches, and other buildings with space were quickly turned into shelters.
And when the local school bus drivers, who were on strike and in the middle of a nasty fight for better wages, heard about what was going on? Well, they called off their strike and got back to driving buses so passengers could be ferried to the outlining towns, which were also serving as shelters.
No wonder the Sheriff of Gander Oz Fudge could say at one point, “Newfoundlanders are a different breed of people. A Newfoundlander likes to put his arm around a person and say, ‘It’s going to be all right. I’m here. It’s going to be okay. We’re your friend. We’re your buddy. We’ve got you.’”
And so it was on September 11, 2001 as the people of Gander welcomed well over 6,000 strangers into their town.
CONCLUSION: Of course, the citizens of Gander were being more than just good people. Many of them were also being good followers of Jesus Christ.
For faith is always more than just believing we have been freely forgiven, right? It’s also then having a deep concern for the world around us. It’s to be attuned to the miseries and trials of life and then seeking to do something about them. It’s to wrap an arm around someone who is hurting and in need and tell them what I think Christ, more or less, would surely tell them:
“‘It’s going to be all right. I’m here. It’s going to be okay. We’re your friend. We’re your buddy. We’ve got you.’”
To the blessed and only Sovereign, the King of kings and Lord of lords, who alone has immortality and dwells in unapproachable light, be honor and eternal dominion. Amen.