“And He shall come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead.”
With these words, or words like them, we regularly confess in the Creed our expectation that the momentous and sobering events described in today’s Gospel from St. Matthew will indeed happen. Christ will visibly descend to the earth in judgment, and all will stand humbly before him.
The Augsburg Confession reiterates this conviction in the following words:
“Our churches teach that at the end of the world Christ will appear for judgment and will raise all the dead. He will give the godly and elect eternal life and everlasting joys, but he will condemn ungodly people and the devils to be tormented without end.”
At the present time, Jesus is not visibly present on the earth. This does not mean, however, that Jesus is currently absent from us.
Jesus is present, even though it is in ways that are not visible to our physical eyes. For the duration of this age, Jesus will continue to come to us to teach us, to forgive us, and to renew us in our faith in him.
But he will do so – as he has done so for his church since his ascension – hidden within human language in its spoken and written forms; hidden within a washing of simple water; hidden within the eating and drinking of common bread and wine.
Jesus covers his brilliant glory with these simple and unthreatening things, so that we, in our frail and sinful condition, will not be overwhelmed by that glory. In our weak and mortal state, we could not stand to be in the presence of Christ’s uncloaked divine majesty.
So, he doesn’t force this upon us. But, he does still make himself available to us whenever we need him.
When our conscience has been stirred by the warnings of God’s law, and the Holy Spirit has given us a yearning for the forgiveness and saving grace of Christ, we always know where to go to find him.
We can always locate our hidden but truly present Savior in the preaching of his gospel and in the administration of his sacraments. We see him there with the eyes of faith, because he has told us in his faith-creating Word that this is where he is.
In the text from St. Matthew that we heard a few minutes ago, Jesus tells us about another way in which he is already present among us – now – even as we still wait for his visible appearance on judgment day. Listen again to the words that Jesus says will be spoken to the resurrected righteous ones as they stand before his throne on that day:
“Then the King will say to those on His right hand, ‘Come, you blessed of My Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world: for I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’”
“Then the righteous will answer Him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You drink? When did we see You a stranger and take You in, or naked and clothe You? Or when did we see You sick, or in prison, and come to You?’ And the King will answer and say to them, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.’”
In many passages of Scripture, Christ has revealed that he is truly present for us, and is ready to be the giver of his salvation to us, in his Word and sacraments. We don’t physically see him there, but we know that he is there because he has told us that he is there.
In today’s Gospel, Christ has also revealed that he is truly present for us, and is ready to be the recipient of our love, in, with, and under our needy brothers and sisters. We don’t physically see him there, either, but we know that he is there because he has told us that he is there.
Now, when your conscience tells you that have sinned, that you need God’s forgiveness, and that you need to get right with God once again, do not look to the good works that you might be able to do for the needy, as the place where you can find what you need at such a time. Jesus, as the forgiver of sins, does not come to us through the poor and needy, but through the means of grace.
But when you already have God’s forgiveness, and by faith are at peace with God because of that forgiveness; and when, as the fruit of a living faith, you want to demonstrate to Jesus your gratitude for his saving mercy toward you, then, at such a time, and for such a purpose, your struggling brother’s need, and your afflicted sister’s need, are precisely where you should look, in order to find the place where your love for Christ can best be expressed.
Jesus is there. He is hidden, but he is truly there, as his Word says, waiting for you to seek him out in love. He is there waiting for you to show to him your compassion and generosity.
He is there waiting for you to share with him of the material blessings that have been bestowed on you in this life. Again, he tells us: “I say to you, inasmuch as you did it to one of the least of these My brethren, you did it to Me.”
When is the last time you fed Jesus, or gave him something to drink? When is the last time you showed your Lord some needed hospitality, or clothed him? When is the last time you cared for your Savior in his sickness, or visited him in his loneliness?
Hopefully we are eager and willing to go to Christ for help, when we sense our need for his help. Hopefully we are eager and willing to seek him out in the means of grace, in order to receive spiritual blessings from him.
But how eager are we to go to Christ in order to help him, and show him our love and gratitude? How eager are we to seek him out in the needs of those who are poor or disadvantaged, who are the victims of injustice or cruelty, or who are hurting in any number of other ways? Maybe not as often.
We can find plenty of opportunities to do this, if we keep our eyes, and our hearts, open.
For example, through our church body we can help orphans in India to continue to have a place to live and food to eat – and also to receive a Christian education. In our own community, our generosity is always appreciated by the Princeton Pantry Food Shelf, and by the Life Choices pro-life counseling center.
And there are no doubt people you know personally who struggle with a difficult circumstance. Maybe they need a little money. But more often than not, what they really need is a kind and encouraging word, and just your showing interest in them, and compassion for them.
Jesus is in all these situations. Jesus is in all these people.
“I was hungry and you gave Me food; I was thirsty and you gave Me drink; I was a stranger and you took Me in; I was naked and you clothed Me; I was sick and you visited Me; I was in prison and you came to Me.’
That’s what Jesus will say. That’s what Jesus says to you, now.
As we think this morning particularly of judgment day, and of what the Lord will at that time tell those who are destined for eternal fire – that is, those who are without faith, and consequently also without the fruits of faith – it gives us pause:
“Depart from Me, you cursed, into the everlasting fire prepared for the devil and his angels: for I was hungry and you gave Me no food; I was thirsty and you gave Me no drink; I was a stranger and you did not take Me in, naked and you did not clothe Me, sick and in prison and you did not visit Me.’ … Assuredly, I say to you, inasmuch as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to Me.”
Isn’t it a wonderful thing, therefore, that Jesus himself has done everything that is necessary for our salvation? It’s a wonderful thing that our lack of showing love for him – of which we repent, and which we deeply regret – is forgiven today through his great and perfect love for us.
When we were hungry with the emptiness of spiritual death, he filled us with himself, and gave us the bread of life to eat. When we were parched with the thirst of a dead and dry unbelief, he gave us the water of life which flows as an endless fountain.
When we were aliens and strangers, he made us to be a part of his holy people and his beloved nation, and built us into the living temple which is his church. When we were morally naked before God, unable to cover the shame and filth of our own unrighteousness, he clothed us with himself in baptism and put his own righteousness upon us.
When we were sick in our sinfulness, he bestowed on us the medicine of immortality – his own life-giving body and precious blood, given and shed for the remission of sins. When we were slaves and captives of Satan, he set us free with the glorious liberty of the children of God – in whose mansions we have an eternal home, which he has prepared for us.
Our loving works for Christ, which we perform in faith, are necessary and natural, but they are nevertheless always imperfect. Our compassion for the poor and needy, while sincere, is always incomplete and impure.
But Christ’s loving work for us and for our redemption – in his life, death, and resurrection – was perfect. His compassion for us now, and his desire to bestow upon us his forgiveness, life, and salvation, is genuine and pure.
Because of his great love for us, we who cling to him in faith, who are clothed in his righteousness, and who then depart from this world in this faith and with this righteousness, will stand before Christ on judgment day without fear.
He has already justified us, acquitted us, and pronounced us to be not guilty in his Holy Absolution. With all our hearts we have believed his words of pardon and hope.
And because he cannot lie, but is – in his person – the Way, the Truth, and the Life, through whom we come to the Father, he will not change his mind on the last day. St. Paul comforts us in this regard in his epistle to the Romans:
“Jesus our Lord…was delivered up because of our offenses, and was raised because of our justification. Therefore, having been justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom also we have access by faith into this grace in which we stand…”
As we humbly yet eagerly await the day of Christ’s visible return, we known that Christ is already invisibly present in the means of grace, to which he continually draws us, to forgive our sins and to preserve and strengthen us in our faith in him.
And we know that he is also already present, invisibly, in the hardships and trials of our needy brothers and sisters, to which he also continually draws us, guiding and prompting us to those works of mercy through which we exercise our love for him.
Jesus warns that on judgment day the unrighteous and wicked “will go away to eternal punishment.” But he also promises – to you and to me – that those who are righteous – righteous in the righteousness of Christ – will go “to eternal life.” Amen.