Sheep and Goats

I never thought I’d say this, confession time, but Saturday evening in our household is Strictly Come Dancing night. The girls are totally hooked to the costumes, the dancing and the excitement of who will get chucked off each week. I wander in and out as I get things ready for Sunday – but I have to admit, in a strange way it draws you in.

 

One of the things I find fascinating is how people react to being judged. Sometimes they seem on the verge of tears – which I find quite understandable – you’ve given your best to something, not your natural talent only to have your efforts archly, condescendingly ripped apart. But of course the contestants could take the judges’ comments as advice, timely warnings that if taken could avert catastrophe. If only Jonny had managed to do what they said and keep his rear tucked in!

 

When we hear passages about judgement in the Bible, like the gospel reading from Matthew 25, we face a choice in how we approach it. The message of judgement will not be comfortable, it would be tempting to stop up our ears, carry on and hope for the best, but if we listen and take note, it will do us a lot of good.

 

If you had come to this church 500 years ago, on the eve of the Reformation, this chancel arch would have been one huge painting. Up at the top, Christ was seated in majesty, judging the world. On his right, and your left, the blessed rise out of their graves to everlasting life. On that side, demons haul sinners away to the gates of hell. I imagine that when the sermon got boring, our predecessors would look at the picture – maybe some got drawn to the images of bliss, others of a more nervous disposition were fascinated by the gory scenes on their right.

 

And when we read Matthew 25 verses 31 to the end, we may identify more with one than another. Do you see yourself as a sheep, looking forward to eternal life in the presence of Christ? Or does a guilty conscience trouble you, as you worry about the fate of the goats?

 

Christianity comforts the disturbed, and disturbs the comfortable. It may be that if we identify with the sheep, we might need to be challenged. And if we worry about being goats, maybe we need to hear the good news of God’s invitation, to be forgiven and free. So as we think about this part of the Bible, please do consciously engage with the bits that might not at first sight appear to apply to you.

 

When I prepare a sermon I always ask ‘Where’s the good news here?’ For however challenging or difficult a part of the Bible is, we must believe that in the end God’s message to us is good news. There is a lot here!

 

Firstly, it tells us that Jesus will reign, that’s what we remember this Sunday as we think about Christ the King. Kings and Queens today are either found in fairy tales, or they are constitutional monarchs, like our own Queen and Prince Philip celebrating 60 years together. The Biblical background to Christ the King is an all-powerful monarch who nonetheless gives himself to save his people. In v. 31: ‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.’ Even now, Jesus is at the right hand of God, and one day his kingdom will come with power. The whole world will be as God intended it to be. Over it all, as King, will be Christ.

 

Secondly, we are invited to join that Kingdom. If we have faith in Jesus, that promise of verse 34 applies to us: ‘You that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom that has been prepared for you from the foundation of the world.’ It has always been God’s plan that his people should live with him in a perfectly renewed creation forever. He invites us – so let us respond, take up the invitation.

 

Thirdly, the good news is that good will triumph and there will be an end to evil. We see very clearly here that kind, loving, serving deeds are rewarded by Jesus. These are simple practical actions in verses 35-36: clothing the naked, feeding the hungry, caring for the sick.

It’s not hard to think of equivalents today: Doing the shopping for the housebound lady next door, putting a tin or two in the supermarket’s box for the homeless. Popping in to check on those who are unwell, phoning those who are going through hard times. Sharing garden produce, welcoming the less well-off to a church social. Giving to charity. Defending those who are oppressed. Hosting a refugee family.

 

Some of these actions are simple: like the guy who approached me at Chippenham station and pointed out I was standing on a platform where there were no train tracks, and the one I wanted was over there. Others are more complex – I’m sure I’m not the only one here who’s given money to a beggar, feeling sorry for them and a bit guilty too because I’m also wondering how it will be spent. I got sent this excellent guide: ‘How to help homeless people’ by the Church Housing Trust, because we have to be both generous and wise.

 

In the first century AD, when Jesus taught, most people lived in small communities. They knew their neighbours but not much further afield, they knew who was in need, and were mutually accountable to one another. Today we are so interconnected that we daily see images of suffering people from the other side of the world, yet at the same time we may have little relationship even with the folks next door.

 

We are so aware of need, we could give our all, but what then? We can be bewildered as to how to respond, feel guilty turning away the charity doorstepper. As St Paul says in Corinthians, it is important to give prayerfully, generously, without compulsion and responsibly. God wants us to develop maturity in our giving, so each one of us needs to work this out for ourselves. And the question is not ‘How little or how much must I give?’ but ‘How much of me, my life in Christ, and all that God has entrusted to me is reflected in my giving?’ For giving changes us. We are transformed, and others are transformed by our gift.

 

 

It may do so in a deep way. Martin Luther King said: ‘We are called to play the Good Samaritan on life’s roadside; but that will be only an initial act. One day we must come to see that the whole Jericho road must be transformed so that men and women will not be constantly beaten and robbed as they make their journey on life’s highway. True compassion is more than flinging a coin to a beggar; it is not haphazard and superficial. It comes to see that an edifice which produces beggars needs restructuring’

 

For instance it is good that the government has reduced the waiting time for Universal Credit – people claiming benefit just don’t have 6 weeks’ living expenses in their back pocket.

 

Making structural changes involves difficult issues, and I have sympathy for those who implement them. One thing we can be sure of, our fourth point: that when the Kingdom of God comes, suffering will be no more. Evil will be destroyed. This is really the other side of the same coin. If the new creation is entirely good, there can be no evil. None at all. I used to homebrew wine – make a gallon at a go, but if a single tiny fruit fly got in the whole lot would turn to vinegar. Even a tiny bit of wickedness would spread.

 

The challenging thing about the people in the passage who are described as goats is that if we met in the street we wouldn’t think they were bad. In v. 41-43 Jesus does not call them murderers, thieves, adulterers, drunkards – because they weren’t. They probably seemed very moral. They just didn’t help those in need. Maybe they lived in nice bungalows with well maintained gardens; they were quiet neighbours, kept themselves to themselves. Never hurt a fly. They just didn’t help either. ‘Not my problem. The state will sort it out. If I get involved where will it stop? It’s probably their fault anyway.’

 

 

I know that I’ve reacted to the needy like that at times. Rather than responding out of guilt, I should remember that fifth piece of good news: that when we help those in need we help Christ himself. In v.44 they ask: ‘Lord when did we see you hungry and not feed you?’  -the implication being that if they knew it was Jesus they would have done something. But Jesus says ‘Whatever you do (or do not do) for one of these, you do for me.’ In serving others, we serve Christ.

 

One of the big questions in this passage is when Jesus talks about ‘members of my family’ who does he mean? Does he mean Christians, who certainly often suffer double discrimination? Or does he mean that we are all children of God? It’s not entirely clear.

 

Maybe the biggest question though is what am I? Am I, are you, a sheep or a goat? Which side of the chancel arch are you? Destined for eternal life, or destruction?

 

The temptation is to respond by reflecting on what we do. how well do we measure up? So I do try and respond to need. But sometimes I walk on by – it seems too complicated or I’m caught up in my own world or don’t want to be drawn in. I give to charity but how much? – I suppose I could go the extra mile like John Wesley who gave up drinking tea so he could give to the poor. There’s always more that could be done.

 

Am I therefore a sheep or a goat? I feel like both. Which predominates? Have you done enough good, been enough of a sheep, to outweigh any goatish behaviour? To compensate for the wrong done? Let alone any good not done?

 

How do I know where I will be when Jesus divides us in two? How can anybody reach God’s perfect standard? Surely the answer is that We can’t. We cannot wipe away our sin, that foul spot never washes out, except when God forgives us through Jesus.

We could never do enough to reach some divine standard. The only offering that will satisfy is the perfection of Christ, his sacrifice of himself for us on the cross.

 

Our mixed nature, the sheep and the goat within each of us, can only be dealt with by being born again in Jesus. When we commit ourselves to him we receive new life that lasts for eternity, and the old way finally perishes the day that we die. In the light of the rest of the Bible, we cannot read this passage as an exhortation to do more so that we can be saved. It is not that. Instead it tells us that true faith results in actions.

 

If we trust in Christ, if we are truly his, then we will want to make a difference for others. If Jesus’ spirit is in us, then we will feel compassion for those in need. Yes, we may be puzzled by how best to help, yes we will still wrestle with our innate selfishness, but by the grace of God we should see progress. We will do something! Motivated not by guilt, but by his love, the love that was first shown to us, we will reach out in love to those in need and in so doing serve Christ himself.

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1 Thess 5:1-11 and Mt 25:14-30

One day as I was walking to church, I saw two suspicious characters hanging around aimlessly. They were about my age, and in that town 15 years ago it was unusual to see anyone under the age of 30 out and about before 10 am on a Sunday. ‘Morning’ I said. ‘Ah Vicar,’ one of them improvised, ‘my Gran would like to come to church. What time is the service? And how long does it last?’ ‘It’s at 10 o clock,’ I said, ‘and it lasts for an hour and a quarter. And the great thing is, if your Gran comes in a car, she can leave it here safely because we have a retired policeman patrolling up and down the road all through the service.’ Funnily enough, Gran didn’t turn up, and we didn’t have any break-ins that day either

As Jesus says earlier in Matthew’s gospel: ‘if the householder had known what time the thief was coming, he would not have let his house be broken into. So you too should be prepared.’

 

We do not know when the time of trial will come, when problems will descend. Life goes its own untroubled way but then suddenly something changes. Scientifically, we do not know how long our world will exist, we do now know the span of our own lives. In v1 of our reading from 1 Thessalonians, St Paul tells us that we cannot predict the end, so we need to live in a way that is prepared. ‘For you yourselves know that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night’. Jesus will return at a time we do not expect, so let us be ready. (Biblical)

 

It is rather strange thinking of the return of Jesus being like a thief. Chantal and I were burgled when we were on our honeymoon – I think the thieves had seen it in the Parish Mag. Fortunately not much was taken – I lost some obscure indy CDs but all the wedding presents the thieves were after were at the in-laws.  But it wasn’t the loss which was upsetting – it was the thought that someone had broken into our house, that even before my wife had lived there someone had been through all our stuff. Thieves might think ‘oh they’ll get it back on insurance’ but insurance doesn’t deal with the emotional impact.

Thieves cause grief and hassle out of all proportion to the value they get from the things they take. So it does feel distinctly uncomfortable likening the return of Jesus to a thief in the night. Isn’t the Advent of Christ supposed to be good news? Doesn’t Jesus bring in God’s Kingdom of justice and joy? Isn’t this the hope of a new world? Of creation reborn? Of every tear wiped away and evil destroyed?

 

But maybe that’s the point. Evil will be destroyed. For instance, justice is good news for many – except those who treat others unjustly. Tears being wiped away brings joy, except to those who enrich themselves by oppressing others. The destruction of evil is great news, provided we do not cling to the evil in our hearts, for if we do we shall be swept away with it. What is happening in Zimbabwe may turn out to be good news for many – but to Mugabe it may feel like the thief in the night.

 

As St Paul says in v.4 to the believers ‘For you beloved are not in darkness for that day to surprise you like a thief, for you are all children of the light.’ Clearly the implications, the idea of Jesus coming like a thief in the night partly depends on our response.

 

The image of the thief emphasises unexpectedness. It’s the shock of waking up and finding things gone. A jolt of unwelcome reality when we thought we were comfortably bumbling along. The car that pulls out in front when you’re driving along minding your own business. Even if we are children of the light, it’s important that we are ready and alert.

 

Perhaps that’s why St. Paul suddenly talks about being sober. I don’t think Paul’s against alcohol –the Bible talks about it as a gift from God. But I do know that if I’ve had a drink it’s harder to concentrate on work, prayer is less focussed. So it’s a decision: am I at work? Do I want to spend some time catching up with God? Is this a moment to relax and enjoy good company and good wine? And what’s the balance between those activities? Something would be wrong if I come home from work and always open a bottle, if I cannot be sociable without a glass in hand.

So how should we be then? If Jesus will return unexpectedly, if we may be called back at a time we do not predict, how then should we live? During November we hear different parables of Jesus which tell us how to live in readiness for him. This week it’s the parable of the talents.

 

A talent in the parable is a whacking great lump of silver. About half a million pounds worth in fact. So a not inconsiderable amount of money. But under the influence of this parable, a talent has also come to mean gifts, skill. In reality it can stand for anything with which we are entrusted. For God the Creator is the ultimate source of our abilities, our possessions, our money, even our time. All things come from God, and we are accountable to him for how we use them. Like the parable, God wants us to use our assets, time and skills well.

 

Some have one talent, others have five. From those who have been given much, more will be expected. The servant who had five talents produced five more, the one who had three earned another three – but that was fine. We should not be jealous of the abilities of others, but fulfil our own vocation. When I meet God he won’t ask me: ‘Why weren’t you Nicky Gumbel or Bill Gates?’ He might ask me: ‘Why weren’t you Christopher Bryan? Why weren’t you all I made you to be?

 

The bad servant gets in trouble because he hasn’t made even a minimal effort. Fearful, he buries the talent in the ground. Even just leaving it with the bankers would have earned interest – a rather dubious assumption these days! But he can’t be bothered, or maybe he’s frightened of failure.

 

Is God like this boss character? Is Jesus saying: make the most of what God’s given you, or else? Could we perhaps see it as saying that God wants the best for us? From us? After all, the best for us will involve giving our best.

Imagine a God who didn’t care. A ‘yeah whatever’ God. Would that be attractive? Would people be drawn to a church which bumbled along with minimum effort and asked for zero commitment? In my curacy parish there was an excellent choir. The demands on children were high – they were expected to attend and practice. There were rewards, ribbons, badges. They put a lot in and got a lot out.

 

Nobody wants to be part of an organisation which is a bit shabby because it’s run on a shoestring, or a church where you can be on the rota but nobody really minds if you don’t rock up to do your bit. Surely it’s better to belong to a church which encourages you to give your best, which has great plans even if people are challenged to give 10% of their income? What we see in our society is that people are drawn to quality, even if that asks a significant amount of them.

 

I don’t want to be a one talent, hide it in the ground sort of person. I don’t want our churches to be like that. I want to be the kind of person who does something with their talent. Whether it’s five, three or one, I want to grow, I want to be stretched through the risky process of putting talents to work. I want to step out in that journey with a God who honours our willingness to be used by him.

 

God knows we will not always get it right. God knows that we will learn through failures as well as success. God does not need us to be perfectionist. We’re not trying to earn salvation, find our way into God’s favour by doing things for him. What does Paul say in v. 9? ‘God has not destined us for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ’ He died for us, so that whether awake or asleep we might live with him.

 

If we trust in Christ, our destiny is secure. If we believe Jesus has died for us, we need not fear the end. If we trust him for forgiveness, we are not fearfully looking over our shoulders. We can live our lives freely, making the most of our talents, being ambitious for him. Amen

Matthew 24:1-14

As Hurricane Irma bore down on the Caribbean in September, one group of people knew exactly what to do. Richard Branson, his family and his staff headed down into the wine cellar of his luxury retreat on Necker Island. Underground, not sure if they would survive, they did the obvious thing and started on the high quality contents of the cellar. I imagine them emerging after many hours, bleary eyed in the bright sunlight and taking in the devastation around.

 

Branson can rebuild, but others have lost everything. Fair play to him though, despite media interest he insisted the story was not about his experience but about the thousands of poor people in the British Virgin Islands who had lost homes and livelihoods.

 

I wonder how we would react in a similar situation? What would you do if you thought it might be your last few hours on earth? Some people eat drink and be merry; some might take the chance to do something they’d always wanted to do; others might tell those most precious to them of their love, or feel the need to make their peace with God.

 

Those range of reactions will be familiar to us from any number of disaster movies. It may be floods and giant waves, alien invasion, asteroids or flesh munching zombies – whatever the peril our culture seems to be fascinated with end of the world scenarios.

 

I wonder why that is? Do those apocalyptic films address some kind of deep fear within us? Of chaos bubbling up? An anxiety that our complex society is actually rather precarious? That despite all our knowledge and technology we are still not in control of our lives? Do we perhaps instinctively know that there will be an end, that we shall eventually stand before God and be accountable to him?

 

It is after all a common theme in the Bible – that God will one day create a new heaven and a new earth. From the Old Testament to the Book of Revelation there is this great promise.

Our broken world will not always be this way. God will destroy all that harms his creation. There will be an end to sickness, pain, death and evil. Which is bad news for those who cling to evil – part of this renewal is the judgement when every person is accountable to God for their sin. Those who cling to evil will be swept away with it, but there’s a great hope for those who trust in Christ to be forgiven and start again.

 

People in Jesus’ time were not that different from us. They too thought about earth-shattering events, the end of the world as they knew it.

Look at verse 1 in our reading. The disciples were simple country types from Galilee. They were overawed by the huge buildings of Jerusalem; the vast white stones weighing over a hundred tonnes each. Herod’s temple was so grand that even the little spikes to keep off the pigeons were plated with gold. But Jesus is not so impressed, in v.2:

 

‘Truly I tell you, not one stone will be left here on another, all will be thrown down’. Barely thirty years later this prediction came true. Roman armies surrounded Jerusalem in a lengthy siege. With much suffering the city fell, and the temple was burnt to the ground. All that remains is a layer of stones at the bottom of the Wailing Wall.

 

For the disciples such an appalling event, the destruction of God’s own temple, could mean only one thing. Surely the end of the world must follow? How could the world carry on without Jerusalem? Without the temple? So they want to know, in verse 3: ‘Tell us when will this be, what will be the sign of your coming and the end of the age?’

 

But notice how Jesus doesn’t give them the answer they’re looking for. He pointedly doesn’t give them a date – in fact in v.36 he says ‘About that day or hour no-one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son but only the Father.’ Only God knows when this will happen. Jesus also refuses to give the disciples clues, precise signs that will allow them to work out that the end is just about to happen. Instead Jesus tells us how to live our lives in the meantime.

It’s all very practical. Keep faithful. Don’t be panicked by events in the world around. Endure persecution. Stay steady to the end. Don’t waste time on speculation but live in readiness for Christ, whenever he comes.

 

After all, if we knew when our time would come, if we knew how long the earth had left, would it change human behaviour? And if so, for better or for worse? I read an interesting novel over half-term. It’s called ‘Numbers’ and it’s all about a teenage girl who has what I suppose you would call a psychic ability. Whenever this girl looks into someone’s eyes she sees the date when they will die. So how does she react? Does she tell them? Do they believe her? Can they change the future? And if she tries to change the future, do those new events just lead to what was going to happen anyway?

 

It’s a fascinating idea. If we knew when Jesus was coming back and it was a long time, would people’s love grow cold? If it’s a short time, would people change their behaviour? But then if it’s right to live a certain way, surely it’s right to do that whether the timescale is long or short? Would knowing make a difference? Should it?

 

It doesn’t stop people trying though. The Jehovah’s Witnesses predicted it in 1920, and then again for 1975. The predictions keep on coming from all over.

 

So the first thing Jesus says in verses 4 and 5 is: Don’t be taken in. Many false Messiahs will come, many people will be deceived by cults which claim to have found secret codes. I’m amazed it keeps on happening because Jesus says very clearly that if anyone tells you the date, don’t believe them! The new creation will happen one day, in God’s good time. Jesus affirms what the rest of the Bible teaches. He says there will be a judgement, and a new beginning. But it will come at a time we will not expect. Don’t waste your life reading Nostradamus!

 

Secondly, Jesus says: don’t be alarmed by what is going on in the world. I wonder if you’ve heard of the Doomsday Clock? This is an imaginary clock in which midnight represents global human-made catastrophe – nuclear war and the like. How close the minute hand is to midnight represents how bad the situation is. Anyone like to guess where we are at the moment? Apparently it’s two and a half minutes to midnight, up from 14 minutes to midnight at the end of the Cold War, and the second worse it’s ever been, after the year in which hydrogen bombs were first tested.

 

Whether that’s an objective assessment of risk, I don’t know, but it certainly says a lot about society’s anxiety levels. What does Jesus say? In verse 6: ‘You will hear of wars and rumours of wars, but don’t be alarmed for this must take place, but the end is not yet.’ He’s not at all saying that we shouldn’t care about these events; he’s certainly not saying that we shouldn’t do everything in our power to prevent famine and climate change. Compassionate Christians have to act. We have to bring these things to God in prayer. We will feel the pain of our world!

 

Yet almost every generation has fallen into the trap of thinking that their times are so bad that they are unique, that there is no hope, or that the end is nigh. Jesus teaches us to be hopeful, to trust in God. God’s plan is not derailed. As he says in verse 7: ‘Nation will rise against nation, all this is but the beginning of birth pains.’

 

An important image to hang on to. Birth pains are not much fun – so I’m told. At the time they’re all encompassing. Afterwards, the pain is forgotten in the joy of a new life. What comes afterwards should make it all worthwhile. Keep that picture in mind as we look at the last few verses in our reading.

 

In verse 9 to 12 Jesus tells his disciples to stand firm, to keep faithful, even in the midst of persecution. Opposition, violence, even execution were a reality for those disciples. Jesus wanted them to be prepared.

Christians today in many parts of the world suffer for their faith. In Saudi Arabia it is illegal to own a Bible or a crucifix. In Pakistan recently a schoolboy was beaten to death by his classmates because he was the only Christian in school. We must remember our brothers and sisters in the suffering church, pray for them, give to the charities that support them.

 

We too should be prepared – the words of Jesus envisage that faithful Christians could be persecuted anywhere. In our society we need discernment. We need wisdom to see clearly those things on which we cannot compromise, as opposed to fighting battles which make Christians look ridiculous or legalistic.

 

As Jesus says in verse 13, ‘anyone who stands firm to the end will be saved.’ Therefore be confident because your time is in God’s hand. Your lifespan, the world’s existence, is held by God. The end, the new beginning will come, in God’s good time. For the good news must be preached to all nations.

 

So do not worry, but be faithful and consistent. Stay in the grace of Christ, keep on using the means of grace he has given us. Pray, meet together, worship, serve. For in so doing we work with God’s plan, and we wait for that day when his plan is gloriously fulfilled. Amen.