A Sermon for the Last Sunday before Advent (22/11/20): When the Son of Man Comes

 

When the Son of Man Comes
Matthew 25:31-46

This is the end of Jesus’ teaching ministry. Three years of wandering and three years of speaking to everyone who would listen reaches its climax here. This is the completion of everything he has tried to reveal. Jesus pictures “the Son of Man” coming in glory. He takes up the ancient image of the one who will arrive, riding on the clouds to establish the reign of God on earth. But “the Son of Man”, simply “human being” is the one title he has consistently used of himself.
When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on the throne of his glory.
Jesus promises his own return. This time when he comes, it will not be not as a helpless child who grows with a fragile vulnerable human body. But it will be as one who while they look like a human being, also shares the visible quality of the divine, glory! This time there will be no mistaking who he his. There will be no room for doubt. This time there will be no possibility of denial or rejection. There will be no question that Jesus is Lord. This point will be reinforcedbecause the Son of Man will arrive accompanied by an angel army. 
This is quite unlike anything else that Jesus has shown us. Almost all of his talk about the kingdom has been veiled. The kingdom of heaven has always been very near at hand with Jesus. But it has always remained just out of sight, hinted at, alluded to. Jesus has spoken of God’s rule obliquely. He has hinted at it in other things. He has told stories about servants and masters, about wedding feasts and their guests, about fathers and their obedient and disobedient sons. Indeed he has told stories about all three of these in the moments leading up to this promise of the coming of the Son of Man. His stories up to now have begun in the “this-worldly”, and have used what we already know and already experience as a window for us to peer through. Then suddenly he has always surprised us, in some strange twist of his story telling he shows us for a moment a glimpse of what the kingdom of heaven, what God’s reign will be like. But here, nothing is hidden. He speaks with absolutecandour and complete directness.
Yet this very exposure hides the reality from us! The strangeness of the picture leaves us struggling to comprehend: the Sone of Man, glory, angels, and one seated on a throne with all the nations gathered before him. This is beyond what we have known or felt. This strangeness leaves our minds and our emotions wanting to reject what we are being shown. Yet this is what Jesus is holding our for us and for the whole world. This is the final decisive promise to be found in everything he has taught us. He will come in glory, and he will finally and fully establish God’s peaceful and just reign among us.

As much as his picture of the end of the future is strange, his portrayal of the world is realistic and familiar. Jesus’ portrayal of the end of history points us to the reality which has existed all along. All along there have been two kingdoms. From the beginning of time it was ever thus. There has been a kingdom where God has reigned. And there has been a negative counter kingdom. The two have always existed confused and interwoven in the ambiguities of history. Though God’s rule is immeasurably stronger than its opposite the two have always existed together. This is so even if at times the two kingdoms have seemed almost equally matched, and that opposite kingdom has been the one which has been much easier to see. God’s final victory and everlasting reign has never been in doubt. Even as we have witnessed evil thrive, and have seen terrible suffering inflicted. We have also seen grace and mercy, love and kindness emerge and survive even in the midst of those things. The arrival of the Son of Man signals the separation of those two kingdoms. His arrival will fulfil the deepest longing of the whole human race. The end of history will be when all the ambiguities are removed. Good and evil will be disentangled from one another. There will be no more confusion between what might be good and what is evil. What is good will be kept forever. What is evil will be destroyed. The last words of Jesus’ teaching hold out this promise for us. He will return. Evil will be removed. God’s reign of peace will be fully established. However it is actually put into words this is in fact the aspiration of every human society, every culture, every ideology, every religion. The whole human race race longs for the end of suffering and the triumph of goodness.

It is a common feature of Jesus’ teaching to make that division into two parts. Most recently as he has taught in the temple he has pointed again and again to two groups: He has spoken of the wise and the foolish. He has spoken of the worth and the worthless. And he has spoken of the obedient and the disobedient. So it is no surprise that in is final image he pictures the Son of Man sitting on the throne of glory and:
He will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats
The end of history is a judgement. Perhaps this is the most discomforting part of the picture for us. We have become resistant to the idea of judgement. And our discomfort is not lessened by the images which Jesus leaves us with as the outcome of this great separation:
You that are accursed, depart from me into the fire prepared for the devil and all his angels.
And his final image:
And these – those to his left, the goat, the unrighteous – will go away into eternal punishment but the righteous into eternal life.
Part of us, and it’s not the best part of us, does fantasise destruction, and punishment of the worst sort on evil doers. And to some extent we as as a society act out those fantasies against those whom we judge criminal. But it is precisely this that which makes the better part of us uncomfortable with the everlasting judgement made in this scene. We have been witnesses to too much of the possibility of injustice to ever feel that a truly just judgement could be possible, especially not one as final as the on being offered here. There are those we are convinced deserve that everlasting judgement against them, but where that boundary, between the sheep and the goats, between the righteous and the accursed, where that boundary lies is a concern to us. It is a concern as old as Abraham and his anxiety over God’s proposed destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah. As we move away from the clearly and decisively evil we worry about final judgement resting against anyone, and become uncomfortable with the notion of judgement at all. We worry even about finding ourselves on the right side of the great separation when that time comes.
Jesus is conscious of this, which is why his final sequence of parables addressed to his followers – some of which we have listened to over the last couple of weeks – deal with this topic. He has warned his followers to be productive and to be aware. But in the end for us that separation is made on the basis of our relationship with him. Jesus is the key to this final scene. He is decisive in the separation which takes place. He is the one who comes. He is the king of sits on the throne. He is the judge who passes judgement on the righteous and unrighteous. He is the shepherd who separates the sheep from the goats. Which is why we can have confidence in the justice of that last judgement. Jesus is Lord!

What might be easy to miss, is that we are not directly participants in the scene which Jesus is picturing. We are bystanders here. What Jesus pictures for this final moment of history is a gathering together of “all the nations.” There is something lost in translation here. What it saysis: πάντα τὰ ἔθνη (panta ta ethne). Which is literally “all the nations”, but also has a more technical meaning. It could equally be translated: All the Gentiles. Those who gather before Jesus are all those who are not already part of God’s people. Everyone’s being and everyone’s ultimate future depends on Jesus, whether they know it or not. Jesus is Lord! This is the decisive claim of Christianity. And it is a universal claim. Jesus is Lord of everyone and everything in every place and every time. This is another aspect of the Christian message which sometimes now discomforts us. 
But the test which Jesus sets is a simple one: Do you feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, care for the sick, visit the imprisoned. The standard by which Jesus as shepherd and judge separates the people of the world is clear. Do you care for the vulnerable around you? Actually there is noting distinctively Christian about this standard. A wide range of religions, philosophies and moral codes would agree that these actions would form the basis of what we might call righteous behaviour. In the end this is about morality, it is about ethics. Jesus at this point says nothing about faith or belief whatsoever. For the nations and for each person amongst them it really does come down to whether you live a good life or not. Ethics is primary.
But as I said we are bystanders in this scene. This is not the standard which is being applied to us. When it comes to his own Jesus does talk about faith and about trust and about loyalty. It is about our relationship, individually and as a people to him. Except, how is that loyalty expressed? The nations are mystified when judgement is passed against them. Both sides, both the righteous and the accursed cannot understand what has happened to them, and how they missed the test that had been set:
When was it Lord that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison.
Neither the righteous nor the accursed recognised the presence of Jesus in the world. Both acted out of their own characters, for good or evil. In the end they are being judged for the content of their souls. We too will be judged for the content of our souls, a content which is shaped by our loyalty Jesus and the effect that loyalty has on who we are. So the question in all of Jesus teaching for us, in all his promises and warnings about the coming of God’s kingdom, is; where do we find Jesus and how do we express that loyalty? And this is determined by one last thing which Jesus says about himself:
Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.
Jesus identifies himself with the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick and imprisoned. Where human needs exists there Jesus is to be found. Those who know nothing of Jesus can be and will be judged by Jesus because he is always present in the poor and vulnerable. How they are treated is how he is being treated. The answer to the question, how do we express or faith, how do we show our loyalty to Jesus? is the same. By taking care of those in need. In a different place Jesus expresses his final teaching to those who are his followers in different words:
I give you a new commandment, that you love one another. Just as I have loved you, you also should love one another.
Amen.
When the Son of Man Comes by Christopher Wood-Archer is licensed under CC BY-NC-SA 4.0CC iconby iconnc iconsa icon

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