There’s no missing the miracle. What happened was the LORD our God, Everlasting Creator of the Universe, looked at this world she had made, and loved this world she had made. Right out loud God said this world is good. Right out loud the people went and broke her heart. So God sent his own beloved Son into this world to go with us.
The Holy Spirit is not held hostage in heaven. Jesus Christ is not tied up, bound to a throne, seated on the right hand of God the Father Almighty. Now, you want to see the LORD? Just look at the people.
See Christ in every person in this room. See Christ at the bus stop, Christ at the store. It’s Christ in ICE detention and Christ in rehab. The Messiah has come, and turns out, he is not just a king. (The people had been expecting a king.)
The people first hearing the Gospel of Matthew were already expecting a Day of Judgement. This is the day the old age will pass away and the kingdom of heaven will reign on earth.
The Son of Man will come in all his glory, with all the angels, and he will be like the high king of heaven and earth —see the people had been expecting a king. But this king will be like a shepherd. Then all the nations will be summoned before him —Jews and Gentiles alike —and he will separate the righteous from the unrighteous, like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
If you’re imagining this scene with a king on a throne accompanied by angels and an assortment of bleating livestock, you can tell, this teaching is strange at best. At worst, it is deeply disturbing. It could be that many of us are troubled by the idea of the king-shepherd sorting out people, sending some of us to heaven and some of us to hell.
This notion of Jesus judging and separating is one that I find offensive and dangerous. But that’s me. It really might be the case that for the people first hearing Matthew’s Gospel, this separation was what they expected. The offensive dangerous part is not where the king positions the righteous or the unrighteous. It’s where he puts himself.
Both the sheep and the goats were shocked! Here the Son of Man was not affixed to the throne after all. All along, Jesus was with the least of these, with those who are most vulnerable. So you can hear how the popular interpretation of this story came to be. It goes like this: Do not be taken by surprise. Expect to encounter Jesus Christ among those who are most in need.
Whenever you load up bags at the Food Pantry, when you donate clothes to Christian Care, when you visit someone in the hospital, or write a letter to someone in solitary, you are actually seeing Christ and serving Christ.
There’s something about this teaching so miraculous and mind-blowing, but chances are good that you’ve already discovered this for yourself, and if you haven’t yet, you will. I’m pretty sure, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.
And so this story is good news for the people who serve. Blessed are you who make casseroles, and send cards, and give money. Blessed are you who show up to sit down next to someone who is in pain. Blessed are you who give rides, and first aid, and oodles of chances. The kingdom of heaven is already yours. It is good to be on the side of those who serve. No kidding.
Only thing is. At some point, there will come a time when each of us find ourselves on the side of the least of these. We will be the ones who are most vulnerable.
There are people here who know. There might come the day when you find yourself getting handcuffed, and taken to jail, and processed in. And maybe you did something to warrant this arrest. And maybe you didn’t.
There are people here who know. There might come the day when you find yourself going to the ER then getting admitted for more tests. Maybe you did something to warrant this. And maybe you didn’t.
Here’s the thing. So often, when people find themselves in need or in trouble, they begin to believe the guilt that seeps in through the walls.
Please understand. This is not ordinary guilt. This not the guilt I feel when I do something wrong, and I know why I’m feeling it, and I might even know what I need to do about it. That kind of guilt is useful; it nudges and nags at me to own what I did and make things right.
This guilt is different. This guilt pours in through the walls of our circumstances. Then, when we notice this guilt, we try to reverse engineer it to make it make sense. It’s a lie that we’re trying to sell ourselves.
It says, since I wound up in the hospital, since I am here, this must somehow be my fault. Maybe it was my fault for falling. Maybe God is punishing me for something I did or failed to do. If I am sitting in jail, I must be guilty. If they’re calling me a criminal, I must be one. If I’m sitting in the lounge some Saturday morning, then clearly I have failed to provide for my family. If my kids are trying to fall asleep on a strange bed in a shelter, surely it’s my fault for provoking the abuse in the first place or not stopping it sooner.
Now I have seen people clinging to this shame. You can get yourself all bound up in its anguish.
Beloved in Christ, this is what hell is.
The power of hell is the guilt we cling to and cannot release. We feel shame, we develop a strategy for blaming ourselves, then we tie ourselves up in this guilt. We shackle ourselves. Chances are good, you’ve already discovered this for yourself, and if you haven’t yet, you still might. I’m pretty sure, I’m not telling you anything you don’t already know.
Hell is part of what it is to be human. The threat of hell is not the surprising part; the surprising part is what happens next. It’s what happens when you find yourself in trouble, and you begin convincing yourself how you deserve all this trouble, when you find out —they assigned you a roommate. You look at the next bed and think, something about that guy is familiar. I think I know him.
You do. You absolutely know him, and he knows you.
Seriously, what did Jesus even do to get himself in here? And it’s scary because what if he joins in judging you, because you know he will. He will look right at you and Jesus will see you for who you really are —the son, the daughter of God the Father Almighty, Maker of heaven and earth. No kidding.
Jesus will hear the load of guilt you are trying to sell yourself, and he will tell you don’t buy it. He has gone and smuggled grace into hell. Our Christian tradition claims this is the activity that was happening on Holy Saturday. The official term is the Harrowing of Hell and I don’t know what else you’d call it. Once hell gets invaded by the grace of Christ, it will never be the same again. Neither will we, you know. Neither will we.
Hearkening back to the days of classic Sunday School stories, you might remember learning about three Jewish men who got in trouble with the king. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego refused to bow down to the golden statue that King Nebuchadnezzar had established. Our worship belongs to God, they told him.
The king was furious!
He flew into a fiery rage. He tied up Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego; he had them thrown into the fiery furnace. And that’s not even the surprising part. Some part of us could imagine the king doing this. Some part of us can even imagine being tied up in hell. The surprising part is what happens next.
When the king looks into the fire, the first thing he sees is: There are four men, not three! The second things he notices is that nobody is tied up. King Nebuchadnezzar is astonished. He’s as surprised as the sheep who say, Lord, when did we see you in need or in trouble? He’s as surprised as the goats who say, Lord, when did we see you despised or desperate?
The king orders the men out of the furnace. Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego emerge unhurt, but you know the fire was changed, and so was the king. Out of King Nebuchadnezzar’s mouth came blessing for the LORD our God.
There is good news. The next time you are working at Book Nook, or visiting someone who’s locked up, or driving meals to someone recovering from surgery, look at the person you are helping and know that you are seeing the face of God; you are seeing the grace of God.
The next time you are in hell. When it’s your kids who are in trouble. When it’s your mom who stopped eating. When you feel guilty and you’re not quite sure why. That would be a good time to re-count the number of people around you — just see whether there’s not one more. Jesus keeps showing up to go with us. He will absolutely see us in hell and when he looks at you, Christ will be seeing the grace of God.
On that day when the Son of Man comes in all his glory, with all the angels, Jesus will see us for who we really are. So you should be warned. Whenever the grace of God comes alongside us, there’s the real risk that hell will start to lose some of its power. There’s the real risk that we will keep on getting unshackled from our guilt and liberated into the love of God.
Christ have mercy. LORD have mercy. Christ have mercy upon us.