Sermon 11-22-2020: “The Gospel for Goats”

Scripture: Matthew 25:31-46

Several years ago, there was a TV show called Saving Grace, starring Academy Award-winner Holly Hunter. It was sort of like a raunchy version of Touched by an Angel. For the wellbeing of your soul, I don’t recommend it. But in the show, a redneck angel named Earl is sent from heaven to save the lives of people who are otherwise hell-bent on destroying themselves. One of these people he’s sent to rescue is a prisoner on death row named Leon. Earl the angel meets with Leon in his prison cell regularly—and Earl gives Leon encouragement and hope. 

In one episode, however, we learn that Leon has been cheating on his “Christian” angel, Earl. It turns out Leon’s been meeting with a Muslim imam and reading the Koran—behind Earl’s back! Leon has decided to convert to Islam. Earl finds out about it and seems angry and hurt. He challenges Leon to go ahead and convert to Islam if that’s what he wants to do.

So before he recites whatever words you have to recite to become a Muslim, Leon says, “Well, I guess this is it. Thanks for everything you’ve done for me.” And then Leon makes this Muslim “profession of faith.”

And guess what happens next? Earl is still sitting there in the prison cell next to Leon. He greets Leon with an Arabic greeting. Leon looks confused. “Why are you still here? Aren’t you a Christian angel?” Earl laughs: “Humans! You get so hung up on all these religious differences. They all lead to the same place, you know?”

They all lead to the same place, you know?

I share this with you as a warning, becausethe writers and producers of this TV show were simply reflecting what most people in our culture believe: that it doesn’t really matter whether you follow Jesus, or Mohammed, or Buddha, or Vishnu, or Brahma, or Moses—just so long as you’re sincere. If you’re sincere enough—and you’re a “good person,” whatever that means—you’ll be okay; you’ll be saved—however that particular religion defines being okay or being saved. 

Because… according to our culture, these different religions are paths to the same destination, to the same God.

I don’t know what our culture would make of today’s scripture!

Needless to say, if Jesus is telling the truth about Final Judgment, hell, eternal life or “eternal punishment” in today’s scripture—and he is—then I’m hardly exaggerating when I say that our response to Jesus’ words here will be the most important thing we can do in life… because obviously, our life on this side of death and resurrection is the most infinitesimal blip in light of eternity.

To say the least, Jesus’ words in today’s scripture are sobering, challenging, and frightening. They’re intended to be. So we need to hear and heed the warning for all of us—including especially us professing Christians… those of us who’ve grown up in church, who’ve grown up living in the buckle of the Bible belt, who’ve been confirmed, who’ve been baptized, who’ve made a profession of faith, who’ve walked down the aisle of church and prayed a “sinner’s prayer”… Because Jesus is primarily speaking to us. His words apply to everyone living in the world, but he is particularly concerned with us churchgoers!

Why do I say this? Because all three parables in Matthew 25—the Wise and Foolish Virgins, the Talents, and the Sheep and the Goats—are all are about Final Judgment, they’re all are about the division between those who will spend eternity with Jesus and those who will spend eternity separated from him in hell, and they’re all are directed toward people who seem—by all outward appearances—to be believers in Jesus, disciples of Jesus, followers of Jesus.

Indeed, sheep and goats, by superficial and outward appearances, they look and act a lot alike. It’s often hard for casual observers to tell them apart. And that’s part of Jesus’ point: It’s often hard to tell authentic Christians from people who are Christians in name only.

But obviously it’s not hard for Jesus to distinguish one group from another. But for everyone else it’s hard to tell. So that’s why this scripture ought to be a wake-up call: are we like the sheep, or are we like the goats? And what is the difference?

There’s a famous song about today’s scripture from 1981 by a great singer-songwriter named Keith Green—a pioneer of Christian rock. He died tragically in a plane crash in 1982, but he wrote and recorded some of the most convicting and theologically rich Christian songs of his generation. And one of them is called “The Sheep and the Goats.” And the last line of this long, dramatic song, recounting today’s parable, has Green saying, “And my friends, the only difference between the sheep and the goats, according to this scripture, is what they did, and didn’t do.”

Is that true? Is that the only difference? Because if so, I’m in trouble! And so are you! And so is Keith Green, for that matter!

I mean, as some of you know, I bleed white and gold. I love my Georgia Tech Yellow Jackets, and I’ve been going to football games for decades. I haven’t gone this year because of Covid, but if I did, I’m sure I would be able to report to you that on my way to the stadium in midtown Atlanta on Saturday, I passed probably a dozen panhandlers along the way—and I would probably have to tell you that I did not give them money. Of if I gave one of them money, I didn’t give the eleven others money. The truth is, I often pass panhandlers on city streets without giving money. Sometimes I do. But who am I kidding? Even when I do, it’s not like I feel good about it—it’s not like I’m feeling warm feelings of Christ-like love and compassion in my heart. I’m usually judging them—judging them, rightly or wrongly: “How have they messed up their lives to be in this position?”

I’m not proud of this, brothers and sisters. I’m just telling you the truth. I know what’s in my heart. And even when I give money, I’m usually wondering and worrying that the person asking for money is taking advantage of me—that he or she is lying to me. And then… and then… if I give money to them I worry that other people like me are watching, and judging me because—unlike them—I’m the sucker who’s dumb enough to give them money, even though they’re lying to me!

And that’s just one small example of a way in which I fail to feed the hungry, or give water to the thirsty, or welcome a stranger, or clothe the naked, or visit the sick, or visit those in prison…

My point is, even if I genuinely “do unto the least” this much of the time [hands close together], I know there are so many opportunities in which I fail to “do unto the least” [hands far apart].

So if Keith Green is right that the “only difference between the sheep and the goats is what they did and didn’t do,” then it’s hard for me to see how I’m not bound for hell!

And I take no comfort whatsoever in the way I’ve usually heard this scripture preached. And you’ve probably heard it preached this way, too: “Be like the sheep! Don’t be like the goats! After all, when you ‘do it unto the least of these,’ you’re really ‘doing it unto’ Jesus himself!”

But that can’t be the right interpretation and application of this scripture! It just can’t be! Why? Because look at verses 37 through 39: 

Then the righteous will answer him, saying, “Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?”

Please notice: the people regarded as sheep in this scripture had no idea that they were doing anything special. They certainly didn’t know that in doing it “unto the least of these” they were doing it unto Jesus! They were unaware. And yet we preachers tell our congregations, “Be aware of the fact that when you perform these acts of kindness, you’re really doing them for Jesus!” That’s a contradiction: the moment you become aware that you’re “doing it unto Jesus” is the very moment you’re no longer acting like a sheep! 

Am I making sense? I can’t command you to be “be like a sheep,” because if you try to act like a sheep—and you start thinking, “I need to be like a sheep. I need to be like a sheep. I need to be like a sheep!”—the moment you start thinking that way, you’re no longer acting like a sheep! Because the sheep are unaware that they’re doing anything special, much less doing something special for Jesus himself!

Besides, if we know that we’re “doing it unto Jesus,” if that’s our motivation, then we will be acting just like the goats! Look at how the goats respond in verse 44:

Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’

The subtext of the goats’ objection is clear: “Lord, we didn’t know that that hungry man was you… We didn’t know that that naked person was you… We didn’t know that that sick person was you… We didn’t know that that prisoner was you… Because obviously, if we had known, we would have gladly done this compassionate deed!” So if you do something because you know you’re doing it unto Jesus, you’re acting like a goat!

Again… as I suggested earlier… it seems like we’re in trouble. 

And here’s the problem: Our problem is, we read this and think of it not as the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats, but as the Parable of the Good Sheep and the Bad Sheep. 

We read this parable and say, “Oh, no! I’m not doing any of these things! I’m a goat! I need to go volunteer at a soup kitchen right away, then I’ll become a sheep.” But what you’re trying to do is impossible, isn’t it? Because there’s absolutely nothing that a goat can do to turn himself into a sheep. He can change his appearance to look more like a sheep. He can change his behavior to act more like a sheep. He can change his voice to sound more like a sheep. But guess what? He will still be a goat. 

If, by contrast, we imagine that Jesus is telling us the Parable of the Good Sheep and the Bad Sheep, well… if you’re a bad sheep, then you can change your behavior, you can do things, through God’s grace, to become a good sheep. That’s very possible

But a goat can never become a sheep. They are different species!

And that’s what Jesus is talking about: not good sheep and bad sheep, but sheep and goats. He’s not telling us a story mostly about our behavior; he’s telling us a story mostly about our identity. We don’t do these good deeds in order to become sheep; we do these things because we already are sheep. 

To put it another way: these acts of compassionate love are the “fruits” of being sheep, not the “roots.” They’re the fruits, not the roots. Jesus makes this point in the Sermon on the Mount, in Matthew 7:

You will recognize them by their fruits. Are grapes gathered from thornbushes, or figs from thistles? So, every healthy tree bears good fruit, but the diseased tree bears bad fruit.

Good fruit does not make a tree healthy; good fruit is a sign of a tree that is already healthy.

Or how about the very famous parable of the Good Samaritan? I need you to see this, so if you have your Bibles—and you should—turn to Luke chapter 10, verses 25 to 37. Most of you know the story already. You have a man on the side of the road who’s been beaten and robbed and left for dead. Two deeply religious people pass him by without stopping to help—a priest and a Levite. A Samaritan, by contrast, stops to help, at great risk to his life and safety, and at great personal expense. 

Okay, so what’s the difference between the Samaritan and the two religious men? “Well, that’s easy: the Samaritan stopped to help and did these good things. The other two didn’t.” But that’ can’t be right. Because look at verse 33. There’s an important word, which in Greek—from what I’ve read—sits at the very center of the parable: and that word is compassion. “But a Samaritan, as he journeyed, came to where he was, and when he saw him, he had compassion.”

The main difference isn’t what the Samaritan did; the difference is something he possessed… in his heart. You can do all the good works you want… but you can’t fake what’s in your heart. And the heart of the Parable of the Good Samaritan, like the heart of the Sheep and the Goats, is the heart.

So… let me tell you the truth about my own heart: Apart from God’s free gift of grace, I am someone who is hungry. I’m desperately hungry for the “bread of life” that Jesus Christ offers me, the “food that endures to eternal life.” Apart from God’s grace, I am someone who’s thirsty. Desperately thirsty for the “living water” that Jesus Christ offers me, which, when I drink it, will become “a spring of water welling up to eternal life.” Apart from grace, I’m a stranger… who desperately needs Jesus Christ to prepare a room for me in his Father’s house—who will take me to live with him there forever. Apart from grace, I am naked, and I desperately need Jesus Christ to clothe me in “garments of salvation” and a “robe of righteousness,” as Isaiah says. Apart from grace, I’m sick—sick with my own sinfulness, and I desperately need for Jesus Christ the Great Physician to forgive me, to heal me forever—so that even when I die, I’ll still be well. Apart from grace I’m in prison because of my sin. I’m enslaved to it, and I desperately need Jesus Christ to “proclaim liberty to captives” like me, to set me free with the truth of his gospel message.

When I consider just how needy I am… apart from grace, I know that I’m the “least of these,” too—alongside all these others. And so are you. Our needs may not be physical like the needy people that Jesus mentions. But look at it this way: You know who the neediest people in the world are right now—not the ones who suffer physically in this world. But the ones who will face Jesus Christ our King on Judgment Day without having received the gift of forgiveness, the gift of new birth, the gift of eternal life that is ours as a free gift through Christ’s death and resurrection.

Remember I said earlier that there’s nothing a goat can do to become a sheep? I should have said, “There’s nothing a goat can do to become a sheep—apart from divine intervention, apart from a miracle.” It takes a miracle for a goat to become a sheep. Fortunately, that’s what God has done for us in Christ.

No one in the history of the world was able to do all of these sheep-like things and avoid doing all of these goat-like things except for Christ. He was the sheep that we are unable to be. He was the sheep on our behalf. In fact, the Bible uses special language to describe the kind of sheep he was: he was the Lamb. In Isaiah 53, which prophecies Christ, it says: “like a lamb that is led to the slaughter, and like a sheep that before its shearers is silent, so he opened not his mouth.” In the first chapter of John’s gospel, when John the Baptist sees Jesus coming toward him, he says, “Behold, the Lamb of God, who takes away the sin of the world!” Revelation chapter 7 describes saints and angels worshiping this Lamb, and it says that the robes that the saints are wearing have been washed white in the blood of the Lamb. It is only the blood of the Lamb that cleanses us from sin, not anything we do. In fact, as John the Baptist implied, Jesus Christ our Lamb took away our sins, died for our sins, paid the penalty for our sins. He takes away our sin and shame and guilt.

And because of that, now when Satan our Accuser tries to blackmail us with those words of guilt and fear, when he says to us, “You’re not feeding the hungry enough; you’re not clothing the naked enough; you’re not visiting the sick enough. You’re a goat, not a sheep. Get to work. Get to work now! Or you’re not going to make the cut when that Day of Judgment comes.”

Now we can say to Satan our Accuser, “You’re right… If you judge me based on who I am and what I do, I am a goat. On my own, apart from God’s grace, I can’t be a sheep; apart from God’s grace, I can’t do all these amazing things. Fortunately for me, there is a Sheep—a Lamb, in fact—who could do it for me. And this Lamb is the reason I can live my life with confidence, and joy, and peace rather than worry, and fear, and guilt.” Amen.

One thought on “Sermon 11-22-2020: “The Gospel for Goats””

  1. I agree that none of us is sufficiently “sheep-like” in our behavior to “earn” our way onto the “heaven-bound” side. We have to have the sacrifice of the Lamb of God on our behalf to “take away our sins” (as John the Baptist said). In fact, and contrary to the beliefs of a well-meaning (but mistaken) friend of mine, we actually have to believe in and acknowledge this sacrifice in our place to “appropriate” it. It is that sacrifice that earns it; it is my response to it that appropriates it.

    But still, note that the Lord says that these sheep did DO “sheep-like” things. He did not say that they were saved despite the fact that they did NOT do sheep-like things, but rather that they DID such things (even though not knowing they were doing it “unto Christ”). Similarly as to the goats, he said that they did NOT do sheep-like things, and that is why they would be cast into hell. Of course, given all of scripture and interpreting scripture in light of scripture, we know that these are not “all or nothing” categories of what people do, saved or unsaved. Nevertheless, there is a fundamental difference in BEHAVIOR between sheep and goats.

    Now, I agree that such a behavior change will be a result of the indwelling of the Spirit. I am not capable of being sheep-like on my own speed. But the point is, if the Spirit is in fact indwelling, I will see that some sheep-like things are resulting. If no sheep-like things are resulting, then I should know that the “transformation” from a goat to a sheep has not occurred. Regarding the Good Samaritan, it is true that he did what he did out of compassion and would not have otherwise done what the did. But what PROVED OUT the fact that he had compassion? What he did for the man in need.

    Consequently, it does seem that there is a point of emphasis in scripture that we “test ourselves, whether we be in the faith.” Are we a good tree or a bad tree? How can we know? By observing what kind of fruit we are producing. It may be God who is producing it, but the point is, if we don’t see any good fruit being produced, then we know we are not a good tree and need to do something about it. If we see nothing “sheep-like,” we know that we are not a sheep.

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