What Dreams May Come?
Last week I referred to Shakespeare saying that death being an endless sleep wouldn't be so bad if indeed that sleep were dreamless, but then he mused "what dreams may come" (Hamlet, 3, I, 65-68). At this the Second-Last Sunday in the Church Year, we come face to face with final judgment, and I must get you into a dream state now lest you sleepwalk right into Judgment Day.
Haven't you ever had a dream like our text? Our text is no dream; it's not even a parable. Jesus says, "When the Son of Man comes in His glory" this is how it will be. But haven't you ever had a dream like this text? It was not dream, was it? It was a nightmare.
All nations are there. Not just the 7 billion people that now live on this planet but the billions upon billions that have died before. You think you can hide among the multitude like you did in gym class, the classroom, or the military. There are so, so many people who's going to miss little old you? The Judge will; though this part of the judgment nightmare isn't in this text, it's in others. God reveals in 2 Corinthians 5:10. "We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him." Though our text pictures groups being judged, each in the group will be called up individually.
I know what you're doing. You're still trying to find some comfort in numbers. You're thinking, "Just how is Jesus going to be able to try the case of untold billions individually?" I could answer, "Well, He's got an eternity to do it," but you know in the judgment nightmare what happens is that you finding yourself standing up their quickly, too quickly. It's just you, you're works, and the Judge.
O yes, that is what Scripture says. The final judgment is according to works. The rest of 2 Corinthians 5 goes like this: "We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, that each one may receive what is due him for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad." What is put before goats and sheep are their works. All those things that didn't seem that bad at the time when no one else was around look ghastly when displayed before all. Those sins you thought you hid so well, so well that you forgot about them, are there before God and all creation.
You know how it is in the judgment nightmare. You feel such shame. Your world is coming unraveled. Your sins are such that you can't continue in your career, your marriage, your parenting, your school, your life. In the really bad, nightmares, you try to tell yourself this is only a dream; it's not real. In the really, really bad ones, you can't wake up and so go ever deeper into the shame, fear, guilt, and despair.
And this is no dream that Jesus is preaching to us. He preaches to us all of 2 Corinthians 5:10. Not only "must we all appear before the judgment seat of Christ," not only are we to be judged based on "the things done while in the body, whether good or bad," but we are judged so "that each one may receive what is due him." How do your judgment nightmares end? What do you deserve for the things you've done in and with your body? I know; why don't we each write down anonymously the worst thing we've ever done and put it in the collection plate. Then I'll read them, and we'll decide as a group what each one of those sins deserves?
They each deserve "eternal fire." They each deserve "eternal punishment." Liberal Christianity is wrong; hell is real and it's not annihilation; it's eternally being punished in fire. French philosopher Sartre was wrong; hell isn't other people. It's suffering eternally with the devil and his angels. All those tough guys and hardened girls you know who confidently tell you hell is this world are wrong. There's always hope here. Above the gates of hell Dante rightly places the sign, ""Abandon all hope, ye who enter here.""
There is no hope, no help, no grace, no mercy, no end for those judged guilty of their sins, and you've had that dream before. So real, so terrible that you carried it with you all day and into the next night. It agitated you; worried you; bothered you. Even when you woke up, you didn't wake from the shame, the guilt, the fear. Well, wake up now. Wake up! Wake up!
Who's the judge in reality? It's the Son of Man. You know the Son of Man. The Son of Man who said He had nowhere to lay His head. Wake up, wake up remember why that was so? He had nowhere to lay His head because He was living the life you should. He was living under the full weight and responsibility of the 10 Commandments. The worry that is ever present in your heart was never present in His. The lust that pollutes your thoughts never stained His. The countless ways you have sinned against even your most loved, loved ones Jesus was innocent of. Yet, the Son of Man was deprived of a place to lay His head. The Son of Man endured what a sinner deserves in this life. Pain, privation, suffering and shame.
Wake up! The reality is that the judge on the throne is the Son of Man. Don't you remember what Jesus says the Son of Man came to do? Not to be served but to serve and give His life as a ransom. The One on the throne is the One who gave His life in place of sinners, in place of the ungodly, in place of His enemies. The One sitting as judge is the One who went through hell for you; who pronounced forgiveness even from the cross you nailed Him to. The One sitting on the throne of Judgment is the One who redeemed you, a lost and condemned person, purchased and won you from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil; not with gold or silver, but with His holy, precious blood and with His innocent suffering and death.
The one sitting on the throne is not only the Son of Man, He's the Good Shepherd. He begins judgment by separating sheep from goats. That's easily done by a shepherd. And who are the sheep? Jesus tells us in John. "My sheep hear My Word; they know My voice and they follow Me." Do you hear His voice in sermon, in Bible classes, in Sacraments too? What does He say there? Be very afraid of the coming judgment? Be very uncertain about the coming judgment? If you think this is what Jesus says to sheep than you're not really hearing the Shepherd.
Jesus says the one on the throne is the Son of Man, a Shepherd, and the King. Where does Jesus make a point of showing me He is king? At His birth, the gentiles worship baby Jesus as their king, and then on the cross much is made over the sign: "This is the King of the Jews." My king died for me; He said He willingly laid down His life for me. And think of how Jesus depicts kings in parables: as freely forgiving and forgetting a debt of billions of dollars; as giving a joyous wedding feast; as saying there is still room in his feast. Should you be afraid of standing before such a king as this?
Good, good; you've at last woken up from your judgment nightmare; now get out of bed and live. Live confident that the righteous are shown to have no consciousness of having any righteousness in them because of what they do. When Jesus says how He sees them doing all things for His sake, they are flabbergasted: "When did we do any of these things?" Far from doing what you do, wonder if you're doing enough, have done enough, or can do enough good things, the righteous aren't depicted living like that. No, they live like siblings of the Son of Man who redeemed them, like sheep of the Good Shepherd who leads them into green pastures, like subjects of the king who has more grace and gifts then they have sins.
Did you catch how out of the blue the sheep were called the righteous?' First the Shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. Then Jesus publicly declares how He sees none of the sins of the sheep but only the good things they've done in His name. The next line is, "Then the righteous will answer." You are righteous because you are a sheep of Jesus; Jesus made you His sheep in Baptism; and keeps you His sheep by daily Absolution, and regularly communing with you.
Now that you've woken from that judgment nightmare, get out of bed and live. Live confidently. Isn't that how you want your kids to live: confident that you love them; confident that they are your children; confident that nothing in all creation could separate them from your love? If you, a sinner, want your kids to live that way, how much more so the holy Jesus wants his kids to live that way. Live confident that your Lord Jesus sees and delights in even the smallest things His sheep, His blessed, His righteous do in His name. You know how parents are delighted by literally every new thing their child does: rolling over, getting on his knees, sitting up, smiling, even burping. That's how Jesus joys in you.
The nightmare is over; you're out of the bed of fear, dread, guilt and shame; now go and live confident that the Father has prepared a kingdom for you since the creation of the world, and it's yours not because you've done enough, earned it, or deserved it. It's yours by inheritance. Notice again how before any mention of works is made Jesus says to sheep like you, "Come, you who are blessed by My Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world." The kingdom you pray to come everyday in the Lord's Prayer has been prepared for you since creation and is yours by inheritance. As Jesus says elsewhere, "Fear not little flock; it's your Father's good pleasure to give you the kingdom."
The kingdom that is eternal Jesus says is mine even in time. I'm baptized into it; I'm forgiven into it; I'm communed in it, so can't I be confident even in the face of an approaching Day of Judgment? The judgment nightmare remains one of those dreams that may come, but it goes as soon as I wake to the redemption of the Son of Man, the grace of the Good Shepherd, and the providing of the King of kings. Amen
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Second-Last Sunday in the Church Year (20111113); Matthew 25: 31-46