Hope in suffering
Many editors of Bibles and commentaries subtitle our Gospel text as, ‘The judgement.’ They focus on judgement portrayed by the shepherd separating the sheep from the goats, the righteous from the self-righteous, and the good from the bad. Our Gospel text does indeed speak to us about judgement, but Jesus’ intention was not so much to focus on judgement as to provide hope in a situation of despair. Therefore, our theme for today is, ‘Hope in suffering.’
With a little bit of background knowledge we can begin to see how this text can be one of hope rather than one of judgement. Through the 25 chapters, Matthew tells about the life of Jesus and the life he gave to the people around him. There are only a further three chapters that describe the trial and condemnation of Jesus, his death and resurrection. The drama climaxes with the crucifixion and death of Jesus on the cross. Jesus knows that his death is soon upon him, the end is near. Our text uses suitable dramatic language to help impart the conclusion of a farewell speech addressed to His disciples on the Mount of Olives. Jesus is preparing his disciples for his coming absence and finishes with this parable of hope. Jesus is about to face crucifixion and death, and yet he puts his own feelings aside to consider the well being of his disciples.
We are also His disciples. Jesus is speaking to the Church, to the Christian, to you and me. Jesus is speaking to our own hopes and dreams in a time of despair and suffering. For some of us here today it maybe a message of comfort for another time.
Jerusalem once again is occupied by a foreign power. Rome is in control and is considered by many Israelites as the enemy. The term goat has been used figuratively to describe a leader. Rome is now the leader in Jerusalem. Their self-righteous behaviour has not found favour with many people. It is often the case with self-righteous behaviour, it tends to walk over other people and not care for them. The disciples, like many other Israelites feel the oppression and dream of a day, a day of freedom. The Roman taxes are getting higher and yet the poor are getting poorer and there are more in prison than ever before. It seems as if no one cares whether the hungry starve or the homeless have shelter. No wonder the down-and-out, the suffering have dreams of change, freedom from oppression of every sort, dreaming of a new kingdom, a saviour. Jesus speaks to their hopes and dreams.
Like other times of occupation and oppression in the life of Israel, it had been a result of their own sin. It started when they began to forget about God and his ways. God had a wonderful plan for them. It meant being a holy nation, separate in ways to the neighbouring nations, and yet a witness to them of God’s goodness. But unfortunately, temptations of every sort and the desire for immediate pleasure got the better of them. They went the way of other nations and forgot about God. They became self-righteous.
Israel behaved badly. They did not consider the well being of the stranger or visitor to their land. The poor were hungry, the rich were getting richer, no one cared for the homeless orphan and widow, and the Word of God was neglected.
When Jesus spoke about separating the sheep from the goats, one to his right hand and the other to his left hand he was not only speaking to the current hopes and dreams of the disciples but also reminding them of their nation’s former sins. They had once acted the goat and now where receiving from the Romans what they had done before. When Israel had it good they forgot to love God and each other. That was their sin. It was a reminder and encouragement to his disciples to continue loving God and caring for the well being of all people just as Jesus had set the example. Then they will enter into the joy of their master.
Like the nation of Israel and the disciples we have all acted the goat at times. There have been times when you have hurt people and others have hurt you. Sometimes you feel the victim while others see you as the oppressor. There have been times when you gave generously to the needy and withheld your hand when they came again. You have had good times and bad, attended weddings and funerals, laughed with friends and wept alone.
God knows you better than anyone including yourself. When Jesus comes again to separate the sheep from the goats, we all hope that we are counted amongst the sheep on his right hand who will be led into eternal joy with him. But deep down you know there is a struggle within where part of you leads to sin, to act the goat. Where will God put you, with the sheep or with the goats? Who is there that can deliver us from this burden and oppression of our sin?
While the disciples were with Jesus they were comforted. And so it is with us. Through the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ we have the living God with us. Jesus went about healing, comforting, and changing people’s life despite the difficult circumstances they were living in. You too can call upon Jesus today for healing and a change in your life. Although we battle with sin everyday Jesus can make a difference to your life now and forever.
There is war and terror all about us. In our community there is violence to defenceless people, senseless death on the roads, nations at war with each other leaving death and destruction behind. Many people continue to hope and dream of a future where all people can live in peace and with each other. It is to those hopes and dreams that Jesus speaks.
The fact that Jesus is coming again is good news. It is good news because we know what he is like. We have seen him in the Gospels caring for all sorts of people. He has poured out his life in order to save all people. Likewise, he cares for you and me. That’s what he is like. In his coming we hope and dream that he will sort out all things and restore peace in our life and throughout the world. And he will.
The good news continues when Jesus will remove all oppression in our life by removing the goat from our presence. For many Israelites it was a hope that the Roman occupation would end. Jesus will come to restore all creation to its former place, to make it whole again. Jesus will come to cast out the hunger, the sickness, the poverty, the pain, and above all sin. Jesus will come to finally cast out the sin, the goat within us to make us whole again as it was intended from the beginning of creation.
Let us not forget that the body and blood of Jesus, his death on the cross has already covered our sin and made us acceptable before God. But the battle between saint and sinner continues to rage within us and about us. It will be when Jesus comes again that the battle will cease forever and the sin cast out. The result will be an everlasting peace and all will give glory and praise to God.
Finally, a picture from Leviticus 16: 20-22. “…and Aaron shall lay both his hands upon the head of the live goat, and confess over him all the iniquities of the people of Israel, and all the transgressions, all their sins; and he shall put them upon the head of the goat, and send him away into the wilderness…” This a picture of purifying Israel from sin, and also of portraying the coming Christ as our scapegoat for all our sins so that we may appear right before God. That was fulfilled with the death of Jesus on the cross. This picture also helps to continue the picture in our text where Jesus comes again and separates the goat, the sin from our presence so that we will be restored to full health. All glory and praise to God.