Last Sunday of the Church Year
“He hath sounded forth the trumpet that shall never sound retreat. He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat. Oh be swift my soul to answer Him, be jubilant my feet! Our God is marching on.”
With all the dramatic imagery of the summons to judgment, the loud blast of the dreadful trumpet of God, Julia Ward Howe was not merely suggesting a connection between the American Civil War and the Last Day. Not suggesting…because for her there was something final about that conflict. Something dreadfully divine. She knew the world that would emerge on the other side of this American Last Day would be a very different world from the antebellum world they had known so long. But…would that world be better or worse?
For all of his use of religious language in his presidential speeches, Abraham Lincoln spoke with neither despair nor triumph about those years of war. Even in the depths of his well-known bouts of melancholy, Mr. Lincoln did not give in to meaninglessness and futility.
A scrap of paper was found among Lincoln’s effects after his assassination. On it the President had scribbled some thoughts during the darkest days of the “contest” as he often called it. It read in part: “I am almost ready to say that this is probably true—that God wills this contest, and wills that it shall not end yet. By His mere great power…He could have either saved or destroyed the Union without a human contest. Yet the contest began. And, having begun, He could give the final victory to either side any day. Yet the contest proceeds.” And when our redeemer President spoke of God’s judgment, it was never “them,” always “us.”
The war sifted Mr. Lincoln’s heart…though he barely had a clue as to the outcome of that sifting. We today can see what he could not, for the sifting of war revealed what was in the heart and soul of this 16th President.
And this is exactly the sort of thing that our Lord tells us by His parable today. All the sifting and winnowing that goes on in life reveals whether we are among the sheep or among the goats.
Now the incredible thing in Jesus’ parable is that no one in the story, no one, understood what and why things happened as they happened. It’s only in the end, on the Last Day, that everything is made clear. Nevertheless, over the course of life, in the ebb and flow of experience, some of the parable characters do the faithful things, the little things—food for the hungry, clothing for the naked, care for the sick and the imprisoned. Some love their neighbors as themselves. Others just love themselves.
But Jesus does not tell this parable to scare people. He who spent three years saying to the world, “Come, follow Me,” He does not now say, “Depart from Me,” in order to scare the goats into becoming sheep. They can’t! Goats are goats. Sheep are sheep. What each do is a reflection of who they are. You cannot become righteous by doing righteous things. You cannot become a sheep by doing sheep things and avoiding the devilish goatherd.
So it does no good at all to scold and scare the goats, to command them to get out there and do more sheep things, to drive the goats through some sort of elaborately tortured scheme of sheep discipleship! Bah! Nor does it do any good…as is so often done these days…to say that it doesn’t matter…that goat and sheep…well, to each his own, different strokes for different folks. But hey, Jesus loves everyone, so if you’re a goat be faithful to the goat and if you’re a sheep be faithful to the sheep…after all, there are many ways to God. Bah, and double Bah!
It is the crucible of life that quickly reveals the folly of both of those tactics. When push comes to shove, when God bears down mightily with His hand, “sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment seat”…well…life soon enough reveals that we are who we are. We have met the goat, and he is us.
And yet…yet, we have seen the end of this sheep-goat conflict. It doesn’t come by forcing the goats to be more sheep-like. They can’t! Nor by telling the goats that it doesn’t matter whether one is sheep or goat. It does matter to God! The sheep are told, “Come you blessed.” And the goats, “Depart you cursed.” So the only way for a goat to enter the kingdom prepared for the sheep is for the goat to die and be reborn a sheep!
And we have seen that miracle! It is the miracle of Good Friday and Easter. We goats, born goats as every generation of humanity has been born, goats through all our days…we have seen the dreadful, dark judgment of God pronounced upon our goatishness at the cross, where Jesus dies as the world’s ultimate goat.
But with His resurrection comes a new creation. “Behold,” He says, “I make all things new.” And anyone who is in Christ is a new creation…any goat in Christ is now a sheep, the goat is reborn a sheep, the sinner is reborn a saint. It is in Christ that God is both just—separating goats and sheep—and at the same time He is the one who justifies, who creates the one Flock with one Shepherd King, made up of goats who have been reborn as sheep.
And from that Last Day of Good Friday and Easter, to The Last Day (or our own Last Day in this life) we are now His sheep…even while our goat nature still clings to us. So we live our goat/sheep, sheep/goat days—and some days the sheep and the goat in us really butt heads—we live our sheep/goats days until, in death, we are set free from all our goatishness to live the resurrection fullness of pure sheep in the kingdom prepared for us.
And until that day of final freedom, God continues to sift the hearts of men before His judgment seat. Sometimes He does it by war, sometimes by economic uncertainties. Sometimes His sifting is global in its dimensions. Sometimes it is a very personal, intimate sifting. But sift He does, laying bare our own goatishness by what we do and by what we fail to do.
But…not, then, not to force us into being better sheep. He does it to show us how deep our own goatishness runs, so that we goats cry out to be crucified in Christ again and again and again, that sin in us, the goat in us, may die by repentance and forgiveness, that each day in Christ we may live anew, new as Easter, new as the sheep of His hand and the people of His pasture.
Abraham Lincoln once wrote, “I have been driven many times upon my knees by the overwhelming conviction that I had nowhere else to go.” That was a heart sifted by God! So the path of our own lives in Christ is often veiled from our eyes, like the parable, until the Last Day. On most days our own left hand will not know or understand what our right hand is doing. We will often confuse the deeds of sheep and goats. But…we sheep/goats of Christ’s redeeming, crucified with Christ and born anew in Him, we have heard His voice and so we believe that He who has begun a good work in us—His work from the cross to the font to us—He will bring it to completion on the Day of Christ Jesus.
And come that day, that great Last Day, we too, like the parable sheep, we will be astonished to learn that it is not our works, our talents, our bright shining lights that remain. We will see that what remains is God’s work, what He has done in and with and through us, His sheep…despite the goatishness that clings to us.
So for now we live by faith….until the day of faith’s reward. We go out in faith, not fully knowing why we feed the hungry or clothe the naked or tend the sick and the imprisoned, or scores of other little everyday actions that seem devoid of any spiritual significance. We only know that faith compels us, we must. And by this same faith we are compelled to repent when we fail. For we are His and He is ours. Sifted together with Christ; one Flock with one Shepherd King, receiving the kingdom prepared for us from the foundation of the world. “Oh, be swift my soul to answer Him, be jubilant, my feet!”