The Sunday Sermon: Second Sunday in Lent – March 8, 2020
Gathered at the Throne
We are spending our Lenten season 2020 this year exploring Matthew 25:31-46. This passage is a teaching, a parable really, of Jesus that finds the Son of Man, later identified as the king, with “all the nations” gathered at the throne so that they may be identified as “sheep and goats” based on what they did during their life for “the hungry, the thirsty, the naked and estranged, the sick and imprisoned.”
The passage is titled “The Judgement of the Nations” and it is the only description of the “last judgment” in the whole New Testament. There are other discussions of “end times” or depictions of destruction, but Matthew 25 provides the only detailed description of how we all will finally be “judged.” And there is only one criterion here: Whether or not you saw Jesus Christ, God with us, in the face of another human being and whether or not you gave yourself away in love in his name. The fundamental lesson, the secret, the truth of our entire faith is this: to love is to live … now and for eternity.
So, we’re spending this season of Lent learning that lesson: To love is to live. Pray with me ….
Our passage in Matthew begins like this: When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates his sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep on his right hand and the goats on his left. This morning we’re going to explore who this mysterious figure on the throne is for us this season. You may not like it when I’m done. But then, we’re going to suggest where we might find the sheep and the goats of this story. Again, you may be put off a bit by where we find these two animals this Lenten season. But … first thing’s first: the son of man.
Like so many other Jewish images, “Son of Man” had been defined in Jewish history long before it was used in the New Testament and long before it was applied by a fledging Christian faith to Jesus of Nazareth. It was a dominant and prominent concept in apocalyptic writing and appears over one hundred times in the Hebrew scriptures. Son of Man occurs more than seventy-five times in the New Testament alone, including its presence in Matthew 25 where it is a title associated with a day of judgment. But it doesn’t appear to have started out that way.
It first shows up first in the writings of Ezekiel in the early years of the sixth century B.C.E. It next appears in the Psalms, most of which were written during the exile or after, and meant something pretty simply like “humankind,” a poetic (if not a bit chauvinistic) parallelism for “humans” and “humanity” in ancient writings and poetry.
Even when they had returned to their homes after the great exile, the ancient Israelites were always in the middle of Empires clashing. When Antiochus IV, known as Epiphanes came to the throne in 175 B.C.E., the Jews encountered the cruelest king they could imagine. Jewish worship was destroyed, Jewish customs were violated, Jewish holy places were removed, and Jewish resistors were executed. It was in this painful and tragic environment that apocalyptic writing flourished, and it was in the Book of Daniel that the image and figure of the “Son of Man” emerged again with a new meaning.
Listen for the Word of God. Read Daniel 7:9-10, 13-14. The Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.
Daniel’s vision began eight verses of this chapter, with “four great beasts” arising from a stormy sea. The first three beasts were “like a lion … like a bear … (and) like a leopard.” The fourth beast was almost indescribable, “different from all the beasts that preceded it,” possessing great iron teeth and ten horns. The four beasts represented the Babylonian, Medean, Persian, and Macedonian Empires, the succession of dominant powers under which Israel had suffered, with the last being the current and most fearsome of them all.
In Daniel’s vision, God, as the Ancient One, accompanied by a heavenly tribunal, enters the scene, opens the record books, judges, condemns, and slays the final, grotesque beast. Then, instead of multiple “ones like a beast,” there appears a single “one” who is “like a son of man,” being carried on the clouds of heaven (clouds being always the means of transportation between earth and heaven) into the presence of God. To this figure was given dominion, glory, and kingdom. All other nations were to serve the just rule of this one whose throne would last forever, never passing away.
When the son of man comes in glory then he will sit on the throne of glory.
“Son of man” is most directly translated as “one in human likeness,” or more directly from the Hebrew as “a human being.” This year during Lent, as we engage Matthew 25, let’s consider something scandalous. The one who “comes in glory” and sits on the throne is … us, ones in human likeness, human beings. You and I, when – only if, and when – we acknowledge our glory, God’s true gift to us. We often say that we’re “only human.” Daniel’s vision, lifted up centuries later in Matthew’s judgment of the nations, offers a remarkable insight: that being human is enough, that God works through human beings – powerfully evident in Jesus of Nazareth, but also evidenced in you and me. Recognizing our humanity and accepting both the glory and the limits of our human existence are the tasks of a life fully lived. Let us consider that it is “us” who sit on the “throne.” And it is a throne “of glory” because we have accepted God’s gift of humanity.
I told you, you might not like it. It seems scandalous at best, blasphemous at worst, but it isn’t inconsistent with the tradition of this title, “son of man.” Twentieth century Jewish philosopher Martin Buber suggested that “a person cannot approach the divine by reaching beyond the human. To become human is what (each of us) has been created for,” he wrote. So let’s allow this possibility to be, this morning, this season. We sit, as ones in human likeness, on the throne in Matthew 25 to judge … who?
To this throne, at the foot of our acknowledged gift in the light of our glory as human beings created in God’s image, we gather … ourselves. “All the nations” Matthew says. All of ourself, I say this year. All of ourself, before ourself. That too, is difficult for us to imagine, or difficult for us to accept. We want to be surrounded by others at this throne of judgement. If “all the nations” are gathered in the more literal sense, then surely there will be someone, probably many “ones” who are worse than us, who are “more goat” that we are. We feel better being compared to others. But to stand here alone? To sit in judgement, not of others, but of ourselves? It isn’t going to be as easy to “get away with” anything in this scenario. We know ourselves better than anyone. We can’t fool ourselves into thinking we are anything other than who we are. So … here we are, standing alone before ourselves, the judge and the judged. So, which are we? A Sheep or a Goat?
I noted last week as we prepared for this exploration that in first century Palestine shepherds had mixed flocks most often. At night they separated the sheep from the goats. Sheep, with their thick coats of wool, enjoyed the open air of the pasture, while goats had to be protected from the cold. Both animals had many uses, but sheep had more commercial value because of their ongoing provision of wool. They were preferred over the goats, so “as the shepherd” separates them, separates us, one from the other, we immediately think we ought to be one of the sheep.
But I suggest to us this season that we’re not simply one or the other. In fact, as we imagine that we – in all our complexity and intricacies – are the only one gathered at the throne this season, we can’t be one or the other. We must be both. We are the sheep and the goats. As we stand before ourself, in judgement of ourself, we recognize that in our lives we have acted both righteously and unrighteously, as both “sheep” and “goats.” Our task this season of Lent, is to separate the two within ourselves and do all we can to rid ourselves of the latter. But to do that, to remove the shadow and discover more fully the light, we need to be honest and bring everything we are to this judgement scene. How can we separate the sheep from the goats within ourselves?
There is a Hasidic tale in which an old master asks his students, “How can we know when the darkness is leaving and the dawn is coming?” One student replied, “When we see a tree in the distance and know that it is an oak and not a juniper.” Another says, “When we can see an animal and know that it is a fox and not a wolf.” But the old master answered, “No, we know the darkness is leaving and the dawn is coming when we see another person and know he is our brother or she is our sister.”
That is what this teaching in Matthew 25 is all about for us this year. Seeing Christ, God with us, in the face of another human being and giving ourselves away in love, To love is to live … now and for eternity. We are gathered at the throne now, alone and exposed to ourselves, to answer the only questions that truly matter: When did we see you hungry or thirsty, naked and alone, sick or in prison? And what did we do?
I know, this is … different. It’s a bit more complicated than what we have almost certainly imagined all our lives. If God or Jesus is the judge and all people everywhere, including us, are the judged, then we are strangely comforted that we aren’t as “unrighteous” as some are. But when we are the judge and the only one gathered at the throne being judged, then we have nowhere to hide. This season of Lent, then, is a robust “self-examination.” We can’t hide behind, or beside, others who we think are worse than us. We must face square on the “worst in us” and decide to do better.
And so, gathered at the throne, fully present, fully acknowledged, fully revealed, we will be finally judged this year. Not for our theology, or our creedal statements of faith, or our orthodox practices; not on our church traditions or ecclesiastical connections; and not based on our personal beliefs or the confessions of sins. We will be finally judged by what we have done or left undone.
Next week the examination begins with the hungry and thirsty. When did we see Christ hungry and thirsty and what did we do? This week spend some time alone in front of yourself. Who are you? Who are you supposed to be? What is keeping you from becoming all you were created to be? When will you be able to look into the face of another person, any and all others, and know that they are your sisters and your brothers? When will the darkness leave and the dawn come?
May it be this year. Amen.
Reverend Joel Weible, Pastor
Pewee Valley Presbyterian Church / March 8, 2020