Thankful #23: But for the Grace of God

Today’s sermon was titled on Wednesday, and last night I was struggling to make it fit. I finally realized as I was sharing it today, that it couldn’t fit. Using this title was all judgmental and wrong. I even add a bit to the printed version, but that will just have to be for us. I am not ready to preach for with or at a church that seeks to judge others and try to be better Here is what things were based on.

Scriptures were: Ezekiel 34:11-24, Ephesians 1:11-23 and Matthew 25:31-46. The title in the bulletin was “When did you care for Jesus?”

Today we are at the end of a church year. We have spent quite a bit of time going through the book of Matthew and starting with Genesis and the beginning of when Abraham was called to father the people of Israel. Next week we will turn to a new part in the lectionary cycles as we begin Advent and a new church year. We have been on year A and now go to year B. I think it is rather appropriate that we started at the beginning together.

It is also apparent at our house that we are getting ready for the Christmas season. I am going to put the, well I won’t say blame, but I will truthfully say that the reason I have been more organized and better prepared for Christmas this year is the fact that I need to get organized here in church for Advent. Our house doesn’t have a nice space for a big Christmas tree and though we have figured out how to put one up in the past, this year we opted for a little white one on a stand.

We also took advantage of the weather yesterday, and decorated the six evergreen trees we have at the edge of the driveway. We also set out a few Christmas characters and James and Paulina put lights around the porch. We are almost ready for the big day, we even have several gifts wrapped and under the tree. Maybe it is because we have a baby in the family this year, but it just seems that we have a little more of the festive attitude.

I actually can’t wait until Friday when I can put away my Thanksgiving decorations and dig out the Christmas farm set and the Nativity sets and the Advent candle for the house, and on and on and on. But, we have a few things to talk about today before we can get this carried away with what is to come.

Part of what we read for today should make us think of Advent, and that part is the repeating metaphor/comparison/theme if you want to call it that, of sheep and shepherds. In Ezekiel we read that God plans to return to gather up the sheep rather than letting them fend for themselves. God will come and search for the lost sheep to take care of them. God will find good pastures for the sheep to lie down, food for them to eat and even take care of the injured.

It also says that he will appoint one shepherd, David to be the shepherd to take care of the good sheep. Although the author writes David here, many of the scholars suggest that the actual meaning is Jesus. There are many other scriptures in the Old and New Testament that point to Jesus as good shepherd, as well as Jesus being from the “House of David” The one shepherd who will tend to the sheep is Jesus the Son of God the descendant of King David.

There are also warnings that the strong sheep will be cast away. Here perhaps the meaning is the cruel or the spiteful or perhaps the bullies among the sheep; another word besides strong is the fat sheep. Yikes what does that say for us who are taught to be self-reliant and tough and assertive to make a place for ourselves in the world?

The passage we read in Matthew is the final part of chapter 25. It is more a story than a parable, and it isn’t found elsewhere in the Bible. This is a story related only by Matthew. There is a correlation in the gospel of John, but it is only two verses about the coming of the end times. No other gospel gives the account of God dividing the sheep from the goats at a day of judgment.

According to the sermon notes on the UCC website, just discussing or even mentioning the part about the “day of judgment” makes some people nervous. And when you come to think of it, we don’t talk about that very often. Perhaps it is because “day of judgment” gets us into the mindset that someone is the judge and someone is the jury, and maybe we have to have some rules and some laws and walk the right and righteous way, and now who does that for us here and now?  I will be sure to let you know that as soon as we start acting like that, I will be the first to say, “don’t pick me.”

As I was reading and pondering about the lesson for today, I was reminded of a question posed to me by one of our guests a couple of weeks ago. It was after we talked about the parable of the talents and how the master treated the servant who didn’t use his talent. The question was: “where does grace fit in?” The question was probably a little longer, but in essence that is what was being asked. Today’s lesson is also one where we could lose sight of God’s grace.

As we look at the metaphor of Jesus the Good Shepherd/God going through the flocks of the world at the end times, meaning going through all of the people, whether it is at one great judgment day, or our individual judgment day, as we look at this dividing into the sheep and the goats, it would be easy to interpret this story to mean that the way to salvation is through doing good. The way to eternal life with God, the way to becoming a sheep is by doing all the things listed in the rest of the story.

So now we have broken salvation down to a “to-do” list. Does this really mean that to get to be one of the chosen all we need to do is: feed the hungry, give a drink to the thirsty, welcome a stranger, clothe the naked, nurse the sick, and visit the imprisoned? Well let’s get right on it. Ok, I don’t mean to sound glib. I don’t mean to poke fun of this. This is a very serious passage. It is a very serious subject. And if it were not of any real importance, the lectionary would not include it, today of all days the week before the beginning of Advent. And as much as I would like to put the focus today on all of the things we need to do to help others, and who do we help, it is more than that.

In Ezekiel we hear that God is coming to gather up all of his sheep. God is coming to find all who are lost and gather them into the fold. We are offered that opportunity because of God’s great love for us. God gives us this love not because we have earned it, but because God wants us, all of us, each of us. It is by the grace of God that we are able to enter into salvation. It is because Jesus was willing to die for us. Jesus didn’t die for us because we did all those things for him or for others. Jesus died for us because we were sinners and couldn’t do it ourselves.

So what is the meaning of this list? Why does Jesus keep mentioning it, over and over? Why did Matthew share it in his gospel when no one else bothered? If you look at it, look at it closely and think about all that we are offered because of God’s love and grace and Jesus sacrifice for us, when we accept that unconditional love, when we really accept that for ourselves, then, then and only then are we changed. And when we are changed and it probably isn’t some zapping sort of change like you see on a fantasy movie or read in a book of that sort. This is a change that we work at on a daily and weekly and monthly basis. But when we really accept the love of God for ourselves, then we want to share and do for others.

This story is put into this part of the calendar perhaps not just because of where it falls in the scripture, though I am sure that is part of it. But this is likely also here because of the time of year we are approaching. Here we are just a few days away from Thanksgiving. We will likely sit down with family or friends or someone to celebrate a meal and maybe even talk about some of the good that we have encountered this year, maybe during commercials while watching our favorite football games.

Or maybe you are in the other room like I am watching those happily ever after, cheesy Christmas movies, and your mind turns to what can you do to share your good fortune with others. Looking at the words of Jesus we should have plenty of ideas on how to reach out to others. Yes we may be leery about who or how or what, but we can work some of that out together. There are lots of opportunities for us to offer a hand to others.

But we need to remember that we are doing this not to earn a spot on the right hand side with the sheep, but because we are so overcome with joy that God has chosen us to be one of his sheep that we are more than willing to reach out to others in their time of need. I remember the words of my mother when she would look at someone down and out and say, “But for the grace of God, there go I.”

As we look ahead to Advent, let us be thankful for God’s love and grace, and let’s do our best to share that with all we meet along the way. I will leave you today with my version of a popular Christmas saying, remember as we are getting ready for Christmas and a time to celebrate the birth of Jesus, remember these words: “Wise Men and Women still seek Him.” Amen!

2 Comments (+add yours?)

  1. christinelaennec
    Nov 24, 2014 @ 15:56:25

    I agree that we find the idea of God loving us unconditionally so difficult, because we find it so difficult to do so ourselves. Having a little giveaway on my blog – come by and leave a comment!

    Liked by 1 person


  2. Garden Walk Garden Talk
    Nov 23, 2014 @ 15:52:30

    Thankful and Grateful have been two common themes in blogs I have been reading. Like you, I just gave big to City Mission to help a family in our area to have a nice Christmas. In my own home, I love decorating and celebrating, but live with someone that does not at all. He does not even care to see what I do in that regards, so the last two years I stopped cold turkey. Nothing. It really is sad when others ruin it for those that like it so much. I just decided to take it elsewhere for others instead.

    Liked by 1 person


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