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Surprises at the Judgment

Little unremembered acts of kindness are important to the king.

It's been seven years since I have been part of a graduation here at Denver Seminary, and yet, it's all kind of familiar, this graduation. The folks walking down the aisle wearing these kind of silly gowns, faculty brilliant in their plumage, folks eager to get rid of the speaker so they can get on to the serious business of granting degrees. It's all kind of the same.

I notice they still call it a commencement service. That always struck me as strange. Seems to me that for a number of the graduates it's a concluding service. Some of them have been making a career out of theological education. They've taken the courses, read the books, done the assignments, taken the exams, jumped through all the hoops. And now they can be called master of arts or master of divinity or doctor of ministries.

You'd think you would call it a completion rather than a commencement. But they're both true. They've completed it, but now they will go out to use it. A new phase of life is beginning.

It strikes me that what we do here in a commencement service prefigures a time in the future when a phase of history will be completed and another phase of existence will begin, a time when the judges will not be a faculty, a time of judgment in the future. Matthew 25: 3146 is a passage that looks forward to that day in which men and women will be judged. Let me tell you the history of this passage. Not the history you would get in a theological seminary; I mean my own personal history.

I used to think judgment was only a concept for unbelievers.

The first time I remember hearing this passage I was about 12. I grew up in the ghetto of New York, and my cousin and I were on a spiritual search: we were looking for a church that had a basketball team. We found one at the Broadway Presbyterian Church, but we also discovered that every silver lining had a cloud, because to play on that team you had to go to Sunday school.

And that's where I fell under the influence of Miss Larch. Miss Larch had a great interest in the events of the last times. It seemed to me that she had a particular interest in the judgments. That was probably because of the boys in her class. I remember she talked to us about the judgment of the sheep and the goats. That was back during my literalistic phase of interpretation. When she talked about the judgment of the sheep and goats, I thought she was talking about real sheep, real goats.

The whole thing sounded more like a county fair or a 4H club, though in those days I wasn't quite sure what a county fair was. I thought it was a little demeaning for Jesus to be judging sheep and goats. But she also told me that God counted all the hairs on our head, and I figured if he's into that trivia, sheep and goats made some sense.

The next time we came back to this passage I was probably 15. By that time I had figured out that the passage wasn't really referring to animals. It was referring to people, and the Christians, the good guys, would be called sheep, and the Christians would be called goats. I had no idea why Christians would be called sheep. Fifty years later I still don't have much of an idea of why that would be.

A couple of years ago I was out in western Washington talking to a man who raises sheep. We're talking fifty thousand of them at a time. I said, "You're into sheep. If you could think of one word that describes sheep, what would it be?

He shot back, "Stupid. They've got to be the stupidest animals you ever work with.

That didn't strike me as being helpful, although I think there may be pastors here who would like to fill me in.

I said to him, "What about goats?

He thought about that one a minute and said, "Well, goats are kind of stubborn, animals.

Maybe sheep get the praise because they're soft, pliable. At any rate, at that time in my life I thought about God's judgment. The Bible says it's the judgment of the nations. I tried to picture in my mind. It seemed to me it would be a lot like the crowds at Macy's Department Store before Christmas, a crowd of people jostling one another.

I could imagine Jesus and some angels coming out on the balcony. One of the angels would put his harp down and pick up a trumpet, and he'd make a noise as they do before a horse race. Everybody would come to attention, and one of the angels would say, "This is the judgment of the sheep and goats. All of you who are sheep go over to the king's right, your left. All of the goats over to the king's left, your right.

Since I had been going to Sunday school, I knew it would be an easy task for us. We'd saunter over to the king's right. My difficulty was with the guys in my gang who didn't go to Sunday school. All of this would be news to them. They didn't know about the judgments. (They regularly consigned one another to hell, but I don't think they really thought it would come about.) I imagined an angel going to Carl Bricalli, Marty Lippin, or Fred Bondieti and trying to explain to them what this is all about.

The angel would say, "You fellows are goats. You're over to the king's left.

They'd say, "What do you mean we're goats?

"Well, the king was hungry, and you didn't give him anything to eat. He was thirsty; you didn't give him anything to drink. He was a stranger; you didn't take him in. He needed clothes; you didn't give him any clothes. He was sick; you didn't take care of him. He was in prison; you didn't go to visit him.

They would say, "You've got to be kidding. We never saw him. We never did that.

The angel would explain that there were those who belonged to him, and you didn't help them. I can imagine Andy Madena saying, "Wait a minute. You got to know our neighborhood. You don't take in strangers. Man, next thing you know they're going to mug you. You don't hang around with sick people. You can catch their disease.

No, I just felt it was going to be a fairly tough assignment for whatever angel had to explain that to the guys in my gang.

Jesus taught that the judgment would hold surprises for believers, too.

I came back to this passage recently. I discovered something so obvious I had missed it. Not only do the goats ask the question, "How come we're goats? The sheep ask the question, too. The sheep ask, "When did we see you hungry and feed you, and thirsty and give you something to drink, and a stranger and took you in, give you clothes when you were naked, take care of you when you were sick, visit you in prison?

The sheep are as confused as the goats. I got to thinking about that. It seems to me that basis of that judgment is going to depend on the little unknown, unremembered acts of kindness and love that we hardly think about but are important to the king.

Let me tell you what this isn't saying. This passage isn't saying if you take some change and put it into the box for charity at the checkout counter that by the time the coins hit the bottom you're sure of going to heaven. It's not saying if you put some money in the Salvation Army kettle or if you contribute to somebody's Thanksgiving dinner that demonstrates you belong to Christ.

When the king addresses these that are called sheep, he says, "Come, you who are blessed of my Father and inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the creation of the world. That phrase "blessed of my Father is not a throwaway line. Earlier in the Gospel of Matthew in what is called the Sermon on the Mount, that sermon begins by saying, "Blessed are those who are bankrupt in spirit, for theirs is the kingdom of God.

Blessed are the women, the men, who sense a desperate need and have no way in the world to meet the need that they have of God.

And then it says, "Blessed are those who mourn, for they shall be comforted. Mourn about what? Mourn about their brokenness, their bankrupt spirit.

And then it says, "Blessed are the meek, for they shall inherit the earth. The term meek has the idea of being in submission to God, bowing before him.

The next beatitude says, "Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness, for they shall be filled. There is no such thing as righteousness as though it were something in a box up in heaven. When the Bible talks about righteousness, it is always talking about right relationships right relationships with God, right relationships with other people. Those who have a brokenness of spirit, who mourn for that brokenness, then begin to crave a relationship with God. That craving is filled as they bow before God. And they also crave a right relationship with others.

The next beatitude says, "Blessed are the merciful. They shall receive mercy. That craving and filling shows itself in mercy.

"Blessed are those who are pure in heart because God's done something in their being. They shall see God.

"Blessed are the peacemakers because they will show that they are children of God.

Matthew 25 says that those who belong to this king, who have allowed him to do a work deep in their lives, are characterized by little unremembered acts of kindness and love that flow from their inner nature which has been touched by God as naturally as wool comes from the back of a sheep.

The king will remember even the little acts that you've forgotten.

I thought about that. I tried to picture that judgment, and I tried to picture myself as I stood before that king. The king says to me, "Robinson, did you bring your date book?

I say, "Well, yes, Lord. I know they said I couldn't take anything with me, but I managed to get it through. I've got it right here.

The king says, "Look up March 6, 1996.

"Oh yes, I remember that, Lord. That's when Newsweek said I was one of the better communicators in the E world. I remember that.

The king says, "Well, I never read the news magazines. You know how inaccurate they are, that they would say something like that about you.

The king might say, "Do you remember after class on that day? You were headed for another reappointment, and there was a young woman sitting at the back of the class. She just sat there when everyone left, and you stopped and talked to her. She said her father had died, and the month before her brother had died. And you sat and talked to her. Do you remember that?

"I guess so, Lord.

The king will say, "I remember it. When you stopped to talk to that young woman, you were talking to me.

"Look up November 17, 1984.

"Oh yes. I remember that, Lord. That's when I was the president of the Evangelical Theological Society. I remember reading a paper on the relationship of hermeneutics to homiletics.

The king will say, "Well, I never attended many of those meetings. I found them a little stuffy myself. I read the title of your paper, and I didn't understand it. No, do you remember that morning your wife, Bonnie, told you about a couple at the seminary that was having a hard time financially. They didn't know how they would make it through the month, and you took some money and put in an envelope and dropped it in their box?

"I don't know if I remember that.

And the king will say, "I remember it. What you gave to that young couple you gave to me, and I've never forgotten it.

When we come to that last judgment, there are going to be all kinds of surprises. There are going to be folks there who are absolutely certain that they are sheep. They're ready to saunter over to the king's right hand side, and he'll stop them. And they'll say, "Of course we qualify. We have prophesied in your name. We've done miracles in your name. We climbed to the top of the ecclesiastical ladder. And the king will say, "You're goats in sheep's clothing. I never knew you.

And then there will be other people who have been broken by their sinfulness, ashamed of things in their lives, who will wonder if there's even a ghost of a chance that they'll get into that kingdom. They'll conclude that the only possibility is for them to rely on the grace and the favor and the kindness of God in providing some way for them to come. But they'll look at themselves and wonder if they're going to make it in. And they will make it, in brokenness of spirit, throwing themselves on God's grace.

You men and women, this is a great night. I hope you enjoy it. You'll get a diploma. They'll even give you the tassel that you have on your hat. I hope you'll put it up in your office and look at it from time to time. It says something about what you've accomplished. But when you come to that judgment, I wouldn't bring it with you, because in that day what will matter is not that you've got a degree from a seminary, not that folks applaud you. What will matter is whether in the depths of your life you have allowed God's Spirit to work, and whether there have come from your inner life acts of kindness and love that you didn't think much about at all, but have been ministry to the king.

There are going to be a lot of surprises at that judgment. A lot of surprises.

Haddon Robinson is a Harold John Ockenga Distinguished Professor of Preaching at GConwell Theological Seminary, in South Hamilton, Massachusetts, and author of Biblical Preaching.

(c) Haddon Robinson

Preaching Today Tape #186


A resource of Christianity Today International

Haddon Robinson was a preacher and teacher of preachers all over the world. His last teaching position was as the Harold John Ockenga Distinguished Professor of Preaching at Gordon-Conwell Theological Seminary.

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Sermon Outline:


The true testing of graduates doesn't stop at commencement.

I. I used to think judgment was only a concept for unbelievers.

II. Jesus taught that the judgment would hold surprises for believers, too.

III. The king will remember even the little acts that you've forgotten.