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A Vision of Life

November 23rd 2014 by Joel Schultz

Today we celebrate the Last Sunday of the Church Year which is often called the Sunday of Fulfillment. The Gospel reading from Matthew 25 paints a picture of the Last Day when Christ returns to bring all His promises to fulfillment. Read or listen to find out more...

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Sunday of the Fulfillment (Proper 29A) – “A Vision of Life” – Matthew 25:31-46 – November 23, 2014

In 2006, scientists gazed into the heavens. A spacecraft was returning from a seven-year mission and brought with it particles of comet dust. Having gazed into the heavens, the scientists now gazed through microscopes at the dust of heaven, hoping to discover within this material clues to the mystery of life.

Long before science became the final court of meaning, however, artists were busy gazing into the heavens, creating paintings of a different court and of a different day – a day of judgment, when Christ would return and reveal for all people the meaning of life.

If you took a quick glance through paintings of the last judgment, you would discover a common theme. The heavens are torn open as Christ descends on a throne and the earth is breaking apart as the dead rise from their graves.

While the paintings are often almost too busy, with many human bodies mixed together with many angels and demons, one factor is fairly consistent. If you look closely, if you stare at the face of just one human being, you’ll find on that face a look of discovery. People look as if they’re waking from sleep and only beginning to discover the deeper meaning of the world, of their Lord, and of the life that once surrounded them.

Today, we will look closely at Matthew’s Gospel, and in it experience for ourselves some of that Last Day’s sense of discovery, for in this parable of the Last Day, Jesus reveals the mysteries of eternal life.

In our text, Jesus speaks to His disciples about the end, and yet His words talk about the beginning. Notice how Jesus describes the kingdom of heaven. He says, “Come, you who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world” (v 34). In contrast, as Jesus speaks to the wicked, he does not say, “Inherit the punishment prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” Instead, he says, “Depart . . . into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels” (v 41).

God never prepared hell for His human creatures. No, from the very beginning, God’s intentions were always that humanity would live in eternal fellowship and blessedness with Him. No one was ever predestined to hell. All were created to live with God and to rejoice with Him in His creation. Those who go to hell go there by their own choosing, for they have rejected Jesus and God’s original design for all people.

While some might feel that this parable is about the end of the world, it really does not offer us a picture of the world ending. Instead, Jesus offers us a discovery of the world, as God intended it. God’s original desire was for humanity to live in relationship with Him, and the day when Christ returns will be the day when God’s plan for creation finally and fully come true.

People often misunderstand Christianity. They think that it’s all about escaping this world in order to live in heaven. For them, Christians stand at a distance from this world, wanting to escape its physical existence so that they can go on, as disembodied souls, to eternal life in heaven. Yet that is not what we believe or what we confess. Every time we confess the faith, we speak of the resurrected body, and we declare our confidence in “the life of the world to come.”

The mission of Jesus Christ was to bring all people into God’s eternal kingdom. Although we had turned away from God, rejecting His design and falling into sin in the Garden of Eden, God the Father turned toward us, still holding on to His original design. Out of love, He sent His Son, Jesus Christ, to bear our sin and to be our Savior.

Baptized into His death and resurrection, our eternal life with God begins. In Him, there will be a new creation, and we will be raised to live in the world as God originally desired it to be. Until that time, we live as stewards. We care for this world as those who have discovered in Jesus what God intended creation to be. We trust in Him, we live in Him, and we long for God’s new creation in Him.

As Jesus speaks to His disciples about the end, notice how He opens their eyes to the reign of God in Him. As we listen closely to the text, we discover the fullness of God in Jesus. He appears first as the Son of Man, that figure from Daniel (Dan 7:13–14), who now has finished God’s work and is therefore seated on His throne (v 31). Then, He appears as a shepherd, with the nations as His flock, and separates the sheep from the goats (v 32).

Then the shepherd becomes a King, and His rule extends over all nations and throughout all time (v 34). This King, however, is hidden in the suffering of this world (vv 35–36), just as Jesus would soon be hidden in the events of His Passion (Matthew 26–27). Jesus claims all who follow Him in faith as members of His family and, until that Last Day, He is known among them by His Word.

While some might feel this parable places Jesus at a distance, descending from heaven at the end of time, it actually reveals Him as very close to us—today.

He is the Lord of all nations. God the Father has chosen Him to rule over all things and to bring to fulfillment His desire to save all people. For this reason, He has fulfilled prophecy. He came in our midst to bring about the forgiving, saving rule of God in His life, death, and resurrection. Though ascended into heaven, Jesus continues to speak among us now through His Word. He claims as His family all who believe in Him and shepherding them like a flock, until that day when He returns to divide those who trust in Him from those who do not. And then He gives to the faithful the long-standing desire of God – the gift of eternal life. Jesus has not left us on our own in this world, but rather comes to us in His Word and Sacraments and continues to rule in our midst, proclaiming to you the forgiveness of sins and this everlasting gift of eternal life in Him.

In 1304, Giotto di Bondone began working on a series of frescoes in the Scrovegni Chapel in Padua. At the very back of the chapel is the largest scene, the last judgment. It is a fresco, which means that Giotto and his assistants painted it on wet plaster. By necessity, the painting was done quickly, but the image they produced is eternal. Christ returns in judgment. The scene covers the whole wall, with those raised to eternal life on Christ’s right and those raised to eternal punishment on Christ’s left. At the bottom of the image, underneath the cross, is the doorway by which worshipers would return to the world. The last image worshipers see as they enter the world is Christ returning in glory. Imagine what that would be like.

Although we have no such image over our doors as we walk out of this church, we do have this Gospel. Our Lord offers us an image of the last judgment to shape your life in this world today. As you walk through the door, opened by the cross, you enter God’s world with deeper understanding. You see things differently: the creation of this world, your Lord, even your life of service as you care for those who are who are hungering, thirsting, strangers, naked, sick, and imprisoned in this world. Assured of your salvation, rejoice in these hidden blessings of God, this vision of life, present and eternal.

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