One of the first things I learned when I started college was to enter class on the first day of semester seeking the answer to one question, namely: “What will be on the test?” Forget all the other stuff—I learned that the most important thing was to know what would really matter when test time rolled around.
Now—If you’ve ever been to college then you know this can be difficult because professors don’t follow the same path when it comes to testing. Some take the test material from their lectures; others from the assigned reading; others from required research in the library, and still others from a combination of all these things.
I had a music history professor who come into the classroom on exam day and sit on his desk. Then he’d pull out the textbook and randomly read sentences from which he would leave words out. He was an odd teacher because the words he would leave out didn’t necessarily have to do with music history. Sometimes he left out “this” or “that” or “or.” So in his class, I learned the lectures didn’t really matter. To do good on the exam, you had to basically memorize the text book.
Well, after experiences like that I began every class with this question on my mind: “What will I be tested on?” So, I would pay close attention to each professor’s “first day orientation lecture.” I would scour the syllabus for exam-time clues. I would ask others who had studied under this professor what they could tell me about his testing practices. I did all this to be ready when exam time rolled around.
Well, whenever I read today’s text from Matthew 25, I get a mental image of a college classroom of sorts. Jesus is the Professor and He is sitting on a tree stump. All the disciples are seated on the ground in front of Him with the first century version of pencils and notepads ready. It’s the first day of class and Jesus is telling Peter and James and John and the rest of the guys His philosophy when it comes to testing. Specifically, He tells them what will matter—what will be important—when it comes to FINAL EXAM TIME—also known as JUDGEMENT DAY. With this mental image in your minds, take your Bibles and turn to Matthew 25 as I read verses 31-40. Try to see if you can note what Jesus says will be on our final exam. Our Lord says:
31 – “When the Son of Man comes in His glory, and all the angels with Him, He will sit on His throne in heavenly glory.
32 – All the nations will be gathered before Him, and He will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
33 – He will put the sheep on His right and the goats on His left.
34 – Then the King will say to those on His right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by My Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world.
35 – For I was hungry and you gave Me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave Me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited Me in,
36 – I needed clothes and you clothed Me, I was sick and you looked after Me, I was in prison and you came to visit Me.’
37 – “Then the righteous will answer Him,‘Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You something to drink?
38 – When did we see You a stranger and invite You in, or needing clothes and clothe You?
39 – When did we see You sick or in prison and go to visit You?’
40 – “The King will reply, ‘I tell you the truth, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers of Mine, you did for Me.’
Okay—as a disciple—and by the way that word literally means, “learner” or “student.” As one of Jesus’ STUDENTS—how many of you would say that after reading this text you have a better idea of what will be on the final exam? Well, in case you missed it, Jesus said to all of His disciples—both then and now—He said that when this life ends and we all stand before Him on that final EXAM day, ONE of the things that will matter…ONE of the things that will be ON the test…is whether or not we ministered to the needs of people who are hungry or are too poor to afford warm clothes or sick or thirsty or in prison.
But please understand—this is NOT the ONLY thing that will matter. Jesus is not saying we will pass His exam and be welcomed into Heaven on the basis of our good works. That’s not the point of this particular lecture. And I can say that because one thing I learned in my seminary studies is that we must study all of the Bible in light of all of the Bible. In other words we must not take verses out of context but must understand them in light of everything else the Bible says and this text is a perfect example of that principle. I mean, if you took this passage out of the context of the rest of Scripture you might conclude that all is necessary to get into Heaven is to do good deeds for needy people. And—unfortunately, many “students” make that mistake—and end up proclaiming a grace-less, works-based gospel—known these days as “the social gospel.” They do this because they ignore other parts of this “TEXTBOOK” God has given us—Scriptures like Ephesians 2…which say we are not saved by works but rather by grace through faith.
When we study the Bible correctly—systematically—we see that Scripture clearly teaches that our entry into Heaven is not based on what we DO but on our faith in what God has DONE in sending Jesus. We are saved by responding to God’s grace, confessing our sin and asking for His forgiveness through Jesus’ death and resurrection. But once we experience God’s grace—once we understand what God has done and is doing for us…once we comprehend that “lesson,” our focus in life should change. Instead of being self-focused we should become like Jesus and focus on the needs of others. That’s what Jesus is getting at in this lecture. You see, if we truly study grace—it will change us. It will make us want to be like our Savior. Our knowledge of His grace will compel us to become gracious, giving people. E. Stanley Jones put it this way, “Grace binds you with far stronger cords than the cords of duty or obligation can bind you. Grace is free, but when you take it, you are bound forever to the Giver and bound to catch the spirit of the Giver. Like produces like. Grace makes you gracious. The Giver makes you give.”
One thing that helps us understand how this text fits with the rest of the Bible is when we note that the Greek word for “blessed” in verse 34, is a perfect passive participle so, a better translation of this phrase would be, “Come you who have ALREADY been blessed by my Father.” In other words, the sheep in this passage are Christians—people who have “already been blessed” with the promise of eternal life. The goats then, are non-Christians. The “blessed” people—the ones pictured as feeding the hungry and clothing the poor and visiting the sick in Jesus’ lecture are believers who throughout their lives have demonstrated their understanding of the grace of God with their ministry to a needy world. And Jesus is affirming this kind of behavior. So the point—the thrust of this lecture—is Jesus’ admonition that Christians should be known for the way they react to human need. Let me put it this way. Jesus is saying we need to understand God’s grace—we need to strive to comprehend it such that it changes us because when we finally stand before Him—when we are finally face-to-face with GRACE personified—it will matter how gracious we have been in this life! On that day we will care how much we have showed compassion to those who needed it.
And let’s be honest with each other. This is an area where many of us have been careless. We’re not making good grades in this area of our studies. We’ve not been doing our homework because we tend to think more about our own needs than the needs of other people.
Unfortunately this flawed mind set is reflected in the way many people view church. They are ignorant enough to think the church is a place to BE SERVED instead of a place TO SERVE.
I’m reminded of the old gas stations where, the moment you rolled in your car was surrounded by uniformed service station attendants. Remember when those guys would swarm your car? One pumped your gas. Another checked your oil. A third washed your windows. A fourth checked your tire pressure. Those were the good old days weren’t they!? Well, many people take this old gas station mentality and apply it to the church in our day and age. They think that a church is a place where they pull in once a week to be serviced. They go there to get their needs met and when the service isn’t good…when a church doesn’t meet their needs—they just move their membership to a church that does. We all need to remember that a church is a place where we go to SERVE by pooling our spiritual gifts with those of other believers.
But it’s more than that. The church is a place that both encourages and equips us to SERVE others out in the world. I’m reminded of the story of a young couple from the hills of Arkansas who got involved in an exciting church where they were used to a lot of shouting and clapping. They were trying to convince Grandma that she should attend. “Grandma you should have seen it!” the young man said, “The Spirit of God was really there. The music was rocking the place. It was awesome!” Grandma just kept rocking in her chair and didn’t say a word. “And grandma!” said the young wife, “You should have heard the preacher. He was really with it today! He was shouting and screaming at the top of his lungs and people were popping up like popcorn praising the Lord! It was unbelievable!” Again, grandma just kept rocking. Finally the young man said, “Grandma, don’t you like our church?” Grandma finally rose from her chair to speak and said, “Honey, let me jut put it this way. I don’t care how loud they shout; and I don’t care how high they jump. It’s what the do when they come back down that counts.”
This grandmother was right because as Christians how well we obey Jesus’ teaching and live out our faith by helping others is vitally important. It is a litmus test that shows how well we have understood the grace of God. I like how Rick Warren puts it. He says,“What matters is not HOW LONG you live, but HOW you live. What mattes is not the DURATION of your life, but the DONATION of your life.”
This is another thing we LIVE TO GIVE around here. As we’ve said the past four weeks:
- We live to give GRACE.
- We live to give WORSHIP.
- We live to give FELLOWSHIP.
- We live to give HOPE.
- And we live to give SERVICE—we live to give HELP to people in need. As we put it in our purpose statement, at Redland we strive to “CARE in the nature of Christ.”
Well, since SERVICE or MINISTRY will be on the test I think it would behoove us to do some studying. Like many of you back in my college days I would often meet with other students just prior to a test and we would review the relevant material and study for the test together. We discovered that our grades were always better if we did this. So, why don’t we do that this morning? Get your sermon notes ready and your copy of our Textbook—God’s Word—and let’s cram for this part of the test together.
You’ll see that I have structured our cram session around five “DON’TS”that will help us “DO” well when exam time rolls around. Here’s the first:
(1) Don’t overlook SMALL opportunities to help others.
In other words, do good whenever and wherever you can. This is a very important lesson disciples to learn because when we consider issues like world hunger and poverty, many of us are overcome with a sense of helplessness and despair. And we just shut down and become self-focused. We think, “After all, I am just one person. What can one person do? I can’t fix it for everyone.” And that’s right. We can’t help EVERYONE. But we can help someone. I would venture to say that everyone here knows someone who could use a little help financially. Everyone here knows someone who is lonely and needs a visit. Everyone here knows someone who is sick and would appreciate a word of cheer. In fact, statistics say we probably all know someone in prison who would benefit greatly from our kindness and unconditional love.
Listen fellow students. Jesus is not saying you are to underwrite the operating budget of Compassion International or World Vision—but you can sponsor a child. He’s not saying you have to fix the prison system—but you can visit someone who needs encouragement. He’s not saying you can help EVERY lonely U.S. soldier on a foreign battlefield. But you can write one. You can send one care package his way. The point is—do good when you can do good. Whenever the opportunity presents itself do something—even if it’s small.
I learned this week that one of our deacons—and I won’t share his or her name because I know they wouldn’t want me to do that—but I learned that this deacon knows every beggar on Rockville Pike by name. I’m talking about those people who stand at stop lights with signs and cups asking for your money. Instead of ignoring these people, this deacon rolls down the window and talks to them. This deacon even carries small bags of canned goods in the car to give to these people. Can you imagine how good that beggar or homeless individual feels when he or she sees that deacon’s car?
Well, handing out a bag lunch to beggars as you drive to work may seem like a little thing—but not in God’s eyes. So…DON’T overlook little opportunities like that to show love. After all, little things can be big things in God’s kingdom. 1st Corinthians 15:58 says,“Throw yourselves into the work of the Master, confident that nothing you do for Him is a waste of time or effort.” This text and others like it teach that even the SMALL things…even the seemingly insignificant things that we do to serve others in Jesus’ name do indeed matter. In Mark 9:41 Jesus said,“Even if you give a cup of cold water in My name to a child, that counts.”
In fact, if you’re going to do well on this “test” you need to know that there is a difference between SIGNIFICANCE and PROMINENCE. For example: my ears are quite prominent. I’ve always been kind of self-conscious about them. But I could lose both my ears and still live the rest of my life, because while they are prominent they’re not all that significant. On the other hand, if I lost my liver or my heart, neither of which is very prominent because you can’t see them, well if I lost either of these parts, I’d be dead. This is an important principle for us to grasp because many of us think that if something is given a lot of visibility, it’s the most important but that’s not true in God’s kingdom. In fact, in the Lord’s eyes many times the stuff behind the scenes is actually the most important. This is hard for us to understand because with our limited perspective we can’t see how our small acts have big consequences, but they do! In the early 20th century two teenage boys tried to come into a revival service, only it was packed out. So they turned around and decided to leave but one usher said, “Come on, guys. I’ll find you a seat.” And that usher personally escorted them down to the center and set them in the middle and found them two seats. That night both of those boys accepted Christ and became Christians. One of them was Billy Graham who has led tens of millions of people to Christ. Wouldn’t you agree that this usher’s small act of finding a seat for these two young men was SIGNIFICANT?! Of course it was! So…don’t overlook small opportunities to do good. Here’s a second “Don’t.”
(2) Don’t worry about your LIMITATIONS.
Many of us don’t serve—we don’t minister to others—because we don’t think we are capable or we think we are just too flawed for our efforts to matter to God. But this textbook shows example after example that proves this is just not true. Rick Warren writes, “Abraham was old; Jacob was insecure; Leah was unattractive; Joseph was abused; Moses stuttered; Gideon was poor; Samson was co-dependent; Rahab was immoral; David had an affair and all kinds of family problems. Elijah was suicidal. Jeremiah was depressed. Jonah was reluctant. Naomi was a widow. John the Baptist was eccentric to say the lest. Peter was impulsive and hot-tempered. Martha worried a lot. The Samaritan woman had several failed marriages. Zacchaeus was unpopular. Thomas had doubts. Paul had poor health. And Timothy was timid. That’s quite a variety of misfits. But God used each of them in His service. He’ll use you too if you stop making excuses.” And Warren is right. God will use you if you let Him!
Paul referred to this principle in 2nd Corinthians 4:7 where he writes,“We have this treasure in jars of clay to show that this all-surpassing power is from God and not from us.” In other words, we may be just clay jars but God can and will use us by filling us with His power. So don’t let your limitations stand in the way of your living to give service to others. All that God requires is a willing heart. It’s not your ability but rather your availability that matters to Him.
Okay—are you keeping up with our cram session? So far we’ve said, don’t overlook small opportunities…don’t worry about your limitations…
(3) and third, don’t ask for a RECEIPT.
Now…I’m speaking metaphorically here. Of course if you make a tax-deductible donation, it’s okay to get a receipt. What I’m saying is, forget about how your act of service is going to benefit you. Don’t do good to be seen. Don’t do good to be applauded. Remember? In this lecture Jesus says the sheep asked, “Lord, when did we see You hungry and feed You, or thirsty and give You something to drink? When did we see You a stranger and invite You in, or needing clothes and clothe You? When did we see You sick or in prison and go to visit You?”
In other words, the sheep in this story didn’t know they were scoring points in Heaven by helping the down and out. That wasn’t their motive. Their motive was simply to respond with compassion to human need. That became their way of going through life—so “asking for a receipt” didn’t even enter their minds. They didn’t think of documenting their good deeds so that God would later be impressed. They just helped out when they could—even if they got no recognition for doing so.
A few years ago, I was in the drive-thru at MacDonalds down the street grabbing a quick lunch and when I got to the window to pay for my grilled chicken sandwich, fries, and Hi-C, the Mac-employee told me that a man a few cars in front had already paid my bill. I drove out quickly in hopes of thanking this individual but like the Lone Ranger he was gone. He never revealed their identity—because he didn’t do this to be seen. He didn’t buy my lunch to get my approval. He did it because he felt it would be a Christlike thing to do. I wish I could follow him through the drive-thru more often! Just kidding—but do you understand what I’m saying. If our purpose in doing good is to be rewarded then we’ve missed the point. When we do good, we must forget about how good it’s going to make us look. We must just do good because we know that’s what Jesus would do.
Unfortunately, too often when we have the chance to help people we become like Don Corleone. Remember The Godfather? In the beginning the guy comes to him and asks him for a favor. Don Corleone agrees to do it, then says, “Some day, and that day may never come, I will call upon you to do me a service in return. Until that day, consider this justice a gift.” In other words, “Yes, I will help you out. But you will owe me. I’m saving the receipt. I will hold this over you until I get payback.” Caring in the nature of Christ is not like that. It’s not about scoring points, it’s not about quid pro quo, and it’s not about getting leverage over others. It’s about responding to human need in the same way Jesus would. It’s helping people who hurt, regardless of how it may or may not benefit us. So—if you want to do well on this final exam then learn to do good without demanding that you get credit for it. Do good without expecting anything in return.
Do good, but don’t ask for a receipt.
(4) Fourth—Don’t exclude ANYONE, ANYWHERE.
Look at the response the “goats” gave in verse 44. It says,“They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see You hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help You?’”I get the impression that if they had known that their help would have been credited to their spiritual account—if they had known that Jesus was the one behind the needs of those they ignored—well, then they would have responded differently. In His response Jesus said,“I tell you the truth. Whatever you did not do for one of THE LEAST OF THESE, you did not do for Me.”Who were “the least of these?” They were the ones these “goats” excluded.
Well, let me ask, do you have a group you exclude from your compassion? Are there people you ignore—people you refuse to help? Here’s some possible examples:
- People who you know might never be able to pay you back?
- People whose sinful choices have put them in a difficult situation?
- People of a different race?
- People in the OTHER political party?
- People on the other side of the hot political issues of the day?
- People whose faith doesn’t acknowledge Jesus as the Son of God?
Well, let me ask, does Jesus exclude these people from His love? You know the answer to this question—so you have to agree with me when I say I don’t believe that we have permission from our Master to exclude anyone from our acts of compassion. We are to love EVERYONE—even those in our own private “LEAST OF THESE” categories. In fact, if you have a “least of these” list, throw it away!
So…to review our cram session studying so far…
Don’t overlook small opportunities to do good.
Don’t worry about your limitations.
Don’t worry about a receipt.
Don’t exclude anyone anywhere…
(5) And finally…Don’t forget: when we give back…when we serve OTHERS in need—it is the same as serving JESUS Himself.
In my mind this is the most amazing part of Jesus’ lecture. Do you remember what He said? Jesus said that when we visit the sick and clothe the naked and feed the hungry and visit in the prisons, it is as if we were ministering to Him. He said, “Truly I say to you, to the extent that you did it to one of these brothers of Mine, even the least of them, you did it to Me.” (Verse 40)
Now—what did Jesus mean by that? Why would He say that ministering to the needs of others was the same thing as ministering to Him? Well, He says this because God loves every human being on this world of ours. They are His special creation. He has a plan for their lives. In short, He loves them as a Father would love His own children. So when we serve someone—anyone—God Himself is blessed.
And if you’re a parent then you understand this don’t you!? Sure you do! I know I do! I mean, like any parent I love my kids…and when they hurt, I hurt. It’s like our hearts are hard-wired together so that I feel what they feel. Now—I could give examples from each of my three children’s lives but I’ll pick on the youngest because her experience is most recent. My youngest HAS been hurting this semester. Her friend group kind of dissolved for various reasons and she began to feel as if she was all alone. As I reminded you a few weeks back, loneliness hurts.
Several times this semester she called us in tears. I agonized over those calls. I lay awake at night worrying about my daughter. I felt that same pang of loneliness she felt in the pit of MY stomach.
Well, a few days ago she called and she sounded so much better. When we asked what had happened she said that her room-mate from last semester got word that she was feeling blue and sought her out to give her a hug and encourage her….and to basically remind her that she isn’t alone! When I heard this, I felt as if I had been hugged by that roommate. In fact, if I see her when we go pick her up this spring—I may just give that roommate a hug! I’ll ask permission first of course. But do you know what I mean moms and dads? When someone helps your child, doesn’t it feel as if they are helping you?
Well, magnify that human reaction an infinite number of times and you begin to see how our Heavenly Father feels when any human being on this planet hurts. He is so concerned that He notices every hungry child….every homeless family….every cancer patient writhing in pain…every prisoner alone and cold. When they hurt, God hurts. This is because God DOES love all people. So when GRACE-DRIVEN Christians minister live out the lesson in this lecture Jesus gave in Matthew 25…when we go to help the hungry and the poor and the sick—and the LONELY…we DO minister to our Lord. We make GOD Himself feel better! Is that amazing or what?! Surely you would agree then that Christians should leap at any chance to do that. We should run to give back to our God Who has given us so much.
Don’t grab for your coats yet but we are about to sing our closing hymn and this morning I’d like us to think of these last few minutes as a practice test. If you’ve been to college then you know what I’m talking about. Teachers often give their class, practice tests to see what they need to study in order to do well on the REAL test. So, let’s think of this last part of our service in that way. Look at your life—and ask yourself, “How am I DOING on all these DON’TS? Is Jesus proud of how I’m doing?” If your life ended right now and you stood before Him face to face, would you hear Him say, “Well done thou good and faithful SERVANT?” Which of these “don’ts” do you need to work on?
LET US PRAY