Bible Text: Matthew 25:31-46 There are places in the world where goats are highly prized because they seem to be able to exist on almost anything, they give milk which can be used for yogurt, cheese and butter, they provide meat and their skins can be used for clothing. Now to be sure the sheep is no slouch when it comes to usefulness but of course you can keep a sheep a little longer and use its wool for clothing for a few years before using it for food. But you need to be cautious because the older it gets, the tougher it gets – and I have had my fair share of mutton over the years! For whatever reason, sheep have been more prized by the people we have come to know as the Hebrews. Goats seemed to get the short end of the stick. When the Day of Atonement would come, it was a goat that was symbolically charged with the sins of the people and sent out into the desert to die. And while sheep met their end at the hand of the butcher, their fate was more blessed. Goats meant release from sin but sheep meant life. We all know that sin is something that happens again and again in our lives but life happens only once. And while it is important to rid our lives of sin and acknowledge our desire to be rid of our sins, it is even more important to ensure that we remain alive. And so it is that God ordains that the blood of a lamb and a lamb only will be the mark of salvation – not the blood of a kid by which I mean a goat. Now we may debate whether it is fair to the goat that it has been chosen to represent sin and the sheep to represent salvation and life but we are in no position to ask God to change His mind. It is what it is. So we are left with the metaphor of the goat and the sheep – one representing our sin and one representing our salvation. Now I am not sure what kind of animal one would get if a goat and a sheep ever got together but obviously it was not a desired result. Obviously shepherds went to great lengths to keep goats from sheep. And Jesus uses this image to speak of the time when He will return in glory for the final judgment. First he speaks of gathering the nations before Him. Obviously there will be a sifting of the nations. Some will be like goats and some will be like sheep. He speaks this way because He knows that the nations of the world will make choices that will reflect the ethos by which they will live. Some nations will choose to be nations where compassion, care for the poor and the needy, concern for those who are ill or troubled is encouraged and expected and other nations will be those who choose to ignore the plight of the needy at best or even persecute them at worst. But there is a second sifting and that is the sifting of the people who come from the nations of the world. The second sifting will be one in which those who chose to see the need of humanity and act according to the justice of God will be like the sheep. They will be set at the right hand of God – the place of honour. And those who chose not to see the need of humanity and chose to act in their own interest will be like the goats. They will be first placed on the left hand – a place of dishonour. Concern for the community as a whole has ever been front and centre in the heart and expressed mind of God. The very fact that the two greatest commandments concern love for God and love for neighbour give a clear indication that we are not to ignore the plight of those who share our community locally, regionally, nationally and internationally. And while we may never be able to meet the needs of everyone in the world, we must ever be conscious of the needs around us and continue to encourage our nation to be one that seeks to be truly equitable in its dealings with all members of society. One more thing that we can glean from this passage is the fact that those who are considered sheep responded to the needs of the poor, needy or oppressed not even imagining that God in Christ was present. Those who are considered goats would no doubt have responded differently if they had known that God in Christ was present. But that’s exactly the point Jesus is trying to make. Those who desire to be God’s people and wish to be welcomed into the kingdom of God and receive eternal life act not out of selfish self-preservation or for their own glory but out of that true love for neighbour which is an extension of the love they have for themselves. I will freely admit that it is not an easy thing to imagine that Christ is indeed in the one who appears to us as a hungry family or a thirsty child or a homeless beggar. I admit that it is not easy to imagine that Christ is present in anyone who is sick or in trouble. But perhaps that is exactly the point. If it were an easy thing, we might never have a struggle within ourselves over how to respond to the need before us. If indeed we always believed it was Christ, I am sure we would always do the right thing. Even a goat might act like a sheep if it knew its fate depended on it. But it is what it is. There are goats in the world and there are sheep. Perhaps we don’t like the image. Perhaps we like goats better than sheep. But that’s the image Jesus chose because it was a traditional way that the people had understood God. Being a goat is something that in many ways we cannot escape. Each day of our lives brings opportunities to be a sheep or a goat. We will be goats some of the time. My prayer is that we will strive to become like sheep. But being a sheep is not about blind faith; it is not about following God without thinking; it is about choosing to live for God and to one day live with God in eternity. I invite you to think on this prayer which I use as part of my preparation for the day: My Father, I come to you at the beginning of this day to ask you to guide me and help me. Give me courage to face the problems that lie ahead and give me a heart wide open to the joys you have prepared for me. Forgive my many sins that I may start this day anew. And as you forgive me, may I learn to be forgiving and compassionate to others in return. My Father, I long to serve you aright. May all that I do and all that I say be pleasing in your sight. AMEN.
Perhaps you have the heard the saying: Make a friend; be a friend; bring your friend to Christ. But to make a friend, you must show yourself friendly and so we have to be someone who is approachable. If we do not seem like a person someone may want to get to know, chances are we will not find making friends easy. If we show by our words or actions that we are not interested in making friends, then chances are we will have difficulty finding friends. New situations are difficult for most of us but even more difficult for introverts. And yet we know that all of us need at least one friend in life. So if we decide that we will show ourselves friendly and start to talk to people, chances are we may find a friend. Of course making a friend is not the end of the process. After all, friends are not possessions. They are not something we can simply see as a moment in time. Friends may be part of our lives for a short or a long time but they are not an achievement to be put in the history folder as we move on. And so it is that we not only are asked to make a friend or make friends, we are asked to be a friend. And what is a friend? Well, hopefully a friend is someone we can count on to be there for us in good and bad times. Hopefully it is someone we can confide in and know that our confidence is respected. Hopefully it is someone who cares about us and is interested in our welfare. Hopefully it is someone who we will get to know better as time goes on – someone with whom we will want to share our lives. Being a friend is about all that. It is someone with whom you can discuss just about anything – even politics or religion. Hopefully it is a person with whom you can share your deepest dreams, hopes and fears. Hopefully it is a person who will come to know you well enough to be able to speak to you when they have a concern for your well-being – be it mental, physical or spiritual. Only then can we truly bring our friend to Christ. We bring each other because we believe that our friend needs to meet Christ in this time and place. Now let us take that credo and apply it to our life. Most of us probably didn’t know each other well before we came to this community – but maybe we did and that is why we are here. But let’s imagine that we were strangers. Something led us to be here. And even if it was not the first thing in our mind, somewhere inside we hoped to be able to make friends. After all, it is only when we begin to make friends that we begin to feel accepted within a community. But making friends was just part of the process. Once we had made friends, then we needed to be friends to one another. And as that friendship grew, we could begin to share personal details, confident that our thoughts and feelings would be respected. Then we could bring our friend to Christ for we would have come to a place where we could help to guide our friend as they sought for answers to their questions or concerns or perhaps be guided ourselves. One of the great strengths of the early Christian communities was their commitment to one another. They knew that they had chosen a path in life that was not generally accepted by the wider society. They also knew that there was an inherent danger in declaring they were Christian. They had a responsibility to encourage and support one another until the end of the age. And they took that responsibility seriously. Belonging to the church was a matter of life and death. They felt a strong bond to one another and shared with each other the joys and sorrows of their lives. They would speak to one another of their struggles and would pray for one another. They knew that they needed each other in order to maintain their faith in God until the end of their lives or the end of time. They came as strangers to each other, drawn together by a common confession of Jesus Christ as their Lord and Saviour. But they would come to bond with one another knowing that they needed one another to hold true to that confession. They made friends with one another; they were friends to one another; and they brought their friends to Christ. I have told you before that I believe that everyone who comes to this place is here for a reason. God has drawn us here and has given us to one another in this place to care for one another’s life. That care may take the form of listening, of holding each other’s hand, of praying for one another or giving counsel or advice. But whatever we may do for or with each other, it is to be done with care and love. We need to consider carefully what we say and what we do and be ready to ask forgiveness of one another. Our lives and our community life will not always be perfect or match the ideal but if we are willing to build one another up and encourage one another, we will go a long way to creating a community in which we can share our joys and our struggles with one another – assured that what we share will be respected and honoured and that we can feel secure and safe.