It’s been a few weeks now, leading up to the beginning of Advent, the short season of preparation for Christmas. I’ve been running with the theme of Winter Is Coming to talk about a conversation Jesus has with the disciples about “the end times,” the idea that Jesus will return, the world will end and all will be judged. Matthew’s gospel records this conversation as a series of stories Jesus tells as a way to encourage – others might say “warn,” but I’m going with “encourage” – the people to be ready, to be prepared for what’s happening and what will happen, for the kingdom of God to come.
Hmm. Warn or encourage? I think that perspective is a key part of how we’ve traditionally understood the stories Jesus tells here and I’ve tried to reframe them a little. So I suggest that maybe Jesus was already here, now, in each of us and we should be more prepared to see that and embrace it, than to fear the difficult world into which Jesus comes and be lost to it. I suggest that maybe the world needs to see more of us living like Jesus and that might be the very thing to change it, rather than see the fear, the hate and the darkness as the precursor to change.
And then. Jesus comes to this story about judgement, when the king will come and separate the people “as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.” To the sheep, he says “you fed me when I was hungry, gave me water when I was thirsty, welcomed me when I was a stranger, gave me clothes when I had none, took care of me when I was sick and visited me when I was in prison.” The sheep wonder when they did that for the king and the king says “when you did it for the least of my family, you did it for me.”
Likewise, the king say to the goats that they didn’t do those things and the goats, also not able to recognize the king, defend themselves by saying they didn’t see the king needed those things. But they didn’t do it for those in need, so they didn’t do it for the king.
So, this must mean we should be a sheep.
Well, of course, be a sheep. But look more closely. The story isn’t just, “sheep good, goats bad.” Neither of them recognizes that the king is the people and the people are the king. Jesus is present in all of us, and neither recognized that Jesus was right there in their brothers and sisters who were in need. Jesus was there, in plain sight, and neither saw that.
But the sheep didn’t need to see Jesus to be Jesus. They didn’t just sit around waiting for something grand to happen, they went about the business of living as Jesus taught them, sharing kindness, care, justice and love. The goats may well have been the holiest goats around, but they were too busy doing nothing, they didn’t have time for living. The sheep may not have seen Jesus in each moment, but they were certainly ready to. Life is about engagement, about living into the relationships that are possible with all around us.
The sheep and the goats aren’t all that different. This story could have been told with deer and moose, cats and dogs, Oilers fans and Flames fans. We’re not all that different, either: we are all children of God. Perhaps the real judgement to focus on here is how much time we spend judging others, rather than helping them, or how we value what’s important to us over what’s important to others.
Winter isn’t coming any more, it’s here, so live into it. Embrace the world around you as Jesus would. You might even see Jesus around you. You might need to look in a mirror.