Audio transcript available soon.
Refugee Sunday 31st August 2014
Malachi 3, Matthew 25
Well, this passage from Malachi is one of the most exciting and terrifying passages that we ever read from the OT, isn’t it? And if like me you are a fan of Handel’s Messiah you will have heard in your head the bass singing, “and who may abide the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appeareth, for he is like a refiners’ fire,” They are chilling words that remind us that at some point we will face an examination of who we are and what we have done. And this idea of judgement is picked up too, in Matthew’s gospel, and if Malachi’s image is of being cast into the furnace of purification to see what remains, Jesus image of separating the sheep from the goats is only slightly less frightening.
In Malachi we are given a list of criteria for this judgement, so that we can somehow measure ourselves and see how much gold there is and how much dross. The first few things are fairly black and white- The Lord will be swift to bear witness against sorcerers, people who promise things they can’t deliver, or who offer false hope, or who claim a power that is not God’s, might find themselves in this category. Then we have the adulterers, people whose infidelity to God and to their fellow human beings, hurts others. And then we have those who intentionally bear false witness of others. These are all people whose sins affect others on a kind of personal basis and we can understand God’s judgement being against them. Then comes another group of sins which are against, quite specifically those who Jesus names as the little ones, the people that God is for, so the hired worker, dependant on day to day income to stay alive; the widow and the orphan people needing help and support; and the alien- the person who has come into your country, from somewhere else, who looks different, who speaks a different language, whose customs are different, these are the aliens.
And you know, you don’t have to do very much here to offend God- all you have to do is thrust them aside. That’s worrying, isn’t it? Do you think that putting people who have sought our help onto Manus Island or Nauru counts as thrusting them aside? The reason God is judging us is that in behaving with no regard for others we are revealing that we do not fear God. God has taught us over and over again that we are to love our neighbours as ourselves, and Jesus made it extremely clear that our neighbours include those who are not like us, those who are of a different faith and a different social group. If we truly fear God, that is if understand that God is God, our creator and our judge, we will respect God’s rules. My question for us is who would stand if Jesus were to appear today?
And Matthew tells us that when Jesus appears he will sort the sheep from the goats. Now this sounds really easy to us- sheep look like merinos- twisted horn if a ram, heavy wooly coats, kind of white all over- unmistakably sheep. And goats- well they can be all kinds of colours and they have different ears and well, they are just different. Let me tell you that when Jesus says these words the sheep and goats had not yet experienced 2,000 years of selective breeding and it was very difficult to tell the difference. In fact in some ancient languages there is just one word that means all of the small ruminants. Actually in biological terms they are quite different- sheep have 54 chromosomes and goats 60, but physically the quickest way to tell which is which is to look at their tails, goat’s tails go up and sheep’s tails hang down. So it is not so quick and easy as you might think to separate the sheep from the goats and can’t be done at first glance.
Jesus has an interesting criterion- how the sheep and goats have treated him is how he judges. “For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” These are the things that Jesus is looking for- compassion and generosity. The righteous are puzzled because they have no recollection of doing these things for Jesus but Jesus points out that if they have done it for the least of these who are members of God’s family- not our family, not our little cohort, but God’s big global family, the children of God, then you did it for Jesus. And the ones who haven’t done it are equally puzzled because they know that if they had seen Jesus in any kind of need they would have rushed to meet that need, but sadly each time they saw someone else, someone who was the least of these, the most unimportant, the one they liked the look of the least, they had failed to act and are judged accordingly. And do you notice that Jesus identifies himself with those in need. He describes himself as hungry, thirsty and a stranger, naked and imprisoned. And as we look at our society we see plenty of people who fit these criteria, don’t we? But who more so than the refugees, desperate and needy strangers, who are imprisoned through no fault of their own and without charge. These are the least of God’s family here in Australia.
The frightening thing is that neither the sheep nor the goats know that they are in that camp- they just think they are going about their daily business, there is a surprise for all of them. But it should be easy to see, Jesus tells us that if we are good branches we will bear fruit and that fruit should be visible if not to ourselves at least to others. St Paul in the passage from Romans that we read also encourages the Christians in Rome to bear fruit and the fruits that he speaks about are the fruits of the Spirit, to love, to hope, to be patient and persevere in prayer, and to serve the Lord by looking after the needs of the saints and extending hospitality to strangers. There it is again, this call to befriend those who are coming in from outside. The implication of Jesus’ words is that what we do for others is of vital importance. It is not enough for us to be right with God, and indeed we cannot be right with God if we are ignoring the needs of others. And those others are not just in our comfortable community but those outside as well. To go back to Jesus words in the sermon on the mount, this- caring for those in need, is what it looks like to be salt in our society, or the light shining on the hill.
When we look at the terrible things that we are seeing on our television screens, we sometimes feel powerless to do anything to help the people in desperate need. We can give money, and that does help enormously, but often, for me anyway, I feel that Jesus is calling me to do far more. We have people right here, people who have fled the conflicts that we are seeing, people who have lost everything, risked everything to get here and we are called by Jesus to help them. It does matter what we do- we cannot exist in a little bubble of our own Christian faith without acting. Those who Jesus has included with the goats are those who thought they had a faith in Jesus and that it was enough. They were either blind and deaf to the needs of others or thought that it wasn’t their problem, and suddenly they are being judged on what they did for the least of God’s family here on earth. Bishop Desmond Tutu reminds us that, “If you are neutral in situations of injustice, you have chosen the side of the oppressor”. Jesus says if you are neutral, if you choose neither to see nor to act, you will be included with the goats. And all the goats, given the chance would have served Jesus but they failed to recognize him. And then he recognized them as goats.
I ask you, with Malachi, who could stand when Jesus appears, who will be able to bear the scrutiny of him who is like a refiners’ fire? The answer is those who present their offerings to the Lord- and their offerings will be acts of kindness to others. Jesus says, “I was a stranger and you welcomed me”.