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Footprints In The Sand

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Text:  Matthew 25:31-46

Dear Friends in Christ,

One day at chapel I asked the school  children to solve a little riddle.  Let’s see  how you do.  It’s a “what am I” riddle.  Here  it is:

“You take me with you wherever you go.    Sometimes you can see me very clearly,  while at other times you can hardly see me  at all.    I am always behind you — unless you turn  around.    I’ll never quite catch up to you.    What am I?”

Do you know the answer?  It’s my  footprints. I want you to think about your  footprints this morning. Footprints are those  signs you leave behind you wherever you  go.  They are the evidence that you have  been somewhere, doing something. You  probably don’t think about them too much.   Sometimes they are faint and shallow, but  other times they are strong and well-defined,  like when you walk in the sand at a beach.   The interesting thing is that they are always  there, but you hardly ever think about them.   Nevertheless, they are the evidence that you  are up and active, alive and moving in some  direction.

If a Christian is up, alive and moving toward  heaven, he can’t help but leave footprints in  the sands of time.  These footprints are our  good works, left in the wake of our faith in  Christ.  Do our “footprints” precede us into  heaven?  No.  But if we have been made  alive in Christ in Holy Baptism, trust in  Christ and are walking toward heaven in this  life, then the footprints of love and mercy  and good works must surely follow.

Our text for today is not about what  Christians “do” to get to heaven, but it is  rather about who Christians “are” in Christ.   As we reflect on the words of our Lord this  morning, let us consider what we Christians  are called to be as the redeemed and  sanctified people of Christ.

The whole 25th chapter of the Gospel of St.  Matthew is part of Jesus’ eschatological  discourse, his discussion of the end times.  It  takes place during the week of his Passion  following his entrance to Jerusalem on Palm  Sunday.  In the previous chapter he has  spoken about the various signs that will  precede his second coming.  In chapter 25  Jesus speaks of what his people are to be  doing as they wait for his return.  Three  things are identified.  In the first third of the  chapter he tells the story of the Ten Virgins  who are waiting for the bridegroom to come  so they can go to the great wedding banquet.   As we wait for the return of Christ we are to  be vigilant, waiting with sufficient oil so that  we may enter the banquet hall.

The second third of the chapter is Jesus’  parable of the talents.  While we wait for  Jesus’ return we are to be faithful stewards  of the gifts he has given us — not burying  them, but investing them so they may grow  and increase the kingdom of our Lord.

In the final third of this chapter we have  today’s Gospel lesson of the last judgment.   What are Christ’s people to be doing while  they wait for his return?  They are to be  doing deeds of love and mercy — feeding  the hungry, giving drink to the thirsty,  welcoming the stranger, clothing the naked,  caring for the sick visiting those imprisoned.   Do they do these things in order to get into  God’s heaven?  At first glance, it might  appear that way from our text.  After all, the  King points to those very deeds when he  gives them their eternal inheritance.  And it  is the lack of those deeds that he criticizes in  those on his left who are destined for eternal  punishment.

But is this what the text is really saying, that  we receive heaven as a reward for our good  deeds?  No, that would be contrary to the  rest of Matthew’s Gospel and the whole  New Testament where we are clearly told  that it is Jesus who had earned heaven for  us.  He did this by his own righteous life  lived for us and by his innocent suffering  and death on the cross where he exchanged  his innocence for our guilt and where he  received the punishment for sin that we  deserved.

In fact, when we look closely at the text we  learn that the gift given to the righteous is  their “inheritance”, not their “reward”.  An  inheritance is never something we earn or  deserve.  An inheritance is our birthright,  something we possess because we belong to  the family.  How did you and I get into the  family of God?  How do you get to belong  to your earthly family?  You were born into  it.  In the same way we are born into God’s  family through our adoption in Holy  Baptism — the water of life that cleansed us  from all sin and gave our new inheritance as  members of the Family of Christ.  St. Paul  describes that inheritance we now have in  his letter to the Colossians where he prays  that the believers will “live a life worthy of  the Lord and please him in every way:   bearing fruit in every good work, growing in  the knowledge of God” and “giving thanks  to the father, who has qualified you to share  in the inheritance of the saints in the  kingdom of light.”   St. Peter tells his  readers that God has “given us new birth  into a living hope through the resurrection of  Jesus Christ from the dead, and into an  inheritance that can never perish, spoil or  fade — kept in heaven for you…”

What a rich inheritance we have waiting for  us!  And on that last day, the day of  Judgment, when we hear our Lord saying to  us “Come, blessed of my father, take your  inheritance”, we know that it will not be the  result of our works, but the undeserved gift  that is ours by God’s grace through faith in  Christ Jesus.

Now, of course, believers will do good  works.  A healthy tree bears good fruit.  A  man walking on a beach will leave clearly  defined footprints behind him.  Where does  that fruit fall?  Where are the footprints of  our Christian life to be found?

Out there in the world is where we leave our  footprints of love and kindness — in our  homes and schools, in our workplace and  community — wherever we have the  opportunity to aide and comfort, strengthen  and uphold, feed and nurture, clothe and  visit.  Mother or father faithfully discharging  their duty toward their children, children and  youth honoring and obeying their parents,  Christian students working together with  their teachers in the task of learning,  Christian employees faithfully serving  their  employers and employers tending to the  needs of their workers, a Christian  community preparing hampers for the poor,  serving those with special needs, reaching  out to the strangers among us with a friendly  welcome, visiting the sick and grieving with  those who grieve — foot prints everywhere,   where the Christian life lived out faithfully  in response to the Gospel of Christ.

When I was a little boy I used to go for long  walks with my dad.  For a while I would  walk beside him, but soon I grew tired and  began to lag behind.  When I saw his  footprints on the soft soil of our farm, I  started to walk in the prints he left behind.   It wasn’t easy.  His strides were long and  mine were short.  In order to keep in his  footprints I would have to jump from one to  the other and usually I would come down  short of his print.  I remember thinking that  someday I would grow up and then I would  be able to match those footprints he left  behind.

Jesus has called us to follow him — to  follow in his steps.  As sinners we know  very well how difficult it is for us to do that.   He was merciful and kind.  We are short-  tempered and irritable.  He fed the hungry  and gave living water to those who were  thirsty.  We are self-centered and suspicious  of others.  And yet our Savior continues to  forgive our sins and day by day the Holy  Spirit is growing us into the measure of  Christ.  One day we will be able to match  our Lord’s own steps but, to tell the truth,  we probably won’t even be aware of it when  it happens.  For on that day we will ask him:    “When did we do that, 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?”  And he will tell us that we’ve been  doing it all along — as we lived out our  calling as his own dear children, empowered  by His Word and Sacrament.  His Calling …  Our Praise  Giving God Glory every day.  In  the name of the Father and of the Son and of  the Holy Spirit.  Amen.