There is one thing we fear most as Floridians.
It’s not sharks. Or hurricanes. Or even snakes and spiders.
There is one thing so much more frightening than that.
It is the moment when our air conditioner breaks.
A few weeks ago, Dave and I came face to face with this very fear. I noticed the house felt a little hot, and went over to check the thermostat. The thermostat was set for 75 degrees. But the inside temperature of the house was 78, which meant we had a problem.
We found a few more signs of trouble near the condenser and quickly called the one person we knew could fix the problem, the repair company, and then sat down to wait.
Because once you call the one person who can fix something, that’s what you do.
And watch the number on the thermostat.
An hour later it went up another degree.
We were powerless. All we could do was wait.
But then it went up to 80 degrees. There had to be something we could do!
We can’t overhaul an entire air conditioner, but couldn’t we do something to help with the problem? A quick google search gave us a few ideas, and an hour later Dave was outside with a shop vac, some clear tubing, and a roll of duct tape.
AND IT WORKED.
Now, can we fix every air conditioner problem? No.
Can we build an air conditioner from the ground up? Absolutely not.
But we were able to do something to make a difference this time when we realized it was broken.
I know it’s a big jump to move from thinking about our broken air conditioner to thinking about the broken state of the world – but hang with me, because the principles we are going to talk about are surprisingly the same.
Our world is broken.
We know that.
Our world isn’t working the way it should.
Regardless of where you sit politically, none of us can look at the world today and think this is exactly what God wants for us, not as long as people are hungry or poor or sick or hurting or oppressed. The temperature is literally rising and our world is in desperate need of repair.
The problems feel big. We feel powerless.
We don’t know where to start. What are one or two of us really going to accomplish against the scope of the brokenness of what we see in the world today? Or what if we get involved and we make things worse, or our efforts don’t make a difference anyway? So we put in a call to God.
We leave a message saying “fix it Jesus” and we wait.
We wait for God to fix it all. We wait for the world to change.
In one sense we’re right. We’re right that the problems are bigger than any one of us can fix. But is there something we are supposed to be doing while we waiting? What can we be doing about these huge problems of poverty and brokenness and corruption while we wait for Jesus to fix it all?
The people in the teaching we will read today were waiting too. One thing Christians believe is that someday the same Jesus who came two thousand years ago will come back. We don’t know when, we aren’t really sure what that will look like, but we believe someday it will happen. As modern Christians, we have 2000 years of experience in this waiting, so we aren’t holding our breath thinking this will happen just any moment now. But for the people in Matthew’s time, it still seemed imminent. At first they thought he might come back any day. But then as time went on, and he didn’t come back, they got frustrated. What should they do about these problems if Jesus isn’t coming back today?
That’s the context for our teaching from Matthew’s gospel today. Let’s take a look:
‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory.
This is that second coming of Christ we just talked about – the Son of Man is Jesus. Now listen to this next part:
All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 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.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?”
And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.”
That’s quite a list. But let’s take a minute to think about how broad that list really is. There are tangible things like food, water, and clothes. But there are also things we can’t put in a donation bucket. Welcome for someone who is a stranger. Compassion and attention for someone who is sick or in prison. These are the ones that are easiest for us to miss. If someone asks you for food, it would feel terrible to just walk away and leave them hungry. But who are the people we are ignoring with our compassion and attention? Who are the people you are ignoring because you are busy, or their situation makes you uncomfortable, or it might cost you something to really stop and help? Jesus goes on:
Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’
Let’s deal with the elephant in the room first: What do we do with a passage like this when we teach that we are saved by grace alone?
In this passage we have a story of Jesus sitting on a throne with people in front of him, separating them one from the other, and the question he isn’t asking is “have you prayed the sinner’s prayer?” but instead he says “ 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.” That sounds like people have earned their salvation, that the things they have done are the determinant.
This is a tricky tension for us.
Because we know that we have all sinned and fall short of the glory of God, that we are saved by grace alone, that God so loved the world that he gave his only son because we could never have repaired the damage we have done to our relationship with God on our own. But then we have other passages like this one. And we have the book of James, which says faith without works is dead.
Yes. We are saved by grace alone. Absolutely. No question. The cross and resurrection of Christ is the only hope on which we stand.
Yes. What we do in this life does matter.
Are these passages saying contradictory things? No.
What these show is that salvation is by grace alone but real salvation will be evident in how we live. Don’t mishear this. We aren’t saved by how we live. But if Jesus is really the center of our lives, that’s going to show up on the outside, by what we do. In the Bible they call that the “fruit.” It doesn’t mean you are perfect. But it means that you are trying to follow Jesus. To live like he lived, and do what he taught. The bottom line is if we are really saved, if Jesus Christ is really at the center of our lives, then we will want to work for justice. Because Jesus cares about justice, so we will too. For the Christians in Matthew’s time, and for us today, this passage tells us exactly what to do while we are waiting. It’s our marching orders.
While we are waiting for Jesus to return, while we are waiting for the world to change, while we are waiting for God to do something big to fix the huge problems we see in the world, we help.
We help the person who needs us. The person who is hungry or thirsty. The stranger. The naked. The sick. The prisoner.
Don’t miss the amazing twist in this passage. Jesus is clear that it is not only the person we are helping when we do it, that when we feed the hungry or care for the sick, we come face to face with Jesus. Jesus says “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.”
When we are waiting for Jesus to fix it all, the place we are most likely to see him is in doing the kind of work Jesus does. Jesus goes so far as to say when you serve someone in need, you are serving Jesus himself.
If that’s not enough to get us moving, I don’t know what is.
Church, it’s time to get to work in the waiting. The problems out there are huge. You have put the call in to Jesus to come fix it, because you know you can’t fix them all. But while you are waiting for Jesus to fix it, your job is to do what you can to help while you wait.
Even when you feel ill equipped because all you have is a willing spirit and maybe a role of duct tape.
About the Author
Megan Collins is the co-pastor of Maitland Presbyterian Church near Orlando, FL. Find her on Twitter @pastormegan