The Advent Responsory often marks the start of Advent Carol services and comes from the Magnificat and Matins; it reminds us that Advent is intended to be a time of preparation and repentance. We remember Christ’s coming in glory as both judge and saviour.
St Matthew 25: 31-33, 41-46
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. 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 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.” 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.’
V: I look from afar: R: And lo, I see the power of God coming, and a cloud covering the whole earth. V: Go ye out to meet him and say: R: Tell us, art thou he that should come to reign over thy people Israel? V: High and low, rich and poor, One with another, R: Go ye out to meet him and say: V: Hear, O thou shepherd of Israel, thou that leadest Joseph like a sheep. R: Tell us, art thou he that should come? V: Stir up thy strength, O Lord, and come R: To reign over thy people Israel. V: Glory be to the Father, and to the Son, and to the Holy Ghost. R: I look from afar: and lo, I see the power of God coming, and a cloud covering the whole earth. V: Go ye out to meet him and say: R: Tell us, art thou he that should come to reign over thy people Israel?
As Protestants within the Reformed tradition, we claim to adhere to the Pauline/Lutheran doctrine of justification by faith alone. The understanding of saving faith as complete reliance on God’s grace revealed in the crucified and risen Jesus is foundational to us.
But gift brings demand. In this passage, the Matthean Jesus steers us firmly away from the danger of embracing the concept of ‘cheap grace,’ of thinking ‘once saved, always saved’, as a licence to pursuing our own selfish ways. The vision of Jesus returning in glory to enact judgement confronts us with the overwhelming requirement that we are to make a positive response to the good news of the gospel, if we hope to secure a place in the kingdom.
This positive response involves our active engagement with the vulnerable: giving food to the hungry, drink to the thirsty, clothing the naked, welcoming the stranger, visiting the imprisoned, and caring for the sick. The accursed ‘goats’ have failed in these responsibilities towards the vulnerable. Their sins are sins of omission, rather than commission. We hear their bewilderment, imagine their terror, as they ask, ‘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?’
Tragically for them, ignorance is no excuse, as the one coming to reign identifies with ‘the least’ in all their need and vulnerability.
Lord Jesus, protector of the weak and friend of the friendless, provider to the needy and healer of the sick, prick our consciences and stir our compassion to notice you among the vulnerable, to seek you among the suffering, and to respond with hearts overflowing with your love, in the hope of your coming among us again. Amen.
The Rev’d Dr Gillian Poucher, Minister of Gainsborough United Reformed Church