Sunday, November 23, 2008

Christ the King Sunday
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Psalm 95:1-7a
Ephesians 1:15-23
Matthew 25:31-46

And the King shall answer and say unto them, Verily I say unto you, Inasmuch as ye did it unto one of these my brethren, even these least, ye did it unto me.

I like to craft. I don't always have the time to work on this as I would like, but whenever I have some free time I find some sort of project to keep me busy and out of trouble. At times the projects are from patterns I have bought or received from friends. At other times, however, I want to do something new and different.

I tend to shop the clearance aisles at the craft stores, finding all sorts of interesting bits and pieces that were the materials for some long forgotten trend in crafting. These parts are usually on the sale aisle because the manufacturers are no longer making the pieces and some things necessary to do the original project are sold out and no longer available. Most of the items in the sale aisle are useless to me: alphabets with only unusual letters, containers without tops, broken beads and miles of the ugliest ribbons. However, there are times when an item catches my eye. Though it might not be usable for its intended purpose, I see something else: the possibility of something beautiful. As they say, one man's junk is another man's treasure.

In today's Gospel message, Jesus tells two groups of people, “You saw me hungry, thirsty, a stranger, naked, sick and in prison.” He commended the first group – the sheeps – who had taken care of His needs. The second group – the goats – had ignored His needs and had not fared as well. Both groups were surprised to hear that they had seen Jesus.

The gospel lesson doesn’t do much for our impression of goats, does it? After all, it sounds like the goats are all going to be sent to be sent into eternal punishment. It sounds as if goats are unclean or unacceptable. Yet, the scriptures show us that goats were not only clean, but they were acceptable at the Temple for sacrifice.

As a matter of fact, the hair of the goat was used for the curtains in the tabernacle. This would not have been true if God had deemed goats unworthy. Leviticus 16 describes the ritual involved in the Day of Atonement, at which goats play a very prominent role. The Lord told Moses that Aaron should first offer a bull for his own sins, and then he is to present two goats to the Lord before the entrance to the Tent of Meeting. One goat was chosen for sacrifice, the other was sent into the desert to be a scapegoat. The scapegoat is not immediately killed; the people lay their sins on its head and it is then sent into the wilderness. Now, both goats are sacrificed, but one is given directly to the Lord and the other is left for God to take in His time and way. The fact that goats are used in the ritual for the Day of Atonement shows us that goats are not unacceptable before the Lord.

The goats are not only acceptable as the sin offering, but the fellowship offering also includes goats. Anything that is given to God in sacrifice is expected to be worthy. It is the blood of that animal, after all, that provides for the spiritual cleansing of the people. It is through the blood that they are forgiven. It is not really a concept that we understand today, especially since in Hebrews 10 we learn that the blood of bulls and goats can not forgive sun. But for the people of ancient Israel, those goats meant life and reconciliation to God. A goat isn’t a bad thing.

As a matter of fact, according to Heifer International, goats are one of the “Seven M” animals. The most efficient use of livestock resources is found in those animals that offer meat, milk, muscle, manure, money, materials and motivation. Goats reproduce quickly, often birthing kids several times a year. The milk can be used for drinking, cooking, butter and cheese. Farms with more than one goat can provide milk, butter and cheese for sale. Goat manure makes excellent fertilizer. They are small and need less space for proper care. They eat anything, including weeds that are dangerous for other animals and people, so they are better for managing land. They can be trained to carry packs or they are strong enough to pull wagons. They can be housebroken and make rather good pets. Goat hair is used to make wool, including mohair and cashmere. These animals are certainly of some value, particularly among those families for whom one animal could mean the difference between life and death.

It is so easy to assume that we are the sheep in this story. Certainly we will not be sent into eternal punishment! We have the promise of the Gospel to save us. This is true, but it seems to me that those standing before the throne of God are those whom God will judge on that great and terrible Day of the Lord. We’ve heard over the past few weeks that we should not desire the day because it will not be pleasant for those who have become complacent. We see today that it won’t be pleasant for those who have forgotten to be merciful and just.

It is a very fine line we walk when we talk about the coming of Christ. We know that our salvation is dependent on the first coming of Christ: He died so that we would have eternal life. Jesus Christ was born to die, and His death won for us freedom from slavery to sin and death. This is grace, and His grace is all we need to be saved. Good works will not win us anything. Rather, Jesus won our freedom so that we might live and love with justice and mercy as our goal. We are born again to serve our neighbors, to do what is right and good in the world in which we live.

There are three judgments found in the bible. Earthbound judgment is given by humans to humans. It is right for there to be human judges to advocate for justice and bring reconciliation between people. We judge others, sometimes wrongly but sometimes rightly. If someone is hurting another, it is our responsibility to stop them, punish them and teach them how to do right. We must be careful in the role of judge, because we will be judged with the same measure we judge others. So, we are hypocrites if we judge our neighbor and yet do the same sins. But, we are called to call one another to account, and that takes judgment.

For the Christian, there are two judgments. The first is the final judgment. I know that sounds backward, but the final judgment must come first. It is the judgment that came through the blood of Christ on the cross. He died to save us from ourselves. Through the cross we gain the forgiveness of sin that God promised to His people. There is nothing we can do to earn God’s grace at the final judgment. We all deserve death and hell. But by faith we have salvation, given to all who believe by God’s grace. It is a done deal. It can’t be canceled. We can’t overcome His grace by our own power or failure.

The third type of judgment is the believer’s judgment. Paul talks about this in 1 Corinthians 3. “For other foundation can no man lay than that which is laid, which is Jesus Christ. But if any man buildeth on the foundation gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay, stubble; each man's work shall be made manifest: for the day shall declare it, because it is revealed in fire; and the fire itself shall prove each man's work of what sort it is.”

Paul goes on to say that the ones who have built with good materials will find God’s favor and those who use poor materials will still be saved, but will have nothing left to show for their life. It is like the servants in last week’s Gospel lesson. The servant who used his gifts well received a pat on the back. The servant who did nothing was cast away. We believers will stand before the throne of God. There He will see our life of faith manifest. The life that worked for justice will shine. The life that ignored the needs of others will not. The sheep and the goats have all been invited before the throne of God, but some have proven themselves to be poor stewards of God’s gifts.

As the church year closes, we are reminded of the life we should be living as we wait for the coming of the Christ the King. Then we move into Advent to wait for the coming of the Christ child. We feel generous, perhaps because it is Christmas, but also because we’ve been reminded that the Day of the Lord will come. When He comes, He will be looking to find where justice and mercy prevails. We are more aware of the poor around us, so we give to the food banks. We are well aware of our surplus, so we make donations to our favorite charities. We are reminded about how incredibly blessed we are, so we take part in projects that try to ensure a happy holiday season for others. But what happens once the holidays pass? Our generosity fades as we get back into our every day lifestyles. We forget that their needs continue throughout the year.

As I was researching the passages for this week, I came across this anonymously written poem. “I was hungry and you formed a humanities club to discuss my hunger. Thank you. I was imprisoned and you crept off quietly to your chapel to pray for my release. Nice. I was naked and in your mind you debated the morality of my appearance. What good did that do? I was sick and you knelt and thanked God for your health. But I needed you. I was homeless and you preached to me of the shelter of the love of God. I wish you had taken me home. I was lonely and you left me alone to pray for me. Why didn't you stay? You seem so holy, so close to God; but I am still very hungry, lonely, cold, and still in pain. Does it matter?”

It is nearly time to pull out our Christmas decorations. After this Sunday it will be just a week until Advent. Although I’m trying to wait until Thanksgiving, I have to admit that I’m ready to pull down my nativities and set them up in my house. I have been seeing them on display in the stories and have anxiously awaited my chance to decorate my house.

It is fascinating to see the different ways people represent the birth of Christ. I have several different ones, some made of plaster, some of ceramic, some of glass. I have large ones and small ones. I have some with a full range of characters and others with just Mary, Joseph and Jesus. Other figures include wise men, animals, angels and a shepherd. The characterization of these figures is based on tradition. There were traditionally three kings, so the nativities include three kings. The features of the kings, who are traditionally Caspar, Melchior and Balthasar often represent different stages of life and places of origin. Caspar is usually given Oriental features, Melchior white skin and Balthasar black skin. They symbolize every man; they represent you and me.

The other character in most nativities is a shepherd. The image is of a young boy obviously poor. He is usually carrying a lamb, and though he’s muscular from his work, he is also skinny and poorly clothed. He usually has a cheerless look on his face. We are reminded not only of the shepherds who were given the good news when Jesus was born, but also of King David. David was the youngest and smallest of his brothers. He was a shepherd boy, and yet he is the one that God chose to lead Israel. David did not take over the throne immediately, however. He spent time with Saul, then spent time running from Saul. When Saul died, many years later, David finally became king. By then he had become a hardened warrior and leader, though he still had the heart to serve God. His heart is what made him king, not his appearance or ability.

The shepherds were often boys, too small to fight and too uneducated to do much else. The boys did not own the sheep; the sheep belonged to a master. It seems odd that God would use the image of a shepherd to describe the leaders of His people, and yet it makes a lot of sense. After all, the shepherds are meant to be caregivers working under the Master. They aren’t the authority; they are given the authority by God. We see this in the story of David. He was selected to be king long before he had the ability, strength and power to lead. He relied on God and obeyed His word. That is what God expects of His chosen leaders. But we hear in today’s lesson that they failed.

God promised to send a new shepherd, one who would care for the sheep always relying on the Master and obeying His word. That was Jesus. God knew what would happen when God’s people asked for a king. God warned that an earthly king would demand much from the people; many would be cruel and lay heavy burdens on their shoulders. But He granted their request. Over the years, some of the kings were cruel and the people were led from the path of righteousness. Saul was the first of those to depart from God’s ways. David was chosen to stand as an example of the kind of king God intended for His people. The final king, the Messiah, would come from David’s house. It is that king we celebrate on this coming Sunday: Christ the King.

Isn’t it interesting that the nativities usually show the kings kneeling before the Christ child, but it is the lowly shepherd standing nearby with his sheep that really symbolizes what the baby in manger was to become? God turns our world upside down. The image we have the Christ the King is one of power and authority, and yet God gives us an image of a lowly shepherd. He is the creator of the earth and everything in it, yet comes to us as a helpless child in a manager and takes on the image of those who are hungry, thirsty, strangers, naked, sick and in prison. It is no wonder that we do not recognize Him. We are expecting to see something extraordinary, but God comes to us in the ordinary needs of our neighbors.

It seems almost degrading to look for God in the ordinary, as if we are trying to make Him less than He is. The psalmist writes, “For Jehovah is a great God, And a great King above all gods. In his hand are the deep places of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also. The sea is his, and he made it; And his hands formed the dry land.” This God who deserves our praise and thanksgiving is greater than anything of this world because He created it all. How can we possibly see the Creator in His fallen creation? We will probably not recognize His face when we see it. Neither the sheep nor the goats knew they were seeing God. The sheep responded anyway. That’s what Jesus is calling for us to do.

I am somewhat bothered by the Paul’s prayer in the epistle lesson for today. Paul writes, “…may give unto you a spirit of wisdom and revelation in the knowledge of him; having the eyes of your heart enlightened…” Too many people tried to ‘enlighten’ me with their perspective and their interpretation, many of which went against everything I knew and believed. How many of those believers will be standing among the goats on that Day of Judgment, believing that they will enter into God’s eternal joy because of their knowledge. Yet, Paul was not praying for the people of Ephesus to believe him; he was praying that they would know and understand what God had planned for His people.

The three things Paul desires for the Ephesians is “hope,” “riches of his glorious inheritance,” and “immeasurable greatness of his power.” Not only those three things, but that the people might “know what” they were. What is hope? What is the riches about which Paul writes? What is God’s power? Unfortunately, all three of these are often misunderstood and mischaracterized. So, as we consider the coming of the King of Kings, we are asked to consider what it means to hope. What riches are we to expect? What power is there from God? All too often, we want to put our hope in something less than Christ. We want the riches of His inheritance to be something tangible. And power. That is perhaps the hardest one for us to control. We want power.

Instead, we would do well to ask for a spirit of wisdom and revelation as we wait for the coming of the Lord. We live in a world where many people think they know what it will be like. There are thousands of books on the subject. We read these books and think that we know what God has up His sleeve, and we think ourselves as better in some way because we ‘get it.’ Yet, Paul reminds us in this passage that we do not have the power; that is for Christ alone. God will set him above all else, with the world as his footstool. And even more comforting is that Jesus will be the head of the church. We don’t need to be in control. We don’t need to have the power. God does, and He has given it to Jesus Christ to be the source of our hope and the immeasurable riches of our inheritance.

We are reminded by these texts that it might be very difficult for us to tell the difference between the sheep and the goats. After all, there are many people who claim to be a Christian. However, there is something missing. For Jesus, the ones set to the left hand are those who missed the opportunities to serve Him by serving those in need. They missed seeing God’s face in the ordinary. That said: are any of us worthy? Have any of us missed even one opportunity to meet the needs of a neighbor or stranger in need? Have we turned away the helpless or forgotten the imprisoned?

What will Jesus find when He returns? Will He find us doing all He has called us to do, not only during Advent and Christmastime, but through the whole year long? This Sunday is Christ the King Sunday, but we are reminded in this week’s passages the type of King we are waiting to see. He is the Son of David, but also David’s Lord. He is a shepherd, as David was once a shepherd, not strong and mighty and powerful on earth, but able to overcome all things. He is the Shepherd who does the will of the Master, and He calls us to follow Him on the same path. It is a path of justice and mercy through service, a life of faith lived out by God’s grace. These lessons about the Day of the Lord spur us on to ask questions about our lives of faith and to ponder the meaning story in our world today. We need not fear the Day of the Lord or our failures because God is faithful to His promises. But as we celebrate the coming of the King and then move on into the season of Advent, we would do well to consider if our life is manifesting the grace we have been given, not only in this season but all the year through.

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