Christ the King Sunday
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Then shall the King say unto them on his right hand, Come, ye blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.
Christ. The. King. We have finally reached the last Sunday of the year when we celebrate and look forward to the fulfillment of God’s promises in and through Jesus Christ. Over the past year we have seen Him as a baby, as a boy, as a rabbi, teacher, friend. We’ve seen Him tell stories and change people’s lives with healing and forgiveness. We have seen Him live, die and rise again. The promise of His kingship has been woven in the parables and in the promises, but on this day we focus on this.
I’m not sure Christ the King is an image we appreciate; after all, history has shown us the failures of kings throughout time. I read a lot of historical fiction, and my favorite time period is during the reigns of the Tudors. Quite frankly, if our image of a king is Henry VIII, I’m not sure any of us would want Jesus to be a king. He was selfish and self-centered; he surrounded himself with the wrong advisors who were able to manipulate him to their own benefit by convincing him that their ideas were in his best interest. Of course, that often meant that others would suffer, and many did suffer. The selfishness of Henry and his advisor led to the imprisonment, torture and death of many innocent people. Even those who weren’t quite so innocent did not deserve to be beheaded.
And while Henry VIII is a rather extreme example, I’m sure that we can find fault with every earthly monarch. Even King David had his faults. Good monarchs have existed, but none of them were, or are, perfect. When the Hebrews saw that the other nations had kings, they went to Samuel and told him they wanted one. It wasn’t enough for them to have a God who spoke to them through a judge, they wanted a king like everyone else. God warned them that a king would take advantage of them, he would do what served self rather than nation and people; they didn’t care. Samuel took it personally, but God reminded him that they were rejecting Him. “Give them what they want.” They got it, and the kings throughout time have been disappointments beginning with Saul.
What does it mean that Christ is King? Will He sit on a throne? Will He take advantage of His subjects? Will He rule with an iron fist? Will He, as Samuel warns, take our sons to fight and our daughters as slaves? Will He take everything we own and use it for His own purposes? Will He demand taxes or command our labor? Will Christ the King be like the king that God warned the people of Israel and like all kings (even the good ones) have been?
No, Christ will not be a king like Henry VIII. On Christ the King Sunday we celebrate the return of how it was meant to be. See, Israel had a King: God was her King. But the people wanted an earthly, human representative they could see, hear, understand and perhaps even touch. God was good, and did so many good things for them, but He was so distant and frightening. They were content to let others be a intermediary, but then wondered whether or not they could be trusted. After all, even Samuel’s sons were not trustworthy. Isn’t it better to take command from an imperfect human decision maker than to trust someone claiming to speak for an unseen and unknowable God?
We know now, thanks to the life and ministry of Jesus Christ, that while God is greater than we can ever imagine, He is not unknowable. We can know Him; we’ve seen Him. Jesus has bridged the gap between human beings and our Creator. Though God is still everything we see in the Old Testament, for God never changes, through faith we have been restored to that intimate relationship that once was lost. He is still a God to be feared, but not in the sense that we are afraid. We are in awe of that which God was, is and will be and what He has done, is doing and will do. He isn’t self-centered like the human kings, He doesn’t rely on advisors; He loves us to the point of sacrificing even His own Son to reconcile with us and that very Son will be the true King forever.
In the beginning, they had God as their King and He provided prophets and judges to lead them. There were also priests, whose job was to minister to the Lord and administer the sacrifices. God warned them that an earthly king would demand much from the people: many would be cruel and lay heavy burdens on their lives. But He granted their request for a king. Over the years, some of the kings were cruel and the people were led from the path of righteousness. Israel lost their independence, the line of kings ended and they were left desolate. Puppet kings ruled by the time that Jesus came; they were controlled by the Romans. Even the priests and temple leaders were more interested in their own welfare and position than that of the people they were called to lead.
The LORD knew what was going to happen to His people, so He promised that He would come for them and be their Shepherd King just as He was in the beginning. He promised that though the priests would abandon them for their own selfish reasons, He would never let them go. He promised that He would bring them home, give them all they need and tend them as a shepherd tends his sheep. He will not allow any to be lost and all those who suffer will be healed.
He did this by sending Jesus, our Shepherd King the Savior. Jesus came to fulfill the promises, to remove those who were not doing God’s work so that the One, true King would rule over the hearts of men once again. It was not an easy task, for only through the cross of humiliation could God’s people be reconciled to Him. But Jesus did it; He died for you and for me. Today, we still face human leaders that will do us harm and place heavy burdens on our backs. There are even such leaders within the church, those who care only for their own welfare and position and who care nothing for the sheep they are called to lead. But God will not abandon His sheep. His promises through Ezekiel are as true today as they were when they were first uttered. God will take us home, protect us, tend to our needs and give us rest: the Lord God Almighty is the Good Shepherd and He is faithful.
God promised in the passage from Ezekiel that He would be their shepherd. He promised that He would take them home, protect them, tend to their needs and give them rest. Yet, Ezekiel was not finished. He then spoke to the sheep themselves, and warned them that it is not just the responsibility of the shepherd to care for the sheep, but also that the sheep should care for one another.
The true King has given us the most incredible gifts: life, love and salvation. He has provided for our every need, given us food for our tables and roofs over our heads. He has given us friends, family, hope and peace. He has promised to be with us through the rough times when money is scarce and our health is failing. No matter what happens in this world, we know that through faith in Christ we will spend eternity in the presence of God. Unfortunately, we don’t always live in thankfulness for the lives God has given. We step on our brothers and sisters; we take what we have been given and use it selfishly, forgetting to share with those who are in need.
The King in today’s Gospel lesson judges His people. The focus during these past few weeks has reminded us that the Day of the Lord will not be a day of laughter and roses. The King will judge the work of His people. We saw the wise bridesmaids prepared for a long wait while the foolish ones let their oil go out. We saw the two servants put to the master’s resources to good use while the third just buried it. Today we see that the sheep took care of the needs of their neighbors while the goats ignored the opportunities to serve. In the end, each of these stories ended poorly for those who did not do as expected, they end with weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Goats aren’t bad creatures. As a matter of fact, goats were used in Temple worship in the days of ancient Israel. They were used as sacrifices; even the curtain inside the Temple was made with goat hair. In terms of value, goats were the least valuable of the domesticated animals, but that doesn’t make them worthless. 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 their excess 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.
So, why would Jesus compare the sheep to the goats? In many ways, sheep and goats are the same but they are very different in terms of behavior. In Jesus’ day, the sheep and the goats were separated at night, the goats put into a barn to keep warm but the sheep preferred to stay in the field. Goats are willing to eat anything, preferring leaves, twigs, vines and shrubs. They are even able to eat some plants that are deadly to other animals. Sheep prefer the short tender grasses and clover in the field. Sheep eat to the ground, while goats prefer to eat off the top of the plant. There are also differences in their social behavior. Goats are more curious, wandering to seek out new food sources. They are independent; they do not wander with a flock but move wherever they want. Sheep, however, flock together and become discontent when alone.
Perhaps that’s why Jesus separated the sheep from the goats. The goats go their own way; the sheep stay together. I’m not sure it can be said that sheep help one another, but they are safer and warmer in a group than the goats that go off on their own. The people who are like sheep are those who live in community, sharing what they have with others. People who are like goats live for themselves. That’s certainly the difference between the sheep and the goats in today’s Gospel lesson. The sheep didn’t know they were caring for their Lord, but they cared for one another. The goats were ignorant of other’s needs and thus ignorant of the Lord’s presence.
This doesn’t mean that the sheep are perfect at doing good works or that the goats never share. It simply means that the sheep are those whose hearts and spirits respond to the needs of others. As we enter into the holiday season, many people will be generous. They will give quarters to the Salvation Army Santas; they will put toys in the collection barrel. They will take food to the food bank and send checks to their favorite charities. There is no doubt that most people will do something charitable in the next six weeks.
Here’s the thing: we are very aware of those charitable moments when we do something nice or give a donation. As we can see in this story, however, the sheep and the goats had no idea they were doing a good work. “When did we see you, Lord?” We don't always see Christ in the midst of our ordinary lives, but He is with us daily. Sometimes we realize later that we've had a divine appointment, when the revelation of God's mercy and grace is made apparent to us. However, most often our experiences in sharing God's love happen without our noticing, like when we speak a word of compassion to someone waiting in the grocery line or when we share a meal with a sick friend. These things do not seem extraordinary, but it is those very things that Jesus commends. He is reminding us in this story that we should always be ready to respond with grace and mercy to everyone who crosses our path.
Christ longs to say to each of us, “Well done, good and faithful servant, join in my happiness.” Oh, sure, it is impossible to see the face of God in His fallen creation, but if we do not concern ourselves with all those whom we meet that need Christ, we might just miss the Christ whom we so greatly long to see. If that’s the way we live, we are just like the shepherds in Ezekiel’s day that stepped on the sheep to get fat, and like the goats in the parable that ignored the needs of their neighbors, missing the presence of Christ.
This is not a call to seek God’s face in every person we meet; we need only live in faith, trusting in our Great Shepherd’s grace as we respond to His love by meeting the needs of this world. In this way we live in praise and thanksgiving, joining our Master in His happiness. As Christians, with the Holy Spirit dwelling in our hearts, the response to the worlds needs is natural. We don’t do good works because it is that time of year, or because it makes us feel good, or even because we know we should give back. We do what we do because that is who we are. We have been transformed by faith to be Christ-like, to be His hands in the world. Your holiday charity is a blessing to someone, for sure, but our life is meant to be one of service always, no matter the time or our circumstances.
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. And so we pray those prayers asking for ‘enlightenment’ for those who do not see God’s grace with eyes like ours because we know if they change their mind, we will have the power. The greatest lesson we can learn from the apocalyptic texts of the Bible is that it is not up to us to have the power. It is up to us to trust in God; the King will make everything right.
As we recall those lessons that we’ve heard from Matthew 25 over the past few weeks, we see that they point toward these three promises. The oil in the lamps is the hope the bridesmaids had for the coming of the Lord. The ones who were prepared knew that it could take longer than they expected and they were prepared, trusting that the bridegroom would come because He promised, not that He would come when they expected Him. The two servants took the resources of their master and made them grow, and then they were invited to enter into their master’s joy, sharing in the riches of his glorious inheritance. The sheep didn’t try to control the power for their own benefit, but were led by their shepherd to take care of one another.
So, we 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 hundreds, 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 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 called to trust in Him and live as if He is always with us, responding to the needs of this world with grace and mercy. In the end, we will see the fulfillment of His promises. Christ the King will welcome us into His Kingdom and we will dwell in His presence for eternity.
He is a King that is worthy to be praised. 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 is the One who deserves our praise and thanksgiving; He is greater than anything in this world because He created it all. How can we possibly see the Creator in His fallen creation? How can we see God in the ordinary? I’m not sure we’ll ever 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 us to do.
A WORD FOR TODAY
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