Readings: Ezekiel 34:11-16,20-24, Psalm 100, Ephesians 1:15-23, Matthew 25:31-46
Preached on Christ the King Sunday, November 26th 2017
Today in the church calendar is the last Sunday of the Liturgical year known as "Christ the King" or "Reign of Christ" Sunday. One of the readings suggested for today was Matthew 25:31-46, the passage where Jesus speaks of the Son of Man separating sheep from goats, as a King bringing righteous judgment upon all nations. It is that image of "Christ the King" I would like to explore with you this morning.
Coming as I originally do from the British Isles, where they still have a monarchy, you'd think that maybe I had an advantage in understanding this text. However the role of the royal family in Great Britain in no way reflects the image of Christ as King in our passage. Any notion of "The Divine right of Kings" has long since passed into memory and the Queen and her family occupy a role that has more to do with promoting a charitable spirit and celebrating state occasions than wielding political power.
Now that I"m living in America where July 4th is celebrated as the day that the tyranny of King George was overthrown, I realize that the notion of "Christ as King" needs re-interpreting. The whole idea of power and authority being invested in some despotic force out there, answerable to nobody and far from benevolent, makes the whole idea of Kingship difficult.
Yet I wonder if it were any easier for those who first heard these words. I say that because Matthews gospel, from where our scripture was taken, begins by painting a picture for us of a King called Herod who is little more than a puppet in the hands of Rome.
And as such he is consumed by fear for his position, so consumed that when visitors arrive from the East asking questions about a new born King, Herod is driven to embark upon a course of infant genocide, just in case some rival to his precarious position were to arise. Not exactly a flattering portrait of Kingship!
For a positive image those who first heard these words would need to reflect on their history, and in particular the figure of King David, who led the nation through a period of great prosperity and advance, and under whom they had never had it so good. The image of David as the Shepherd King, chosen and anointed by God was a powerful one for a people who were beaten down under the rule of a far away Caesar.
The image of David was associated with passages full of promise like Ezekial 34:22-24, where God declares; “I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep. I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the LORD, have spoken.”
In our passage from Matthew the separation of the sheep and goats brings in an unexpected and radical view of the King. Judgment is made upon the basis of compassion and service. The Kings family are revealed not to be the wealthy and privileged but the unfortunate, the sick and imprisoned, the stranger, the hurting and the needy. “Truly I tell you," says the King, "Just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.”
Jesus takes things further. He pictures the role of the Son of Man as not being just as Shepherd/King, but as being the Servant/King. My mind wanders to that encounter in the upper room, where He who reigned over the disciples takes a bowl, wraps a towel around Himself and proceeds to wash their feet. John 13:14-15 “So if I, your Lord and Teacher, have washed your feet, you also ought to wash one another's feet. For I have set you an example, that you also should do as I have done to you.”
What can we glean from this scriptural picture of "Christ as King" to help us live our lives today? Let me suggest three things I gained from this passage. Hope, Motivation and Encouragement.
Firstly, Considering Christ as King can bring Hope.
The notion that there will come a time when all will be right with the world, when those who currently are making life intolerable for others will be called to account, the hope of both future justice and future reward shines a ray of light in times of darkness. This life is not the end of the story. The story ends with Christ enthroned as King.
Christ's coming has not been the arrival of a now lost and lamented hero, but death and resurrection have unleashed a sequence of events that will lead to His enthronement. The lectionary reading from the epistle to the Ephesians seeks to capture this hope. Ephesians 1:20-21 “God put this power to work in Christ when He raised Him from the dead and seated Him at His right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come."
The picture of Christ as the Victor occurs time and time again throughout the New Testament. To commit to Christ is to align oneself with the winning side, even though it is a victory in anticipation rather than one that is fully realized. But as in peoples lives we glimpse daily miracles of grace, we understand this hope is not an illusion, but a reality that sneaks upon us and takes us by surprise.
Christian singer/songwriter/peacemaker David Lamont speaks about hopes for peace with the thought that "God is not only mysterious, God is also mischievous." He reflects that God has a habit of shattering the traditional viewpoints and stereotypes that we try and label the Divine with. A shepherd who is really a King? A servant who reigns? An all powerful slave? Such are images that make mischief of our understanding of power and position. Christ as King can be for us an image of hope.
Secondly, the image of Christ as King can be a powerful motivator.
In a world that continues to play the game of the "one who has the most toys wins" the picture of Christ as the Servant/King invites us to invest in what really matters. This whole passage about “In as much as you did it for the least of these who are my brothers and sisters" suggests to me that we are at our best when we seek to lift up those who are at their worst.
When we celebrate our blessings, by being a blessing to others, when we invest our time in those who others have little time for, we are imitating the example of the Shepherd King. The Good Shepherd who allowed 99 well capable ones to look after themselves in order that one who was lost and abandoned could be rescued.
God's Kingdom takes all our notions and turns them inside out and upside down. Blessed are the peacemakers, Blessed are the meek, Blessed are those who hunger and thirst, Blessed are those who mourn? The little things become the big things. The unexpected becomes the defining moment. The improbable becomes the possible.
And in the end it all boils down to a couple of principles that are easily remembered but so seldom truly lived. "Love God" and "Love your neighbor." Right there is the Servant/Kings manifesto. That"s the line He draws in the sand that separates sheep and goats, good sheep from bad sheep.
Christ's Kingship is expressed through a Kingdom that is plainly not of this world, does not respect the false values and motivations that this world counts important and stands at times in radical opposition to ideals we thought were the important ones!
Seeing Christ as a King… a King who is everything we don"t expect a King to be… is to me a powerful motivator to try and be like a child of that King and rejoice in such a radical heritage.
Thirdly, the image of Christ as King can be a tremendous encouragement.
There's a lovely chant that comes from the monastic community in France known as Taizė. “Jesus, Remember me, when you come into Your Kingdom.” Usually the song is sung acapella and repeated numerous times... almost creating a wave of sound as people interject their own harmonies and nuances. The power in such repeated chants is that as you allow yourself to become absorbed in them, God is able to take you all sorts of places.
The words "Remember me when you come into Your Kingdom" were the last request of a penitent criminal. Those words received a response. “Today you will be with me in Paradise.” With all this talk of sheep and goats and casting out into the darkness and “in as much as you failed to do this unto them, you failed me,” we do well to recall that the dominant note sounded through the life of Jesus was not that of judgment but of grace.
That grace is there for all who seek it. Even dieing criminals. The only excluded ones are those who choose to put aside the invitation to feast at the Kingdoms heavenly banquet. There is hymn in our hymnbooks that puts it this way, reflecting on the 23rd Psalm;
“The King of Love, My Shepherd is,
Whose goodness faileth never,
I nothing lack if I am His
And He is mine forever”
CHRIST THE KING!
THE KING OF LOVE!
THE SHEPHERD KING!
THE SERVANT KING!
Worship is such a privilege! The King has invited us to His banqueting house and His banner over us is love. I pray that our reflections upon Jesus, the Servant King, may lead us to places of hope, motivation and encouragement.
- Hope that one day all things will be well.
- Motivation to pursue a servant lifestyle that reflects the love of a Shepherd King
- And encouragement from the Holy Spirit that as Jesus Christ is the King of love our labor in Him shall never be in vain.
The Reverend Adrian J. Pratt B.D.