Points for Preaching and Teaching
by the Rev. Dr. John Fairless
In Ezekiel, it is the Lord GOD who takes personal responsibility for shepherding the sheep (“I myself….”) We may note that this is because the earthly shepherds of Israel, aka the kings, haven’t really done the job God wanted them to do. IMHO (in my humble opinion) — this does not lessen the impact of the idea that God, sooner or later, takes on the job of becoming the Savior of the world. It is, after all, God’s world — all of it — in God’s role as Creator. Without arguing over the origin of evil, entry of sin into the world, etc., what we learn about God from this passage is that God assumes full responsibility for the “lostness” of God’s sheep. “I will save my flock….” Enough said.
Psalm 95 supports this reading of Ezekiel; we see God’s creative power detailed and God’s role as our Maker affirmed. That God is King is significant on this day, as well.
If you are going to ascribe a title to the Lord Jesus on this day, you could do worse than Paul’s phraseology in Ephesians. The man certainly knew how to stack up some power words: “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.” As if that is not enough to describe this Christ, the King, we get this tidy summary: “God has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things….” That’ll do!
Matthew‘s gospel closes out the liturgical year with a description of the kind of life that is “fit for a king.” Feeding the hungry, slaking the thirst of those with nothing to drink, welcoming those without a voice and a place in the world, clothing those with nothing to wear. Add to that tending the sick and visiting the imprisoned (read, “undesirables.”) Jesus’ people do these things. Again, that is simply reason enough to consider them, don’t you think?
by the Rev. Dr. Delmer L. Chilton
I saw a copy of the most recent People magazine. There on page 11 was what I can only assume is a regular feature: “Royals Round the World.” The big picture was of the future king, Prince Charles, in a beige suit, twirling a handkerchief over his head while participating in a traditional dance on a state visit to Mexico. There were smaller pictures of Prince Harry in fatigues, Prince William and Princess Kate shaking hands with firemen or some such, and then a fashion shot of Kate, the caption of which mentions her invisible to the male eye “baby bump.” Is she pregnant? Somehow I missed that. Maybe because it’s none of my business.
Little wonder that it is so difficult for us to get a handle on the meaning of “Christ the King” when these people are almost the only modern reference point we have to go on. (Okay, there is Burger King, and Elvis the King of Rock and Roll, and LeBron “King” James the basketball star, but those don’t really work either – believe me, I’ve tried.)
The Hebrew concept of “kingship”, at least in its purest and most prophetic form, had little to do with either the pomp, circumstance, and chivalry we associate with the great houses of Europe, or the images we’ve picked up from fairy tales, or the celebrity foolishness of the Windsors. Biblical kingship had to do with justice and righteousness and a compassionate God.
This is shown to us by the fact that Israel’s favorite image for the king was as a shepherd. Other nations and peoples saw their kings as gods or as fierce creatures, as powerful and destructive people bent on conquest and domination. While a shepherd could be fierce and war-like when protecting the flock from predators, it was a much more domestic and nurturing image. A shepherd’s job was to protect the sheep from harm and to provide for their growth and happiness. A shepherd had to think of his or her own needs last and the needs of the herd first. This is the image Israel chose for their king.
Ezekiel shows us a God who is angry that the Hebrew kings have not been good shepherds. In the first part of our text, YHWH boldly says – “Since I can’t trust the shepherds, I’ll do it myself.” In this section we hear from the very mouth of God what a good king, a good shepherd provides, “I will make them lie down. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.” (3:15-16) Then there is a shift and God promises a new king, an earthly king, a king, a shepherd, who will do all these things in God’s name and on God’s behalf; “I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them.” (34:23) This is the promise that a descendant of David will come to take care of God’s kingdom.
In the Gospel lesson, Jesus tells a story, not a parable, really, but a story, really a vision of what will happen when the Son of Man, the descendant of David, comes “in his glory.” This set-up ties into ideas that were then popular about a final judgment, and right being good, and left being bad, etc. etc. Matthew turns this vision into both an opportunity for ethical teaching and a call to the young Christian community to take on its role as shepherds for all God’s people.
The vision is of all people of all time being gathered before the “judgment seat.” The king will separate the people into the sheep and the goats; sheep on the right, goats on the left. Then comes the explanation of the division.
It is noteworthy that the situations mentioned aren’t extraordinary and none of them are at all religious. One neither has to believe in God, nor believe anything in particular about God in order to pass muster. There is absolutely no mention of either theology or liturgy in this list. These are realities all of us confront on a regular basis. Hunger and thirst and homelessness and nakedness and sickness and imprisonment. We are not asked to solve these problems. We are invited to respond to the human need right in front of us. Feed people, give them water, give them shelter, give them clothing, provide decent healthcare, visit and console them in prison.
The element of surprise is the key to this story. The sheep on the right were surprised to learn that they had done something for the king, something the king would reward. They were surprised to learn that they were being singled out for being good – they had thought they were simply being human and humane. The goats on the left were surprised to learn that they had failed to do something for the king, “Why, had I seen the king in such conditions, of course I would have taken care of it. But I didn’t see the king, I just saw – – -those people.”
The point here is both ordinary and mystical. The ordinary is the argument that atheists make all the time, and I agree with them. They say, “You don’t have to believe in God to be moral. You can be good without looking to gain a reward or avoid a punishment.” And that is exactly correct, and is truly Jesus’ point here. Reward and punishment as a motivation for goodness is a dead-end street; we end up focused on ourselves and wondering if we’re being good enough, and if we’ve done enough, etc. Jesus says, “Forget yourself and focus on doing what you can for the other, it’s that simple.”
And here’s the religious, mystical part. We are called and empowered to do these things for others because we are the church, and Ephesians reminds us that as the Church, we are the body of Christ. We are the active agency and activity of God in the world, we are the ones who are fulfilling the role of “king/shepherd,” tending to God’s beloved children, who are, strangely enough, also the Christ. The hungry, the thirsty, the homeless stranger, the naked ones, the sick and suffering, those in prison, all of them are Christ, and our call is to respond to their need with active love and simple compassion.
Amen and amen.