Audio available at: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=errXfGYbMR4
Christ the King- Matthew 25:31-46
Let’s try a little association test when I say “Jesus” what do you think of? How many of you saw in your mind a picture of little baby Jesus lying in the manger, or cradled in his mother’s arms? Well, it’s coming up to the time of year when that will be the main picture of Jesus, won’t it?
And how many people here, when I say “Jesus” see him hanging on a cross? We have a lot of images of Jesus, dying or dead. And what about the resurrected Christ- standing there with the marks of the nails in his hands and his feet, and the sword in his side? Maybe when I say “Jesus” you think of the famous painting by Holman Hunt of “The Light of the World”?
OK, so how many people saw Jesus enthroned in glory separating the sheep from the goats? It’s not how we often think of Jesus but interestingly, it is the ongoing reality. All the other pictures are in the past, Jesus born a baby in Bethlehem, Jesus living and working in Galilee, Jesus crucified in Jerusalem, Jesus resurrected and ascending, these are all the markers of his earthly life from 2,000 years ago. But the present and eternal reality is that Jesus is seated on the throne in glory. All of our bible readings talked about this, in one way or another, so let’s unpack what it means a bit.
In the passage that we read from Ezekiel, one of the OT prophets, God says that God will be the shepherd of the people. Now to understand this, it is important to realize that the Shepherd is also the King. When God says God will be the shepherd, God is taking back the Kingship that has foundered so badly. Right at the end of the passage we read it says that God is going to set up one shepherd, his servant David, who will be the prince among them. Now David is long dead- this is a way of naming the Messiah, or the “Coming one”. It is Jesus who becomes the good shepherd. The things this Shepherd King is going to do are important for us to note.
The Shepherd King is going to seek out the sheep who are lost and rescue them from the darkness. They are going to be brought into their own land, where they will be fed, and the shepherd king will bind up the injured, and strengthen the weak. I have been thinking quite a lot lately about people having a sense of homelessness, so I am interested that one of the things is that they are going to be brought into their own land. My sister has just moved to England. Now, I almost said “back” to England, though our family hasn’t lived there for generations. She has moved to the very town that our Great Grandfather came from and is living about 100 yards from where he lived. I don’t know if she will have a sense of being at home, but I think for many in our itinerant world we don’t really know where home is. In fact I think that indigenous people are much to be envied in knowing where home is. The reality, as we see in this passage, is that our home is in a promised land, one promised by God, where God IS. And once we are there in that place with God, then we will be at home. There we will know what being at home really means!
And this Shepherd King, is going to look after God’s people with justice. Did you notice that some of the sheep had been unfair, they had pushed others aside and got to the best grass, so they were fat. Who do you think are the ones in our world that have the best grass? Well, we are some of them, aren’t we? Well fed, and with every convenience we need and a great number that we don’t need. And we, in our comfortable world, find it hard to spare a thought for the ones who are lean, who are weak, because they are enduring hardship. I find this extremely uncomfortable to think about because God says that God will judge between the sheep and God’s judgement will be for the ones who have been pushed aside.
In the passage from Matthew we have another picture of judgement. This time it is Jesus himself, who is to be that shepherd that Ezekiel speaks of, who is doing the judging. He calls himself the “Son of Man” which is a funny way of saying “the one who comes at the end of things”. It comes out of another of the prophets, Daniel. So when this Son of Man comes in glory with all his angels then he will sit on the throne and all the nations- everyone- will be gathered before him and he will separate the sheep, not from the other sheep, but from the goats. Now I talked about this just a few months ago, but please excuse me for saying it again, it was very, very hard to tell apart sheep and goats at sight, in Jesus’ day. They all looked the same- it is easy for us after many years of selective breeding, but even now if you went to the Middle East you wouldn’t be able to tell the difference. And the way Jesus sorts them out us that he chooses the ones who have been kind to their neighbours, the ones who have helped other people in need and they are his sheep. Now this sounds very much like the Shepherd King from Ezekiel, doesn’t it? But in Ezekiel it is the shepherd himself who is going to feed, and care for the sheep. After Jesus has come and brought in the Kingdom of God, the people, the sheep, are expected to follow his lead and care for others. And the sheep, the ones who have done this, are a bit surprised, aren’t they? They ask Jesus, when it was that they saw him in need and he replies that when they are kind to or look after the least of these, that is the unimportant people, the sheep that Ezekiel describes as being poor and in need, then they have done it for Jesus. So, you can unexpectedly be doing the right thing. But equally, you can unexpectedly be doing the wrong thing. The goats say to Jesus, “when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger, naked, sick or in prison?” They can’t work it out because if they had seen Jesus in need they surely would have helped him. But Jesus tells them that when the “least of these”, the unimportant, the weak or marginalised people, were in need they ignored them. So, if you ignore someone who is in need, it is the same as ignoring Jesus, he says. This is pretty challenging, isn’t it? The last time I was talking about this passage we were thinking particularly about the situation with refugees, but it applies to so many other people doesn’t it? Our world is full of people in dire need. If you talked to Pamela, she would tell you that the most pressing thing of all is climate change- as the sea rises the poorest people clustered around the coasts will be made homeless, as well as many other terrible consequences. When we fail to act, as a nation and as individuals, we are condemning the most marginalized and the poorest people in the world, surely Jesus’ ‘least of these’, to an even worse fate.
There is a lot of pain and hardship in the world and Jesus is going to judge us on our response to it. I don’t know about you, but I find that quite confronting.
The question for us, on this day when we celebrate Christ the King, Christ reigning in glory, is how we, in this present reality of his reign, can share in it. Christ’s reign, shown in the picture from Ezekiel, is that of a Shepherd King, looking after his people, caring for them, feeding them, binding them up, and we are called to participate in this, by Jesus himself in his words in Matthew. So the answer to our question is that we must live our lives characterized by generosity, compassion and justice.