Posted on Nov 26, 2017 by Pastor Dave Whetter
Today is the final Sunday of the church year and as we bring the year to a close we celebrate Christ the King Sunday. This festival day was actually first created as a church festival day in 1925 by Pope Pius XI. Pope Pius instituted this celebration as a way of combating the secularism that was growing. It was a way of reminding the faithful that their real king was not some human government or other secular leader, but as a Christian, our king is Jesus. Until the mid-1960’s this festival day was only celebrated by the Roman Catholic Church and it was celebrated on the last Sunday in October as a way of also countering the Protestant churches that celebrated the Reformation on that day. However, following Vatican II the entire church, Catholic and Protestant, began to celebrate this day and it was moved to the final Sunday in the church year.
Another interesting fact about this day is that until 1983 the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Sweden referred to this day as the Sunday of Doom because of this very text that we read today. Today’s text is Jesus’ great story of judgment. For the past three weeks we have been reading through Matthew 25 and with each reading we have heard Jesus’ promise that someday he will return, but no one knows when so his followers need to stay awake and keep up the work that needs to be done. Finally, as he brings this teaching session to a close, he says, when he returns, he will gather “all nations,” not just the Jews, not just those who followed him, but “all nations” before him to be judged. In other words, Jesus proclaims that whether you know it or not, everyone will come under his judgment. And in the end, those who will be judged in a good way will be those who served Christ by ministering to those who are poor, hungry, naked, sick, or estranged.
Ezekiel set the stage for such a grand and noble time of judgment when he proclaimed on God’s behalf that “I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out” (34:11). In our reading from Ezekiel, God says “I” will do something 19 times. God said, “I myself will search” (34:11), “I will seek” (34:11), “I will feed them” (34:13), “I will bind up the injured” (34:16), “I will strengthen the weak” (34:16), “I myself will judge” (34:20), “I, the Lord, will be their God” (34:24). There is no doubt here who is in charge, is there? God is the shepherd who seeks the lost, weak, and injured and feeds them with justice. God is our merciful ruler and we are called to go into the world to make known his reign in our loving words and deeds. God is our king!
But today, as we use the language of king, in Jesus’ story of judgment, Jesus’ vision of his glory is really a humble one. His kingly activity is not concerned with parading around royally, or associating with the powerful or wealthy, or affiliating himself with military might and authority. The pronouncements made from his throne are not ones issued for the sake of protecting his own power. Instead, Jesus proclaims that as King he is concerned with one question in particular: How are the vulnerable cared for?
As we celebrate Christ the King at the ending of another church year, we are challenged to see an expression of power that is far different from that which makes governments tick. Jesus welcomes his followers into an alternative way of life, one that puts love of neighbor at the center of our daily actions.
As I said at the beginning, this parable of the sheep and the goats has often been used to focus on God’s judgment and to instill fear into us because Jesus makes it clear that some of us will not fair so well on that day of judgment; “Then he will say to those at his left hand, ‘You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels’ ” (34:41). No wonder the Swedes called this the Sunday of Doom.
But, remember what I said last week; Jesus always taught in parables, and parables were often intended to make his followers ask who God is and what is it that God expects of us? And so today I wonder if instead of focusing on judgment, if it is possible that Jesus’ point here was to urge his disciples to see that God is a God of grace and mercy and that God expects us to care for those who cannot care for themselves. In other words, until Jesus returns, God expects us to share God’s generous saving grace with everyone. Yes, judgment is inevitable; it will happen, but for those who feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, clothe the naked, care for the sick, and welcome the stranger, judgment will be good. How much clearer does God have to be? Caring for those that the world has said are the least of our brothers and sisters is to care for God himself.
This parable has often functioned as “law”; that is, we see it as a command to care for the neighbor that is bolstered with the threat of hell. But, as “gospel” we see the parable as affirming the continuing presence of Christ in our midst. The risen Lord is not far away in some heaven, but is present around us every day.
Today, we are challenged to embody Christ in every moment of our lives and to engage every part of our world as Christ’s redeemed creation. God has made it clear that his love is for ALL of creation and Jesus seems to invite us today to wonder what our ultimate purpose as a child of God is. Today we are being challenged to imagine what it would be like if we would embody Christ and practice God’s kingdom on earth as it is in heaven.
Think about it; how would this world be different if we truly embodied the presence of Christ every day? Amen.