First Reading: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
11Thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. 12As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. 14I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. 15I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. 16I 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 the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.
20Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. 21Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, 22I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.
23I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. 24And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken.
Psalm: Psalm 95:1-7a
1Come, let us sing to the Lord;
let us shout for joy to the rock of our salvation.
2Let us come before God’s presence with thanksgiving
and raise a loud shout to the Lord with psalms.
3For you, Lord, are a great God,
and a great ruler above all gods.
4In your hand are the caverns of the earth;
the heights of the hills are also yours.
5The sea is yours, for you made it,
and your hands have molded the dry land.
6Come, let us worship and bow down,
let us kneel before the Lord our maker.
7aFor the Lord is our God,
and we are the people of God’s pasture and the sheep of God’s hand.
Second Reading: Ephesians 1:15-23
15I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason 16I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. 17I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, 18so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, 19and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. 20God 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, 21far 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. 22And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, 23which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
Gospel: Matthew 25:31-46
[Jesus said to the disciples:] 31“When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. 32All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. 34Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; 35for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ 37Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? 38And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? 39And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ 40And the king will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family you did it to me.’ 41Then 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; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44Then they also will answer, ‘Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?’ 45Then he will answer them, ‘Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
Charles Dickens opens his famous book Tale of Two Cities with these words:
“It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness, it was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity, it was the season of Light, it was the season of Darkness, it was the spring of hope, it was the winter of despair, we had everything before us, we had nothing before us, we were all going direct to Heaven, we were all going direct the other way – in short, the period was so far like the present period, that some of its noisiest authorities insisted on its being received, for good or for evil, in the superlative degree of comparison only.”
We come to the end of Pentecost and the end of the Christian year. Next Sunday we start the liturgical cycle again only we will be looking at our faith through the eyes of Mark. This year we have listened to Matthew tell us first about who Jesus was and then how the reality of Jesus’ life impacts our lives. Today we get a glimpse of the final scene, of what will happen when Jesus returns. Like Dickens’ introduction, in that event we will be faced with the extremes of our life: kings and peasants, good guys and bad guys, rewards and punishments.
Kings and Peasants
How do you picture Jesus? Some like the picture of him welcoming the little children onto his lap. Another famous picture is of Jesus walking like a shepherd carrying a little lamb. My parents had the picture hanging in their bedroom of a young man at the helm of a boat in a stormy sea and Jesus standing just behind him with one hand on the youth’s shoulder and the other pointing the direction for the ship to go. Jesus does not paint a picture of his return for the disciples based on their experience of him. He opens our text today describing “the Son of Man coming in his glory.” Advent, starting next week, introduces Jesus in a manger, humbly ushered into human lives. Today Christ the King comes in glory with the angels. Is that the Halleluiah Chorus I hear in the background? Like another song, I wonder if I will fall down at his feet in awe or be shouting in joy. Or will I be able to speak at all? I can only imagine!
It will not be a humble manger in a stable but all the nations of the world will be gathered before him and he will speak with authority. This is not a courtroom. This is not waiting for the election returns. What we have seen as a poor reflection in a mirror, we will see face to face. As 1 Corinthians 13 says, “Now I know in part, then I shall know fully even as I am fully known.” The end will be King Jesus coming to his world and bringing real justice to his people.
But wait, we also see another picture of Jesus in this scene. “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family you did it to me.” King Jesus is also that lowly child in a manger, the needy people, perhaps the neighbors, of our everyday life. The picture here may be of a returning king but it is also a picture of a present king who is enmeshed in the reality of our lives. He is not just returning, he is also revealing, shall we say unmasking, his presence in our world. We thought he left but he has been here all along. This picture of the Christian God is far different from other religions with gods sitting on shelves, fighting in the heavens, or sending angels to keep track of our good deeds and bad deeds. The Christian God, the triune God, the God known to us in the reality of Jesus will be seen as the Son of Man coming in glory with his angels and the God who has been present in our everyday lives. Jesus was there in the best of times and in the worst of times.
Good Guys and Bad Guys
“It was the age of wisdom and the age of foolishness.” When Christ returns he places people on his right and people on his left, two groups. He calls it sheep and goats but we could call it wise and foolish, believers and unbelievers. I lived for a while in the desert of Kenya with people who had sheep and goats. At first I could not tell one from the other as I had only seen them in childhood books. Kenyan sheep had black heads and white bodies with a large bulbous tail of fat that flapped behind them. During times of famine, pieces of the tail were cut off for food. My workman shared how he fell from a tree and a piece of sheep fat was cut off and used as a bandage. Sheep walked with their head down, following the sheep in-front of them, nibbling grass. I never saw them jump or leap but just follow the leader. Their milk is very sweet and smooth for tea. Goats on the other hand are lively, jumping around, male bucks bumping heads and fighting. You had to catch them by the back leg to milk them and their milk is the closest to human milk for a baby. I have seen three sheep blindly follow the leader right into a speeding bus. Klunk, klunk, klunk, as they rolled under the wheels. But I must also say I hit a goat jumping off the hill beside the road to run in-front of my car. That guy didn’t make it either.
Both sets of people are confronted with how they responded to the needy people in their lives who in actuality represented Jesus. Both claim they have little remembrance of the incidents. The sheep don’t remember helping and the goats don’t remember not helping. For the sheep, compassion and mercy were so natural the incidents do not even stand out in their mind.
I find it interesting that Jesus does not play the comparison game with either group of people. The goats are not guilty for not being sheep. They are guilty for their own actions. The sheep are not rewarded for being better than the goats. It is not a judgment based on a sliding scale of comparison. There is no failure because of a less than perfect lifestyle. There is no picture of large crowns for the famous and small crowns for the poor, no forgotten people who tried so hard with the little they had. Also the picture is not of success as in the previous parable where the guys who doubled their talents were praised. Some are not singled out for their amount of engagement. The standard seems to be engaging relationship of compassion for the need of the other or lack of engagement because of no concern for the other.
The question that comes to my mind is to wonder if at the final coming of Christ, are our works what tips the balance and determines if we enter heaven? Works salvation. Ephesians 2: 8-10 says,
“8 For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing; it is the gift of God— 9 not the result of works, so that no one may boast. 10 For we are what he has made us, created in Christ Jesus for good works, which God prepared beforehand to be our way of life.”
People grade or evaluate each other by works. They like those people kind to them and avoid those who are not so nice. Perhaps we are more prone to forgive or help those we are related to in some way but, as Thanksgiving comes this week, I can remember the conversations about who did what last year, brought what to the meal, or decorated their home in various ways. We won’t mention the anxiety of Christmas gift shopping. Works reminds me of the “chores” that had to be done to get an allowance. People who had abusive fathers find the thought of pleasing a “Father God” very frightening. Works play into my control issues. I am in control of my works so I deserve to get to heaven, ergo, I do not have to worry about relationship with an unseen being. For sure this being will reward my good efforts to love my neighbor as myself. Salvation by grace is a humbling concept and we are quick to ponder this part of the story. Surely the sheep were nicer than the goats, smarter than the goats, more deserving than the goats: the good guy is me. Surely the goats were the bad guys, the guys in the newspaper, the demonstrators or that other party or that other ethnicity or even that other religion. They were bad guys. Neither the sheep nor the goats understood their lives accurately. We are saved by grace, in relationship to Christ. The thief on the cross entered Paradise that day as did Peter at his death. This is a mystery we understand only partially but which will become clear at the coming of Christ.
Rewards and Punishments
“It was the epoch of belief, it was the epoch of incredulity.” The end will be a time of rewards. When the reigning and revealing King Jesus returns and separates us into those who desire to follow him and those who do not. The parable teaches that places have been prepared for both groups of people. Those who want to live in Christ’s kingdom will hear, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world.” We call it heaven. I understand it to be a place living in honest relationship with the God even as we sought to relate in this life. It is almost impossible to describe. The end of Revelation tries. Eternal life, flowing rivers, eternal light, no illness, continual presence of Christ. Life with the King.
For those who did not want to be involved with God during their lives but created their own set of rules to live by and evaluated their lives by their own lives, another place is prepared for them where they will not be forced to live as they do not want. God does not force us to believe and pledge allegiance to him. The parable calls it a place of punishment and through the ages, many gruesome pictures have been painted. Even as we cannot envision the joy of heaven, for those of us who follow Jesus, we cannot envision life without his presence. We are incredulous to believe there can be life without his presence. Rewards and punishments are all cloaked in mystery.
So ultimately, what do we know? We do know that Christ will return as king. We know he will call his followers from all the nations of the world. We know Christ will see through eyes of having walked in our shoes and understanding all the influences in our lives. We know we cannot earn heaven a present for good works but it is a result of presence with Christ. It is a gift that God offers us. True justice and fairness will become reality. We will no longer struggle. The Jesus we see in the Gospels who welcomed the children, healed the blind, walked on water and rose from the dead, will be the there as predicted in Isaiah 61: 1-4 and Luke 4:18-19:
The spirit of the Lord God is upon me,
because the Lord has anointed me;
he has sent me to bring good news to the oppressed,
to bind up the brokenhearted,
to proclaim liberty to the captives,
and release to the prisoners;
2 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor,
and the day of vengeance of our God;
to comfort all who mourn;
3 to provide for those who mourn in Zion—
to give them a garland instead of ashes,
the oil of gladness instead of mourning,
the mantle of praise instead of a faint spirit.
They will be called oaks of righteousness,
the planting of the Lord, to display his glory.
4 They shall build up the ancient ruins,
they shall raise up the former devastations;
they shall repair the ruined cities,
the devastations of many generations.
Christ the King ushers in a season of light, a time of hope, and heaven. All God’s people said, “Amen!”