This is the text of the message I prepared for the people of Morwell Uniting Church for Sunday 26th November 2017, the Festival of Christ the King in Year A.
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-44
When Ezekiel wrote and spoke of shepherds the readers of his day would have known immediately that he was not addressing the local jackaroos, shearers and roustabouts. In the language of metaphor shepherds represented the kings of Israel: those who lead but also had care for the nation were its shepherds. The kings in Ezekiel’s day were poor shepherds and evil kings, hence the strength of his words. They were reaping all the benefits of royalty in terms of luxury and wealth, power and glory, but they weren’t actually governing or holding up the people as a godly leader should, especially a godly leader of God’s own people. The same might have been said of the priests and elders of the time, too busy being honoured as clergy rather than working defiantly against the wicked regime as advocates of the people of God in the face of the injustices of misplaced majesty.
What was read from Ezekiel 34 this morning is the spoken intent of God to step in as the true shepherd, the true king, the righteous and honourable ruler. God as King will seek those people who like lost sheep have been allowed to wander astray, and will bring them back into the safety of the flock. Continuing with his metaphor Ezekiel declares that the sheepy Israelites will no longer be prey to ravenous carnivores; no longer will they be exposed to the scorching or freezing elements; no longer will they be endangered by jagged rocks, deep holes, muddy bogs, or clifftops; and no longer will they bleat in desperation in cloudbanks of thick fog or darkness. The LORD, the good shepherd will seek and will find those whom the poor shepherds have allowed to stray because of their royal indifference and/or ineptitude. The big message, the one you need to write down if you’re taking notes, is that in a world of false shepherds God is the true shepherd of the sheep.
Of course, metaphor can only go so far, and we have always known that God is speaking directly of women and men who have entered exile. So, through Ezekiel’s narrative God declares righteous intent to restore the populations of Israel and Judah to the God’s own land and the God’s own care under God’s rule. Like sheep fed on good pasture and near flowing, clean streams so shall the people of The LORD live in their own land, the land assured to them by God’s promise to their ancestors. The LORD Godself shall be their shepherd, The LORD Godself shall keep them safe while they rest, and The LORD Godself shall keep vigilant lest they wander away again. And if any wander away, or are hurt in the course of their sheepy lives, The LORD Godself shall find them and bandage them.
But Ezekiel goes further, and I am somewhat astonished by what comes next, because according to the prophet God will neither seek nor save fat sheep; the ones who took their estate into their own hands. Those sheep, the kings and princes and aristocrats who became fat on the excess stolen from the mob will be left to their own devices by God. Ezekiel suggests that this will come about because they brought that upon themselves, they don’t deserve saving. That messes with my idea of grace, which is seen in God’s saving effort for the undeserving. But the second part of what Ezekiel says does make sense, and that is that fat sheep do not seek assistance from their shepherd. Feeling themselves to be self-sufficient and clever enough in their wisdom they don’t listen anyway, so God will leave them be, focussing divine attention upon those who seek God and not wasting time and resource on those who will throw it away. I’d rather face the full wrath of God I think, than have God’s hands washed of me, but that is what Ezekiel suggests.
Connected with Jesus’ story of sheep and goats Ezekiel speaks of fat sheep and lean sheep. Those alpha rams, who trample the pasture and foul the grass and the clean water with their big boofy feet, will be pulled out of the flock for the benefit of the smaller sheep. A Davidic shepherd will be set over the new flock, the flock of newly rescued sheep. He will shepherd the people as God shepherded them. The Davidic shepherd is like God, a figure of justice, a restorer of the covenant, and a builder up of right relationships between the people and between God and the People.
This is the word of God to God’s people in exile, a People being taught to expect the restoration of the Kingdom of Israel under God’s own reign. There will be a restoration says Ezekiel, God has promised it. However, the restoration of the nation will require a transformation of the people, and of the land, so that when The LORD is returned as King and God the situation will be ready. The exiled people do not know it yet, but the Jewish monarchy will never be restored; there will not be a new royal palace for a son of David ruling in his own authority in Jerusalem, (in fact there will never be such a building because there will never be such a man), but there will be a temple.
Six hundred years later Paul prayed for the Christians at Ephesus at the commencement of his writing to them. First, he commends them on their Christlikeness in love and justice, this is a church displaying the early hallmarks of the transformed life spoken of by God in Ezekiel’s oracle. Paul prays that this may continue, and that the Ephesians may go deeper into the nature and character of God in Christ. Second, Paul commends this exploration of the nature God to them, so that they may discover the core purpose of God’s mission which is revealed in the coming of Christ and his ministry of proclamation, restoration, and liberation. The Ephesians are both recipients of and purveyors of this indescribably good grace of God. It first came to them and it ultimately comes through them to the world currently in the dark about this. Their saviour, Christ, is King above all other authorities and realms, he has all the power and to him belongs all the adoration and respect of all created things, in eternity as well as in this epoch. Paul teaches that the way that Jesus exercises his rule is through us, who are both his church and his body.
In the stories of Joshua and Deborah which you have heard in the last two weeks, we are reminded of what Israel was like before the kings, and in today’s reading we are reminded of what the same people were up to six hundred years later and where monarchy had brought them. Conclusion: monarchy does not work unless it operates within the authority of God. With God as sovereign it really doesn’t matter who sits on the posh chair at Hebron, Jerusalem, or Buckingham Palace. Without God as sovereign the same is true. And this is true also for other human structures of governance. Elizabeth Mountbatten-Windsor, Donald Trump, Kim Jong-Un, Robert Mugabe, Peter Cosgrove: we can debate who is the better man (or woman), and who is doing the better job. We might argue which is the better system. But without God in the ascendency in the heart and the mind of the one whose bum is enthroned does it really matter? The question is not whether in the twenty-first century we would prefer Jesus to be Governor-of-Governors, President-of-Presidents, Chairperson-of-Chairpersons, or something else less monarchical and mediaeval. The point is that God has favour for us and God is watching to see how well we are governed and loved.
The light of this has caused me to wonder; of all the gospel readings to go with this festival day, why on earth are we reading about the sheep and the goats? Yes, we most certainly do see Jesus speaking about his upcoming Last Things role when as King of Kings he makes an ultimate and eternal judgment between the faithful and the unfaithful in the ministries of hospitality, as if care for prisoners matters more to him in Eternity than personal repentance from sin. (Which is a confusing message in itself for Evangelicals.) But I see that there is something more, and something which connects with what Ezekiel and Paul say about kingship.
The message of the sheep and the goats is not about how well the Christians and Jews look after the poor. Undoubtedly there is that meaning, and the good news makes it clear that Christians should be doing that: you here in this body this morning are meant to visit the alone, comfort the distressed, meet the physical and emotional needs of the needy where you find them, and go looking for any of the above so as to find them in the first place. All of that is true, and necessary, within discipleship. But that’s not all that there is to this story; and you will not lose your salvation as a Christian in the Latrobe Valley just because you never paid a social visit to Fulham or Kilmany.
Jesus’ message of the sheep and the goats is also a warning to the world not to treat the flock of Jesus with disdain. Like Ezekiel speaking of the evil kings who did not care for the people, other than as a source of slaves and taxes, Jesus is speaking against the systems of the day (his and ours) which cause even one of Jesus’ brothers or sisters to be imprisoned, abandoned, destitute, starving, terminally ill, or sad. “He’s mine” as my great grandmother was quoted to say when other people spoke derisively of a particularly naughty great uncle of mine, her son. Don’t you dare mess with the person of the family of God, says the God of Israel, says God the Son.
Today we speak of Christ as King. We do so in the context of many sermons and comments about the Reign of God or the Kingdom of Heaven. We know that God is king, we sing about it, learn about it, pray about it. What we are to be mindful of this morning is that God in Christ is our King, and our king is a good king who governs and cares for us as God’s own.