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The Last Sunday after Pentecost
Christ the King
November 20, 2011
The First Reading: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Sermon: "Shepherd, Judge and King"
The Reverend Dr. Richard (Rick) Miles
The First Reading:
Thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As 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. I 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. I 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. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD. 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 the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.
Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.
I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the LORD, have spoken.
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Shepherd, Judge and King
It can be a challenge to communicate with a young child.
Young Matthew, age 4, was eating an apple in the back seat of the car. “Daddy,” asked Matthew, “why is my apple turning brown?”His father explained, “Because after you ate the skin off, the meat of the apple came in contact with the atmosphere which caused it to oxidize, thus changing its molecular structure and turning it into a different color. “
There was a long silence. Then Matthew asked softly, “Daddy, are you talking to me?”
It is a challenge to communicate with a small child. If you can appreciate that kind of challenge, then you can appreciate the task of the first Christians as they tried to communicate the divinity of Christ to the world. Divinity had invaded our universe. In the words of the Gospel according to John, “We beheld his glory, glory as of the only begotten…”
Those first followers of Jesus had entered a new dimension of reality. They had contact with the very Son of God. Here was a man unlike any other who had ever lived. How would they communicate who Christ really is to people who had never heard him speak, never felt his touch, never seen his footsteps by the Sea of Galilee? They would do it through metaphor: images. From our Scripture lessons this morning we see three such images.
The first of these images is the Good and Gentle Shepherd. Listen to our passage from Ezekiel. “For thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and seek them out…I will rescue them…I will feed them…I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep…I will bind up the injured.”
That is a familiar image. It is used throughout the Bible. Sheep and shepherds were always a part of Hebrew life, and those first Christians picked up on it. In fact, sheep are mentioned about 500 times in the Bible. When Jesus compared himself to the Good Shepherd, everyone in his audience immediately related to the image. The people depended upon sheep for their livelihood and the sheep depended upon their shepherds for protection.
A modern day shepherd recounts his own experience raising sheep. He tells how ewes, ready to bear offspring, when chased by dogs or other predators will lose their unborn lambs. A shepherd’s loss from such forays can be appalling. One morning he found nine of his choicest ewes, all soon to lamb, lying dead where a cougar had harried the flock during the night.
It was a terrible shock to someone new to the business of raising sheep. From then on, he slept with a rifle and flashlight by his bed. At the least sound of the flock being disturbed, he would leap from bed and, calling his faithful collie, dash out into the night, rifle in hand, ready to protect his sheep from whatever he might meet out in the dark.
In the course of time, he came to realize that nothing so quieted and reassured the sheep as to see him in the field. His presence put them at ease as nothing else could do, and this applied day or night.
Can you imagine a man with family obligations, loves, and concerns laying down his life for sheep? If you can, you can begin to know what it means to say that the Lord of the universe laid down his life for you and me. Jesus, the good shepherd knows his sheep and is known by his sheep. That is the first image of our Lord found in our Scripture this morning.
But the second image of Christ is radically different from the Gentle Shepherd. It is of our Lord as the Righteous Judge. Again, from Ezekiel, “Therefore…I myself… will judge between sheep and sheep.” Just look at our Gospel lesson. The sheep will go to Heavenly pastures, but the goats, well, they won’t. What’s the difference between them? “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat…I was sick and in prison and you came to visit me…” Those who, in effect, helped to shepherd the less fortunate are the sheep. Those who didn’t are the goats. This is not a side of the Gospel with which we like to deal. We want a Jesus who overlooks our faults, is blind to our shortcomings, who deliberately ignores our orneriness.
A newspaper conducted a poll of its readers some time back. It asked a series of religious questions. It revealed that less than four percent believed that they had ever done anything deserving of being sent to Hell. On the other hand, better than 60% felt they knew somebody else who did deserve to go. Christ as judge may be ok for some other folks, but not for us.
The problem for us is that we really can’t appreciate being accepted as a sheep, as God’s own beloved, unless we have felt, at sometime, the reality of knowing that we have truly been with the goats in the way we live. It’s only when we know that we have sided with the goats at points in our lives, that we do deserve judgment, that Christ’s love can be felt and known for the grace it truly is.
An old Calvin and Hobbes cartoon illustrated this truth brilliantly. Calvin, the little boy, says to Hobbes, his stuffed tiger, “Let’s push the car out of the garage so we can have the garage as a clubhouse.” Hobbes replies, “I think you should ask your Mom first.” Calvin responds, “We won’t get in trouble!” Hobbes says, “Every time you say that we do.” Calvin answers, “Mom wouldn’t care about these things if she wouldn’t keep finding out about them.”
Well, you can guess what happens. The last frame goes something like this: Mom is saying, “There you are. Come down so I can talk to you.” Calvin is in the tree with Hobbes. Calvin shouts, “No! You’ll kill us. We’re running away.” “I’m not going to kill you,” his mom says reassuringly, “I just want to know what happened and are you OK?” Calvin says, “We were pushing the car into the driveway, and it just kept rolling into the ditch across the street.” His Mom says, “The tow truck has pulled it out, and it’s undamaged. I just wanted to be sure that you’re alright, so you can come down now.” Says Calvin, “First, let’s hear you say you love me.”
Those words, I love you, mean so much more when we realize that we are unworthy of them. Jesus is the Righteous Judge, and he is the Gentle Shepherd. Those are the first two images.
The third image is this: the Sovereign and Coming King. (This is, after all, Christ the King Sunday!) From verse 24 in our lesson from Ezekiel we read, “And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken.” The Prophet Ezekiel spoke this long after King David’s reign. This is a reference to the line of David. David’s descendent shall be king of God’s people. In our lesson from Ephesians this morning, Paul reminds us that this descendent is Jesus, and He will rule, not just God’s people, but the whole of creation. “God…seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 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.”
What will Christ’s kingdom be like? All the walls that separate people will finally be vanquished. Hatred, fear, and need will be gone. We will live together, the whole world around, as one kingdom, one people. But the idea here is not that this is all future tense. We are, as Christ’s people, to be about the work of ushering in the age to come right now. We each have a part to play in making Christ’s reign real in the hearts and minds of all people around us. We do it by being those faithful sheep in our Gospel lesson. Ultimately, though, we will not by ourselves be able to make it happen. We will need our Sovereign.
In talking about life under the sea, a noted oceanographer once commented that it was one thing to glimpse a new world beneath the waves. Yet it was quite another to establish permanent outposts in it and work and live in it. So it is with Christ’s Sovereign reign. We may see it clearly in our minds and hearts. We may even take part in its happening now in the changed lives around us, but only Christ coming will fully accomplish it. But it will happen. Christ’s reign will come “on earth as it is in Heaven.”
How shall we tell of who our Lord is? The same way our spiritual ancestors did: the same way our Scriptures do. He is the Gentle Shepherd. He is the Righteous Judge. He is the Sovereign and Coming King. And He shall reign forever: King of Kings, and Lord of Lords. Amen