Christ the King
In a week where the news has been full of further protests against banking practices, unrest in the Arab nations, and financial questions about the euro, unemployment and recession, it might be tempting to look for a breather when you come to church.
But I think our Bible readings today make us think about our world and question still further: Where is God when life is difficult and unfair? What use is prayer when we’re struggling? Why can’t the Bible help us to make ethical decisions about money or power or what to do with our lives?
I'm particularly struck by the Ezekiel passage.
Three times we find the phrase, in the words spoken by the Lord God 'I myself..'.
I myself will search for my sheep.
I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep.
I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep.
You might think all this ‘sheep’ talk is a long way from where we are. But clearly, through Ezekiel, God is wanting to tell his people that he will care for them. The leaders of Israel – prophets, judges, kings, don’t always get it right, of course. And when those leaders are doing a bad job, the prophets accuse them of being bad shepherds of the people. Shepherds are meant to care and tend, to lead the flock to safe pasture, to defend them against attack, to bring them all safely home.
Psalm 23 talks of God as the shepherd who cares, and this prophecy from Ezekiel picks up a lot of the same language, and might also remind us of Jesus parable of the good shepherd.
God will provide his people with a king – David – who will be a good shepherd. But more than that, God himself will search for the lost, care for them as a good shepherd does, and judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep.
And this judgement is maybe not as people might have expected – God is not the shepherd who passes a practiced eye over the flock and sees which animals are thriving – are well-fed and strong, and prefers to choose the big animals as the ones to breed from. God does not judge the large as being the best.
God’s judgement is more like me when I’m feeding ducks.You know how it is. You throw in some food, onto the surface of the water – and there’s always one or two ducks who are quicker and bigger and more aggressive than the rest – they get to the front, they chase the others off, they gobble up more than their share. I get very upset when I’m feeding ducks - I try to throw the food nearer to the quieter, hungrier, smaller ducks at the back. I get very cross with the ones you know have had more than their share and I try to even things out.
Turns out that God, the good shepherd, works a bit like that, too – “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.”.
God wants fair shares, not bullying and injustice.
When we’re facing questions in our world about liberty and justice and equality – God is clearly on the side of the underdog – or undersheep in the case of Ezekiel.
The theme of judgement is of course taken up in the parable, too. Jesus tells stories that show God’s concern for fairness – and because Jesus Christ is God incarnate, he shows us in his life how God feels towards us all. If Ezekiel’s words are the promise of God acting - God decalring 'I myself' will care – Jesus is that ‘I myself’ of God in a human form – God delivering on his promises to be with us and to care.
So we see Christ's care for the sheep as the good shepherd who searches for the lost and tends to sick and brings the bullies to account.
We might read the parable as a promise that one day – at the end of time – in the far and distant future, the Son of God will come and judge and sort it all out. This might not feel like a very satisfactory hope – that one day, in heaven, all will be well.
Bu the hope is nearer too us than that – because look at how Jesus will judge between people. He will separate them into those who have cared for others and those who have not. Christ's demand, as King of all time, is that we act as those who live by his rules. The demand for justice is not a distant demand for some imponderable time in the future. Jesus Christ demand action for justice now. We are called to be those who are responsible for searching, caring, and tending for the lost sheep of our world.
I seem to end up discussing this parable with people a lot, even when it’s not going to be used on Sunday.
It’s a great story because it challenges so may of our assumptions about what is right and good in life.
If we are people of faith, we might want to say ‘we should care for others because Jesus tells us to’ or even ‘we should serve others because we are serving Christ in the least of these…’. But Jesus is clear that those who have served the poor and the weak were oblivious as to Christ’s presence ‘When Lord, did we see you hungry and feed you?’; and in much the same way the goats – the ones who have ignored the needy, never thought of this as a spiritual matter ‘when Lord did we see you hungry and refuse to feed you?’.
Caring for the poor is not something we do because we are told or because we fear for our immortal souls. It is something we do because we recognise it is right.
In Christ’s kingdom there is life for all – and it is our task to see that all have the offer of life in all its fullness.In the name and through the power of God. Amen.