A Sermon for Christ the King Sunday
(Ezekiel 34.11-16, 20-24; Psalm 100; Ephesians 1.15-23; Matthew 25.31-46)
Country singer and songwriter, Brad Paisley (who is a wonderful guitar player), sings the following lyric in his song ‘When I Get Where I’m Goin’:
When I get where I’m going
On the far side of the sky
The first thing I’m gonna do
Is spread my wings and fly
I’m gonna land beside a lion
And run my fingers through his mane
Or I might find out what its like
To ride a drop of rain
Yeah, when I get where I’m goin
There’ll be only happy tears
I will shed the sins and struggles
I have carried all these years
And I’ll leave my heart wide open
I will love and have no fear
Yeah when I get where I’m goin
Don’t cry for me down here
I’m gonna walk with my grand daddy
And he’ll match me step for step
And I’ll tell him how I missed him
Every minute since he left
Then I’ll hug his neck
There is something very special about this song for me. I hear in this song echoes of the biblical hope for a time where there will be ‘no more tears’ and when the world will be so radically changed that the ‘lion will lie with the lamb’.
Paisley seems to have made Isaiah’s vision his own. This is no mere quoting of Isaiah. The lyric moves seamlessly between Paisley’s life experience and, it would seem, Isaiah’s prophecy. Paisley’s love of flying becomes unrestricted as he ‘spreads his wings’ and then rides ‘a drop of rain’. He will meet his grandfather again and expects the limits on his capacity to love will be overcome.
‘I’m gonna land beside a lion, and run my fingers through his mane’ is perhaps the most telling line in this personalisation of the hope of heaven. Here Paisley sees himself acting out God’s restoration of the world.
I hear this song and can’t help thinking that God’s vision of Heaven has become Paisley’s.
Today we celebrate ‘Christ the King’, or the ‘Reign of Christ’ Sunday. It is the culmination of the church calendar. Next week will begin a new cycle in our perpetual telling, celebrating, and responding to the God who is among us.
But today, we are focused on the end. Conventional wisdom suggests that we do well to well to begin with the end in mind. This is precisely what we do today: we allow God’s hopes and dreams for the future to mould us.
Christ is reigning in Heaven, as the Ascension of Christ insists. This not, however, the end of our story. Christ will also come again to make all things in this ‘very good’ and sin-ridden world right.
You may have noticed that there was a lot of talk of sheep in our readings today. Ezekiel reported God’s self-description as a shepherd in search of his scattered flock. Water and pasture will be their reward. God ‘seeks the lost’, ‘makes them lie down’, ‘binds the injured’, ’strengthens the week’.
Echoes of Psalm 23 sound back and forth throughout this prophecy. Truly, as our Psalm points out, ‘we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture’. God, wonderfully, has not forgotten his scattered and suffering flock.
Jesus himself often embraced this shepherd and sheep image. Our gospel parable of the sheep and the goats is an example. It continues, and concludes, Jesus’ single sermon running through Matthew 24 and 25 that we have recently considered. It’s themes include persecution and the consistent call to be ready for the return of Christ.
Last week Jesus’ parable invited us to invest boldly and obediently in the kingdom of Heaven. We were reminded that the master can be trusted. Today’s parable builds on this invitation.
And it is, uncomfortably, a judgment parable.
For many in our society such talk holds profoundly negative connotations. Judgment speaks to us of one who does not understand the complexity, reality, or motive behind our actions – yet still decides whether we are good or bad, right or wrong. It reals of arrogance for us. In parables such as this one we are prone to envision a harsh and angry God, Many struggle to understand this alongside talk of God’s love and grace. It begs the question: How do we hold judgment alongside the one today’s Psalm celebrates as ‘good; (for) his steadfast love endures forever, and his faithfulness to all generations’ (Psalm 100:5)?
The judgment of God is, in scripture, consistently seen as a good thing. Yes, it is uncomfortable, for we all fall short of God’s standards, but it is, like the discipline of a good parent, or the judgment of a just magistrate, good and necessary when things go wrong. Dis-engaged parents and dis-engaged judges cannot be described as ‘good’, ‘loving’, and ‘faithful’.
Somehow, I find it helpful to think of the judgment of God as a symbol of God’s refusal to abandon us and our world. God is engaged. I also find it helpful to remind myself that God, in the person of Jesus, experienced temptation and suffering. God understands.
This is a special judge.
This is important for our parable. God’s refusal to ignore or turn away from suffering and sin, is reflected in the engagement of the recently separated flock of ‘sheep’. The sheep, unlike the goats, have not become dis-engaged with the needs of the world. They both see the same need and both wonder where and when it was that they set eyes on, and served, the Christ.
Only one group, however, responds with a practical giving to – perhaps an investing in – this forgotten ‘family of Christ’: food, clothing, shelter, care, visitation. In the best moments of church history the people of God have given themselves wholeheartedly to alleviating need. I sincerely hope you are able to see Barney’s Boutique, our regular giving of a percentage of your offering, and even today’s VivaHaiti coffee soiree as expressions of this.
Of course they small offerings. But they are, I pray, gifts born of a vision that I sincerely hope is, like Paisley’s song, allowing heaven to permeate and colour all that you see with hope, service, and action.
Our God cares enough to be involved. God-followers will, quite naturally and, as our parable suggests, unconsciously – do exactly the same.
Surely, there is no clearer example of our world-engaged God than the incarnation we gather around each week: Jesus’ life, death, and resurrection. Loving an ungrateful world cost him dearly. Obeying our loving God rewarded him greatly. Only as we follow this one will we find the forgiveness, grace, guidance, passion, and vision capable of sustaining us until Christ’s return.
Today is not merely a celebration that there is a coming king who will put all things right. It is much, much, more. We believe that the same world-engaged, self-sacrificing, obedient, and grace-filled Jesus is also the expected, coming, judging and healing king. One day this one will reign in justice, perfect knowledge, and the grace that can only be born of the very heart of a good God.
May this vision inspire all you hope for and all you do.