Sermon #208 St. James the Less #115 11/22/20
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
Jesus said, “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. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then 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; for 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, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.’ Then 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? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?’ And 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.’ Then 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; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I 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.’ Then 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?’ Then 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.’ And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
I don’t know how many of you are fans of Netflix’s show The Crown, but Megan and I have gotten hooked and are now making our way through season three. For those of you who don’t know about The Crown, it is a drama series that follows Queen Elizabeth and the royal family over the years. It’s gotten a lot of press recently with the release of season four in which Princess Diana finally enters the story.
I read an article this past week that talked about why the series is so popular, even with those who don’t consider themselves Anglophiles or monarchists. The writer said that much of it has to do with relatability.
Though we see the characters live a life of extreme wealth and privilege that none of us could even begin to imagine, we also see them in a more relatable way as well. We see them get angry or jealous, they have marital and family issues. For all the popularity that they have, we also see them wrestle with extreme loneliness and self-doubt.
One of the more fascinating aspects I’ve found in the series is how much the culture has changed over Queen Elizabeth’s reign. The British Empire that the Queen inherited in 1953 is very different from the empire today.
Monarchs are changeless in so many ways. What they represent is something larger than themselves, they are the steady, constant presence through the changing times.
Though monarchy is a foreign idea to us Americans, it does have its place in the Bible. There are even two books entitled 1st and 2nd Kings that tell about Israel’s monarchy.
But we must be clear, there was a time in Israel’s history when they didn’t have a royal family leading the nation. You might think that of all people worthy of being crowned a king it would’ve been a great leader like Moses, maybe even his successor Joshua. But neither of them ever desired to become like the great kings and pharaohs who ruled the other nations.
After Moses and Joshua, judges ruled different regions of the land: that’s where we see heroic leaders like Deborah, Gideon, and Samson. And then we meet the prophet Samuel who takes on a great leadership role for the nation.
But at the end of Samuel’s life, the people become weary of judges and prophets popping up in different areas and leading only in times of crises. They asked Samuel to appoint a king for them, someone who will unify the nation, and they specifically say they want a king so that they can be like all the other nations.
Samuel is distraught by the people’s request. Israel has never needed a king, never asked for something like this. And God tells Samuel, “Listen to all that the people are saying to you; it is not you they have rejected, but they have rejected me as their king.”
Samuel warns the people about what will happen when they have a king. He will tax them, take the best produce of their field, force their young men to go to battle for him, and even with that stern warning, the people respond, “We want a king over us. Then we will be like all the other nations, with a king to lead us and to go out before us and fight our battles.”
Israel was never supposed to have a human king, that role was always supposed to be filled by God. And Israel learns their lesson. Even the best of kings like David and Solomon and Josiah are broken human beings, self-righteous and egotistical. And the bad kings, well they lead the nation into all kinds of spiritual chaos and ruin.
Some of the darkest days of Israel’s history were due to the kings and queens of Israel, and the people forgot that it didn’t have to be this way. God was always and forever supposed to be their one, true king.
Christ the King
Today we celebrate Christ the King Sunday, which is relatively new on the church calendar. It was originally instituted by Pope Pius XI in 1925 when the world was going in a dark and dangerous direction.
Europe was growing ever more secular and dictatorships were becoming more prevalent. I’ve always wondered if the pope read the books of Samuel and Kings and then came up with the idea of Christ the King Sunday.
The foreboding clouds that were forming in the late 1920s must have felt a little bit like the ancient people of Israel calling for a king who would make them like all the other nations.
The pope was making a clear statement by instituting this feast day, that, even amid political turmoil and uncertainty that the world was only ever supposed to have one king and he is like no earthly king.
Our reading from Ezekiel tells us what the one true king is like. Even though the people are scattered and lost, physically and spiritually, God says, “I myself will search for my sheep…I will rescue them…I will feed them…I will save my flock… and I will judge…I, the Lord, have spoken.”
He is a king who rescues, who cares for his flock, and feeds them. He doesn’t have a representative do it for him—he takes matters into his own hands and does it himself: that’s the kind of king we have. That’s the only true king we were to ever have.
I hope in your mind right now, when you hear the qualities of the true king, you’re picturing Jesus. He identifies himself in this way when he told his disciples, “I am the Good Shepherd.” He literally embodies all the qualities that we read about in Ezekiel—he feeds his people with physical and spiritual food, he searches for the lost, and he has come to our rescue.
No other monarch or world leader can even compare—not even close.
And so, if this is how our king is—giving, caring, and saving—what does that mean for us? How shall we live as children and heirs of this kind of king?
The simple, yet-not-so-easy answer is to be like our king. It should be our hope and prayer that we can be as generous and caring and loving as him—that it doesn’t have to be forced, but that it comes naturally, that’s it’s deep in our bones to be like him and live like him.
That’s the sheep that Jesus describes in his parable this morning: people who were gracious and generous—not knowing that they were, in fact, serving the Lord.
They are shocked, in fact, to find out that they were doing anything noteworthy; it’s just instinctual for them to welcome the stranger, to feed the hungry, and visit the prisoner.
The goats unfortunately did not share the same values. They ask the king, when was he hungry or thirsty or in prison? If they had known, they might have done something. They are only giving and caring when it is easy and convenient, or when other people are watching.
Where Ezekiel tells us what the true king is like, Jesus tells us in this parable how we can honor the king.
Now, hear me out: this is not about good works, and this isn’t about competing to do the most good—it has everything to do with the state of our heart.
The sheep generously gave of themselves with no notion of getting a reward; that wasn’t even on their radar. The goats, on the other hand, gave only when there was a reward or recognition on the line. They reflected the worst parts of worldly monarchs rather than the very best of the Shepherd King.
It is intentional that Stewardship Sunday is today. We are reminded that everything is God’s, nothing is above him—no amount of wealth or power or prestige outshines or outranks him. He is the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.
The best way we can honor the King is by trusting him—trusting what we read in Ezekiel, that he gives abundantly to his flock: he feeds, he cares, and he saves.
Dedicating our time, talent, and treasure in this coming year is not merely a function of paying the bills and making sure the lights stay on, but in fact, it is a statement that we trust that God is faithful and he will provide—that he is the king of our lives and of the world and no other—not money or power—but God alone.
God has been faithful to us, even in a year like 2020, he continues to be faithful, and all he is asking is that we return the favor and be faithful too.
Christ the King Sunday. Proper 29. Year A. Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24. Mt 25:31-46. Pic here.