The Last Sunday after Pentecost E. Bevan Stanley
November 22, 2020
Proper 29, Year A
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.” In the Name of the one, holy, and undivided Trinity. Amen.
This is the last Sunday of the liturgical year. On this last Sunday we celebrate the end of all things, the culmination of all our striving and living and loving. In the Gospel reading we hear of the judgement. Jesus will sit on his throne in glory as King of the world. He will separate the people into two groups. One group will be those who fed the hungry, gave drink to the thirsty, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, took care of the sick, and visited those in prison. Furthermore, Jesus identifies with the poor and marginalized. “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.”
It’s interesting that in this gospel reading Jesus talks about the King on the throne, but he uses the simile of a shepherd sorting his flock. He did not just make this up. The metaphor of a shepherd for the king was a very old tradition in Israel. From King David on it was common for the biblical writers, especially the prophets, to describe the kings and rulers as shepherds. Of course David was a shepherd before he joined Saul’s court and eventually succeeded to the throne. The same metaphor is used of God as the divine king or ruler over the People of God. Thus the Twenty-third Psalm declares, “The Lord is my shepherd, I shall not want.”
We see this metaphor again in our reading from Ezekiel this morning. “Thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out.” Here, as in the Twenty-third psalm, God is the shepherd of Israel. In this passage the prophet emphasizes the care God has for all of us. Writing during the time of exile, Ezekiel declares that the divine shepherd will gather his people back from all the places to which they have been scattered. Then he will feed them on good pasture land. He will seek the lost and bring back the strayed, bind up the injured, and strengthen the weak. And there is judgment here also. “But the fat and strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.” So what is wrong with being fat and strong, you may wonder. It comes in the next few verses. “Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them fare and wide.” What God does not like is when the strong misuse their strength to abuse and bully the weak. Indeed this is the message of all the prophets for centuries. They condemn the rulers of Israel and of Judah for being bad shepherds. For exploiting the poor and abusing their power for their own gain. This is the reason given for being defeated first by the Assyrians and then by the Babylonians.
This message of hope is that, although disaster came to the people of Israel because of their bad leaders, God will intervene and bring everyone back home. He will feed them on justice. Then God goes on to say, “I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them. . . I, the Lord will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them.” Now David the king had been dead for four or five centuries when Ezekiel wrote this. So this is clearly a prediction of another leader. This is the coming Messiah. The expected one. For us Christians, this is Jesus. Jesus is the Good Shepherd, the King who brings justice. The leader who will save us from bullies, who hates the abuse of power more than almost anything.
It is clear that God’s view is that the purpose of a king or of government is to take care of the people. All the flock needs to be cared for. Special attention needs to be given to the hungry, thirsty, stranger, naked, sick, and imprisoned. And yes, it is the job of all of us to care for our neighbors. And it is the job of the government to make sure that it happens. As Lyndon Johnson put it succinctly, it is the job of government to help folks. And the more wealth and power anyone has the more responsibility he or she has to use that power and wealth for to help those who do not have power and wealth. This is true of CEOs and senators and presidents. It is true of kings and prime ministers and emirs. It is true of parents and school teachers and police officers. This is how every one of us will be judged: did we help people or did we push them around with our flanks and shoulders and butt them with our horns?
The good news is that whether we do or not, Jesus is still on the throne. Paul’s words to the church at Ephesus contains nothing but superlatives for the risen Christ. He prays that God may give us a spirit of wisdom and revelation as we come to know him, so that, with the eyes of our hearts enlightened, we may know what is the hope to which he has called us, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and 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. That is to say, our Good Shepherd rules the universe and nothing can interfere with his care for us. And not only that, but God has put all things under Jesus’ feet and has made him the head over all things for the church—and here is the amazing thing–which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. In Colossians Paul says that in Jesus all the fulness of the Godhead was pleased to dwell. Jesus has all of God in him. Here Paul says that, because we collectively are the church, all of God is in us. We have all the power we need to help our neighbors, to establish justice, and to build the Kingdom of God.
This is the feast of Christ the King. God calls us to be loyal citizens of God’s Kingdom.