This coming Sunday is the Feast of Christ the King, also called the Reign of Christ. It is the last week on our liturgical calendar, so the proper greeting for your fellow parishioners on November 30, the first Sunday of Advent, will be a joyous “Happy New Year!” On this last Sunday of the church year, so many weeks from the celebration of the resurrection at Easter, we proclaim that Jesus is our King, the King of Heaven. We sing joyful hymns, hear comforting scripture, and have a moment to relax securely, knowing that God is in charge. And that is really good news, isn’t it? God is in charge, and God is good, and goodness will triumph in the end. The Christian hope is in this triumph, the belief that no matter how frustrating, how persecuting, how awful life might be for any one person as an individual, God’s love will triumph in the end. We don’t have to know how this will come about. We just have to trust in God, to believe in God’s love. Just, you know – ’cause it’s always that easy? So much of the Christian faith is simple, but as my children hate to hear from me, nothing worth doing is easy.
The Old Testament reading from the prophet Ezekiel is absolutely gorgeous, and I wish I had the opportunity to read this in church on Sunday. It is beautiful poetry spoken in the voice of our God, for us.
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.
(With apologies for quoting the entire passage – I just couldn’t bring myself to cut any of it!)
This passage bears a striking similarity to the Magnificat, the song Mary sings in joyful response when she visits her cousin Elizabeth during their pregnancies. Both songs talk about God rewarding the poor, and bringing down the rich from their high places. For the Jewish people of their times, these were incredibly reassuring and comforting words. They were the persecuted, the scattered, the lost sheep, the lean sheep. And how wonderful it is to be told that, in the time of your culture’s misfortune, your God will gather each of you up, bring you all together, and give you a rich land in which to live and eat and be safe. I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged. This is wonderful news!
We can draw parallels today, too. One might see executives of banks or automakers or other corporations as fat sheep, who have butted at the weaker animals until we were too scattered to see what was happening. We may rejoice that God will judge these fat sheep, and will bring us to those safe and rich grazing lands, where we will be strengthened and healed. Anyone who has ever been laid off knows the visceral pleasure of reading promises like this – Aha! God will lift me up and heal my wounds, but those fat cats who laid me off in the name of profit and stock price will be destroyed! – especially if the unemployment benefits are enough to pay the mortgage, or if there is another job lined up fairly quickly.
Of course, we run into danger when we draw these parallels, because the truth of the matter is, if you’re able to read this blog post, then you’re more than likely a fat sheep yourself. There are millions and millions of thin sheep in this world – people who will never be able to imagine using a computer like the one you’re using right now, people who would gladly eat the leftovers that sit in my refrigerator until they grow mold, who will never be able to have the medical care I have access to. So before we rejoice too much at the idea of fat-sheep corporate CEOs being brought down to earth, we come face-to-face with our own fat-sheep-ness. So what are we supposed to do?
Well, Jesus tells us in the gospel lesson, which forms the basis of the idea of the corporal works of mercy. We are supposed to feed the hungry, to give drink to the thirsty, to give shelter to those who have none – whether because they are traveling or because they are homeless – to clothe those who are naked, to care for those who are sick, and to visit those who are imprisoned. And Jesus goes so far as to say that when we do these things for our brother and sister humans, we do them for Jesus; likewise, when we do not do them for other people, we do not do them for Jesus.
Jesus uses a comparison of sheep in his parable, too, saying that God will judge and separate us as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and I do not want to be one of the goats here. We don’t think about it so much now, because we are so used to the imagery of sheep and shepherds in the bible, and used by Jesus. But shepherds are poor. They’re dirty, smelly. They hang out with animals all the time, and they’re probably a little odd. They’re always out in the fields, and they sometimes seem to care more about their sheep than about other people. So why would we compare a poor, strange, smelly shepherd to a king? And really, who wants to be compared to a stupid, smelly sheep, either? This is another example of the upside-down-ness of the kingdom of Jesus – Jesus is the King of King and Lord of Lords… and the Shepherd of Shepherds. And I’ll tell you – anyone who wandered all over Judea a couple thousand years ago like Jesus did – well, he was certainly poor, strange, and smelly! But even in this upside-down-ness, where kings are brought down by the justice of Jesus and where poor smelly shepherds are made into kings, we can see God’s amazing, overwhelming love for us shining through. We may be stupid smelly sheep, but we’re GOD’S stupid smelly sheep, and God isn’t going to let us be lost. Both the passage from the prophet Ezekiel and the passage from the evangelist Matthew show us this.
So, this Sunday, when we celebrate Christ the King, take a moment to remember what kind of a king Jesus is. He’s a poor king, born in a barn. He’s a strange king, saying all kinds of crazy, upside-down things about God’s kingdom. He’s a smelly king, walking and preaching all over the land. He is a king for the sick, the hungry, the thirsty, the homeless, the imprisoned. He is a king for anyone who believes in him, a king for anyone who takes care of his flock. He is a king for me, and a king for you, and a king for your grandmother, and a king for our old president and our new president, and even a king for that homeless guy who creeps you out whenever you go to the Dollar General store.
So come, my friends, my beloved brothers and sisters, come, let us sing to the Lord, let us come before God’s presence with thanksgiving, and raise a loud shout to him with psalms. For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hands.