Sorry for posting this a week late, but I was a bit busy with Thanksgiving last week.
Christ the King
Sunday, November 23 2008
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Preached by Vicar Anna C. Haugen
First Evangelical Lutheran Church, Greensburg, PA
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable in your sight, O Lord.
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
Today is the last Sunday of the church year; next week is the first Sunday of Advent, when we begin preparations for the coming of our Lord. Today, we celebrate the fact that Jesus Christ is our King, ruler of heaven and earth. We are citizens of two worlds, of this world we live in now and of the world to come, when Christ will come again to judge the living and the dead. Jesus Christ is Lord of all. Jesus Christ is the king of both heaven and earth. It’s easy to imagine Christ as King of heaven, where he reigns in glory with angels and pearly gates and all that. It’s a lot harder to imagine Christ as king of this world we live in today.
What does it mean that Christ is King? What kind of a King is he? When I think of kings in this world, I think of grand castles and historic wars and riches and crown jewels locked safely behind glass. Most kings in the world today are ceremonial figureheads, like Queen Elizabeth of England. She comes out, she waves at crowds, she makes speeches, she travels the world, but in the end the country she rules is actually governed by elected officials in Parliament. Then there are all the kings in history, who actually did rule their people. Some were good, some were bad, but all had flaws when you take a close look at them. They favored the rights of the rich and powerful and ignored the needs of the poor, they played favorites, they started stupid and tragic wars, they lived in lavish palaces while the majority of their people lived in squalor and filth, they had so much power and wealth and used it to get more power and wealth. Even David and Solomon, the two greatest kings in the Bible, had significant problems. David’s adultery and poor parenting skills caused a vicious civil war, and his son Solomon the Wise raised taxes and forced labor levies so high to pay for his building projects that on his death the kingdom of Israel-God’s chosen people-were permanently split in two. That split never healed because a few centuries of rule by bad kings later, the Northern Kingdom was conquered by Assyria and taken off as captives and was never heard from again. If that’s the legacy of a good king, well, I can see why our forefathers rebelled and threw out the English king in favor of a democratic government. It’s hard to imagine a king being a good thing, hard to think of Christ as a king, when you think of all the bad things kings have done.
Except our democratically-elected political leaders don’t have that great a track record, either. Washington, Jefferson, and the rest of the founding fathers owned slaves and left in place a system of slavery that was horribly unjust and cruel and caused a massive civil war for their children and grandchildren to fight. Lincoln had no plans for the future besides winning the Civil War, and his lack of planning led to problems with Reconstruction after his death. Our presidents have a better track run over the long term than the kings and queens of many other nations, but that’s not saying much. All leaders of nations, whatever they call themselves and however they came to power, have fallen short of their promises and caused problems for their people. Yet they keep making new promises about what they’re going to accomplish as leaders, each promise more lavish than the rest. And we follow them, hoping they’ll fix all the things that are wrong with the world, all the mistakes their predecessors made. We hope they’ll make things better for us, make a better world, fix the wrongs and injustices that affect our daily lives and prevent new ones from occurring.
On November 5, the day after the recent election, I visited a few shut-ins, and the conversation naturally turned to politics. The Obama supporters spoke as if Obama was a savior who would right all the wrongs in America and in the world. The McCain supporters spoke as if America was doomed and would crumble and fall within the next four years. Now, politics is a touchy and dangerous subject for any pastor to discuss with parishioners, and I’m not quite comfortable yet with where the boundaries are. But one thing I know for sure is that no matter which political party won this or any election, no matter which candidate is installed in office, the world is in God’s hands and will always be in God’s hands, difficult as that can be to remember at times. And so we come back to the question: what does it mean that Christ is King of this world as well as the next?
In the first lesson, the leaders of the world-particularly the kings of Israel and Judah-have failed at their task as leaders and shepherds of their people. The people are scattered and divided, the rich have gotten greedy and the poor have gotten trampled. There is no justice anywhere. The ones with God-given gifts to take care of and protect others have used those gifts to make themselves even richer and stronger at the expense of the ones they’re supposed to be protecting. It’s not their riches God objects to-it’s the way they’ve used those riches to do the exact opposite of what they should be doing. The result? Everyone has suffered. The nation has been conquered by foreigners and everyone-rich and poor alike-has been carried off into exile. God sent the prophet Ezekiel to bring comfort: exile is not permanent. The injustices that plague Israel will be redressed, and a new shepherd, a new king, will be given to lead them. This king, however, will not be like their old leaders who brought them to this low point. This new David will be a true shepherd-he will take care of the people with justice, and both rich and poor will be fed and protected and cared for. This new David is Christ, the Messiah, king of heaven and earth. What does it mean that Christ is King? Christ is not just a ceremonial king, there to be brought out for rituals and holidays and ignored the rest of the time. He has true power of both judgment and protection. Christ’s kingship means that the old way of doing things, the way of life in which value is calculated by riches and power, will come to an end. In its place will come a world in which all people are valued, in which everyone gets a fair chance and all will be cared for. Christ’s kingship means that justice isn’t about who’s got the biggest army or the most money, and it means that no matter how bad things seem to be now, this world is not the end.
But justice can’t happen without judgment, and that means that injustices can’t be swept away under the rug or excused as simply the way things are. People need to be held accountable for the things they’ve done, good and bad. God’s justice can’t be bribed, or swayed by politics, or biased in any way. God knows what is in our hearts and minds, God knows what we’ve done even better than we do, and God will judge everyone with greater justice than any human court could ever hope to do. Let me repeat that: God will judge. Not us, God.
In the second lesson, Jesus talks about the judgment that will happen when he comes again. The story is simple: everyone will be judged and sorted into two groups. The ones who are righteous-the sheep-will go into the Kingdom of heaven, and those who are not righteous-the goats-will be sent away to eternal punishment. This parable is pretty well known. It’s a common subject of sermons and Bible study classes. It’s an excellent way to show what God’s justice looks like: when we see someone in trouble, and we have the power to help, we should do it. We see the face of God not in the kings and rulers and powerful and wealthy of this world, but in those who are the most vulnerable. We see the face of God in people who are hungry, thirsty, alone, naked, sick, imprisoned. We have been given many gifts, not just of money but of time and talents as well, and we should use them to take care of those who honestly cannot take care of themselves. This is what Christ our King commands. This is the standard against which he will judge us.
And again I point out: the standard against which Christ will judge us, not the standard we will use to judge others. Here’s what most people miss when they read this parable: the sheep don’t think they’re sheep and the goats don’t think they’re goats. The sheep are honestly surprised to hear that they’ve been serving Christ in their daily lives, and the goats honestly can’t think of a time when they haven’t served. The problem is that the goats were serving the wrong things-and didn’t know it. They got so caught up in what they thought needed to be done, they forgot to ask what God thought needed to be done, and how God wanted them to go about doing it.
It’s kind of like when I was a kid and I would take care of my younger brother on Saturdays while Mom and Dad were at work. We had a list of chores to accomplish, and it was my responsibility to see to it the chores got done and that we both did our fair share. Now, I was a fairly bossy girl, and my brother has always been laid back, and so normally he’d just go along with whatever I told him to do, and normally I tried to divide things relatively equally. But sometimes I’d get so caught up in the fact that I was in charge that I would try to make my brother do a lot more than his fair share-and then try and micromanage how he did it. Well, I never got away with it for very long-eventually, even my laid-back brother would call Mom and Dad to complain, and I would get in trouble. Even if the chores got done like Mom and Dad wanted, they didn’t get done how Mom and Dad wanted when I made my brother do most of the work, and they got done in ways that harmed the relationship between myself and my brother. Just as it was easy for me to think I was doing what my parents wanted by bossing my brother around and making him do most of the work, it’s easy for us to arrange things the way we want them and justify it by thinking we’re doing what God wants. It’s easy to fall back into the habits of power-seeking, of seeing things through the eyes of this world instead of through the eyes of Christ, and not even realize we’re doing it.
That’s a scary thought. If it’s that easy to forget about the true justice of Christ, if we can honestly think we’re serving God when we really aren’t, what’s to stop us from being goats? How can we make sure we’re headed for eternal life rather than eternal punishment? We do our best, but what if that isn’t enough? Well, the bad news is, our best isn’t enough and there’s no way we can make sure we’re sheep and not goats. We can’t judge anyone, not ourselves, not others. The power of judgment belongs exclusively to Christ our King, who isn’t blinded by power and money and all the things we use to decide status. But the good news is that Christ exercises that judgment along with mercy, in grace and love. Christ uses his kingship for protection and care. As sinners, we stand condemned before the throne. But Christ loves us still. And that is where we place our trust and our hope of salvation, not in our deeds that often go wrong, but in the grace of God.
Jesus Christ is our king both in this world and the next. Doing good things isn’t just about salvation. We do good works because our God and King desires justice in this world, and mercy, and he wants to work through us to accomplish it. We do good works because our God cares just as much about the weak as he does the strong. Christ can be seen in the hungry, the thirsty, the lonely, the naked, the sick, the dying. The world may have forgotten them, but God hasn’t. And neither should we.
Jesus Christ is Lord of all. The rulers of this world have the power of laws and armies and bureaucracy in their control, but Christ is still the one in ultimate control. Things may seem grim or depressing when we see all that’s wrong with the world, all the things that we as human beings have done wrong. But Christ doesn’t exercise that power through a show of riches and might. He rules by bringing justice and grace to the world, to those who need it the most. He rules by gathering up the lost and forsaken, by being a good shepherd to his people. Thanks be to God.