Festival of Christ the King/Sunday of the Fulfillment – Series A
Our eyes fixed firmly forward, we celebrate this week an event which has not happened, but which is as sure as any event from the past, for it is found the Word of God. Jesus has made us the promise to return so we can gather on this Sunday and celebrate his return even though we have not yet seen that day.
We have in the past spent a considerable amount of time on the fact that Christians in this time have largely gotten the end of the world completely upside down. Because much of the eschatological literature of the NT is written to the frightened persecuted church, it often casts its story in frightening terms. But the thoughtful preacher will realize that the original audience was already afraid. The goal was not to make them afraid but to give them courage, hope, and even joy in the face of their suffering. If anything, the goal was to make them less afraid. The writers of the NT talked about frightening things because their readers were already afraid of them, not to make them afraid of them.
Because we are not facing the sort of persecution which the earliest Christians faced and which Christians continue to face around the globe, we have a difficult time getting into the proper mindset to hear these words and they often seem rather odd to our ears. Many have made the mistake that we can only hear these words if we are also afraid, so they see the preaching of the end of the world as a fear-mongering exercise. If only we were aware of just how bad it will be, then we would shape up and live our lives aright. But fear is such a lousy motivator. I really think this is where the current manifestations of apocalyptic prophets, especially the environmental types, will ultimately fail to really change the behavior and the carbon footprints of people, at least substantively. We will not do it because we are afraid, but we might be moved to do it out of love. All the scary words from Al Gore on some documentary or another will not really change my behavior and life, but if I see this creation as a gift from God, precious and deserving of care, then I might just forego that super-sized SUV. Perhaps the coming years will prove me wrong, perhaps God will use fear to effect the changes that his church needs to function in this world, that could happen too. But I think it is important to notice that God will do that, not me.
The Feast of Christ the King is not about making me afraid, but it gives me love, and that abundantly enough that I might even love someone else. The Feast of Christ the King is gives me courage and assurance to face whatever the world can throw at me, because I know the end of the story. I know the verdict which is handed down on that last day for me and for all who call upon the name of Jesus and who bow their knees in joyful love. Yes, the world might just kill me, it might take away my money or my family or my security or anything else that I have. The world, however, cannot take this one thing away from me: I am God’s child by baptism, he will settle the scores and raise the dead and make all the wrongs right. I know this, I believe this, Christ himself has promised and faith trusts his words to always be true. If your congregation knows that great baptismal hymn in LSB “God’s Own Child I Gladly Say It” LSB #594 this would be a perfect Sunday to sing it. Another virtue language which is important for this day is
the language of hope. Again, we have messed this up, turning hope into some sort of wishful thinking about something that will not likely happen. Biblically speaking hope is much stronger. It is the language of expectation. A person who worked all day expected (hoped) to get paid. He was counting on a promise. That was hope for the NT writers.
This expectation, this courage, this live lived in this reality, makes Jesus the king and my king. I am under his beneficent rule, experienced today in the authority of absolution and sacrament, and I look forward to his ever expanding rule in my life. His rule is not the ultimate police state where all the rules are strictly enforced, but his rule is always a life-giving authority. His rule is the gift of life itself. And so we celebrate the feast of Christ the King this Sunday, the Sunday of the fulfillment of all the promises Jesus has ever made.
The feast day of Christ the King involves a sensitivity to the “Now and Not Yet” piece of Christian theology. Jesus is here, and yet he comes. Many theologians have finessed this by suggesting that the last day is not a true “coming” or arrival, but it is a revelation of something that is already here. It is as if the fabric of reality is torn and behind all these things we currently see, we now see the king. This is what Paul means when he says we live by faith and not by sight. The reality of heaven, the reality of eternal life, the reality of our perfection is already here, it is not a future reality. It is a now reality which we access by faith. But now, we must apprehend it by faith, by the relationship which is with God. Then, on that day, we will see it with our physical eyes. God will strip away the sinful world revealing only his excellent new creation.
The preacher needs to be sensitive to this tension. One cannot emphasize the not yet to the exclusion of the now, and vice versa.
Eternal God, merciful Father, You have appointed Your Son as judge of the living and the dead. Enable us to wait for the day of His return with our eyes fixed on the kingdom prepared for Your own from the foundation of the world; through Jesus Christ, our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.
These words of the collect seem to be madness. Fix my eyes on a kingdom I cannot see, a kingdom which described as perfect and holiness? I need to, it seems, fix my eyes on the judge, the terrible and holy judge who will render judgment of my life. I need to keep that in mind so I may live accordingly.
But that is not what we pray. And there is a good reason we do not. Consider this sermon illustration about a man who was out of work and desperate for a job. He finally saw a help wanted sign on the door of a bank and went in to apply. Not having any banking experience he was shocked when they offered him the position of comptroller of the bank. “I can’t do the job, I don’t know what it even is!” he exclaimed to the interviewer. But the man behind the desk said,
“We will train you, don’t worry.” Desperate for work he accepted the position and arrived to work the very next day, excited to finally be gainfully employed again. They brought him into a very messy office with a desk, lots of files stacked all over the place, and strange stamping sorts of machines on the counters, none of which he knew how to use. As the branch president walked out the door, he said the man, “Oh, by the way, the regulators will be here in two days to look at the books.”
Suddenly it dawned the man what this was all about. He was the fall guy, the one they would blame when the regulators realized that things were not right. Staring at the mountains of files and strange machines and thick binders all around him, he put his head in his hands and was about to despair. But suddenly a young woman poked her head in the door and asked, “Do you need some help?” “Yes,” said the man. “I am totally lost.” She smiled at him and got right to work. Together they began to tackle the files and put the machines where they belonged. The binders were all sorted and put in the right places and the computers were synchronized. For two very long days they labored on the task of getting the comptroller’s office back in shape.
After the second day, the night before the regulators were arriving, he went home. The office looked much better, but he really had no idea if all their work was in vain or not. After all, he had no idea what it was supposed to be like. It was a sleepless night as he pondered what would happen. If the bank failed the regulator’s inspection, he wondered if he would be liable for something. Would he be put in jail? Would he be fined? What would happen in the morning? With a great deal of fear and anxiety he walked into his office and took his place behind that now clean desk and surveyed all the work they had done. Would it be enough?
The knock came at 9:30. A receptionist said the bank regulator was here. “Show them in,” he said. His heart was in his throat. But imagine his surprise when the person who walked through the door was the very same young woman who had helped him for the past two days. And imagine his relief when he realized that the work she would be judging would be her own and not really his.
God has made Jesus the judge of the world. For anyone whose forehead has been wet with the water of baptism; for anyone who has heard the sweet words of an absolution declare that all his or her sins are forgiven; those are sweet words. When we confess in the second article of the creed that Jesus is will return to judge the living and the dead, we ought to jump up and shout “Hurray!” Our judge is not some terrible and pure omnipotent deity, but our judge is none other than the one who died for us. The final judgment is not a judgment of my life, but of his sacrifice. Was it enough? He has only to look at his hands and feet to know what punishment has already been born for my sins. Was it enough? Yes, it was. His resurrection from the dead shouts that fact. I can fix my eyes on the kingdom and joy which are mine in his name. I can wait in hope and not in fear.
We are both sinners and saints at the same time. I can look forward to the judgment on the last day because the sinner part of that equation was dealt with on Good Friday and the cross where
Jesus died. The judgment is all about the saint part, the gift of Jesus’ righteousness which was imparted to me on the day of my baptism.
Keeping my eyes fixed on the kingdom is keeping my eyes fixed on the kingdom moments right now, the sacrament, the absolution, the forgiveness, the love, all the things that belong to that now/not yet kingdom.
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 I have included some of the context of this passage because it extends the shepherding metaphor upon which our text depends. I also wonder if the choice to start at verse 11 was not made by shepherds (clergy) who were uncomfortable with vss 7-10.
7 “Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: 8 As I live, declares the Lord GOD, surely because my sheep have become a prey, and my sheep have become food for all the wild beasts, since there was no shepherd, and because my shepherds have not searched for my sheep, but the shepherds have fed themselves, and have not fed my sheep, 9 therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the LORD: 10 Thus says the Lord GOD, Behold, I am against the shepherds, and I will require my sheep at their hand and put a stop to their feeding the sheep. No longer shall the shepherds feed themselves. I will rescue my sheep from their mouths, that they may not be food for them.
11 “For thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I, I myself will search for my sheep and will seek them out. 12 As a shepherd seeks out his flock when he is among his sheep that have been scattered, so will I seek out my sheep, and I will rescue them from all places where they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. 13 And 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 ravines, and in all the inhabited places of the country. 14 I will feed them with good pasture, and on the mountain heights of Israel shall be their grazing land. There they shall lie down in good grazing land, and on rich pasture they shall feed on the mountains of Israel. 15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I myself will make them lie down, declares the Lord GOD. 16 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, and the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them in justice.
17 “As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord GOD: Behold, I judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and male goats. 18 Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, that you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture; and to drink of clear water, that you must muddy the rest of the water with your feet? 19 And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have muddied with your feet?
20 “Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD to them: Behold, I, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. 21Because you push with side and shoulder, and thrust at all the weak
with your horns, till you have scattered them abroad, 22 I will rescue my flock; they shall no longer be a prey. And I will judge between sheep and sheep. 23 And I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. 24 And I, the LORD, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them. I am the LORD; I have spoken.
25 “I will make with them a covenant of peace and banish wild beasts from the land, so that they may dwell securely in the wilderness and sleep in the woods. 26 And I will make them and the places all around my hill a blessing, and I will send down the showers in their season; they shall be showers of blessing. 27 And the trees of the field shall yield their fruit, and the earth shall yield its increase, and they shall be secure in their land. And they shall know that I am the LORD, when I break the bars of their yoke, and deliver them from the hand of those who enslaved them. 28 They shall no more be a prey to the nations, nor shall the beasts of the land devour them. They shall dwell securely, and none shall make them afraid.
This is a truly interesting passage, especially in the middle section they have elided. In the first paragraph the day of the Lord is portrayed a shepherd looking for his sheep. The strong emphasis on the action of God is striking here. He will not delegate this. No angel comes to save us, but God himself rescues his neglected people. Woe to the sheep that has abused and neglected and taken advantage or oppressed the other sheep. He will care for them by leading them to the good pastures and they will lie down at his command. This is Psalm 23, Jesus “I am the Good Shepherd” and the parable of the lost sheep all rolled into one. Notice how he attends to the needs of each of the sheep. The wounded are treated, the weak are carried, etc. Do we sometimes act as if we are one program away from success? Do we forget that God is the one who will make this work? I hear many demographers declare that the church is all but dead – look at the age demographic of the attending worshippers. But they seem to forget that this is Jesus’ church. He can work renewals which come from nowhere and are wholly unexpected.
In the second part, especially the part that is omitted from the pericope, God starts judging between the various sheep. The rams, the male goats, the ones who should be in charge are making things tough for the little guys. Who are these nasty sheep? God judges between them. God will rescue the flock. His servant David will be the true shepherd, and God will be their God. David shall be a prince among them.
Who are the fat sheep and the lean sheep? From reading the rest of the text, in Ezekiel’s day it appears that the fat guys were the political and ecclesial leaders and their bureaucrats, who were profiting from the plight of the exiled people. Was it collaborating Jews? Was it corrupt systems? Was it something else?
Who are they today? Were the “Occupy Wallstreet” crew correct and the 1% is the real problem today and the 99% need to take matters into their own hands? Or is it something else? Is it the religious leadership, the televangelist, the church leaders, the pastors, and others who domineer,
abuse, and otherwise take advantage of people? Is it the guy heading to retirement who has essentially checked out of doing any ministry, just counting down council meetings until he can draw his retirement? Are the fat and strong anyone who inhibits others from hearing the word? Is it the congregational member who would tell God what sort of folks who belong to this congregation? Is it the person who lays claim to the Church in a way which is unhealthy for it? Do some Christians who are very secure in their theology, sure that they have it right, now their “job” is to lord it over the less well informed so that finally the new Christian simply doesn’t want to come. Do we define “Lutheran” in a way which is fundamentally exclusive? This happens in Bible study frequently. Some old salty Christian sets the newbie straight about justification.
If you think the nasty sheep are within the people of God, you will run this in one way. If, on the other hand, you hold that Jesus died for all people and hence all people are objects of his love, you might be tempted to understand this judgment in another way.
Of course, one does not have to be an exegetical genius to see Jesus in this. The Son of God is also the Son of David. Is this perhaps the very passage that Jesus has in mind when he calls himself the good shepherd and when he tells the parable of the lost sheep?
For the preacher today who is likely to be drawn to the potent Gospel lesson, this passage will be a good place to start. Notice that Ezekiel, writing to the exiled people of Israel writes words of hope based on God’s action. Yes, things are hard and there are those who have abused their power, but God will set things right. David will be restored to his rightful place. Remember that for the first time in centuries there is not a descendent of David sitting on the throne of Israel. This passage is about hope and giving hope. There is hope in the intervention of God, there is hope in the judgment as well as God looks out for the little and the least in the community who have been sorely abused by those who wield power. But most of all, there is hope.
1Oh come, let us sing to the LORD; let us make a joyful noise to the rock of our salvation! 2Let us come into his presence with thanksgiving; let us make a joyful noise to him with songs of praise! 3For the LORD is a great God, and a great King above all gods. 4In his hand are the depths of the earth; the heights of the mountains are his also. 5The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land.
6Oh come, let us worship and bow down; let us kneel before the LORD, our Maker!
7For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.
Of course, if you want you could sing this psalm as the Venite from the matins service.
I Corinthians 15:20-28
20But in fact Christ has been raised from the dead, the firstfruits of those who have fallen asleep. 21 For as by a man came death, by a man has come also the resurrection of the dead. 22 For as in Adam all die, so also in Christ shall all be made alive. 23But each in his own order: Christ the firstfruits, then at his coming those who belong to Christ. 24 Then comes the end, when he delivers the kingdom to God the Father after destroying every rule and every authority and power. 25 For he must reign until he has put all his enemies under his feet. 26 The last enemy to be destroyed is death. 27 For “God has put all things in subjection under his feet.” But when it says, “all things are put in subjection,” it is plain that he is excepted who put all things in subjection under him. 28When all things are subjected to him, then the Son himself will also be subjected to him who put all things in subjection under him, that God may be all in all.
Paul had a problem in Corinth, in fact, if you read the letter to the Corinthians, he had many problems, but really he sees one principle solution. The key to reading the whole book of Corinthians I believe is found in this fifteenth chapter. It seems that their misbelief about the resurrection from the dead was causing them to misbehave and all sorts of problems. And so, after dealing with the catalogue of problems in the earlier chapters, he finally comes to the real solution to the whole list. He corrects their belief about the resurrection.
Christ has been raised from the dead, a first fruit. He is that first peach you pluck from the tree and taste the promise therein of much sweetness to follow. His resurrection is itself a promise of our own resurrection.
And in this section he talks about Jesus the king, to whom even death must bow its gory head. Then, on that last day, when death owns up to the fact that it does not reign supreme, the final return of creation to its rightful place in the kingdom of God will be complete. Jesus is the king of life, his reign is a life giving authority.
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. 32Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 And he will place the sheep on his right, but the goats on the left. 34 Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you
who are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, 36 I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’ 37 Then the righteous will answer him, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you drink? 38 And when did we see you a stranger and welcome you, or naked and clothe you? 39 And when did we see you sick or in prison and visit you?’ 40 And the King will answer them, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brothers, you did it to me.’
41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me no drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not clothe me, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.’ 44 Then they also will answer, saying, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not minister to you?’ 45 Then he will answer them, saying, ‘Truly, I say to you, as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.’ 46 And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.”
What is one to make of this parable? First of all, it is not a parable. The preacher needs to exercise caution here. This is a bit of a mine field. On one side lie the damaging bombs of works righteousness to which our human nature is prone. On the other side lies a universalism which has its own set of problems. There are any number of potential interpretational strands running on this section of God’s Word, several of them mutually contradictory. The real question boils down to whom you understand the sheep and the goats to be, who are the “little ones” and just how many groups there are gathered there in front of Jesus.
But even if you come to a conclusion about some of those questions, no matter how you slice and dice this thing, you come to some conclusions which are disturbing for the exegete who is driven by a Reformation understanding of the texts. It would seem that this is operating on a Pelagian system; heaven is a reward for doing something right that others get wrong.
The most common strand you see in this interpretation today is that there are two groups who are gathered before Jesus, the Sheep and the Goats. This is generally understood to be a judgment between the believers (sheep) and the unbelievers (goats). The sheep obviously get to go to heaven, and the goats are put on the long down escalator to the very warm room in the basement.
But wait, what makes the goats different than the sheep? Isn’t it really all about what they do, the sheep have given the cup of cold water, they have visited the sick and the imprisoned, they have fed the hungry and more. The goats, selfish herbivores that they are, have not done these things. They have looked out for number one and the needs of others have been a distant second place.
But wait a minute here. This is works righteousness if I ever did see it. There is no grace here, there is no cross, no faith; neither forgiveness, nor redemption in this schema. Theologians like
Koehler are obviously pained by this and he goes to some lengths in his discussion of this passage in Christian Doctrine, to explain it. He says that the only way we can talk about these works as being good is because they were done in faith. It is the only way to make this work, but it suffers from the simple problem that it is not in the text. It is justifiable only because it conforms the text to our theology, which for a sola scriptura sort of Church is problematic.
More recently scholars have thought that this needs another run. They have suggested that this scene actually has three groups of people. Picture Jesus surrounded by his redeemed, the people of faith. the sheep and the goats are then the folks from among the nations (gentiles), the unbelievers, the people of the world. In this reconstruction the judgment does not involve the believers but the unbelievers. The basis for the judgment is not on their sins or their lack of faith, but instead on how they treated the “least of these my brothers.” In this treatment of the passage the numbers of those who go to heaven are expanded graciously by Jesus who rewards those who were nice to the Christians in their persecuted state. Jesus noticed their acts of kindness to the fleeing Christian, even when they themselves did not believe.
Of course, the problem here is not works righteousness for the believers, but it looks like faith gets the short shrift on this one and the good Lutheran exegete is no farther along. In this, it looks like there is another way to heaven than via faith. You can go by believing or by being nice to Christians. Rather takes the wind out of the missionary sails.
What is one to do with this?
It seems that we have a problem, but perhaps it is because we are asking more of the text than we ought to ask of it. Remember that Matthew is writing for persecuted Christians. They are afraid, they are getting excluded and cut off from their community. They may be afraid of being hurt or being imprisoned or even killed by a mob. But it is also important to note that the persecution of the first century Jewish Christians seems to have been perpetrated by their fellow Jews. In such a conflict it often means that within a family things could be quite tense, with one on the Christian side and another on the Jewish side, but such relationships might mean that a Jewish cousin would protect or help their Christian relations even if they did not actually confess Christ.
It seems that what Matthew is inspired to tell the Christians of his day is that Jesus sees everything that happens to them. When it comes to the last day, how they were treated will be the only thing that really matters. That is how important they are to their Savior. He will judge the rest of the world on the basis of how they were treated. Who knows what that means exactly; that is all in his hands, and I am not going to say exactly what that means. But I can proclaim right now that the people sitting in front of me on a Sunday morning are terribly important to God. I can say that he has bound himself to them in Baptism and now their hurts are his hurts and the times when something good happens to them, it happens to God too and he delights in it.
For the Jewish Christian you can imagine that if they were helped, it would be important also to know that God would take care of their benefactor. Not only would he settle the scores at the end
when it came to taking care of the persecutor, God would also remember when a fleeing disciple was given a cup of cold water in the middle of a hot and dusty flight. The disciple would have had no chance to pay that back, but God is keeping that score and he will not forget.
So for the poor Christian what is important is that God is watching him or her. He sees everything which happens to you. He feels every hurt, he rejoices in every act of kindness, no matter how small and how trivial it might seem. You are that kind of important to Him.
But doesn’t this really run away from the command of Christ in this text? Doesn’t it simply allow us to ignore the hard word here and skirt the Law? How can we make this something which really recognizes the tension between Law and Gospel in a good Lutheran way.
1.The kingdom of this world and its pestilent ruler have me in their grips. Too often I obeytheir rules and live my life according to their principles.
2.That is nowhere more clearly seen than in my own death. A thrall to the biologicalrealities of my body, I can strive mightily against the day of my death but it is a losingbattle. Doctors lose all their patients, eventually.
3.As a Christian, the machinery of that hateful regime wants to define my life asinsignificant, worthless, and small. I am but a tiny part of this vast universe, I look at thevast interstellar distances, the teeming billions on this planet, the economic forces whichmake a mockery of my pension, and I am utterly powerless over my destiny and helplessto change it.
4.This position of irrelevance renders so much of my life barren and empty. My prayers arebut one of billions uttered today. Can God really hear that? My problems are not as greatas another, will they really be attended to? My skills are not so great, what have I tooffer? I am without security and without purpose and meaning. I am little more than agrain of sand on some cosmic beach, little missed if my individual life was to be snuffedout.
5.So when the things of which I am afraid ally themselves against me, whether it befinances, age, death, or the environment, I am given little occasion for hope. Things lookbleak for the likes of me. Shall I claw my way to top, if I am able? Shall I stand up for myrights against even my fellow Christians? Shall I make sure that my life is as comfortableas possible? What else is there?
6.This text can scare the life right out of me. It tells me that I might be a goat, and Jesus iswatching what I do. I might have really screwed this whole thing up and I don’t have tolook too hard into my own life to see where I have failed to give the cup of cold waterand the crust of bread when it would have been so easy for me to do.
1.Christ has come to establish his kingdom of grace and peace – his disciples are sent out toproclaim his kingdom and in their proclamation that kingdom comes.
2.That kingdom is not just nice words and happy thoughts. Jesus has conquered my greatestfoes and his kingdom means their undoing. Yes, that even means my own death and thedeaths of every human being who has ever lived. I have no idea how that will work, but Iam confident that Christ will figure it out.
3.By the strange love of God, he has looked me in the eyes in my baptism, he has unitedme not only into some great network of Christian people around the world but withhimself. He has intimately come into my life in the sacrament of Communion. I amsomebody.
4.Now what happens to me happens to him. I am important to him. My problems are realproblems for him and he has become my real solution. Jesus has made my life incrediblyvaluable to him. I am a precious and redeemed child of God.
5.And that means that his kingdom is a kingdom of hope for me. I do not need to find mymeaning or my security in anything else. He has spoken sweet words of redemption andpeace to me. I am the sheep of his pasture, I am welcomed into his holy courts, I amraised from the dead in Christ.
6.I am God’s sheep. He has declared me to be that. He is my Good Shepherd, not the GoodGoatherd! Psalm 100 tells me that I am the sheep of his fold. I don’t have to worry aboutbeing a goat. God has made me a sheep. My faith does bear fruit.
1.The Kingdom of the King (Festival/Epistle: That the hearer would believe that thekingdom of heaven has come in Christ, and is yet to come in Christ – here now in the lifegiving Word and Sacrament, yet to come in the day of our Lord Jesus)
This would be a good message for folks who feel like their life is out of control, thefinances, wars, and politics of this world are frightening. It is something of a teachingsermon on a basic tenet of Lutheran theology – theological tension. Most of us like to seeour tensions resolved, imagining that this somehow gives us greater comfort. In the shortterm it may feel that way, but in the long term it often creates much larger problems forus to have some of these tensions resolved. This sermon will revolve around the tensionof the Kingdom of God – it is here right now and yet we wait for it as well.
Every kingdom needs a king and our kingdom has a glorious Lord. He bears on his handsand feet the scars of the wounds from the cross. Today, right now, he reigns in love andgrace and we experience that gracious rule in every absolution, in every baptism, in every
moment of forgiveness and his divine love. His authority, his rule, and kingdom are expressed in loving humanity, forgiving the sinners and comforting the bereaved. We forgive with heavenly authority (Office of the Keys) and we comfort the grieved with an announcement from heaven itself (funeral sermons.) This is the kingdom of God in action right now.
But today we also acknowledge and look forward to a kingdom that is to come. Today we celebrate the promise that his gracious and glorious kingdom will one day extend to all that we can see and experience. This will not be a different kingdom on that day. It will still the same kingdom ruled by the same king in which we are forgiven and comforted today. But on that day it will different as well. On that day the king will wipe away all the tears and right all the wrongs. We will know that kingdom because we live in it now, even though it often is hidden from our eyes and the degenerate kingdom of this world endeavors to break in. We won’t need a visa or a passport to enter this kingdom. We are already citizens. We are living in it right now. We rejoice today that though the world sometimes looks to be winning, we know who has the final victory. Jesus has risen from the dead and lives and reigns to all eternity.
One of my seminary professors once described it like this: In his death upon a cross, Jesus established a new kingdom of God. In the strange time between his first and second coming, we live a bizarre life in two kingdoms. The one kingdom is the old order of creation. It was good, but sin has wrecked it, it is fading away, dying. The other kingdom we know only by faith at this point. I have to believe that the words of this preacher are the announcement of heaven itself. One day, the last day, this old kingdom of the first creation will be destroyed, stripped away, but that will simply reveal the other kingdom for my eyes to see. It has been here all along, but covered up by that old kingdom, it has not been visible to my eyes of flesh. On that day it will be.
2.The least of these, his brothers (Gospel: That the hearer would believe that Jesus hasdeclared him/her to be his precious treasure, so much so that the final judgment of thisworld is on how it treated you.)
The world loves nothing more than to leave you thinking that you are a nobody, aninconsequential mote of dust in this vast universe. And on more than one scale, they areabsolutely right. Of all the people who have ever lived, of all the planets circling stars inthe countless galaxies of our universe, we are rather insignificant. No great monumentswill mark my tomb and no star noticed my birth. But faith knows another truth. God, theomnipotent creator of this universe, has made you, individually, important to himself. Heholds you in his hand and delights in you. Imagine yourself at the inauguration of thePresident. You are standing among the vast crowds of people, far behind the senators andthe congressmen, behind the visiting ambassadors and dignitaries from around world.After he takes that oath of office he turns around and looks right at you and you make eyecontact with him and you know that it was important that you were there.
The really cool thing about God is that he is infinite. He can do this with more than one person, in fact he can do it with all persons, but that doesn’t mean it is somehow diluted. God is delighted that you, the individual that you are, have come here today and on that last day, he will judge the whole world based on how it treated you. In as much as you did this to the least of these my brothers, you did it for me. I have no idea what that will look like at the end of time, but I do know that Jesus just said that I am terribly important to himself.
“If you give a cup of cold water to the smallest of my brothers” That phrase has often been used as something of a club to guilt us into social action. But in truth, this word was meant as a word of comfort to its first audience and to us. We are the small brothers of Christ, the folks the world sees as insignificant and worthless, but Jesus does not. No little act of kindness goes unnoticed by him. He receives them all gratefully for your sake.
I am not so arrogant as to tell you exactly what that means for the unbeliever on the last day who shows me kindness today. That belongs to Jesus to decide. He separates the sheep from the goats. But he assures me, I am even there, at the center of his picture, foremost in his mind. I am important to God. The preacher might want to draw attention to the fact that we like to say more about judgment than we really ought. Jesus is the judge, he gets to decide who goes to heaven and hell. Not me. If he elects to broaden the ranks of the saved, that is his to do. He gave his life for the whole world. We like to imagine we can label the hell-bound and the heaven-bound. But that is Jesus’ and Jesus’ job alone.
This also has a profound implication for the actions which we then take regarding our neighbors, both those inside and those outside the fellowship of Christ. He has shed his blood for all humanity. They are all his brothers on that account. We need not fear whether we are sheep or goats. He has declared us to be the people of God, the brothers. We are the sheep, he is the shepherd. That is an image which Jesus uses frequently to describe himself.
But now, we also learn that Jesus who is watching everything which happens to us, is also watching everything that we do. My gift of a cup of cold water, my can of soup given to the food bank, my blanket made for refugees in Sudan, my offering, my arm put around a weeping co-worker, these are also delights to God. He notices these things. They are holy moments when God is present in this world. We can connect this to the Ezekiel text this way. God himself will take care of his sheep.
There are folks who don’t do this, they are goat-like. Christ’s presence in my life, his declaration of who I am, does change me. It has made me a different sort of person. God’s unconditional love does not leave me in the same sinful condition in which he finds me.
3.He will come again with glory to judge the living and the dead (OT – That the hearerwould delight and take comfort in the fact that Jesus is our judge.)
Ezekiel sees and yearns for a day when the Lord will judge his people. He himself will doit. The sheep and the goats, the lean and the fat. He longs for this. We might be temptedto think that he is a little psychotic for yearning for a judgment, but for the oppressedpeople of that day God’s arrival in judgment was something to be yearned for.
We also can for the judgment of Jesus. Psalm 98 says the hills will rejoice and the forestsclap their hands because God comes to judge the earth. We also get to look forward tojudgement because the judge is Jesus. He rolls up his sleeves and declares that the holesin hands and feet and side are punishment enough. That is what a judge does –determines what is the appropriate punishment for a sin. Jesus looks at his own woundsand says, “Enough!” The accusations of Satan, for all their veracity when it comes to mysins, must flee before that word. Jesus has said it was finished, it is done, it is enough.
Ezekiel’s sheep, his people were feeling like they were not noticed, that God had not seentheir woes and the many hurts they suffered. Ezekiel wants them to know that he hasindeed. God himself will arbitrate, but the people of God who gather in this place this dayhave another and really important thing to say. The judge who comes, is the judge whodied on that cross and his judgment is wholly based on that fact.
We can look forward to that day which the world dreads and rightfully so. The world dreads it because it is the end, it is the bitter end of sin’s long reign and all its consequences will come raining down on its head. But Jesus and Paul both speak of that judgement as birth pains for us. It is the beginning, the new life. Jesus has died. Jesus has risen. Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead. Praise the Lord!