Scripture Reading: Ezekiel 34:11–16, 20–24 | Psalm 95:1–7a | Ephesians 1:15–23 | Matthew 25:31–46
“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...”
Today, we Christians celebrate the Feast of Christ the King; confessing that the Living God has raised up Jesus Christ as Lord of all, and that through Him, the reign of God will encompass all of creation. This feast comes at the end of the Church’s yearly journey through the Scriptures, pointing us toward this ultimate end and destiny of our world. And yet it is also the present, though often hidden, reality as well. We know Christ is King even now. In the face of all fear, and suffering, and strife, this Good News gives us hope: that Jesus Christ, the Risen Lord of Lords still reigns even today, and it is His Kingdom alone that will endure forever.
But what king of a King is He? What can we say about Christ’s Kingdom? What does it really look like to be faithful to His reign? Our Scripture readings for today from Ezekiel and the Gospel of Matthew give us an interesting image of what God’s King and Kingdom are like: The image of a shepherd, carefully sorting out their wayward flock.
In Ezekiel, we hear the Living God speaking to His people, the remnant of Judah, after Jerusalem had been overthrown by Babylon. In Chapter 34, God is calling out Judah’s leaders for their unfaithfulness; for caring only about themselves instead of for their people. He likens them to shepherds who take advantage of their sheep, all the while neglecting their responsibilities. The Kings, Priests, and Prophets of Judah had let God’s people wander away from their Lord and His ways, and so they all ended up losing their country, living as exiles in Babylon. And so, in the face of their utter failure, God promises to step in Himself and set His beloved people straight, sorting out His straying sheep, and bring them safely home again. For 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 (Ezekiel 34:11-12).
God offers these exiles, who have lost absolutely everything… homes, family, freedom… the hope that He would again come to seek and to save them. That even in their darkness, the Lord would not abandon them to be lost forever. And with this hope God offers them the promise of a new King, coming from the line of their hero of old, King David, but unlike all those faithless shepherds they had come to know, those who cared only for themselves, this King would share with them the blessings of God’s good Kingdom. He would be their faithful shepherd, finally setting everything right. Bringing justice to His people by ending oppression, and lifting up the lowly… bringing them back safely into the gracious arms of God. Ezekiel gives us the image of God’s chosen Shepherd-King sorting out His people, in order that they may be led into the Kingdom of God’s peace.
The picture in our reading today from the Gospel of Matthew is a bit more complicated, but hopeful nonetheless. In the passage Christ paints the picture of a final, cosmic act of judgement: the Messiah, the Son of Man, sitting on a glorious throne, sorting out, not only Judah, but all the nations of the earth. Drawing on the images from Ezekiel and many of Israel’s prophets, Jesus portrays the moment of God’s ultimate justice, God’s setting things to right at last, once and for all. As a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, all people are separated before Him, to take their place in God’s good kingdom, or to depart and share the condemnation prepared for the devil.
This is a powerful image, in which Jesus offers us insight into the essence of who He is, and what He has ultimately come to do, but if we remove this passage from where it belongs, with the rest of the Gospel, it can easily be used to distort our understanding of our King, and His good Kingdom. So as we look closely at this passage, let us try to set aside our preconceptions, and listen to what the LORD is trying to tell us today.
Again, we are being offered the promise of God’s justice coming at last: that the Lord will not leave evil unchecked forever, and will set things right, once and for all. This itself is good news, especially as we see so much evil still at work: so much greed, violence, and selfish pride tearing our world apart. To know that there will come a day when all of this will end, and to know that God’s goodness will have the final word is a tremendous source of hope. But that is only one part of it.
We are also given a glimpse into the very heart of God, which stands in the sharpest contrast to the kingdoms of earth we are familiar with: those maintained by violence, and self-protectiveness, fueled by visons of endless progress, but which fail to bring about real peace, or protection for the vulnerable.
Here in Matthew we see the character of Christ’s kingdom, God’s kingdom, as His mighty reign is revealed… in the feeding of the hungry… caring for the sick… visiting prisoners… clothing the naked… welcoming the stranger. Whatever else this passage has to tell us, let us not miss this: Christ shows us that living in line with the Kingdom of God looks like self-giving love. It looks like actively showing compassion and mercy for the very least in Christ’s family… tangible service offered to those in the greatest need… and giving freely to those who seem to have nothing to offer in return. This is the most basic point of this passage: Devotion to God is intertwined with loving and caring for those around us. God’s will for His people is that they share His holy, self-giving love with others, especially with those in need. If we refuse to do so, we are walking away from His Kingdom.
What’s more, Christ does not just care about how we treat the weak, and vulnerable, and suffering from afar. He identifies Himself with them wholeheartedly. The King of Kings, we’re told, meets us in those who are completely powerless, and how we treat the least of the least is how we treat Him too.
Which means of course, that when we are weak, and vulnerable, and suffering, that the King of Kings is not far off, but sharing our burdens too. Even the ones we have earned for ourselves. Christ calls His people to love the lowly and lost, because He does… and rather than leaving us all to fend for ourselves, or trample each other in greed and fear, He as come like a shepherd to rescue us all and lead us safely home. Jesus said He came to seek and to save us the lost, to save His wayward world… dying on the cross, taking on the burden of our sin, and enduring our just condemnation; the Judge of all, judged in our place. And He was raised again from the grave to bring us into God’s New Life, so that, freed from sin and death, we could serve Him without fear, and share His Kingdom of holy love with those all around us.
This is the kind of King we serve: the One who was crucified… resurrected… and enthroned at God the Father’s right hand… to sort out the nations, and bring God’s everlasting justice and peace to it’s completion, reconciling us to God through His death while we were still sinners, and leading us out of darkness into the light of His love.
Our King is not a disinterested judge, eager to meet out condemnation, but a most merciful Saviour… who calls us His sheep to share in His Kingdom, to be shaped by His holy love poured out for those who need it the most.
So today, as we celebrate the Feast of Jesus Christ the King (though we are for the moment scattered, worshipping our Lord from the safety our own homes), may we be gathered by the Holy Spirit to take our place in God’s good Kingdom. May our lives be filled with His holy love; actively serving and caring for those we see in need all around us. And may we trust more and more in the saving mercy of our Shepherd-King, who gave His life on the cross to sort out our wayward world, once and for all. Amen.