Below is the manuscript of a sermon I preached on Christ the King Sunday, November 26, 2017, at West Point Presbyterian Church in West Point, GA, and Lebanon Presbyterian Church in rural Chambers County, AL. For more about these churches, click here.
As with all the manuscripts I post, the actual sermon varied in places.
First Scripture Reading: Matthew 25:31-46
Sermon Text: Ezekiel 34:11-24
Jesus Christ is our Shepherd and our Prince. And that is truly good news.
We all know that we should live our lives in light of this truth. We all know that we are supposed to feed the hungry, give water to the thirsty, welcome the stranger and the foreigner, feed the naked, care for the sick, and visit the prisoner. Maybe we do some of these things well. But if you’re like me, our Gospel passage from Matthew this morning probably scares you more than it comforts you. If you’re like me, the words of Jesus in that passage probably shock you by exposing how selfish you really are – who I have neglected while I’ve been busy with my own wants cares and desires? Am I like the wicked, neglectful, and gluttonous shepherds Ezekiel condemns in our lesson for today?
The holidays certainly bring out some of the best and worst in us. The irony of what I’m about to say has been pointed out by many other people in many other places, but it’s worth saying again: on Thursday, we spent time being thankful for what we have already received; on Friday, we spent time knocking other people out of the way to get things we don’t need. But you don’t have to be a participant in “Black Friday” to get caught up in the consumption of the holidays! Some of us showed up to Thanksgiving without bringing a dish. Some of us who showed up to Thanksgiving without bringing a dish just sat around after the meal and let the same people who cooked do the dishes. Just about all of us ate more than we needed to on Thanksgiving. Some of us who skipped out on “Black Friday” shopping were still rude to people in the mall on Saturday. And most of us buying gifts for other people – if we’re really honest with ourselves – aren’t concerned so much with the person for whom we’re buying the gift as much as we’re concerned with the feeling we’ll have watching them open it. Some of us who skipped the shopping scene altogether were rude to our brothers and sisters in Christ yesterday – over an amateur football game. Almost all of us during the holidays are obsessed with consuming things, even at the expense of other people.
When I watch my son open presents at Christmas or his birthday, it’s kind of shocking to me the ways I’m actively teaching him to be dissatisfied and wanting more. Will opens one present. He’s overjoyed. He immediately starts playing with it – perfectly happy and content. But then I make him stop. I take away the toy he’s completely satisfied with . . . and I make him open another present.
The point I want to make isn’t to make you feel down about Thanksgiving or Christmas. I love this time of the year. But whether it’s November or December or any other month of the year, we are so obsessed with consuming, we are so dissatisfied with what we have, we are so concerned with ourselves and our feelings, that we neglect and harm other people in the process . . . people whom we are called to shepherd . . . even when – especially when – we sometimes think we are being thoughtful and selfless. It’s exactly when we are reaching out for that last toy we know will be adored by a child we love that we shove our neighbor out of the way.
In the garden, Eve offered the apple to Adam, thinking she was giving him a precious gift, but in doing so asked him to rebel against the Giver of all gifts. Adam, in a desire to escape the consequences of his own, free, sinful choice throws his wife under the bus by blaming her – and even blaming God. “The woman whom you gave to be with me, she gave me fruit of the tree, and I ate.” And for the consequences of their sin, all of creation fell into sin and death – from humans, to sheep, to grass, and even to the very ground.
God called a people out of that fall to be his own: a people who would follow in his ways, a people where God himself would be King. But these people, the sons and daughters of Jacob/Israel, didn’t want God as King. They wanted their own.
They did not even want God as their own. Time and time again they wanted to worship the things they created, idols made by their own hands, creations for their own consumption. The priests, their own leaders, looked after themselves – not the people. As the Lord says through Ezekiel earlier in chapter 34: “Ah, shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with the wool, you slaughter the fat ones, but you do not feed the sheep. The weak you have not strengthened, the sick you have not healed, the injured you have not bound up, the strayed you have not brought back, the lost you have not sought, and with force and harshness you have ruled them.”
The shepherds led the people of Israel away by their selfishness. They valued their position, and the gains for themselves they could make from their position, more than they valued the sheep or even God. And that why the sheep were scattered into exile. That is why the Kingdom of Israel split into two. That is why the Northern Kingdom was conquered by Assyria over a hundred years before this passage was written. That is why Judah, the Southern Kingdom and the audience of Ezekiel’s prophecy, was conquered by Babylon and sent into exile away from the Promised Land. The shepherds did not tend for or care for the sheep.
But God refuses to give up. And verses 11 to 16 in our passage give us God’s solution. “Behold – Look, See, Pay Attention – I, I myself, will search for my sheep and I will seek them out.” The solution for Israel is not simply better shepherds. It is certainly not for the current shepherds to simply “do better.” The wrong way to read this passage – and even the passage from Matthew we read earlier – is to read it in purely moralistic terms.
You cannot seek out the lost who are scattered – only God can. You cannot bring light to darkness – only God can. You cannot gather people and bring them into God’s own land – only God can. You cannot feed them with good pasture, or make them lie down, or bind up the injured, or strengthen the weak, or destroy the fat and the strong – only God can.
And indeed God has.
Jesus Christ is our Shepherd and our Prince. And that is truly good news.
God does not abandon humanity or his people but becomes one of us in Jesus Christ. Like the shepherd who loses the one sheep out of a hundred, or the woman who loses one coin out of ten, it is Christ who seeks you out – who seeks out all of his lost sheep – to bring you all into his care. God does not let his sheep thirst but makes the water clean that was muddied by the dirty hooves of selfish sheep. Then washes his own in that clean water, and those who drink of that water will never thirst again. God does not leave the starving sheep to the mercy of the bullying sheep but allows himself to be slaughtered – and then gives us his own body for our bread. God does not let the sick and the injured sheep to waste away and die. He offers them his own shed blood as ointment for their wounds and a cure for their sickness.
No, the cure for Israel, scattered in exile in Babylon is not just for the shepherds to “do better.” They need a Great Shepherd who lays down his life for the sheep.
Jesus Christ is our Shepherd. And that is truly good news.
It is easy for us to criticize them: the priests and kings and elders of Judah, the shepherds who have failed the sheep. But even as our Black Friday and holiday consumption shows us, we have trouble caring for the sheep – even within the church. It is easy for us to forget that verses 17-19, the judgement of the God here is on some of the people of God. God is not just judging the wicked shepherds but the sheep! These are sheep that are not satisfied with the good pasture God has given but tread down the rest of the pasture under foot. These are sheep that are not satisfied with God’s clean water but instead dirty the water with muddy hooves making undrinkable for everyone.
Is that what we do in the church?
How often do we understand our local congregations as flocks of sheep underneath the one Shepherd, Jesus? Or do we – as is the case all too often these days – understand our churches to be about us? Consumption in the church is a very real and very dangerous thing. I don’t know if you see it much here in this church – I’m sure you see it some – but I see it all the time in Birmingham. Anytime you do something someone doesn’t like – if a sermon rubs someone the wrong way, if you try to put up something “new” in the sanctuary, if you’re not doing some program aimed at this particular group, or if you make a change that affects that particular group – people threaten to leave the church! We look too often at Jesus coming to be our shepherd as Jesus coming to be my personal shepherd only. All I need is Jesus, my Bible, and me. Everything else is “man-made.” Everything else is “optional.”
Sisters and brothers, for those who are in Christ Jesus the Church is never optional. For the sheep gathered together by the great Shepherd, the flock is never optional. And care within the flock is not optional, either. The church cannot be a buffet style model where you take what you want, leave what you don’t, and go to some other restaurant down the street if you don’t like the menu. Because the fundamental, underlying attitude we often have about Church is that it’s all about me – my wants, my desires, my opinions, my needs being met.
And the truth of the gospel is that the Church is not about you – it’s about Jesus.
The Lord says through Ezekiel in verse 16 that he will feed the injured sheep with justice. The word here is just some abstract idea. It means the right ruling in a case, like a court decision. Too often in the church, in a desire to get what we want, we knock each other down and bully each other around. We, as verse 21 says, “push with side and shoulder and thrust the weak with horns.” We are so used to a culture that demands we get our way, that we do it within the church to the harm of the other sheep!
If you have been wronged by people within the Church, I am here to tell you today that God will feed you justice – that is, righteous judgment – to right your wrong.
And if you have wronged another in the Church, fear the judgment of God. Go and be reconciled with your sister or brother.
As I mentioned earlier, the wrong way to read this passage is a moralistic one. Israel did not need simply better shepherds or the shepherds to do better – they needed a New One . . . just as the Church needs Jesus Christ to be her Shepherd. But the other wrong way to read the passage is this – that the Shepherd is only for you. No, the Shepherd is for his whole flock, not just or even primarily you. The great privilege, joy, and satisfaction is that the flock includes you, and it includes me. But the flock is not about you or me.
And that is why the Shepherd must also be a Prince.
Jesus Christ is our Prince. And that is truly good news.
In the ancient world, one of the important duties of a king was to judge, and in judging the king would establish justice. Today is Christ the King Sunday. It is the end of the church worship year, and it is our reminder that Christ reigns over all creation, the entire universe, and especially the Church.
Our Prince establishes justice.
Our Shepherd feeds us.
The two go hand in hand with one another. But our Shepherd Prince is unlike all of the shepherds and all of the princes that have ever been a part of this world. He does not seek his own glory at the expense of his subjects or his sheep! For almost every prince that has ever lived, there have been certain functions of the prince that have benefited the people. But make no mistake – the people are there to serve the prince and never the other way around. For almost every shepherd that has ever lived, there have been certain duties of the shepherd that have benefited the sheep. But make no mistake – the sheep are to provide goods, wool and meat, for the shepherd.
Yet, our Prince knelt to wash our feet. And our Shepherd laid down his life for the sheep.
Jesus Christ is our Prince and our Shepherd. And that is truly good news. Amen.