The Whole Flock

A sermon preached on Christ the King Sunday, Nov 20, 2011 at Southminster Presbyterian Church, Boise, Idaho.

Matt 25:31-46

Ezekiel 34:11-16

This morning is Christ the King Sunday. It is a day to pause at the end of the church calendar of “ordinary time”, before we head into the season of Advent next week.

And even though department stores have been playing Christmas songs since August, it is good for us to stop and take a breath, to remember that Christmas isn’t here quite yet, and to be present in the day we have been given.

During Advent, which begins next Sunday, we will prepare our hearts, our minds, and our lives, for both the birth of Jesus and for his return, at the end of days, however you see that.

So, before we enter Advent, it is right to take today to consider who this Jesus is. What does it mean that we call him a King?

What kind of King is he?
Let’s begin with the passage from Ezekiel. Before the text we heard this morning, God calls down judgment on the shepherds of God’s people. “You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.”

So we start out with a reminder that the leaders, the kings of the people have not been good shepherds. And so God declares “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD.”

We are left with a beautiful description of how God will provide, evoking the 23rd Psalm, with language of rest, of clean streams of water, enough food, beautiful pasture, safety from predators.  God doesn’t promise that everyone will have more than they need. But everyone will have what they need.

Nowhere in this passage is God referred to as a king, but God’s authority over his people is never in question. “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.”

And God’s justice is not just aimed against the people who should have been leading. It is also directed at the flock. He tells them that he has given them pasture, but they have trampled over the excess. He has given them clean water and they have put their dirty feet in it.

God has judged the leaders who neglected the flock. And now God is judging the members of the flock who take advantage of the other sheep.

But God’s purpose in judging is not to punish the wrong doers. It is to restore the wrong doers. They aren’t living the lives they are called to live when they oppress their fellow members of the flock. God announces, “I will make with them a covenant of peace and banish wild animals from the land, so that they may live in the wild and sleep in the woods securely. I will make them and the region around my hill a blessing; and I will send down the showers in their season; they shall be showers of blessing.”
That is God’s purpose in executing justice. So that the entire flock can be showers of blessing.

Much as Ezekiel used imagery from the Psalms to write his prophecy, so too does Matthew use Ezekiel’s imagery in his gospel. Jesus, picking up where he left off last week with the parable of the talents, talks about the return of the Son of Man, who will judge, separating the flock just as Ezekiel described.

But as Matthew has the story, it tells us a few things about Jesus.

First,  this story tells us something about the nature of God’s judgment. While this text isn’t a parable in the same way the previous stories in this chapter are, there is a similarity in the punishment that is meted out to the people who do not live as God instructs. Remember last week how there was “weeping and gnashing of teeth” in the outer darkness for the worthless slave? The bridesmaids who let the oil run out in their lamps were told by Jesus “I don’t know you”.

The punishment in these parables is harsher than the reward.

But remember, these are stories Jesus is telling to instruct the ones he loves. He is presenting these stark comparisons because surely, surely, when we hear of the consequences of living our lives as if the rest of the flock don’t matter, we’ll change. Right?

Much like Ezekiel, the point of judgment is not just punish, it is to correct. God would take no pleasure in being the king who has to send people out to weep in the outer darkness. But God loves us enough to be that king. Because God cares that much about the entire flock.

Also, this story makes it clear that God is not some shepherd far away, watching the flocks through binoculars. In this story, God in Jesus is right there in the midst of us. So, yes, the shepherd imagery remains, but Jesus also identifies himself as one of the flock.

And not the part of the flock that has the money, the power, and the privilege. Jesus identifies himself with the people who were hungry and thirsty, the people who were sick and in prison, the people who were naked.

So our salvation will come, but it will be a surprise. “When did we see you hungry, and naked, and sick?” the unrighteous in the story ask Jesus. “We would have fed you, given you clothes, and nursed you to health!”

It means that the way we treat people can’t be because one of them might just be Jesus. It means Jesus wants us to treat everyone as if they are Jesus. Period. It means that our salvation is not a private event, just between me and Jesus. Our salvation is a part of how we live with the people around us.

And I know that this message is counter cultural.

A friend shared this quote this week from Father Ronald Rolheiser, who said that today we seem to prefer having

a King but not the kingdom,
a shepherd with no flock
to believe without belonging
a spiritual family with God as my father
as long as I’m the only child
“spirituality” without religion
faith without the faithful
Christ without His Church.

And it made me think of this text. Wouldn’t our lives be easier if we just had to take care of our own relationship with God? Can’t we just have our own personal shepherd?

Why do we have to deal with the rest of the flock?

And how do we treat the flock?

Not just the part of the flock that is in this room, but the part of the flock that is downtown at the homeless shelter and the part of the flock that is across the world, starving in Somalia?

So, this week, before the Christmas race begins full force, before we reach Advent, I invite you to spend some time thinking about how Jesus is King in your life. How is he the shepherd? And, more than that, how do you get along with the rest of the flock? What does it mean to be a part of a bigger kingdom than just having our personal relationship to the king?

They shall know that I, the LORD their God, am with them, and that they, the house of Israel, are my people, says the Lord GOD.  You are my sheep, the sheep of my pasture and I am your God, says the Lord GOD.

Remember this promise from Ezekiel. God seeks our restoration. God seeks the health of the whole flock. May our lives and our actions also seek the same. Amen.

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