Sermon by Rev’d Lizzie Kesteven
Ezekiel – 34 – The Good Shepherd
Matthew 25 – Sheep and Goats
I suspect that I may not be alone when I tell you I have spent some time this week watching Series 4 of The Crown on Netflix. The Crown begins back in the 50’s and follows each new generation of royals and different parts of their stories. Series 4 which has been much anticipated is now in the 80’s and finally for me the series has caught up with a time in life that I actually remember. There is something rather fascinating about following the life of the Monarch and her family, even if it is as we are reminded its a fictional account, rather than a documentary.
Perhaps it is apt that this popular series about the Royal Family, a story which looks at power and kingship, at authority and rule, is back on the TV at the same time as this final festival in the churches year that we celebrate today.
The festival of Christ the King, is always the last Sunday before Advent. Advent, next week marks a new time in our seasons, a new year, a new beginning as we turn towards the crib and prepare ourselves, body and soul for Christmas. Yet today, this last festival of our year, the festival of Christ the King is a relative newcomer to the table. It was established as late as 1925 by the then Pope. A time in history when political powers were jostling over people and land, post the carnage that the First World War. It was then, and remains as today a reminder to us of , a rather brassy political statement by a Pope. A salutary poke to all those in leadership around the world, that there is only one ultimate authority and judgement that the church recognises and that is the Kingship of Jesus Christ.
It is also apt perhaps that the readings that we are asked to respond to today are ones that take a hard look at how we treat other people.
The prophet Ezekiel is always a good place to start any evisceration of those in power….and he does not let us down today. Ezekiel was also talking in a highly charged political environment and the prophet is not shy at going to town on his critique of the leaders of the day. They are held up as people who have not cared for their flock of sheep well. It speaks of those who have been greedy and taken what they needed and wasted what was left. It speaks of a sense of individual regard above that of what would be right for everyone. What does he say
“You pushed the sick ones aside and butted them away from the flock”
That is pretty damning.
So Ezekiels prophesy says that a new shepherd will come and lead the sheep. His words are ones which are definite and unshakeable. The Sovereign Lord himself will lead the flock to new pastures. He uses the words “I will” repeatedly – and it gives a sense of reassurance to those who are struggling, and that reassurance leads to a place of hope.
“I will bring them back…. I will take them out of foreign countries….I will lead them back to the mountains….I myself will be the shepherd of the sheep”
When the people cannot do it. God will.
It would have been these words and images that sprang to mind as people listened to Matthew’s gospel and account that we have today. The pictures of sheep and goats are straight out of Ezekiel. Matthew’s community, of Jewish converts would have known Ezekiel well. They are being given no doubt that the Jesus of Nazareth who has led a motley crew around Galilee for three years is presenting himself as leader of the sheep – as the new shepherd – and in that way the ultimate authority on heaven and earth. They were dangerous political words to write in 70 AD and they were dangerous images to draw to peoples attention in 1925 when Christ the King Festival was begun. They still carry that edge and threat.
And yet acting on them – is precisely Jesus point. This is how to live. This is what I have shown you. Just as in the breaking of bread at the last supper Jesus Says “do this in remembrance of me” – here we have the words – “Do this and you do it for me” – and they are just as powerful. They form the backbone of the social gospel. They are still as revolutionary and all inclusive. DO this for anyone and you do it for me. Not do it for someone who looks like me, or thinks like me, or likes the same cat meme on facebook like me, or just the person that makes me laugh, or whose company I might enjoy. Its easy doing nice things for people we know and love. But Jesus says –
“Do this for anyone of the least important of these members of my family, you did it for me.”
The forgotton, the naked, the vulnerable, the hungry, the convicted, the sick, the despised. Those. And of course during his lifetime Jesus has been everyone of these. None of those experiences are things unknown to the Soveriegn Lord, whether that is in a stable, as a refuge, as a prisoner in front of Pontius Pilate or on a cross naked.
I have often been fascinated by the different images that come to be associated with different gospels – Luke is an Ox, John is an Eagle, Mark is Lion. I think that the images make is so much easier to identify the different gospel writers in stained glass windows, or pictures.
Matthew is the human face. And in that case here at the end of this church year, on a festival where we celebrate and affirm as Christians that Christ is the King – then how right perhaps that we have these very human faces in our gospel reading.
They put us right up close to others and what being human can mean. We cannot remove ourselves from the human faces that we see everyday. Perhaps that is why the pandemic is so challenging to our human way of life – because we are called to step into rather than away….We are called to be with others rather than apart.
It is the being with others, as God chose to be with us, that Jesus’s life, death and resurrection calls us to. There is a bigger picture or large strategies and overarching policies that can be implemented and that will help many – be that the critical reform and funding of our health, prison, and education systems. The need to continue to be generous in the sharing of our resources with others from around the world through generous management of our foreign aid budget.
Yet also on a much more immediate level we are asked to look at the human face, of the people around us and consider their immediate need. Are they hungry? Are they thirsty? Are they sick? – What can I do this day with one of these people? And when we do – then we meet the human face of Jesus Christ. It really is that simple. That revolutionary. That political. That Godly. Amen