As each year draws to an end, another begins.
It is a cycle, an ebb and flow, watching and waiting, the birth of the promise, and then we watch as that promise is fulfilled in the life of Jesus Christ. We witness each year his life, his death, his resurrection. We watch as the Holy Spirit blows among the people and how the people of God respond.
And at the end of every yearly cycle, we have a glimpse of the Kingdom. We have a glimpse of the one who will rule forever, eternal in the heavens.
In our epistle this morning, Paul gives thanks for the faith and the love of the Ephesians, and continues to pray that they might know Christ, who sits at “God’s right side in the heavens, far above every ruler and authority and power and angelic power, any power that might be named not only now but in the future.”
You know…. The King of Kings and Lord of Lords that is promised in Isaiah.
And so today, the last Sunday in the church year, we celebrate Christ the King. We remind ourselves of his power and glory and majesty.
And next week, the cycle begins anew as we return to waiting and preparation in the season of Advent.
Christ the King.
What does it even mean for Christ to be the king of our lives?
What kind of King will he be?
Some kings in our modern culture are ruthless dictators.
Other kings are figureheads who only represent power.
I might have been watching too much Game of Thrones lately, but when I think of a king, the first image that comes to mind is a ruler on the Iron Throne.
A leader who is a part from the people, indifferent to their plight unless it affects him personally.
I picture a king whose battles and wars are for his glory and power.
Other biblical images of kings find people who are full of both faults and incredible wisdom. At times, we see them sitting in judgment over the people, much like we find Jesus doing in the vision of the end in Matthew 25.
The King is the final arbiter of the law. When there is conflict among the people, the case is brought before him as their ruler for a word of justice.
Often, when we think of traditional ideas of kingship, the ruler is the judge, jury, and executioner who parse out sentences according to the laws of the land.
Laws that he probably wrote.
So, it is to be expected that when we come to the end… the end of the year, the end of our lives, the end of the earthly realm… that the King of Kings and Lord of Lords will sit upon the throne and will give a final account. He will determine who is worthy to enter the kingdom.
In Matthew 25:31-32: “When the Son of Man comes in his majesty and all his angels are with him, he will sit on his majestic throne. All the nations will be gathered in front of him. He will separate them from each other, just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.”
Just as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
What are shepherds doing in this story?
Historically speaking, shepherds and kings belong on opposite ends of the social spectrum.
While kings have armies at their disposal, the shepherd personally protects the sheep. His very body is their first line of defense.
While a king leads from on high, issuing orders through his commanders and sending word through the land, the shepherd leads from the midst of the sheep.
I learned that there is a difference between the way we lead sheep here in the West and how they would have done it in Jesus time, and continue to do in the east. We often herd our sheep like a king would – pushing them forward towards their destination, often with the aid of sheep dogs or other animals. When they begin to go the wrong direction, we push them onwards, or the dogs nip at their heels, and eventually they get where they are supposed to.
In the East however, the shepherd personally led his flock. He would have stood near the front of the flock, but was always in the midst of them. As he walked, they would walk with him. Wherever he went, they would go.
Kings are often indifferent to the plight of their people, but a shepherd knows each one in his flock by name. And a shepherd wouldn’t hesitate to leave behind the entire flock in order to search for one that was lost.
Jesus, the King of Kings and Lord of Lords, judges us, calls us to account, in the way a shepherd would.
He gathers the flock together and calls them by name.
He speaks and at the sound of his voice, those who recognize him come running near.
But what they and we are surprised by is that Jesus doesn’t judge us by the laws of the church and the kingdom. You know…. by how many times we came to church or even by holding us accountable to the 10 commandments. He doesn’t ask if we ate shellfish or if we were circumcised. He doesn’t separate the married from the divorced. He says not a word about the tithe or ask how many times we lied.
He separates the people into those who fed and clothed the poor, who welcomed the stranger, who visited the sick and imprisoned…. And those who didn’t.
Jesus, our King, is a shepherd at heart.
Even at the end, his concern is always for the flock. It is for the lost, and the least and the last. It is for those who have been forgotten.
The rules are only good in so far as they have led us to be shepherds alongside him in the world.
You see, Jesus is the King of Kings and Lord of Lords and Shepherd of Shepherds and as his people, as his body the church, OUR task is also to care for the flock.
I got to thinking about Jesus our Shepherd King when the story came out a few weeks ago about Arnold Abbott who was arrested for feeding the homeless. Abbott is 90 years old and has now been arrested twice for this act of loving his neighbor.
I got to thinking about Jesus our Shepherd King when I learned of the death of Dr. Salia this past Monday. Dr. Salia went to Africa to serve at the Kissy United Methodist Hospital in Sierra Leone. He went to the sick, to offer his gifts and skills, and contracted Ebola while he cared for those who were ill.
I got to thinking about Jesus our Shepherd King when I think of the hundreds of people who have poured into Ferguson to stand in solidarity with a community that is frustrated and grieving after the death of Michael Brown… especially those who have worked to bring non-violent training to the young people who felt like they had no other options but violence. Today, I hold them all in prayer as they await the grand jury decision.
I got to thinking about Jesus our Shepherd King when I think about one of our United Methodist ministers here in Iowa, Rev. Dr. Larry Sonner, who has had a complaint filed against him for officiating a same-sex marriage.
In all of these complicated and difficult situations, I feel the tension between the law and tradition and scripture and what we are supposed to do… and the call to be with and serve the flock, to tend the sheep, to care for the people.
“Then the king will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who will receive good things from my Father. Inherit the kingdom that was prepared for you before the world began. 35 I was hungry and you gave me food to eat. I was thirsty and you gave me a drink. I was a stranger and you welcomed me. 36 I was naked and you gave me clothes to wear. I was sick and you took care of me. I was in prison and you visited me.’
None of these are easy situations. Our lives are full of complicated choices that can put us in danger or on the wrong side of the law or put us at odds with our neighbors.
But as Paul prays for the Ephesians, so I pray for us… here at Immanuel, in the Iowa Annual Conference, for the people in Ferguson, and for our brothers and sisters across this world who are hungry and homeless and sick and imprisoned:
“I pray that that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, will give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation that makes God known to you. 18 I pray that the eyes of your heart will have enough light to see what is the hope of God’s call, what is the richness of God’s glorious inheritance among believers, 19 and what is the overwhelming greatness of God’s power that is working among us believers.”
Christ is our King. Christ is the head of our church and our lives. Christ is the shepherd who is leading this flock.
May we turn our hearts towards prayer. May we seek God’s wisdom and power and hope. May we hear the voice of our shepherd and may we go where he leads us.
Amen. And Amen.