November 22, 2020
For our second reading on this Christ the King Sunday, we turn again to Matthew’s gospel… picking up where we left off last week with the parable of the talents. Listen carefully as God continues speaking to you this morning through the powerful and sobering parable of the sheep and the goats.
READ Matthew 25:31-46
The Son of Man sitting on the throne of his glory. It is an appropriate image for this Christ the King Sunday. And as the good students of scripture that we are… we know that as Matthew writes these words “the throne of his glory”… he has something in mind… that glory is filled with all manner of unspoken context and meaning.
That’s where I want to start this morning… with that phrase “the throne of his glory” because it sends my mind back to last week’s parable of the talents and to the question, “What is the glory of Christ?” It is like last week with the two slaves who are invited into the joy of their master. What is the joy of Christ? What is Christ’s greatest glory?
The throne of his glory… my imagination immediately starts painting mental images of light shining… probably some clouds thrown in to make that light all that more magnificent looking as the light streams through… and, of course, there is that image of all this sort of taking place up in the sky… looking up to a larger than life figure of Christ in regal and glowing robes… everything has to be glowing for some reason in my imagination. I’m sure this image or so many like it have been poured into my mind over the years, so it is only natural that this is the first thing my imagination spits back out. Big… awe inspiring… a bit distant and very other in its depiction of holiness. Maybe I need to throw in some of those Old Testament seraphim and cherubim and some flames to really make it wholly magnificent and complete the picture… something worthy of what we might find in the book of Revelation.
The Son of Man in his glory on his throne with all the nations gathered before him. Do you imagine the same sort of vision?
Well, today I want to reject all of that. Today I want to call all of that rubbish. Today I want to imagine the throne of glory as a simple, light, three-legged stool. I want the Son of Man to be man sized… without glowing light and other special effects… without frightening seraphim and cherubim keeping people at bay. Today I want in my head the vision of Jesus walking over to each person, putting that stool down and entering into the joy of the gathering of the sheep. Holiness doesn’t have to mean separateness. The holiness of Christ is his incarnation… of being there with… of associating with the lowly and those who set themselves on high… to be the one with taxpayers and prostitutes gathered around him as much as those who we presume to be more likely to be in the presence of Jesus. Shared humanity is what brings us together. And Jesus gathered with us on his three legged stool… Jesus gives the same gospel to everyone no matter their place or position.
Today I want the royal decree to be blessed are the merciful for they will receive mercy. In the parable, the sheep on his right hand are surprised by the kindness they are shown. They are surprised by the simple justice at work here where the great glory that is revealed is the joy of what happens when kindness is shared… when grace is internalized… when we truly see each other as fellow children of God created by a God who is love. That’s the humanity that we share… or I should say, through our faith that is understood to be the humanity that we share with one another. The sheep are surprised because they have not sought out any great spiritual quest… they were themselves as they would naturally be. These acts of theirs are neither difficult nor anything that we would single out as spectacularly heroic. They reached out to another. Two became one. An individual separated and in distress in some way becomes part of a community of two where mercy and justice became the tie that bind them together.
The acts of the sheep are so simple, that the sheep have no idea what they have done. When did we multiply the talents we were given? When did we take your merciful investment in us and multiply that? When? When you loved kindness. When you did justice… simple justice by taking away that burden that kept another out of relationship with the potential community that surrounded them… out of relationship with God. When you showed mercy. When you did those things that made for peace among peoples. This is the joy of our king. This, saints, is the glory of the Christ. When our king forgives us a great debt… a debt we could never repay… when our king forgives and that forgiveness remakes us so that the one forgiven will become two as forgiveness happens between that one and another. Will become four as forgiveness happens between those two and two others. On and on… multiplying… the kingdom of God spreading out into the world not dependent on human governmental powers or laws or systems or economies… but a pure and simple expression of the human heart that naturally follows God’s will on earth as it is in heaven.
There is no law against a quiet, godly character. And… I would say… there is ultimately nothing that can stand against it. That’s not to say that a godly character will bring ease or material comfort to our lives… that it will free us from conflict… or smooth out and make easy all our responsibilities… but a godly character serving in obedience to Christ the King… can you imagine… can you imagine what that brings into the world. Can you imagine a kingdom of the sheep of this parable? As we have seen from our readings all this year… a year where we really needed to hear this message reinforced… Matthew’s gospel teaches us again and again that discipleship means developing a godly character… that discipleship is not merely receiving the good news of God in Christ… discipleship is then living out the good news of God in Christ in the world that is around us as we find that world as it is… living out the gospel in the world to reshape and reform the world in God’s image. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy. Blessed are the pure in heart, for they will see God. Are you seeing God in our world at the moment… or are you witness another gospel at work… one that does not bring joy or magnifies the glory that is Christ on the throne?
I know that with the parable of the sheep and the goats we have a dividing… we have a judgment that is rendered. And just like the images of the throne that fill our heads… we are quick to judge… quick to call out the goats and point the finger… we are quick to give ourselves comfort… sometimes false comfort… that we are the sheep and they… those others… always those others… those wretched pitiful ones… they… they are the goats who will get what they deserve. But the truth is we are both sheep and goats. We… each of us… know the joy of Christ… have experienced in some measure that joy when we have let go of everything that holds us back from being easily merciful. We know the joy of gathering together the sheep from where life has scattered them… and we know the darkness of separating… the punishment of the hardened heart that finds reasons to justify our embracing of tribalism over authentic messy community… the punishment that comes when we withhold the outstretched hand… when we clench it tight into a fist in order to pummel one another with our false piety and fake holiness. The loss of our own humanity when we work so hard to take away the humanity of another… reducing them… objectifying… putting ourselves first and building our own temporary kingdoms on the backs of others… pushing others down so that we may rise up… instead of lifting all together as an exercise of the common good.
The reward of eternal life is not a never-ending existence. Eternal life is one of those phrases that points us to what life is like when we are connected to God and God’s ways. The two slaves from last week’s parable of the talents… those two slaves that increase the talents given are not given a never-ending existence… they are not promised heaven after death… they enter into the joy of their master in the here and now. The one who does nothing but bury his talent out of fear. The goats who do not show even the simplest and easiest expression of mercy… that punishment is also in the here and now. The punishment of division and separation. The punishment of sin… a life lived apart from God and God’s ways.
There was a phrase in our Old Testament reading that really caught my attention this morning. In that reading the sheep are defined differently… but they are being gathered together by God. Verse sixteen says, “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 strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.” Again… first thoughts… I hear that word “destroyed” and I immediately jump to obliterated. Just like eternal life… how quickly does my mind go to thoughts of absolute obliteration when it comes to eternal punishment. But… it is the phrase “feed them with justice” that snaps me back toward mercy. How are the fat and strong destroyed? They are destroyed with mercy. They are destroyed with justice. Not obliterated… redeemed. For again… what is the joy of God? Does God receive joy from the obliteration of a person… or does God receive joy from the obliteration of sin… from the obliteration of that thing… that thought… that belief… that act simple or complex… or lack of act… that divides and separates that person from God… that divides and separates that person from the rest of the God’s gathered flock. I will feed them with justice. I will fill them with mercy until they know the meaning of mercy. I will put the immense treasure of grace into their hands so that they can no longer carry their fear. I will show them a love so deep that their bones will know its truth so that my justice will finally be written upon their hearts and they will have life everlasting. Could it be that this is how that part of us is destroyed? Could it be that this is how we are brought out of everlasting darkness into the joy of Christ?
Saints… this is how we go from being lost to being redeemed. As we reach the last day in our liturgical calendar know that this is the story of God we tell year after year… not as a meaningless exercise… but so this story becomes so believed that you will not be able to tell a difference between God’s story and the story of your life… you will not be able to tell a difference between the love you share and the love you have been given… you will not be able to tell the difference as the gospel you bring into the world transforms goats to sheep and mercy and justice will reign forever and ever. Amen.