26 November 2023

This week marks the end of Year A in the three year Lectionary cycle. Of course, as usual, the year ends with an encounter with Christ as King, and each year gives us a different, surprising view of Christ’s reign. This year, as we finish our journey with Matthew, is no different. The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats can do nothing but shift our perceptions of what it means for Jesus to be the monarch of our lives and of the world – and the picture it offers us is one of a realm of radical inclusion, welcome, grace and mutual service.

May we have the courage and the humility to embrace this reign and begin to live as its citizens, and may our worship this week help us to do so.

Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24: God promises to rescue God’s sheep, like a good shepherd, and to bring them to a fertile land, and then to judge between the sheep, protecting the weak from the bullies.

Psalm 100: A call to come and worship God and to enter God’s temple with thanksgiving as people who are made by God and are the sheep of God’s pasture.
OR Psalm 95:1-7a: An invitation to celebrate the God who made and owns the whole of creation and to kneel before God as God’s people, the sheep of God’s hands.

Ephesians 1:15-23: Paul gives thanks for the Ephesian Christians and prays that they may know God, God’s call which is their hope, and God’s power which raised Christ from the dead and made him head over all things, and which works in them.

Matthew 25:31-46: Jesus tells a parable about judging the nations as a shepherd who separates sheep from goats, rejecting those who have failed to serve and love their neighbours, but embracing and welcoming those who have.

This week, as Year A comes to a close, we are faced with images and Scripture passages that are so well known that our familiarity can cause us to lose the power of this closing to the year’s journey. But, the images of sheep and shepherd, and the parables of judgement which accompany them, are not comfortable, however well we may know them. The hinge point, of course, is the Gospel, which portrays the nature of Christ’s rulership. The shocking invitation which we are given is to recognise the King in those who are anything but royalty – the sick, the naked, the hungry and thirsty, the homeless and imprisoned. And our ability to be welcomed into the realm of this Shepherd-King is not so much about how Jesus decides to treat us, but about how we choose to treat one another. If we are able to make the shift to seeing Christ in all others, we discover that we are citizens of this new realm that Jesus preached – because suddenly God’s reign is visible everywhere and can be experienced and enjoyed in every moment, every place and every interaction. When we fail to see Christ in all others, we have chosen to close our eyes to the miracle of God’s reign which infiltrates every life and every circumstance, with the result that we find ourselves – by our own choice – outside of the experience of God’s reign. Ezekiel’s prophecy is simply another way of saying this same thing – God will judge between those who are “lean” – who are satisfied with enough and are not greedy and dominating – and those who are “fat and strong” – those who bully others and take more than their share. Both Psalms invite us into the joy and worship of those who have learned to be God’s faithful sheep, trusting in God’s care and provision – which is, of course, the basic foundation that enables us to live as “lean sheep” and to serve one another. Finally, Paul celebrates Jesus as the one who has been placed over all, especially of the Church which is Christ’s body – the vehicle through which Christ interacts with the world now – and prays that God’s people may know God’s resurrection power and the hope we have in Christ, both of which are sorely needed for us to be the agents of Christ’s grace and compassion that we are called to be. The reign of Christ, then, is not about seeing Jesus as some dominating despot, or conquering military victor. Rather, we are invited to see Christ’s reign as the gift of God’s grace, service and compassion that is available to all, and that we share with one another as we live as the body (the physical presence) of Christ in the world today.

GLOBAL APPLICATION: It is tragic that for so many the reign of Christ is seen only as some great military victory that Jesus will enforce on the world at some later time. It is tragic that for so many, this image of Christ’s reign leads to cold disregard for the injustices in our world, and the suffering of the poor, the weak, the sick and the marginalised. Nothing could be further from the image of Christ’s reign that we are asked to see and embrace in this last week of Year A. Here we are given a vision of a ruler who does not dominate or conquer by violence, but who chooses to be revealed in the margins of society – in the very ones we too often consider to be outside of God’s grace and welcome. Here we are given a vision of a ruler who chooses the image of a nurturing and protective shepherd to describe his reign, not metaphors of violence, opulence and domination. Here we are invited to recognise that finding our place in God’s reign is not about retreating from the world into some holy enclave and pointing fingers at all the “sinners” out there while we wait for Jesus to come and get “us” and destroy “them”. Rather, finding our place in God’s reign is about recognising that we – and all the outcasts that we thought were left out – are already included, if we will just see it, and see Jesus in each other. Then, as we serve and love and protect each other as we would Christ, and as Christ would us, we find that we are living and enjoying belonging in God’s compassionate, gracious and serving reign. We do not need to wait for some future time for the parable of the sheep and the goats to be a reality for us. We can experience its truth today as we open our eyes to the Jesus in others and serve them accordingly, and as we allow them to serve us in return. We can know God’s reign right now as we live from the hope that compassion and grace and welcome can be the principles on which our world is based, and as we allow that hope to give us the faith to trust in God’s provision and care for all of us. Then, as we begin to see and experience the truth of God’s reign in our daily lives, we will begin to show the generosity, the understanding and forgiveness, the inclusivity and celebration of difference that makes this reign of Christ manifest in our world now.

LOCAL APPLICATION: It is tempting to think of God as “our” Shepherd, and God’s pastures as “our” home, and then to exclude those who don’t fit with “us”. In our churches and communities, and even in our families and social circles, this sorting of society according to our categories and sensibilities is ubiquitous. But it is also a massive exercise in completely missing the point. When we are faced with the parables and readings of this week, we cannot help but see that God’s sorting method is wholly different. In fact, it isn’t even, really, God who does the sorting, it’s us! The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats may, at first glance be a parable of judgement, but that’s not the point of it. The point is whether we have learned from Christ enough, whether have become intimate enough with Jesus, that we can recognise him even when he looks out at us through his “distressing disguise” as Mother Teresa put it. And then, if we have learned to see Jesus even in the outcast, we will have learned to see and experience God’s reign in our own lives. But, if we haven’t learned to see Jesus, we wouldn’t know how to recognise God’s reign, even if it should kick us in the pants! The challenge of this week, then, is for us to release our obsession with sorting, and to focus instead on seeing – seeing Christ in all people – and on serving – serving others as though they were Jesus himself. Then, we will have entered the reign of God without even trying and we will see and experience God’s reign in every place and every moment. The hard part is for us to make the conscious and difficult decision to recognise Christ in all others. It takes work and imagination, grace and a willingness to let go of our pride, our control and our natural tendency to stick with people like us. It’s a scandalous truth – which Matthew’s readers must have choked on at first – that everyone belongs. It’s only those who cannot find a way to accept this who ultimately end up excluding themselves. The Shepherd really does welcome everyone, and those who are willing to follow the Shepherd’s example, discover this to be true for themselves. The question is how we can be the inclusive, God’s-reign-reflecting community that God calls us to be. May our worship this week help us to discover some practical ways to do this.

Jesus In Disguise
We Underestimate Your Compassion, Jesus
The Call Of Compassion
Good Shepherd

Hymn Suggestions:
Saviour, Like A Shepherd Lead Us
O Worship The King
Rejoice The Lord Is King
Let Your Kingdom Come
Servant Song (Link to YouTube video)
Make Me A Channel Of Your Peace (Link to YouTube video)
The Servant King (Link to YouTube video)

A Liturgy Of Compassion

Video Suggestions:
Becoming The Poor
The Sheep And The Goats – Keith Green (Link to YouTube video)