When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they will also answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
The Lord Jesus Christ is Lord and King over all creation!
Easter and Christmas Eve are remarkable moments in the liturgical year, but there’s nothing quite like Christ the King Sunday.
Today, for Christians, is our New Year’s Eve, it’s time for champagne and fancy clothes and bad renditions of Auld Lang Syne.
It is our once-a-year opportunity to look both backward and forward. We look behind us to the story of Jesus as we followed his moves from a manger to meeting the disciples to ministering with the last, least, lost, little, and dead to table-turning to Holy Week to Easter to Pentecost and to the Ascension. And then, as the first Sunday of Advent comes a-knockin’, we look forward on this day to the second coming of the Lord, to the re-arrival of the once and future King.
In church lingo, we often refer to Jesus as the Lord, but we don’t live in a world of lords so to call Christ as such can feel a little empty handed. And yet, to confess Christ as Lord is to express faith in One who was, is, and will be the ruler of the cosmos.
But, when we talk of Jesus, we love to speak of him as a teacher, or a healer, or a rabbi, or a sage, or a spiritual guru, or the perfect moral exemplar. And all of that stuff is good and fine, but if that’s all he was, is, and will be, then he is only one of many and he isn’t really worth our time.
What makes Jesus Jesus is the fact that he is God in the flesh, dead on the cross, raised from the dead, master of all things.
He, to put it rather pointedly, is our King.
Our King, according to the strange new world of the Bible, was born as Jesus from Nazareth in the reaches of Galilee. He was poor and had no standing in the world whatsoever, but he went out talking about the Kingdom of God, healing the sick, feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, befriending the friendless, and it attracted a whole lot of attention. And for good reason – he spoke to a people who, for centuries, lived through exile, defeat, abandonment, and foreign occupation all while waiting for the promised Messiah.
And so it came to pass that, after a flirting with popularity and controversy, the religious and secular authorities (church and state) finally got their acts together and put his little ministry to an end.
He was betrayed, beaten, abandoned to die alone on a cross, and buried in a tomb.
Later, his discredited would-be followers started moving from Jerusalem throughout the Mediterranean, and they delivered the news (we call it the Gospel) that this crucified man was the Lord and King of the universe; that even after his horrific and degrading death, even after being left dead behind the rock, he was resurrected and now rules at the right hand of God.
He’s the King.
And we pause on this proclamation for a moment because this runs counter to just about everything we think we know about power and glory and vindication.
It’s even more confounding that this One, this King, can speak to his followers as he does to us in our texttoday. These words comes to us from his final moment of teaching before his arrest, execution, and resurrection.
Listen – When the Son of man comes in his glory, he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gather all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats.
Think about how strange this is! Jesus was born to nothing, he didn’t graduate at the top of his class, he didn’t have a full ride to Jerusalem University, he held no bank account, he had no job or mortgage or stock portfolio. And this man, who was about to be judged guilty under the guise of law and order, tells his followers that he is going to come again at the end of all things to determine the fate of every single human being who has ever lived.
Jesus is about to go on trial and he chooses this final teachable moment to tell those within earshot about the Great Trial, the one in which he will be the Judge.
Jesus will judge humanity, and its not just all of humanity that will be there – you and I are going to be there too.
Now, I know that sounds a little strange, but with talk of divine courtrooms and eternal Kings, it can can all feel a little above us. But this Jesus comes to us, to live among us, and, ultimately, to judge us.
Which leads us to the parable at hand, the parameters of separating the sheep from the goats.
These words are fairly well known among well-meaning Christian types – “I was hungry and you gave me food, I was a stranger and you welcomed me… just as you did to the least of these you did to me.”
Generally, when we refer to this final teaching from the Lord, we (that is: the church) use it as a way to encourage more do-goodery from congregations. We hang it over the heads of those who follow Jesus in order to convince folk like you to serve at soup kitchens, donate gently used articles of clothing, and, at the very least, drop a few extra bills into the offering plate.
And yet, in looking over the parable, the response from those who are told they are about to inherit the kingdom is remarkable – they are amazed! They are amazed because they didn’t even know they had ministered to the hidden Christ among the least of these. That they are vindicated in their goodness is strange considering the fact they were not even aware they had done anything good at all!
On the other side, appropriately, the response of those on the King’s left are similarly surprised. They have no idea they had neglected to do the goodness so described by the Lord.
Surprises are in store for everyone, apparently.
If we are ever in the mood for self-congratulation, Jesus seems to say, the we are precisely those who have not done what we were called to do. The moment we think we’ve saved ourselves is the beginning of our end.
And if we think we can rely on explaining our lack of goodness away for lack of Jesus’ obviously identifiable presence, it becomes the end of our beginning.
There is therefore good reason to fear this parable – for it to leave us scratching our heads rather than comforted in the knowledge of our vindication.
Because, who among us can present a laundry list of more good deeds than bad deeds? If we take Jesus seriously, we need only think of adultery to have committed it, we need only think jealous thoughts to have stolen from our neighbors.
The end and beginning of discipleship is the recognition that, as Paul puts it, “None is righteous, no, not one; no one understand; no one seeks God. All have turned aside; together they have become worthless; no one does good, not even one.”
This, to put it bluntly, is a rather terrifying prospect. But that’s exactly what makes the parable so good.
For all of its terror, it is also the last laugh in Jesus’ ministry of salvation – it is the bestowal of the Kingdom of God on a bunch of dumb sheep who not only didn’t know they were doing good things for Jesus, but they also never knew they were faithful to him.
The language of separation remains, of course, but Jesus tells us the King will separate them one from another like a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats and, lest we forget, Jesus is the Good Shepherd.
And the Good Shepherd lays down his life for the sheep, but he also lays down his life for the goats as well because on the cross he draws all to himself, which is why all nations will be gathered in the end.
Remember – Jesus came to raise the dead, not to teach the teachable or fix the fixable.
What the Gospel stresses, what Jesus proclaims, what we are called to keep at the forefront of our minds, is the fact that Jesus is both Lord of the universe AND he identifies with the lowest and the least among humanity. And it is precisely the combination of both things that makes his final teaching ring clear. Otherwise it just descends into a Santa Clausian nightmare in which “He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice, he’s gonna find out who’s naughty or nice, Jesus Christ is coming to town!”
That’s not what Jesus is saying here! The division of the sheep and goats is not based on who is good and who is bad. If that were the case, then we’d all wind up among the goats.
It’s based, instead, on who the Shepherd is and what he’s been up to this whole time.
For, from the foundation of the cosmos, the triune God has been engaged and involved in the good work of drawing all into the salvific work of the cross and resurrection. The great story of God with God’s people has been one of rectification, not damnation.
The only thing we have to do, particularly since we don’t even know that we’re doing good things when we’re doing good things, is to take Jesus at his word and trust him.
Because, in the end, our King Jesus cares so much for the last, least, lost, little, and dead that he is willing to die for people like you and me who deserve not one parcel of his grace, replacing our unrighteousness with his righteousness, becoming the judged Judge standing in our place.
Our King, counter to every other king in the history of all things, looks upon our miserable estate, takes all of our sins, and nails them to the cross upon which we hung him.
And he leaves those sins there forever.
No one can earn or deserve salvation. No one can even know that he or she is saved. We can only believe it. We can only trust it.
You know, for all of the talk in the church of doing this, that, and the other, for all our talk of who is in and who is out, for all our talk about what is good and what is bad, this final teaching from Jesus offers a different understanding of the way things were, are, and shall be forevermore – we, even the brightest and most faithful among us, we don’t know what we don’t know, we are incapable of doing what we’ve convinced ourselves we have to do, we are, to put it simply, sinners in need of grace.
And even if we can’t rest in the trust that Jesus is good to his Word (for he is the Word), it’s all still Good News because Jesus is in the raising-of-the-dead business and he is very very good at his job. Jesus is the Love that refuses to let us go, he is the fatted-calf slaughtered on our behalf, he is the Divine Father rushing out to meet us in the street before we can even open our mouths to apologize.
And he also happens to be our King. Amen.