Christ the King, Lectionary 34
November 27, 2011
Matthew 25: 31-46
“You will see the face of God while you are here.” The site director had her little speech every Sunday night after dinner to the 100 or so people who had come to rebuild after Katrina destroyed homes on the point in Biloxi. Every night after devotions, someone had a “Face of God” story to share. Often they were regular ‘church guys’ who’d never stood up to talk about their faith in public in their long lives. Working side by side with others who came because they wanted to be part of something important and beautiful had opened their eyes to the presence of Jesus in the people they served and those they worked with. If she hadn’t called their attention to the mystery of their service to Jesus himself, they might have just gone home without the chance to share their experience, but they would have been moved and touched all the same.
Today is the feast of Christ the King, the last Sunday of the church year. Next week we will be in Advent, the start of another year of grace. Jesus tells this apocalyptic story as he prepares to leave his disciples for the last time. They have been sitting in the afternoon sun looking across at the temple glowing in the warm light of Jerusalem. He predicts that destruction is coming, and the end of the world they know. The disciples want to know when this will be. This story is the last of three parables he tells in answer to their question of “When?” The scene Jesus lays out before us is the gathering of all nations, separated into two camps – sheep and goats.
The answer to “when” seems to be that Jesus is present now in the poor, the hungry, the sick, the incarcerated. This seems a fitting end to Jesus’ teaching in Matthew’s Gospel. Matthew is the writer who talks about ‘righteousness’ more than any other gospel writer. In his stories and in Jesus’ teachings, Matthew has been lifting up the actions of those who respond to God through deeds of compassion and humility, rather than through ritual purity and religious arrogance. In our reading just weeks ago, Jesus was telling us that it was the poor and the mourning and the meek and the persecuted who were blessed. And soon it will be Jesus himself who is arrested, interrogated and brutally murdered at the hands of the authorities of his time.
What kind of king is that? What kind indeed? The Kings of the Middle East were not compassionate or considerate. They were brutal to those they conquered, making them watch the murder of their families before putting out their eyes, or cutting off their thumbs and making them scramble for scraps under the conquer’s table. We see the remnants of the autocratic and powerful kings of the Middle East played out in the struggles for freedom from the ‘strongman’ rulers in the Middle East today. Sadam Hussein, Hosni Mubarak, Assar Al-Ashad, the house of Saud, and the rulers of Bahrain and Yemen held or still hold the power of life and death over their subjects. God, the King of the Universe certainly could have come to us and destroyed all who did not obey his will. Or, as Daniel Erlander reminds us, God could have come as Captain Deus, and just made everyone a believer and righteous. But God does not. God comes as Jesus, a real human just like us. Paul says that he emptied himself and humbled himself to death on a cross and that is why he is raised up above all. Luther says that it is when we see Jesus suffering and dying as a criminal that we see right into the loving heart of God. Instead of zapping us into love, in Jesus, God shows us what real love looks like. That is love beyond our comprehension. It is so powerful that it closes the world as we knew it and opens a new world in which the power of evil is destroyed.
The ‘strongmen’ of this world demand obedience of their subjects, and complete power over their thoughts and actions. But they never get it. They only begin a brutal cycle of spies and arrests and torture and death to keep their power over the life of their people. Christ, our King, has a different agenda. He has the real power, the power to change our hearts. His victory is not through a display of glory or wealth; it is through love. Only God can change our hearts to love with the love that is stronger than death. Only God can make us see that caring for our neighbor’s need is an extension of our love of God. Only God can give us the freedom to serve as if we are serving Jesus himself. Those who are recognized for their care of Jesus’s family didn’t know whom they served any more than those who did not care for Jesus’ family. They did it because their hearts were transformed by God’s love.
Jesus is not simply an example of how Christians should live. Jesus is the gift that makes such living possible. Come then, Christ our King, reign in our hearts and teach us to see you in those around us. Amen.
Now may the peace which passes all understanding keep your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus our Lord. Amen.