Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
This time of year always brings us an interesting conjunction of church events: today we celebrate Thanksgiving Sunday – it isn’t really a liturgical holiday – Thanksgiving isn’t on the church calendar exactly. But it certainly makes sense that we focus on Thanksgiving in worship – being thankful for all we have is hardly something we do enough of! It is also the last Sunday of the liturgical year today. As the church calendar goes, next Sunday is our New Year's Day. Today is then sort of a liturgical New Year's Eve as far as Sundays go. And on the church calendar, today is Christ the King or Reign of Christ Sunday. It is a day when we consider how Jesus is King, how Jesus is ruler of our lives. How is Jesus king? It’s kind of an interesting question for us to ask about Jesus, who shunned titles like king at every turn in the accounts of ministry. And yet we call him the King of Kings. There is a tension there. Not a king, and yet the most high king. On this Sunday, we explore that tension.
For 21st century Americans, we have to figure out just what to do with kings anyway. Our own history shapes our views of course. In our history, people carried out a revolution to end living under the rule of a king that could make decisions for them without their input. We have never had a king. We want a say in who leads – not rules us – and how they lead. And if they don’t do it in a way we appreciate, we want the chance to elect someone new. This spring we observed with varying degrees of anticipation, indifference, distaste, or excitement as Prince William married Kate Middleton. Even in Europe, the royal family has limited power. They don’t rule, not in the absolute ways of days long past. And we aren’t quite sure what to make of it all, are we? What do we mean by saying that Jesus is king?
We don’t often focus on readings from Ezekiel. You might be most familiar with the passage about the valley of the dry bones. But I find our text today particularly compelling for Reign of Christ Sunday. Ezekiel is writing in the time of the Babylonians exile. Babylon had invaded and occupied Israel and the people of Israel were scattered – what Ezekiel calls scattered sheep. Ezekiel spends the proceeding chapters of his prophecy criticizing the history of bad royal leadership Israel has had. When humans have tried to be king, we have done a pretty bad job at it. We are bad at being shepherds, Ezekiel says, and we aren’t even very good at being sheep. He writes, ʺYou pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide.ʺ Without a good shepherd to follow, we aren’t even good sheep! In imagery that Jesus will draw on centuries later when he speaks of himself as the Good Shepherd, Ezekiel speaks of how God shepherds us.
Here is what God as shepherd-king does for us, says Ezekiel: I will seek the lost. I will bring back the strayed. I will bind up the injured. I will strengthen the weak. I will feed them with justice. This is how God is king. And if God is king by shepherding us better than any human leaders, God can draw out of us our best sheep-behavior. We are the flock when we hear God's voice and follow Jesus our shepherd-king. What would it look like if we partnered in God's work?
God seeks us when we are lost. How can we help those who feel lost, in the many ways we can feel lost in this world? I can’t tell you how significant being a listening ear can be for people. In my years of ministry, some of the kindest words of thanks I have received are from people who I visit for one reason or another. I find myself always wishing I had more time to give, more time to stay, because it clearly means too much to people. People who are lonely, or depressed, or struggling in some way – they need to know that someone is with them in the midst of their pain. We rely on knowing that God is always seeking after us, always calling to us, always longing to draw us closer in relationship. So in turn, how can we draw closer to one another in faith, hope, and love?
God brings back the strayed. You might think being lost and straying away from God are the same thing. To me it is a bit of a nuanced difference. Being lost is something that usually happens by accident. We feel lost and alone without knowing how we got there exactly. Straying from God – well, that is a little more purposeful. Have you ever witnessed or experienced this: a child is walking quickly and deliberately away from a parent who is yelling more and more loudly, ʺCome back here!ʺ Or a child is not supposed to walk too far ahead, ride a bike too far ahead of parents, but keeps pushing the limits, going just a little farther? That is straying, and I believe we do that with God. We don’t start out intending to disobey God or test God. But somehow one small questionable action on our part leads to one more and one more, and pretty soon we are living in a way that we aren’t proud of. God brings back the strayed. There is no distance – no distance that you can stray from God that is too far for God to close the gap. We are not very open in our society to others pointing out when we seem to be straying from God. And we try to mind our own business when we see others doing something that we know will be harmful to their spirits. We think it is between us and God, them and God. While we are called to not judge one another, we are also supposed to help each other keep from stumbling, and be open to someone else helping us stay close to God.
God will bind up the injured. I believe God can heal us. I think we have all witnessed God's healing – physically, emotionally, spiritually. Some of us may have witnessed miraculous healing. Or we may have witnessed the slow and steady healing that God works over time. But Jesus was a healer – he was known far and wide for his healing, and it was the reason why people flocked to him at first, only to then find their souls were healing along with their ailments. We are in need of healing, aren’t we? We pray for healing for ourselves and our loved ones. In fact, prayer is one way we partner with God in healing. How often is prayer our last resort, instead of a tool of healing that we use with intention and purpose? I pray for healing for you and me, for our congregation, for our nation, for our world. We so need it. God binds up our wounded hearts, and makes us whole
God strengthens the weak and feeds them with justice. God is not into survival of the fittest. God is into the thriving lives of each precious child in creation. This week we focus on giving thanks, but we also might spend a lot of time focusing on what food we will have on Thursday (and Friday and Saturday), right? I have been part of very few Thanksgiving meals where we didn’t indulge and indulge some more. God says we will be fed with justice. What an image! In the scriptures, justice and poverty, concern for those who are weak or low in society often go hand in hand, as the prophets envision God's world as a place where all have enough and no one suffers at the expense of others. We can certainly be partners with God in feeding justice as we reach out in mission. Last night I had the true privilege of handing out food baskets to folks in need in our community. I cannot tell you how much I enjoy seeing the expressions of shock on people’s faces when they realize how much we will be able to give them. And it is just one way, one part of what we can do. It is to our human shame that we throw away about 50 million tons of food each year when 900 million people are hungry. We know something is wrong and needs to be corrected, brought to right. That is what God means by justice – bringing things to rights. How will you partner with God to feed justice until all are filled?
This Jesus, God on earth, come to us, we celebrate as a king. But he is a king like no other – a king who seeks the lost, who protects, who returns strays to the right path, who heals, who strengthens the weak, who feeds us with justice. This is a leader worth following. Let us give thanks, today and always. Amen.