Sunday, November 22, 2020
St. John’s Lutheran Church, Schuyler, NE
Reign of Christ
Preacher: Pastor Day Hefner
watch this service online (readings start around 15:48; sermon starts around 23:38; fair warning: our mic system has been on the fritz and the sound is pretty crappy)
(Full disclosure: this sermon is an adaptation of one I preached while on internship)
There is a LOT going on in in our texts for this morning, and some of it can be a bit difficult to process. Today is Reign of Christ Sunday, and fittingly, we have these lovely images of God as the compassionate shepherd looking after the flock, of Christ as a king who cares for the “least of these.” This is the kind of ruler that I think most of us imagine God to be. But then alongside these images, we also read all this other harsh language that’s full of judgment and destruction.
The contrast is especially sharp in our gospel reading. This passage from Matthew is the only detailed account of the last judgment to be found anywhere in the New Testament – but even so, it’s definitely left an impression on the popular Christian imagination.
I can imagine that many of you, like me, grew up in religious households where you were raised with the fear of hell. As a kid, I remember being frightened with the idea of eternal torment, and I can remember seeing images of the last judgment, of sheep and goats going off to either side of the throne. I suppose it’s an image that people kind of glom onto because it seems very tidy and clear and black and white, even if it is horrible. And it allows us to think of God’s reign in more human terms, in ways that we can wrap our heads around.
In one sense, it’s kind of appealing, isn’t it? It’s satisfying to imagine God telling off all the people who have wronged us, casting them into eternal fire where they’ll get what they deserve and we won’t have to deal with them anymore. Especially in the aftermath of such a brutally divisive election, we have all been left with hurt and anger and a deeply polarized nation. And I fully admit these feelings in my own self – if I’m being honest with myself, I can certainly think of a few goats that I’d like to see get barbecued. I’d be willing to bet you can too.
But as satisfying as that might be, it inevitably confronts us with a terrifying question: how can we be so completely sure that we’re not the wicked ones who deserve punishment instead? I mean, here I am joking about barbecuing goats, so that’s not a great reflection on me. We might like to think of ourselves as righteous, but as we saw in our gospel reading, it’s not that easy to really be sure where you stand.
In our gospel reading, both the righteous people and the unrighteous people are equally surprised when God hands down judgment on them. They ask: “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or naked or in prison – and either fed, clothed, and visited you, or didn’t do those things?” If the sheep don’t know they’re sheep and the goats don’t know they’re goats, then how can we ever be sure which column we fall under?
This is where a Lutheran Christian perspective on the scriptures can really be helpful. For one thing, we know that no one person is all truly good or all truly evil. As Lutherans, we confess that every one of us is both. We are all both sinners and saints. It would be impossible to divide us up neatly into sheep and goats – because none of us is an innocent lamb totally beyond reproach, nor are any of us guilty goats completely beyond redemption. Every single one of us is some measure of both, and God knows it.
Another theological gift that Lutherans bring is giving consideration to context. We have to consider this passage in light of the broader scriptural witness, and in light of who we know God to be. Even if God were able to accurately divide us up into sheep and goats, it’s not like the God we know to give up on us so easily. God has been speaking and working through prophets for millennia, urging humanity on toward righteousness, like someone trying to herd cats. For our sake, God in Christ took on flesh and became human. Christ had mercy on the poor and the suffering, healed the sick, gave his people hope, and even gave his life for us on the cross out of love. A handful of ornery goats is no match for the love of a God like that. No way is God throwing in the towel that easily.
God loves all of us, as flawed as we are, and desires to give us life, a “glorious inheritance among the saints.” God seeks us out when we are lost, strengthens us when we are weak, instructs us when we are wrong, and comforts us when we are suffering. God desires salvation and restoration for all the nations and for all of creation. God is too stubborn and too full of love to let anything get in the way, no matter how long it takes.
For all these reasons, I think it’s important for us to be careful in how we approach texts like these from Ezekiel and Matthew, and to read them with a little more nuance and a little more context. We read these texts knowing that we are both sinner and saint, both sheep and goat, and knowing that the God we worship wishes to save us and give us life. It doesn’t make any sense that such a God would send off any of their children to be completely destroyed.
But, by the same token, we should also not expect to get out of this relationship unchanged. We should expect that such a God is continually working to change us, to transform us. Since we are both sheep and goat, both sinner and saint, the reality is that some part of us will have to die in order to receive the life that God would give us. Some sinful part of us must be destroyed in order for us to receive the glorious future that God intends for us. And this is an idea that goes far beyond what we read today. This concept shows up many places in our theology, especially in baptism: that salvation involves dying to ourselves in order to be raised to new life.
The most powerful analogy I’ve found for understanding this is thinking about it like having cancer. Cancer is literally a part of us that has to be killed in order for us to be able to go on living. Cancer isn’t like Covid-19 or the flu or any other viral or bacterial enemies from outside our bodies that attack us and make us sick. Cancer is a mutation of the very cells of our bodies; it’s our own being corrupted and turned against itself like a kind of biological civil war. That’s why cancer can’t be treated with drugs like antibiotics or antiviral medications.
The goats of cancer can’t be separated from the sheep and cast out into the outer darkness. Cancer is us. Sinfulness is us. It’s part of who we are. And because cancer is us, Christ can’t be like some kind of warrior king charging in to stab the enemy in the face. We are the enemy. And at the same time, we are the very people that Christ is trying so hard to save. And so, instead of being the mighty warrior king marching in to conquer the world, Christ is much more like the shepherd king, gently nurturing and caring for the sheep, even laying down his life for them.
Better still, Christ is our physician king, who is patiently and persistently working in us at all times to try to help us get better. And in our readings for today, we can get a sense of what some of the symptoms of this spiritual cancer we’re wrestling with may look like. It looks like those greedy fat sheep in Ezekiel who hoarded up all the resources for themselves, while the other sheep had to go without. It looks like the strong sheep who butted the other sheep away and deliberately caused division among them. In our gospel reading, it looks like failure to care for our neighbor: to see other people suffering and to do nothing about it. It is the selfishness, greed, apathy, and tribalism that are killing our souls.
Now, if you’ve ever battled cancer, or sat beside a loved one battling cancer, you already know that the treatment for cancer can be about as painful as the disease itself. And the more advanced the cancer is, the worse the treatment is. There are some people whose spiritual cancer treatments are bound to cause them a lot of suffering – especially people who have used their power or wealth or authority to inflict suffering on other people. The cancerous part of us puts up a fight, whether it’s cancer of the body or cancer of the soul.
Both Ezekiel and Matthew offer insight into what the treatment for spiritual cancer might look like. In Ezekiel, when God declares that the strong, fat sheep will be destroyed, God says, “I will feed them with justice.” For anyone who benefits from unjust systems, being fed and nourished with justice will probably leave a bitter taste on our tongues – at least at first – even though it’s good for all of us in the long run.
In Matthew, acts of service and generosity toward our neighbor seem to be the key for spiritual health. It can be challenging for us to let go of our time, of our money, and of our stuff – but when we do, we often find that by feeding others and caring for the sick, we ourselves are fed, and our own sicknesses find healing.
No matter who we are, our spiritual cancer treatments can be painful, because it’s hard to let part of ourselves die. It’s hard to let go of part of ourselves – and trust that it will lead us to life.
At the end of the day, we know we won’t find the key to healing in whatever good acts we do for our neighbor – or even in our ability to let go of the parts of us that need to die. The key to healing our spiritual cancer is and always has been Christ. It is Christ who has died for us. It is Christ in whom we died in our baptisms. It is Christ who lives in us and through us now. Each day he teaches us to live as his disciples, empowering us to live in a way that helps us to fight off the cancer of sin in our souls.
We are in dire need of healing – not just as individuals, but as a nation, as a world. As we pray for an end to this pandemic, let us also pray for an end to the pandemic of selfishness and tribalism and greed that has gripped our world. Let us continue to pray for the reign of Christ to come among us:
the reign of Christ our healer,
the reign of Christ our shepherd,
the reign of Christ our king.