For thus says the Lord GOD: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out. As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness. I will bring them out from the peoples and gather them from the countries, and will bring them into their own land; and I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the watercourses, and in all the inhabited parts of the land. I will feed them with good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel shall be their pasture; there they shall lie down in good grazing land, and they shall feed on rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.(Ezekiel 34:11-16)
Jesus said, "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 also will 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."(Matthew 25: 31-46)
May 21, 2011 was a Saturday. I remember because I was preaching, so I was here at church mid-afternoon, getting things prepared for worship. I was sitting at my desk, reading over my sermon one last time, when I remembered that this day was supposed to be the day that the world would end, at least according to Harold Camping and his faithful followers. As I sat there, I couldn’t remember if he had said the world would end at 5pm or 6pm, and which time zone he was basing that on. And the truth of the matter is that I had dinner plans after church, and joked with myself that it would be a shame to miss those plans should the world really end.
Well, May 21 came and went. And Camping revised his prediction, moving the end of the world to October 21, and October 21 came and went, and here we all still are, people who have not yet reached the end of the world, and who have not yet seen Christ coming again in all his glory.
Camping’s picture of the end of the world was one of separation. God’s faithful and chosen would be lifted from this earth, separated from the very world that God created and promised to redeem. The rest of the world would undergo months or years of horror and tribulation, God further scattering and separating humanity as we scamper away from wrath and judgement. This picture of the end shows Christ the king coming as champion of the strong in faith, and judge of the broken, vulnerable, or weak in faith.
Here’s the thing: even if Camping was extreme in his desire to predict the day and time of Christ’s coming, his picture of the rapture and tribulation and end of the world is a picture that is all-too common among some Christians. There are many people of faith who believe that the end times - the reign of Christ the king - will come full of fire, wrath, and rapture. And there are many people who see the end of the world as a time of separation rather than restoration.
But our readings for today tell us otherwise. They tell us that God’s will is not for us to be scattered, but for us to be brought together. Christ our king comes not to side with strength, but with weakness. God’s hopes and promises are given first and foremost to the least of these and to the lesser, failing parts of our own souls. Christ will come in his glory to restore, not to destroy.
I think that our gospel today - the sheep and the goats - is perhaps less about judgement and more about a picture of what Christ’s kingship all about. The most striking and convicting part of today’s gospel is the news that Christ, our king, identifies himself with the lost and the least, and the news that Christ’s compassionate heart always sides with the saddest, most broken, most vulnerable corners of life. Christ is not a king of our virtues, strengths, or accolades. Christ is king of our shortcomings, our loneliness, our vulnerability.
See, sometimes we serve the least of these and sometimes we see Christ in the least of these. But sometimes...we are the least of these. And the kingship of Christ, the victory and power of Christ, comes precisely because he too was the least of these.
Our gospel this morning begins with Christ talking about the son of man “coming in glory.” But what does this glory look like? Where does this glory come from? The very next verse that follows today’s gospel reading, Matthew 26:1, says, “When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, ‘You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.’”
This is where Christ’s glory lies - not in his power to separate sheep and goats, not in his ability to flaunt the power of the divine, and certainly not in his power to judge the living and the dead. Christ’s glory lies precisely in the heart of the the cross, where he himself was separated, cut off, and scattered; where he was alone, lonely, and suffering; where he was weak, broken, and dying, all so that each and every one of us might be restored and brought back into God’s fold.
In Christ’s last days before his crucifixion, he shared with the disciples the sad truth that in the days leading up to his death, even they, his faithful friends and disciples, would scatter and flee. They would desert him and become separated. Christ told them this not as a threat or a judgment, but as a description of human nature when things get difficult. When we are afraid, we cut ourselves off. When we are in danger, we flee for our lives. When we have no more resources, material or emotional, we hunker down and serve ourselves first.
Being scattered and isolated is not something that will be inflicted upon us at the end of the world. Being scattered and isolated is a description of the world as we currently know it. We live every day yearning for connection, yearning to be bound together with one another and with our creation.
Technology keeps trying to come out with new and better ways to connect us to one another. We’ve moved from letters to telephones to the ubiquity of cell phones and now to cell phones with video chat so that we can see one another as we talk. Or we look to email, Facebook, Twitter, Skype, or GChat as ways that we can connect via the internet. Or what about neighborhood newsletters and activity coordinators, village recreation departments offering everything from kiddie soccer to art classes to yoga groups, school-sponsored parent groups, Young Life, Scouts, team sports and school music groups? Or the feeling of rooting for your team in a stadium full of thousands of other screaming fans, or finding a group of people who share your taste in music, or movies, or books, or wine? Or how about Bible studies or youth groups or group service projects or corporate worship?
This is certainly not an exhaustive list of ways that we try to connect with one another, though it is an exhausting one. And it is clear from this list that entire industries have been built around addressing our need for connection - for being brought back from our scattered and separated places into communities and collectives.
Both of our readings this morning start from this same premise: that we are people who have been scattered and divided. We are sheep and goats, and we are flocks scattered across the hillside, lost and lonely. We are people who are used to fending for ourselves, either by choice or necessity.
The good news in our readings today is that God’s picture of the end of the world is a picture not of further separation, but of restoration.
At the end of the world - when Christ will come again, this Christ for whom we wait, this Christ whom we hold vigil for throughout the season of Advent - at the end of the world, Christ comes not to scatter us further, but to seek us out and bind us up, to bring us together again into God’s fold, to judge us not based on success or failure or strength or weakness, but based solely on God’s grace and love.
Right now, in this world, we are God’s scattered and separated people. But God promises us that he will find us and restore us, under the care of Christ who is our king and shepherd. God promises, “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.”
This promise is what sustains us through the waiting of Advent, when we sit together in the twilight of faith, awaiting again a king who will come not in a blaze of glory, but in a manger, heralded not by power and riches, but by a star and a few lonely shepherds. God’s good news for us is that the loneliest and neediest parts of ourselves and our world can watch and wait in the blue of Advent, the blue of the sky as God’s new dawn approaches. This promise is what keeps us awake, through our darkest nights, and empowers us to keep praying the fervent prayer Christ has taught us, saying “thy kingdom come, Christ, and thy will be done, both on earth as it is in heaven.”
It is time, my brothers and sisters, to take heart, and to keep the faith even as we wait for that day in God’s future when earth and heaven will meet, when Christ will come again to bind up the brokenhearted, to bring us back into the fold, to restore our souls and to restore creation, and to bring us once again face to face with all of the saints. For each moment of watching and waiting for Christ the king is a moment lived in both God’s promise and fulfillment.
For God says to each of us: “I, the Lord, will search for you, and will seek you out. I will rescue you from all the places to which you have been scattered. I will feed you with good pasture. I myself will be your shepherd, and I will make you lie down. I will seek you when you are lost, and I will bring you back when you have strayed, and I will bind up your injuries, and I will strengthen your weaknesses. I will feed you with justice. And I, the LORD, will be your God. Forever and ever.” Amen.