Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 100; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46
Bigfork Community United Methodist Church
November 26, 2017 – Christ the King Sunday A
Today we read from the prophet Ezekiel. Scholars believe he is one of the important people exiled from Jerusalem after the Babylonian siege.
Let’s put this in context. David unifies the country and moves the capital to Jerusalem in about 1000 BC. He dies and the Northern Kingdom of Samaria and the Southern Kingdom of Judah.
After many incursions, the Assyrians overrun the Northern Kingdom in 722 BC and move part of the local population out and move Assyrians in.
The idea is to so mix the cultures that Judaism becomes so diluted it is hard to distinguish Jewish followers of Yahweh from Assyrian followers of Baal.
The citizens of Judah watch as this policy is implemented and plays out. They come to sneer at their brothers and sisters in the north as impure…Samaritans…whose beliefs have become a joke, and a foreign one…imposed by a foreign godless people… at that.
But their day is coming, too, and in 587 BC Babylon overruns Judah, lays siege to its great capital, and destroys the Temple Solomon had build some 400 years before.
Babylon does what Assyria had done 150 years earlier. They move the ruling and thinking class out of Jerusalem, out of Judah, even beyond Samaria.
And that is where we find Ezekiel writing to us today. He has seen it coming, he has watched it happen, and now he is going to record his opinion about how this all came to be…for all the world to see.
He speaks to a people who have believed…apparently a little too long…that Yahweh is going to protect and defend them against all comers. He promised David ‘a throne forever’ and Solomon’s Temple was still one of the great wonders of the.
It was God’s land that had been promised to Abraham forever. It was God’s throne that had been promised to David…and Israel… forever.
But now, how the mighty have fallen, with their leaders being scattered the way wolves scatter a flock of sheep to plunder them. It is the end of their nation, the end of their history, and the end of their culture.
Ezekiel calls out the kings of Israel for their abuses and neglect in the opening verses of Chapter 34: The weak…you have not strengthened, the sick…you have not healed, the injured…you have not bound up, the strayed…you have not brought back, and the lost…you have not sought.
Yesterday’s New York Times had an opinion piece by Tom Friedman, who wrote The World is Flat and Thank You For Being Late. He was writing from Riyadh, Saudi Arabia about Crown Prince Mohammed bin Salman of Saudi Arabia.
This prince had about 200 of his fellow crown princes put under house arrest at the local Ritz Carlson until they agreed to return the public money they had appropriated to themselves. The most recent estimate is that about $100 billion will be recovered. I hear an echo of Ezekiel in this narrative.
He has also decreed…for the first time in 30 years…that women can drive. There are public concerts that can be attended by both men and women.
The Saudis are digitizing all the textbooks in the country, sending teachers abroad to pick up cutting-edge skills and adding an hour to each school day for students to pursue any interest they have.
Most interesting, and maybe the thing that has me watching most closely, is his vision and stated goal of restoring a “moderate, balanced Islam that is open to the world and to all religions and all traditions and peoples.”
All of this goes back to 1979, Friedman says, when the Ayatollah Khomeini seized American hostages and control of the government in Iran, right wing extremists took control of the Grand Mosque (of Islam) in Mecca, and the Soviet Union invaded Afghanistan.
It seems odd that when all the western democracies are moving to the right, the House of Saud is racing toward a far more egalitarian future. But that is happening in one little corner of the world.
It seems like we can see that Great Wheel turning, but it seems to be turning in more than one direction at once. But Ezekiel was not at all in doubt about which way it should turn.
He proclaims God’s word in our closing verses this morning: God himself will become the shepherd and will seek the lost sheep, bring back the scattered, bind up the injured and give strength to the sick.
That is how a shepherd cares for their sheep. That’s how they are. And that is how a king should treat their subjects.The ruler will be judged by the way the least powerful members of the community are treated.
Ezekiel seems to argue it was the kings’ habit of eating the best food, wearing the best clothes, and living in the best place that led to the downfall of the nation. Doing that and ignoring the needs of the poor and powerless has allowed their enemies on their borders to nibble away at the national fabric. Little by little, the people in the hinterlands get the idea that they have been forgotten, are left behind, and are not valued by the powers that be.
Ezekiel saw this erosion over a long period of time and now he is in exile, unlikely to ever see Jerusalem again. If ever there is a future king of Israel, he wants that king to know what had brought the nation down this time.
If there is never another king over Israel, he has made his record about how it came to fall. He would have gotten a lot of pushback for his views, but he writes with the passion of a witness who wants someone to know the truth.
He has nothing to gain from being right, and he has probably invited trouble by expressing his views. The most powerful people have failed…because they have been self-absorbed and out of touch. Ezekiel’s words would not have been flattering to them.
The scholars note that this is a written text, as opposed to most of the Hebrew Bible which is a transcript of oral speech. This makes sense to me, and confirms that he is in exile, one of the leaders of his culture, and knows better than to walk around talking about this stuff.
It has certainly been a tremendous change of fortune, a reversal of power. The high and mighty are about to learn how the rest of their loyal subjects live.
That is one reason the reforms of the Crown Prince in Saudi Arabia have been received so well by the people. His actions have all been signals that he is bringing back the scattered, binding up the injured and strengthening the sick, and returning to the people a portion of what is theirs.
He is not keeping the money he has received from the other crown princes. They can see where he is spending it. And he is permitting more openness in everyday life than people have known for 30 years.
It may be too late. It may not allow them to stabilize the area of the world they live in. Other problems may crop up. One day a prophet may write a story about Saudi Arabia a lot like Ezekiel wrote about the rulers of his day. But it is a start.
Judah failed by fits and starts as well, but the burning insight Ezekiel shares with us is how important it is to treat everyone with dignity, fairly, with compassion…you might say “with love.”
And this is exactly the role Jesus comes to fill for us all. He is the good shepherd, the King of kings.
Paul points out this morning that Jesus is the great ruler of all time, so that God has put all things under his feet. He praises the people of the church in Ephesus for their love for Jesus and the way that they are watching over each other with love.
Being a good shepherd is something that we can do for each other, too. We don’t have to wait for a strong man or woman to walk onto the scene and do it all for us. We can help each other…love our neighbor.
That’s where Jesus comes into the story today. We have been reading his speech these last few weeks about how it is going to be when he returns.
We talked about the Parable of the Ten Bridesmaids and the Parable of the Talents. Now we hear about the sheep and the goats.
The next world will stand this one on its head, he tells us. This is another way of saying that if this world would comport itself in this way, we would already see the kingdom coming into the world… as he himself has come.
Then there will be a tremendous reversal of power. The one who was rejected is now the cornerstone and he is going to come back to judge the living and the dead. Those who saw him hungry and fed him will be his sheep and they will live in glory with him.
Those who saw him thirsty and gave him nothing to drink will be cast into the eternal fire with the devil. It is a lifetime of humble service or an eternity of torment and anguish…community or separation. Those are the choices.
And the test is going to be exactly the test that Ezekiel applies to the kings he had known and known of in his day. Those who do not care for the widow and the orphan, the sick and the homeless will find themselves alone and ignored.
They will be the ones trying to make a living on the margins of society. God will not watch over them as their shepherd and protect them. Marauding bands from foreign lands might show up on their doorstep at any moment.
They will be at the mercy of the next strong person who appears on the scene. No one will come looking for them if they disappear. They are out.
And when is it that we fail to see Christ hungry and thirsty and suffering from injustice? It is when we see anyone hungry and thirsty and oppressed…“one of the least of these” is the phrase he uses.
And again, I hear the echo of Ezekiel’s teaching in this lesson. It was an old lesson…even in Jesus day …that he teaches us again today. It still plainly visible in our world today.
It is so simple. It is so easy. And we hear a voice inside us asking, “Isn’t there some middle way? Do we have to do it all the way…or always?”
That all depends on what kind of a world you want to live in. We have seen so many ministries pop up in this community…backpacks of food for students and a food bank for hungry families, Threads for those who do not have adequate clothing, camp for any student who wants to go, AA for those who have lost hope.
We are on a course that has the wisdom of the ages and God’s own truth behind it. Where are we headed, I don’t know, but I feel a little less dread about the day I am asked what I did when we saw Christ hungry.
What is wrong with believing that the people of the world have too much in common and too much at stake not to be of service to each other every single day? What is wrong with wondering why we cannot accept that as a goal as noble as any?
What is wrong with believing that we will all live in peace one day? If I say to you that what the world believes is what is most likely to happen in the world, and that the world has the power to believe anything it wants, what will you believe?
I can’t answer those questions, for the world, but I think the sheep will answer them one way and the goats will answer them another. Amen.