November 26, 2017: Sermon by Deacon Benjamin Wetherill
Do You Know the King?
Almighty and everlasting God, whose will it is to restore all things in your well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords: Mercifully grant that the peoples of the earth, divided and enslaved by sin, may be freed and brought together under his most gracious rule; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
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.
Therefore, thus says the Lord God to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.
I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them: he shall feed them and be their shepherd. And I, the Lord, will be their God, and my servant David shall be prince among them; I, the Lord, have spoken.
Be joyful in the Lord, all you lands; serve the Lord with gladness and come before his presence with a song.
Know this: The Lord himself is God; he himself has made us, and we are his; we are his people and the sheep of his pasture.
Enter his gates with thanksgiving; go into his courts with praise;
give thanks to him and call upon his Name.
For the Lord is good; his mercy is everlasting; and his faithfulness endures from age to age.
I have heard of your faith in the Lord Jesus and your love toward all the saints, and for this reason I do not cease to give thanks for you as I remember you in my prayers. I pray that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the Father of glory, may give you a spirit of wisdom and revelation as you come to know him, so that, with the eyes of your heart enlightened, you may know what is the hope to which he has called you, what are the riches of his glorious inheritance among the saints, and what is the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. And he has put all things under his feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all.
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.”
Enter his gates with thanksgiving; go into his courts with praise; give thanks to him and call upon his Name. For the Lord is good; his mercy is everlasting; and his faithfulness endures from age to age. May the words of my mouth and the meditations of my heart be acceptable to you, oh Lord, my rock and my redeemer. Amen.
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.”
These last few Sundays we have been hearing apocalyptic readings of God coming in power and sitting on His throne and judging all the peoples of the earth. With those images in mind it is easy to hear today’s Gospel reading in the same way. We know that Jesus described himself as the Son of Man, a title from the Book of Daniel that defines God’s coming Messiah. For the Jewish people, and if we are honest, most of us this meant a military leader who would come and strike down all the enemies of God’s people and bring to justice all those who had treated God’s people harshly. This messiah, this king would come in all His glory with ranks and ranks of angels and sitting down on his throne, he would divide all the people by their deeds, the good on His right and the not-so-good on His left, our sheep and goats. Hearing this parable we probably also behold a just king who has compassion on the least of these, those who are sick, in prison, hungry, lonely, and thirsty. We probably are happy for those with compassion and feel that those without compassion have gotten what they deserve. I also suspect that we see this parable as a list of the things we need to do to get into heaven. If this is what you got out of the parable, this is okay as far as it goes, but I would remind you that Jesus’ parables are about deep truth and more often than not turn the world, as we understand it, on its ear.
Perhaps it is because of my last name or maybe the description of hearty shepherds but I have always been fond of sheep and shepherds. My family name comes from Northern England on the border with Scotland and is an old Anglo-Saxon word, Wetherill, which describes a pen for sheep. My ancestors were sheepherders. Apparently the Jewish people were also sheepherders. There are many places in scripture that God and Jesus through the writers described the people of God as sheep and we hear a few of those readings this morning. Those images of Jesus as a shepherd and us as his sheep describe a relationship. “All like sheep have gone astray” and “my sheep know my voice and follow me.” Humanity are like sheep who when left to their own devises become lost but when they hear their master’s voice and follow that voice find themselves in a place of rest filled with food and healing.
Our Gospel parable sounds like a tale of judgment and salvation but it is really a story of relationship and knowledge of God. It reveals who God is and how we can know this God ourselves. This brings me around to the reformation message that Jenny and I presented a few weeks ago. We all think we understand the concept of salvation through faith alone that comes from God by grace alone. Yes, when we trust in God, when we believe in God through Christ Jesus we are saved but this is not the primary goal, the true gift of God. God’s grace is not simply a blessing or substance, or extra power granted to us. Grace is the gift of the Lord Jesus himself. Jesus gave himself to us through the cross and through him we have gained salvation and eternal life. It is through our relationship with Jesus that we are saved and it is through the cross that God reveals himself to us.
Knowing God is about patience and long suffering. These are not attributes of Western Civilization and culture. If knowing God was about understanding what we can see or feel or experience then that knowledge would easily lead to pride. Those who knew God best would be those with the highest intelligence skilled in scientific pursuit, or those who had the wealth to spend time in contemplation. Just as we cannot work our way to God, we cannot think or feel our way to knowledge of God. As Martin Luther tried to explain it, recognizing God in the absence of God, recognizing victory in defeat, recognizing glory in shame requires faith, which comes only from God. “For the foolishness of God is wiser than men, and the weakness of God is stronger than men.” God chose a means of revelation about himself that is contrary to all our understandings of glory. If you know God it is not because you are smarter, or more spiritual, or meditate longer. You know God because He has chosen to reveals himself through suffering; His suffering on the cross and our individual suffering in this life. This runs contrary to everything the world believes. The world would tell you that success is the goal; more money, more fame, just more. God shows us that when we feel least blessed, that is when we are the most blessed.
How do sheep know their shepherd? Sheep know their shepherd because the shepherd has spent time with them out in the fields, herding them, finding them when they are lost, and sleeping with them out in the cold and rain. The shepherd and sheep have suffered together day in and day out. How do we best learn about other people? We can learn a little about another person in good times but we truly learn about another person when we suffer with them. I know that my best friends are those people that I have gone through trials with; my classmates from West Point, the Border Patrol Academy, Coast Guard Officer Candidate School and seminary; my teammates from football, wrestling, and Jiu Jitsu. We know each other because we have sweated, bled, cried, and laugh together through trials and tribulations. I know best my wife, Ana, because having given ourselves to each other in marriage we have journey together through all the adventures of life together. Christians know our shepherd because having been joined we have sweated, bled, cried, and laughed together. We also know that God is especially fond of those who suffer the most, the least of these.
Why is God fond of the suffering? Jenny noted recently my affection for Harry Potter but my all-time favorite book is actually The Hobbit, by JRR Tolkien. In that book, Gandalf, the wizard explains to the Elf Lord, Elrond, why he has brought a Hobbit on his quest. Like many others, Elrond sees only that Hobbits are small and seem out of place in a dangerous world. Gandalf explains that another powerful wizard, Saruman, “believes it is only great power that can hold evil in check, but that is not what I have found. I have found it is the small everyday deeds of ordinary folk that keep the darkness at bay. Small acts of kindness and love. Why Bilbo Baggins? I don’t know. Perhaps because I am afraid, and he gives me courage.” God has chosen to reveal his glory through the cross and I believe that those who suffer are closest to him and are most ready to trust in Him. We see this best in the Sermon on the Mount. God blesses those who suffer, and mourn, and are merciful, especially if it is for God’s sake. Those who are weakest, who are the least of these, are more likely to rely not on their own power but on God’s power which flows from the Holy Spirit. This is the hope that Paul speaks of in his Letter to the Ephesians.
God has chosen to show us who He is through the suffering of the cross and our suffering in this life as we follow the way of the cross. We can glimpse God through scripture, creation, and experience but we can only intimately know Him through trials, through suffering. There are no shortcuts and yet God gives us strength for the journey. That journey, the life of the cross, a life of power in weakness, is possible only through a conscious dependence upon the power of God mediated through the Holy Spirit. It is through that life of the cross that we can gain a spirit of wisdom and revelation and come to know the hope found in Jesus, which is the riches of his inheritance and the greatness of his power. It is that power that allows us to struggle through problems without doubting in God’s purpose, presence or love. Suffering should not be a reason for doubt but an affirmation of God’s presence and blessing.
‘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?’ My sheep hear my voice. When we respond to those in suffering, God reveals Himself to us. As we respond we affirm our king or reject him. Our King loves us and will not force himself on us, granting us our freedom. As we acknowledge or deny those suffering around us, we acknowledge or deny our King.
As we begin the season of Advent I pray that we will be reminded again of the King whom we follow. We follow a king who chose the path of suffering. He gave up all the glory of heaven to be born as a helpless child in a dark and smelly manger only to live a short life that ended in a shameful death on a cross, all this so he could bring us home. In this dark and troubled time may we seek the presence of the King among the meek and the lowly sharing the light of the hope that is in us; the light of a King who would share our suffering with us that we might share His glory in eternity.