November 26, 2017
There is a beer commercial that has been running recently that is set in the court of a king in the middle ages. One person brings a gift up to the king and it is a case of the beer which is being advertised. The king is pleased. Another person does the same. Then a third person presents a gift of some home made wine in a beautiful container. This last gift is rejected by the king and the person who brought the gift is sent to prison with a sentence of some terrible punishment. The commercial plays on our sense that kingly judgment has often been offered on the whimsy of the king and not particularly just. I would say it is a direct contrast to our readings.
Trying to understand what the monarchy meant in the time of Jesus can be difficult. In our time, most kings and queens hold a more ceremonial position. There are a few absolute monarchs in the world today but we hear little about them. Many of us are enamored by the ruling family of Great Britain. We often see them visiting and supporting people who are in the hospital or going to an event to help a non profit organization. We just don’t have much experience with a king or queen that rules over a country with total authority.
For the people of Israel, kings were much more important and personal. They had been looking for a Messiah ever since the time of King David, almost 1,000 years, and they had lived for many years under foreign rule. For them, kings were in total control of their lives. They had the power to put people in jail, to put people to death, to conscript them into the army, to take away their land. No decision was beyond their control. When Matthew wrote these words about Jesus coming back to be the King of the Universe, it spoke directly to the people of his time. His followers knew that Jesus would be coming again and be their Messiah.
Jesus never acted like a king as we know them. First, his kingship is not of the earth. Jesus was not a military leader or a rich person or even a famous temple priest. Jesus was not born to a wealthy family, but rather was born in a stable and had to flee from the king who threatened his life. When Peter declared that Jesus was the Messiah, Jesus immediately told all of his followers that he would go to Jerusalem and be killed. I love the story in the gospel of John where Pilate asks Jesus “Are you the King of the Jews?’ And Jesus responds with a question something like, ”Who told you that?” Pilate later says, “So you are a king?” and Jesus replies, “I came into the world to testify to the truth. Everyone who belongs to the truth listens to my voice.” Truth can be so difficult to find sometimes. I wonder how we can find the truth in the world today. Perhaps we should look to Jesus. None of the ways of Jesus sound like a king as we understand it.
In our readings, we hear about the judgment that all will receive. In Ezekiel, God says I “will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy”. I presume that the fat and strong are those who took advantage of others. After hearing from Ezekiel, it is no surprise that Jesus cares for those who struggle. In the Gospel, the sheep will be separated from the goats. I learned this week that those who cared for both sheep and goats did separate them every night. The sheep liked to sleep out in the open but the goats needed shelter to keep warm. Separating the sheep and the goats made sense then. People today often speak about the judgment, the wrath of the God of the Old Testament, the Hebrew Scripture. Ezekiel described God as caring for the weak. And in our gospel, God’s wrath is reserved for those who have sinned against God.
How many of us have a reason to fear God’s judgment? On the surface, we might think about the things that we have done wrong, all the sins we have committed. I have a more optimistic view. We have asked for God’s forgiveness for our sins, we have promised that we will do better and we have worked to live a life following the leadership of Jesus. But the devil is always around us, tempting us in many ways, trying to rip us from the arms of Jesus. Perhaps that is what causes us to fear God’s judgment.
What is more striking to me is not God’s judgment but the choice Jesus makes about what is valued. We knew Jesus didn’t value money or nice clothes or wonderful gifts. Instead, he cared about how much we have helped one another. He speaks specifically of those who have been starving or have no clothes or are in jail. You might say that he is the king of people who are downtrodden or lowly rather than the king of the wealthy or self centered. This is a totally different kind of king. It is a day to be surprised once more by the shift that Jesus makes from the kings we are familiar with.
It is a little surprising that Jesus chose this way to judge humans. Yes, it is contained in the second of the most important commandments, you shall love your neighbor as yourself. But this passage doesn’t mention judging us for how we love God. It does not mention other commandments like honoring your father and mother. I think Jesus chose to judge us this way because of his own experience. He chose to come to earth and to experience humanity personally. We don’t know whether Jesus ever found himself homeless, without clothes and without food but I would not be surprised. We do know that he was captured and tortured and put to death so we can understand how he would feel about those in prison.
If we truly believe what Matthew has written, then we know what we must do. We don’t go looking for Jesus in the courts of the king or in the wealthy places. Jesus, our king, is found in the midst of the outcast, the hungry, the naked and those in prison. Sometimes, our salvation is found in the people of Jesus. A few weeks ago, someone encouraged us to go to see the movie, “The Same Kind of Different as Me”. A wealthy art dealer, someone who had turned from God, a man who had turned on his wife and his father, was encouraged to change his ways. His wife dragged him to a place that fed the homeless in the worst part of town. He had no interest in being there. The man had no interest in meeting one of the homeless men. But he eventually found a friend in that homeless gentleman. This homeless man taught him a lot about life and about God. The homeless man helped him find himself and supported him in times of grief. Together these two men raised millions of dollars for homeless people in the US. There are times when we can learn from poor people. They can teach us and we can become even better people than we are today. That is why I encourage you to seek God in the smiles of others, especially those whom we help.
And more than the question of judgement, I hope you remember the kind of person Jesus was, the kind of king Jesus became. He is the king of each and every person. I remember the words of C. S. Lewis from last week’s adult formation, “When Christ died, He died for you individually just as much as if you'd been the only (man) HUMAN in the world”. Jesus is your personal king. He is there for you when all seems lost. He is there for you when you are afraid of the terrible violence we see all around us. Jesus is there for you when you don’t know where to turn next.
It is common for people to bring gifts to the king. Today, as we celebrate Jesus as our king, I ask you to consider what gift you will bring to him. Christmas is one month away. It is not too soon to think about our gifts and it is not too soon to give it early if we wish. It is really quite simple. All that Jesus wants from us is that we open our hearts to him and we care for one another. Amen.
Last modified on Wednesday, 29 November 2017 20:39
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