This is a sermon that I preached on Sunday, 11/26/23, at Berkeley Friends Church. The scripture reading for this sermon was: Ezekiel 34:11-24; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46. You can listen to the audio, or keeping scrolling to read my manuscript. (The spoken sermon differs from the written text.)
There’s a not-particularly-good movie that came out in 1995, called The Prophecy. I haven’t seen the movie, but as a kid I heard an audio clip of one line from the movie, which has stuck with me ever since. One of the characters says to another:
Did you ever notice how in the Bible, whenever God needed to punish someone, or make an example, or whenever God needed a killing, he sent an angel? Did you ever wonder what a creature like that must be like? A whole existence spent praising your God, but always with one wing dipped in blood. Would you ever really want to see an angel?
Now, this is just sort of a silly quote from an obscure movie, but it came to mind this week as I was preparing this sermon for Christ the King Sunday. That’s what today is, in much of the Western Church, this – the last Sunday before Advent – is known as “The Solemnity of Our Lord Jesus Christ, King of the Universe.” Which, let’s be honest, is pretty badass.
Our scripture readings for this morning are pretty badass, too. We get an image of a very strong, kingly savior. A Jesus who stands up for the downtrodden, and brings the oppressors into line. Ezekiel prophesys that God will act as a good shepherd to his people, protecting the weak and ensuring a social order where justice prevails. The Lord will judge with equity, and all God’s sheep – all of us – will receive what we need.
Paul, in his letter to the Ephesians, describes how God has raised Jesus from the dead and placed him at his right hand in the heavenly places. God has placed all things under Jesus’ feet, and subjected all creation to his authority. Through the power of God in the resurrection, Christ is Lord of all!
In Matthew 25, we get a vision of Jesus coming in his full glory to judge the nations and sort everything out, forever. Lots of “social justice” Christians (like me) get a kick out of this passage – because Jesus’ criterion for judging is this: How did you treat the “least of these”? Did you give the thirsty something to drink? Did you feed the hungry? Did you visit the sick and those in prison? Insofar as you did, it was Jesus himself whom you cared for. Insofar as you didn’t, you stand condemned for the way you failed to care for Jesus in the lives of those around you.
There’s nothing here about which church you belong to, or how much you donated to charity. Nothing about supporting the right political candidates or being outspoken on social media. Just this: How did you treat the marginal, the despised, the vulnerable?
Many Christians like me really, really love this passage – because it shows that God’s priorities have – most of all – to do with how we treat other people in our concrete, daily lives. In a world where religion is so often used as an excuse for otherworldly selfishness, this is refreshing. It’s joyful to hear that our shepherd, our King Jesus, is on the side of the oppressed.
But that line from that movie keeps coming back to me, like an echo in my subconscious. “Would you ever really want to see an angel?” Or, perhaps more relevantly, as the author of Hebrews writes:
…[W]e know the one who said, “Vengeance is mine; I will repay.” And again, “The Lord will judge his people.” It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God.
It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God. Am I ready for that? Are you?
Am I prepared to stand before the judgment seat of Christ and answer for my deeds? Have I fed the hungry, clothed the naked, visited the sick and those in prison?
I’m not so sure. I don’t feel confident. And according to Matthew, the stakes couldn’t be higher. Everything rides on how we treat others. Matthew insists that the consequences will be sharp, eternal, and – most terrifyingly – surprising. The one who judges us is Jesus, who sees our deeds with utter clarity. Our lives are like an x-ray image before him.
Are you ready to stand in that light? Would you ever really want to see an angel? Would you ever actually want to stand before the judgment seat of Christ? Are you a sheep, or a goat? How sure are you about that?
Me, personally? I know my transgressions and my sin is ever before me. I know the kind of person I am, and I shudder to think of what it would mean to stand naked in God’s presence.
It helps to remember that I already am standing naked in his presence. The day of judgment is coming, but in some sense it is also already here. God sees through me. He sees my heart. And I know he loves me, even if only in the same way that he loved the rich young man who walked away. I know that he will welcome me into his arms, if I’ll turn to him. I know that he is active in the world, transforming us and bringing about a reign of justice and righteousness, no matter how impossible that seems right now.
I find comfort in Ezekiel’s vision of God’s shepherding work. I find hope in his prophecy of God judging – not between sheep and goats, but between sheep and sheep. For all my faults, for all the ways that I fail to love others and myself, I long for God’s power to come in fullness to humble me where I need it, and to lift me up, transformed.
I don’t really want to see an angel with one wing dipped in blood. I tremble to stand before the judgment seat of Christ. But I welcome the advent of Christ the King. Because Jesus knows me better than I know myself, and he loves me more than anyone else possibly could. I don’t know if I’m a sheep or a goat, but I have faith that a God powerful enough to raise Jesus from the dead also has power to transform me into the person I was created to be.