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Revised Common Lectionary: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 95:1-7a or Psalm 100; Matthew 25:31-46; Ephesians 1:15-23
We have come to the end of this season after Pentecost. We leave behind the stories of the ancestors of our faith from Abraham and Sarah to the people living beyond the Jordan in the promised land; we leave behind the prophets that we have been following speaking about the coming day of the Lord; and for this Sunday, standing on the precipice, we look forward to the reign of Christ that is already taking place on earth, and yet we are still waiting for it; and also preparing for Advent to begin, the beginning of the church year. In our preparation, we look back, we begin again in a time of darkness.
On Reign of Christ Sunday, we often read passages such as these from Ezekiel and from Matthew, passages that speak of a time of judgment, of being prepared and ready for the reign of Christ. But lest we fall into the same plot hole that many of our forefathers and foremothers had fallen into, we know that the reign of God has already begun, with Christ’s entrance in the flesh; the incarnate Word. We know that John the Baptist and Jesus the Christ proclaimed that the kingdom of Heaven has drawn near. We know that we live as citizens of the reign of God and we participate in that reign here and now. This is not something we are just simply waiting to happen in the future (remember those bridesmaids a few weeks ago? All of whom had fallen asleep–even the wise ones–because they had failed to understand that they were preparing for now, not for a distant future), but something we know is happening now.
Ezekiel 34 reminds us that while all people are the sheep and God is the shepherd, while God is seeking all of the lost, the least, and the scattered, God will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep; in other words, the judgment is on us, now. Do we live our lives as participants in the reign of God now or are we fattening up for a future time? Are we doing our part to also seek the lost, the least, and the scattered, or are we concerned with our own well-being only? We need to remember that God is setting a shepherd over us, and as Christians we follow Jesus, the Good Shepherd. But in this passage of judgment, the sheep are not cast out, but rather, made “right.” In other words, judgment in this passage is not about punishment but about putting right what has been wrong. It is about lifting up the poor, not punishing the rich. It is about all having enough to eat. This is the judgment Ezekiel shares, after all the people of Israel have been through, after their leaders failed and the poor were forgotten, all suffered, and with God’s Good Shepherd, all will be restored. This is the reign of the Good Shepherd.
Psalm 95:1-7a is a psalm of thanksgiving, remembering that God is the Good Shepherd. As congregations in the United States celebrate Thanksgiving Sunday, we give thanks to God for all of creation. We give thanks for all God has done and continues to do in our world. Psalm 100 echoes almost word for word this song of thanksgiving and understanding of God as shepherd, and the people being the sheep of God’s pasture.
Matthew 25:31-46 is the last part of chapter 25, which contained two parables about the reign of God and now the judgment of the world. All the other passages in Matthew that deal with judgment are about the judgment of ourselves–separating the wheat from the chaff, back in chapter 3, was about purifying our very selves. All the times that Jesus speaks of judgment in Matthew until now are about how we need to change our own lives, how we need to be last of all and servant of all. But now, Jesus declares that there is a judgment, and the judgment is based on how we live out our faith. We can say that we have faith in God, but if we do not act out of our faith, it is dead, as James says in chapter 2. We are called to a living faith, a way of life that embodies our relationship with God in all that we do. We do not do good works to get into heaven, nor do we simply pray a prayer of salvation to get into heaven. Rather, it is about a transformation that takes place, and that transformation is manifested in us when we see Christ in the needs of others–in the naked, the sick, the imprisoned, the poor, the oppressed and the marginalized.
Ephesians 1:15-23 declares to the church in Ephesus (and others; Ephesians can sort of be seen as the world’s first “chain letter” as except for verse 1, there is no mention of the destination of this letter and it was probably passed on to several churches, and also makes it hard to say that it was actually Paul who wrote it or a student of Paul’s) that Christ is the ultimate ruler, the fulfillment of all things. Christ is above any authority ever conceived and is the ultimate authority, and all things fall under Christ, and yet the church, the body of Christ, is the fulfillment of Christ on earth.
We are part of the body of Christ, we are the Church. We are part of God’s Pasture, for we are God’s sheep. And so are all people on the earth, part of God’s Pasture. We are called by Christ the King, the Sovereign, the Good Shepherd, to be part of one body. We are called to seek restoration and healing. We are called to seek justice that is restorative, not retributive, as God’s justice is not in part, but in whole. God is redeeming and restoring the world. As we enter Advent, and will soon be reading those ancient texts of the rough places being made level, the mountains brought down and the valleys brought to the plain, we are preparing for the restoration of the world by God through Jesus the Christ. Thanks be to God!
Call to Worship (based on Psalm 100:4-5):
Leader: Enter God’s gates with thanksgiving!
People: Enter God’s gates with praise!
Leader: Give thanks to God!
People: Bless God’s name!
Leader: For the Lord is good;
People: God’s steadfast love endures forever.
Leader: God’s faithfulness endures to all generations;
People: Come, let us worship God, all generations, all peoples, all families, as the body of Christ.
Prayer of Confession:
Living God, we confess to You that our ways of justice are not Your ways. We want others to be punished when they have done wrong but we desire forgiveness for ourselves. We want others to suffer when we have suffered. Even in times when we feel morally just we desire vengeance over restoration. God, forgive us for our desire of retribution. Forgive us for not seeking Your ways. Forgive us, most of all, for not recognizing that it was You who died upon the cross at Calvary, going to death rather than seeking vengeance, giving eternal life and the promise of new life here on earth. Forgive us when we do things that seek to deepen wounds rather than bring healing. In the name of Christ, the Great Physician, we pray. Amen.
Assurance of Pardon (from Romans 8:38-39):
There is nothing you can do to separate yourself from the love of God in Christ Jesus. Nothing. Neither death nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation will be able to separate you from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Go with this Good News. Amen.
Author of Life, You created us in Your image. Your image is relationship, Three-in-One, Creator, Christ and Spirit. You called us into relationship and at times we hear that call, but often we separate. We divide, we leave, at times we marginalize and oppress. We seek our own sense of justice, in which we are right and those opposed to us are wrong, instead of seeking Your justice, in which You seek the lost and least, and bring back to the flock. God, help us to follow You, the Good Shepherd, as You desire for us to recognize that we are all part of Your pasture. Help us, Author of Life, to recognize that You have written us all into the book of Life, so that we might have life abundantly, and You gave Your life for us. As we celebrate Thanksgiving, help us to be thankful to You for all of creation, but most importantly, that You have written us all into creation, that we all have our place to act and work and belong, and help us to seek the lost and least that they may know they are a part of Your flock, Your creation, Your life that You have given us. In the name of Christ, the Living Word, we pray. Amen.
The praise song “I will enter God’s gates with thanksgiving in my heart” would be very appropriate for today. There are many great Thanksgiving hymns and songs for this day, but songs relating to the Psalms such as “We are the sheep of God’s hands” would be very appropriate for today.