Summary: Christ's kingship and kingdom are far different from our worldly expectations about kings and kingdoms.
How many of you are aware that today marks the end of the year? Don’t worry, you’ve still got 30 shopping days before Christmas, but today does in fact mark the end of the Christian year. And next Sunday, as we begin our Advent celebration, we begin a new Christian year. I suspect that many of you, like me, upon coming to the closing of each year reflect back over the last twelve months, considering all that has happened in that time—the good, the bad, and the ugly. And in a sense, we do that at the end of the Christian year, too. We have set aside this day in particular in the life of the church to celebrate the reign of Christ our King; to recall the amazing ministry and work that Christ has done and all that is yet to come.
Christ the King, we think, wonderful! And suddenly our minds are filled with visions of kings; adorned in elegant purple robes, resting upon a massive golden thrones, surrounded by eager servants answering every beck and call. The king is the one who rides the white horse, destroying enemies and flaunting every victory. The king holds extravagant parties for the ruling elite of his kingdom and serves lavish foods in abundance. The king is the one who arranges marriages and passes judgment, all with the aim that his kingdom will grow. This is why kings are revered—they reign with a mighty hand and great power!
Yet our passage from Matthew this morning tells a different story, when it comes to sorting out who Christ the King is, doesn’t it? He is passing judgment as kings often do, but we sense right away that this is a different sort of judgment, don’t we? Here we see the Son of Man, indeed enthroned like a king, and yet like a shepherd separating sheep from goats. Now, you may or may not be aware that in the Ancient Middle East, shepherds were just about as far from kings as you could get on the social ladder; if kings were at the top, shepherds were most certainly at the bottom. They were the undisputed “armpit” of society—poor and essentially homeless, just wandering the countryside with their flocks. They had no friends, really, they’d pass the time by talking to their flocks. Shepherds prefer sheep because they are more valuable in the marketplace, but goats are necessary, too. And so, each evening, as the sun dropped to the horizon, the shepherds would busy themselves separating the sheep and the goats. The sheep were left in the open field, while the goats, without the warm coat of wool, were gathered together in some sort of shelter that would protect them from the wind and cold of the night.
So it is that this shepherd-king described by Matthew separates his own flock. All nations are brought before him and, like the shepherd in the field, he pulls the highly favored sheep to his right hand, but places the goats on his left. “Of course,” we think, “the king must destroy his enemies and exalt the wealthy barons!” But once again, our worldly visions of a king don’t quite meld with the actions of this shepherd-king. Christ the King, the Son of Man, turns to the sheep on his right and says you are exalted, not because you are most valuable and bring me the most money the marketplace, but because you fed the hungry, welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, healed the sick, and visited the imprisoned. The sheep were surprised; they had no recollection of ever doing any of those things for the king, why would he exalt them when they have never served him? And then the king surprised them again, “When you have done it for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you have done it for me.”
There’s a wonderful story among Russian Jews about a very special rabbi. In a small Jewish town in Russia, there is a rabbi who disappears each Friday morning for several hours. His devoted disciples boast that during those hours their rabbi goes up to heaven and talks to God.
A stranger moves into town, and he's skeptical about all this, so he decides to check things out. He hides and watches. The rabbi gets up in the morning, says his prayers, and then dresses in peasant clothes. He grabs an axe, goes off into the woods, and cuts some firewood, which he then hauls to a shack on the outskirts of the village. There an old woman and her sick son live. He leaves them the wood, enough for a week, and then sneaks back home.
Having observed the rabbi's actions, the newcomer stays on in the village and becomes his disciple. And whenever he hears one of the villagers say, "On Friday morning our rabbi ascends all the way to heaven," the newcomer quietly adds, "If not higher."