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Bethany Evangelical
Lutheran Church

Ishpeming, Michigan † Est. 1870

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Christ the King - 11/26/2017

You perhaps remember, in fact you should remember because I think I say it every year, that Christ the King Sunday is a relatively new addition to the church calendar, only dating back to 1925, a little less than 100 years. It was then that Pope Pius XI started it as a reminder that for Christians, their primary allegiance was to Christ, not to any political, national or ethnic ideology. It wasn’t too many years later that Lutherans added the day to their calendar.

For Pope Pius it was a response to what he saw as creeping secularism, a creep that has only increased since then. The point though wasn’t that our other allegiances were evil, just that for a Christian, Christ comes first. However you look at it though, you can’t avoid the fact that there is something radical and countercultural about this day, about claiming that Christ is King.

There was a time, I guess, when we could convince ourselves that American values were Christian values but it’s pretty hard to do these days and it doesn’t matter if you are liberal or conservative or anything in between. When Black Friday shopping dwarfs and seeps back into Thanksgiving Day and Christmas for many is only about Santa and presents and parties and an end of the year boost for the economy, that tells us that the ship that claims that this is a Christian nation has sailed, it’s gone and saying Merry Christmas instead of Happy Holidays isn’t going to change it.

The specifics of today are different from those of a hundred years ago and Pope Pius, but his concern about other allegiances persists. Of particular concern is how our conflicting allegiances affect how we live. Too often our actions reflect values that are in conflict with the values we would live out if Christ really were our king. We get pretty good though, at convincing ourselves that the faith we confess on Sunday morning can co-exist side by side with the other things that are important to us. We get pretty good at convincing ourselves that even with our other allegiances we still live good Christian lives. We get pretty good at convincing ourselves that we don’t have a problem and of course you can’t begin to address a problem until you admit you have one.

As you read the Bible though, you find that this problem of conflicting allegiances that cause us to lead less than exemplary lives goes back way more than a hundred years. Let us consider for a moment the prophet Ezekiel. Ezekiel is considered one of the major prophets, along with Isaiah and Jeremiah, major in this case meaning lots of chapters; Isaiah has 66, Jeremiah 52 and Ezekiel 48. Of all the prophets though, major or minor, Ezekiel is perhaps the weirdest, with lots of strange visions and symbolic actions that present interpretive challenges.

Ezekiel witnessed the fall and destruction of Jerusalem and in his writing he reflects on how and why it happened. His conclusion was that it happened because of bad government, because of bad shepherds, bad kings in other words, leaders whose behavior witnessed to values that were not the values of the Lord. So in the verses that come before those in today’s reading, addressing those shepherds, those kings, Ezekiel says “You have not fed the sheep, you have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost. My sheep were scattered, with no one to search or seek for them.” Lots of yous there; lots of accusation.

Now it does seem clear that Ezekiel was addressing the political leaders of his time; for him they were the yous leading the sheep astray. Would that be the case though for a modern day Ezekiel? Some would probably like it to be about them but think about it; political leaders come and go, some you like, some you don’t like, but with all of them, the creeping secularism continues; I don’t think they are the main agents of the drift in allegiances in our time. There are economic and cultural forces out there that are more powerful than any president and which are constantly at work convincing us that to be happy we need more; more money, more possessions, more whatever. Those forces are the yous, the bad shepherds that scatter the sheep of today, causing them to stray from those values that Ezekiel mentioned, and we are those sheep.

As the sheep then, we might want to blame those bad shepherds, those other forces, but God never lets them have the last word. Instead, in the vision of Ezekiel, after all the “you” accusations, there is a shift to I as the Lord announces an alternative: “I will seek out my sheep; I will rescue them; I will bring them back; I will feed them; I will seek the lost; I will bring back the stranger; I will bind up the crippled; I will strengthen the weak; I will feed them with justice,” justice in this case being what you need not what you deserve.

In his vision, Ezekiel gives us the good shepherd, the Lord himself, a different kind of king, and with that, a different way to live. As Christians we find this good shepherd embodied in Jesus, in Christ, our king. Because of that, we can’t point fingers and blame anyone or anything for leading us astray because we’ve been given the shepherd, the king who offers an alternative and shows us the way.

Today’s gospel for this Christ the King Sunday gives us the parable of the sheep and the goats or at least it’s often called a parable. In actuality, it’s more of an apocalyptic vision, more like what we get from Ezekiel, in fact Jesus picks up on some of the same imagery Ezekiel used. The sheep and goats vision comes at the end of what really started back at the beginning of the previous chapter of Matthew when the disciples asked Jesus about what sign would signal the coming of judgment and the end of the age. Jesus came at their question in a variety of ways including the parables of the last couple of weeks about being watchful and being prepared.

One section that the lectionary skipped though, one that I think has bearing on the sheep and the goats, was about the faithful slave put in charge of the master’s household, the slave who remained busy about the master’s work even though the master’s return was delayed. That faithful slave opposed to the unfaithful slave who, when given the same responsibilities, took it upon himself to beat and mistreat the other slaves when he figured out that the master wouldn’t return for awhile.

With the sheep and the goats Jesus adds a dramatic point of clarification to the faithful vs. unfaithful slave story making clear what the work of the master is: “When I was hungry you gave me food, when I was thirsty you gave me something to drink, when I was a stranger you welcomed me, you gave me clothes, you took care of me when I was sick, you visited me when I was in prison.” With this vision, Jesus wraps up his answer to the disciples’ question about a sign, in essence saying “I’m the sign.” This is a climactic moment in Matthew’s gospel; it marks the end of Jesus’ teaching and what comes next is the passion story. We now move into anticipation of Jesus’ birth, but Matthew leaves us on the brink of the passion, the culmination of the gospel which of course adds another whole dimension to Christ as King.

But what about the sheep and the goats? It appears to be about judgment; and it appears to be about judgment based on works, troubling to justified by grace through faith Lutherans. As always though, we need to be careful about jumping to conclusions, in this case conclusions about what it means to be a sheep and what it means to be a goat, especially when those conclusions seem so obvious. With Jesus, what seems obvious often hides a deeper meaning. We also have to heed the caution about taking any one slice of scripture and trying to make a fully comprehensive theology out of it, trying to make it answer every question.

Placed where it is as the last piece of Jesus’ teaching material, I tend to see this as a last word on what it means to be a disciple, a follower of Jesus. It describes what it means and how you would act if Christ really were your king. Jesus uses rather graphic imagery, not to frighten anyone, but to emphasize how important this is. He’s saying if you didn’t understand it from Ezekiel and the prophets, if you haven’t figured me out yet, here it is: feed the hungry, care for the sick, clothe the needy, welcome the stranger. That’s what life in my kingdom looks like because it is a kingdom of grace where you get what you need, not what you deserve. Like the faithful slave, that is the work you are to be about.

As Pope Pius XI recognized a hundred years ago, there are lots of other voices out there, other forces pulling us in other directions. But the words of Jesus are still with us, and they represent the voice of Christ the King, the force that is Christ, our king.

Rev. Warren Geier


Bethany Lutheran Church
715 Mather Avenue
Ishpeming, MI 49849

Phone: 906-486-4351
Fax: 906-486-9640

Rev. Warren Geier, Pastor

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