[Note: I had the privilege of guest preaching yesterday at Covington United Presbyterian Church in Pavilion NY. On the church calendar yesterday was Christ the King Sunday. I used the assigned Gospel lesson for the day.]
In Matthew 25 Jesus tells his final parable in that Gospel.
31 “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, he will sit on his glorious throne. 32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate the people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. 33 He will put the sheep on his right and the goats on his left.
34 “Then the King will say to those on his right, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. 35 For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, 36 I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’
37 “Then the righteous will answer him, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry and feed you, or thirsty and give you something to drink? 38 When did we see you a stranger and invite you in, or needing clothes and clothe you? 39 When did we see you sick or in prison and go to visit you?’
40 “The King will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me.’
41 “Then he will say to those on his left, ‘Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. 42 For I was hungry and you gave me nothing to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43 I was a stranger and you did not invite me in, I needed clothes and you did not clothe me, I was sick and in prison and you did not look after me.’
44 “They also will answer, ‘Lord, when did we see you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or needing clothes or sick or in prison, and did not help you?’
45 “He will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did not do for one of the least of these, you did not do for me.’
46 “Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life.”
I have nothing against goats. In popular usage, goats tend to get a bad rap and sheep a good one. When an athlete makes a mistake or commits an error that hurts the team’s chance of winning, he or she may be called a goat. No one that I know ever called Jesus the goat of God, but John the Baptist eagerly called him the Lamb of God, and we are fine with that. Sheep are portrayed as warm and cuddly. “Mary had a little lamb,” not a goat!
The truth is that goats and sheep are closely related, but with differences. Both are pretty intelligent. Goats are better at defending themselves, while sheep are not well designed for defense against predators. Goats like to escape any pens they are put in. They will look for a way to get through any fence and if a way can be found, they break free. They are sure-footed and great climbers. Sheep are flocking animals and need a leader. They do best when being well led and have excellent hearing. But they are vulnerable to all kinds of predators. Hence, a good shepherd is crucial to their survival. And survive they do: there about a billion sheep on this planet. If you are wearing wool today, be glad there are so many sheep willing to provide your warmth.
A shepherd separates them because of their differences. Goats like to be warm at night, but on their own terms, while sheep like the coolness of the open air. After all, they are adorned with wool. Even more pertinent, goats are rather independent and sheep decidedly dependent. Sheep simply must have shepherds to care for them.
A good shepherd cares for the sheep and knows them and, therefore, separates the goats from the sheep. That is how this lengthy and well-known parable begins, with a shepherd separating them. Some people like cats and dogs equally, but most have a preference. The shepherd knows the lives and needs of sheep and is committed to their safety and welfare. God does that for us.
Scripture frequently calls us sheep and often portrays God as shepherd. David was a shepherd before he was a king and naturally prays, “The Lord is my shepherd.” In a better-known parable Jesus tells of an owner of a hundred sheep. At the end of day he realizes that one is missing. So what does he do? He leaves the 99, which entails some risk, and goes and finds the lost one, bringing it back rejoicing, as there is rejoicing in heaven over sinner returning to the flock.
Shepherding is crucial to understanding the biblical image of God and those that follow God. Ultimately, this parable is not about goats or sheep; it is about the King who comes to us in the most unexpected ways. It is about the King of glory who stoops to become a shepherd. At first it seems that this shepherd King comes to us hidden, leaving us in some kind of hide and seek game, trying to find Jesus. Or like a Where’s Waldo picture in which we know Waldo is there if we can concentrate enough to find him.
Rather than hidden, what is being revealed is that the Lord often comes to us in disguise. He appears in ways we weren’t expecting. With both the sheep and the goats in the story, we ask, “When? When, Lord, did we see you hungry, thirsty, a stranger, unclothed, sick, in prison? When?” And the goats can only say, “If we had had only known that is was you, we would have fallen over ourselves to serve you.” And the sheep say something like, “We didn’t know it was you, but now we see.”
This Sunday marks the culmination of the year on the Church’s calendar. Next Sunday is Advent #1, the beginning of a new church year. We hold back on Christmas carols until it is Christmas or very near, but I will confess this to you. Even early in Advent, and just before Advent, I will put some favorite Christmas carols, hymns, and songs in the CD deck when I am driving. It is my way of saying no to the radio stations that dare put “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer” right before “O Holy Night.” Two that I never tire of hearing tie in nicely with this Jesus who comes to us so unexpectedly, seemingly in disguise.
“Mary did you know that your baby boy would one day rule the nations? Did you know that your baby boy is heaven’s perfect Lamb? This sleeping child you’re holding is the great I am.” Could she have possibly known that she birthed the King of kings when she held that crying little baby in her arms?
The second one is like it.
“Sweet little Jesus Boy, They made You be born in a manger / Sweet little Holy Child / They didn’t know who You were; Didn’t know You’d come to save us Lord, to take our sins away ; Our eyes were blind And we could not see . We didn’t know who You were.”
There was once an old stone monastery tucked away in the middle of a forest. For many years people would make the significant detour required to seek out this monastery. The peaceful spirit of the place was healing for the soul. In recent years however fewer people were making their way to the monastery. The monks had grown jealous and petty in their relationships with one another, and the animosity was felt by those who visited.
The Abbot of the monastery was distressed by what was happening, and poured out his heart to a wise old Jewish rabbi. Having heard the Abbot’s tale of woe he asked if he could offer a suggestion. “Please do,” responded the Abbot. “Anything you can offer.” The rabbi said that he had received an important vision: the messiah was among the monks. The Abbot was flabbergasted. One among his own was the Messiah! Which one? He raced back to the monastery and shared his exciting news with his fellow monks. The monks grew silent as they looked into each other’s faces. Which one was the Messiah?
From that day on the mood in the monastery changed. Those two started talking again, neither wanting to be guilty of slighting the Messiah. Those two left behind their frosty anger and sought out each other’s forgiveness. The monks began serving each other, looking out for opportunities to assist, seeking healing and forgiveness where offence had been given. Travelers began to find their way to the monastery. Word spread about the new spirit of the community. People once again took the journey to the monastery and found themselves renewed. All because those monks knew the Messiah was among them, though they didn’t just which one was Jesus.
There is a cultural custom of beginning a new year with resolutions. I dare offer this one for our consideration. Let’s look for Jesus in the faces of the unlikely. In the hungry and the thirsty, the stranger, the underclothed, the sick, and the imprisoned. What if every white police officer encountering a black youth stopped and looked for Jesus in him? What is every black youth being encountered by a white police officer stopped and looked for Jesus in her? What if every Palestinian encountering an Israeli stopped and looked for the Lord in him? What if every Israeli encountering a Palestinian stopped and looked for Messiah in her? Let me get it really close to where we live. In the next six weeks every time we see a store clerk facing a line of impatient shoppers, a store manager overwhelmed by angry bargain-hunters, a minimum wage teen trying to get an order right at a fast-food restaurant, let’s look for Jesus right there. Let’s say the kind word and do the kind thing. We never know where we will have opportunity to minister to Jesus.
After her car ran out of gas on a dark New Jersey highway last month (October, 2017), Kate McClure pulled over and tried to walk to the nearest gas station. But a nearby homeless man didn’t let her go far, telling her to climb back in the car and lock the doors while he went instead. Johnny Bobbitt spent his last $20 on a can of gas for her.
While she didn’t have cash to repay him at the time, McClure and her boyfriend returned to Johnny’s spot along the side of the road the next day to return the money. Over the following weeks, she kept stopping by to chat with Johnny and give him a few dollars. Finally she decided to set up a GoFundMe page for him. McClure wrote on the page. “He is such a great guy, and talking to him each time I see him makes me want to help him more and more.” To date, the campaign has raised over $300,000. Bottom of Form Before he became homeless, Johnny served with the Marine Corps and worked as a firefighter and paramedic.
And this King comes to us as a shepherd, a carpenter, a servant, and a pauper. And as one hungry, thirsty, a stranger, unclothed, sick, and in prison—wondering if we will notice him, recognize him, and minister to him in the need of another.