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You may have noticed that God has been on a tear lately. In recent parables, God has invited people to a reception and then kicked them out for wearing the wrong clothes; shut them out of the eternal banquet for forgetting to pack enough lamp oil; and thrown someone into the outer darkness for poor investment strategies. Today, Jesus tells us about the final selections for eternity. Forget about the recent U.S. elections. It’s the sheep versus the goats – and the outcome is final: winners inherit the beloved community of God and losers are thrown into eternal fire.
So, are you ready? Are you ready for the judgment day? This isn’t a question we like to think about much. The whole idea is confusing and hypothetical; we’re not even sure what “judgment day” is. Those of us who have been participating in our bible study on the Book of Revelation know that some Christians believe that we already have a diagram of the last judgment – complete with literal floods, plagues, war, famine, fire and ending with Jesus appearing with a sword protruding from his mouth, riding at the head of a column of angelic soldiers to destroy the evil of the world and bring about God’s kingdom on the earth.
As members of a denomination who read scripture with a historical-contextual lens, we don’t endorse this literal view – and besides, if that’s judgment day, then I’m not ready for it at all. It’s not because I don’t love a good apocalypse film, because I do. It’s also not because I’m afraid of being judged a sinner, although I certainly am one. And it’s not because I don’t look forward to the institution of the Beloved Community of Christ; that is my heart’s desire. It’s because a war-like Jesus who rejects and punishes is not the Jesus I know. The Jesus I know was born in a cave. The Jesus I know chose marginalized people to spread his message. The Jesus I know knelt on the ground and washed the feet of his society’s “losers.” We know Jesus as a priest and prophet, but this Jesus is different. Today we encounter Jesus Christ the King, who sits at God’s right hand far beyond all earthly rule and puts everything under his feet. This Jesus remembers everything we did – and did not do – in his name. This Jesus is the Jesus who meets and judges us in a very non-hypothetical way.
We live in a time in which it can be difficult to separate truth from lies and to know what to believe. It was no different for the people to whom the prophet Ezekiel spoke. They were living in exile following the fall of Jerusalem, bemoaning their abandonment by God. In today’s passage from the Hebrew Scripture, “Ezekiel paradoxically offers hope as he gives expression to the Israelites’ feelings of powerlessness and despair.” Remember, prophets are not folks who tell the future. Prophets are messengers from God who speak about God’s relationship to creation – and what Ezekiel tells these tired and terrified people is that God has not abandoned them, that God will fight for them just like a shepherd defends his sheep, and that God is willing to get hands-on to do it. “I myself will be the shepherd…I will make them lie down… I will seek the last, and I will bring back the strayed and bind up the injured and strengthen the weak but the fat I will destroy.”
Ezekiel’s message is clear. God will cull the flock if necessary – not because she wants to, but because she must. God loves humanity enough to try to stop us from destroying one another – even if God must choose between us to do it. There is no indication that this necessary destruction makes God happy. “God seems resolute but weary – and almost grieved at once again having to set people straight on the path of justice.” God’s judgment is not the result of a cruel or capricious creator; it is a necessary remedy for the injustice that we have visited on one another. It is because of the actions of human beings who push and bully the vulnerable out of their way in order to grab and hoard resources that are meant to be shared that God needs to cull the flock. We have brought this on ourselves – and our punishment will fit our crime, with those who have willingly separated themselves from other people being eternally separated from God. Separation is what sin is – and permanent separation is the wages of sin. The throne room of Christ the King is place in which his community gathers, and we need one another to get there. When we choose our personal interests over that of humanity as a whole, we seal our own fate. “Each of us is both unbeliever and believer, both commanded to care and in need of care… Both under judgment for our failures to pursue justice and saved by grace, both a goat and a sheep.” God gives us the gift of mercy. It is up to us to accept and share it. We are in this together.
That is why Jesus’s criteria for how we are to be judged is not about what we say we believe, but instead about how we treat one another. Do not be distracted by those who would show you the Book of Revelation and call it a road map of the future. Today’s gospel passage is the only place in scripture where Jesus describes the last judgement and “There is nothing in it about ecclesiastical connections or religious practices. There is not a word…about theology, creeds, [or] orthodoxies. [There is no mention of earthly prosperity or power]. There is only this: “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” We are judged not on how we act when we eat and drink with those we love, but whether the people outside of our community have anything to eat and drink at all. It turns out that Christ the King – this harsh, judgmental Jesus that seems so alien to many of us – is the same Jesus who loved the poor, the sick, and the downtrodden. “Come to me you that are blessed… for I was hungry and you fed me. I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.” Feed the hungry. Clothe the poor. Love the stranger. That is the Jesus we know and love.
Today is the last Sunday of the church year. Next week we enter the season of the Advent of our Lord and the church clock starts again, offering us a fresh opportunity to earn our place at the right hand of God. It is time to make our Christian New Year’s resolutions- resolutions that will prepare us for the judgment day. We can resolve to love one another with joy rather than resistance. We can resolve to live our lives – all of our lives – according to what we profess to believe. We can resolve that when we notice anyone hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison we will see in their faces the same Christ who judges us not by our words but by our deeds. If we can do that, then perhaps when we are asked if we are ready for the judgment day, we can say, “Oh yes, God. Yes, Jesus. Yes, yes, yes, my King.” AMEN.
1]Denise Dombkowski Hopkins, (2011), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 315.
Maryann McKibben Dana, (2011), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 316.
John M. Buchanan, (2011), in Feasting on the Word: Year A, Volume 4: Season After Pentecost 2 (Propers 17-Reign of Christ), David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor, eds. [Louisville, KY: Presbyterian Publishing Corporation], 336.