Sermon by Rev Sydney Maitland for Sunday 22 November 2020.
• First Reading: Ezekiel 34: 11-16, 20-24 (I Myself will tend My sheep and make them lie down – search for the lost, bring back the strays)
• Psalm 100
• Epistle: Ephesians 1: 15-23 (God placed all things under His feet and appointed Him to be head over everything for the church)
• Gospel: Matthew 25: 31-46 (Parable of the sheep and the goats)
No dictatorship is complete without its demonstration of its own power. To impress the neighbours, there are the military parades with great blocks of men at arms goose-stepping their way past a viewing stand. There are the displays of armour and weapon systems and the bigger and more imposing, the better.
And then to impress their own citizens, there is the secret police, the imposing police headquarters and the central prison – as well as the carefully cultivated knowledge of informers in their midst, and hence of distrust of all social contacts.
And then there is the Kingdom of God. Ezekiel has a picture of a realm and a rule, presided over by the Lord who is also the shepherd of His sheep.
This is the God who gives Himself for the sheep, who exerts Himself to regather them, protect them and feed them. He will lead them, bringing them to pasture and water.
He would seek out the lost, the injured, the disorientated, the confused, and the grieving.
He would bind up their wounds and heal their memories, wiping away their tears personally. That is the kind of Shepherd of the sheep that He is, and for Ezekiel the memory of King David, the sheep-boy from Bethlehem, was indeed to be the model for what was to come for the People of God in the providence of God.
St Paul has more to say about the vision for the people of God. Writing to the church in Ephesus, he is looking among the life of the believers of Ephesus for the same kind of power that raised Jesus from the dead, and nothing less.
This is the Holy Spirit who would grant them wisdom and revelation where confusion and the cult of Artemis and her silversmiths then reigned. They might be poor in the world but their inheritance in the providence of God was incomparable: so may they receive it and live as if it were already theirs, without despondency or discouragement.
Paul’s vision for the church – and indeed any church – is led and empowered by the agenda of God and not by the external circumstances of the time. It was the faith to live in the providence of God, and confidence in the completeness of the atonement of Jesus Christ.
But then there is Jesus’ parable of the sheep and the goats. It is the last parable in Matthew’s gospel before the events of the Passion are set out.
I believe that Matthew has put it here for a reason – and a reason very similar to John’s farewell discourses in his gospel.
It is worth looking at the position of the sheep and the goats in Matthew, for it is the climax to Jesus’ parables of the Kingdom, and it is after His discourse on the end times and His coming again.
The parable itself is set out like a drama, with an order of speeches and responses. The thing to note is the astonishment of the sheep to the commendation of the Son of Man, and the horror of the goats at His condemnation.
Just as the sheep did not think that they had done anything special, so the goats thought that they had done all that was ever required and expected of them. But they had missed something out.
For all their activity and activism, for all their hospitals and welfare systems, all their offices of state and mega-charities, they had missed someone out.
The very people whom Jesus had described as His personal family, those who heard the word of God and did it, were regarded as nuisances, bigoted bible-bashers, intellectual retards, culturally backward. ‘Oh, them!’ said the goats. ‘Yes’ says Jesus them – ‘and they are all Mine.’
In John’s gospel the High Priestly prayer of chapter 17 also spells it out.
‘I have manifested Your Name to the men whom You have given Me out of the world. They were Yours, You gave then to Me, and they have kept Your word… I have given them the words You have given Me, and they have received them.
‘I pray for them … not for the world but for those whom You have given Me for they are Yours. And all Mine are Yours and Yours are Mine and I am glorified in them … sanctify them by Your truth. Your word is truth … and for their sakes I sanctify Myself.
May they be one just as we are one, I in them and You in Me, that they may be made perfect in One …’
Jesus’ commitment to His disciples is utter and total. His disciples are part of the household of God, and part of that same inheritance. He has given Himself so completely and wholly that whatever happens to them affects Him directly and personally.
So it is not good enough for the world to glorify itself in the magnificence of its health and welfare systems it if then proceeds to deny and silence the followers of Jesus.
It is not good enough to give voice and standing to all groups and interests in society and then to systematically exclude the disciples of Jesus.
To do that can only invite judgment.