Sunday, November 23, 2008

I Will Seek Out My Sheep: A Sermon for the Reign of Christ

Homily for the Feast of the Reign of Christ, Year A
Sunday, November 23rd 2008
Holy Trinity Anglican Church, Thornhill, ON
The Rev. Daniel F. Graves
Text: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24

“I will seek out my sheep”
--Ezekiel 34: 12

I have recently been giving some thought to apocalyptic theology. Last week, in our youth confirmation class we had questions raised about the meaning and interpretation of the images in the book of Revelation. In our parish newsletter and recently on my blog I wrote about the so-called “Little Apocalypse” in the thirteenth chapter of St. Mark’s gospel. In both cases, I noted that we as mainstream Christians have tended to shy away from such texts, fearing them to be too difficult to understand, resisting the urge to dig into them with enthusiasm, and thus leaving them within the realm and ownership of certain very conservative strands of Christianity. Yet, I think that apocalyptic theology, that is, theology that tends to focus on the appearance of Christ at the end times, has something to say to us, the everyday people of God, in our present situation.

Apocalyptic thought is usually painted in very black and white terms. There is evil and good. Which side are we on? However, I think that this question may be a bit of a “red herring,” for underneath all apocalyptic thought is the presumption that God, in his goodness, saves his people – and not only saves them, but recreates them and all creation, making all things new. God, in Christ, is transforming the created order into its final purpose. Thus, I think the question for us is, can this be true? Do we see it? Do we believe it?

The other thing that needs to be said about apocalyptic theology, and about biblical prophecy in general is that it is never really about predicting the future, but interpreting the present time. Now, by this I do not intend to suggest, as some do, that by reading the newspapers we will be able to identify the ten-horned beast of the apocalypse. This kind of simplistic association of a biblical image or metaphor with a particular person in our time is surely wrong-headed and dangerous. However, the writers of such apocalyptic and prophetic literature surely had individuals of their own day in mind, and spoke in a sort of code so that they would end up on the chopping blocks, themselves. What apocalyptic and prophetic texts suggest is that in every age there are tyrants that rise up, there are crises that are bigger than what we can handle, and there is always before us the real possibility that we will lose hope.

Years ago I heard one writer – this was during the Reagan years and the height of nuclear tension – asked if he thought we were on the brink of the apocalypse. He laughed a very serious laugh and noted, has not every generation been on the brink of the apocalypse? Did not the men in the trenches in the First World War look to heaven and cry, “My God, this is the apocalypse!” And so I concur – each age must face its own apocalyptic threat.
When terrorists run planes into buildings; when the climate seems to have changed irreparably; when we stand powerlessly in the midst of economic turmoil; do we not stand with hands outstretched and cry unto God, “Is this the apocalypse?” And of course, the greater danger is that we will simply buy into the apathy of the times and find ourselves not on the side of the righteous but aligned with the great whore, Babylon.

It is of course, so easy to place the blame. Our leaders have failed us. Certainly this was the view of Ezekiel. The people that found themselves in Exile were there because of the past failure and continued failure of their religious leaders. This oracle from Ezekiel is an oracle of hope in which God brings the righteous out of captivity and pronounces with judgment on those leaders who have failed in their responsibility, who have lived off of the fat of the land and the backs of the people. He calls them fat sheep that will be separated from the lean ones. Similarly, with this oracle surely in mind, Jesus talks about the separation of the sheep and the goats.

For those of who lead, those of us who are religious leaders, and those of you who lead in your workplaces and communities, these are hard words. We must ask the question, have we worked for the kingdom or have we worked to fill ourselves?

Let us not forget that the word “apocalypse” simply means “revelation.” And for us, as Christian people, this is the revealing of God in Christ. Has this not already happened in the Incarnation; in the appearing of God amongst us in the person of Jesus Christ? Is this not the reality that we confess in the words of our faith an in our creeds? And does he not come again and again to us, to each of us, in every generation, in every age?

So, amidst all this angst of a world coming apart; amidst our fear that we can do nothing to change the course of the mighty rivers of world events; amidst the struggle of leaders to do what is right when the current tempts us in the wrong direction, God comes to us with the words, “I will seek out my sheep.” And what comforting word these are, for who is it that does the seeking? Is it you or I? No. It is God in Christ. It is God who presses into the world in all its brokenness and seeks out you and me. It is God who risks and offers up his own life on the cross for you and me. It is God whose love eclipses our hatred and enfolds us as we resist enfolding. It is not up to you or me, it is up to God – and God has acted. He has appeared. The apocalypse is now, and it is good news for the whole world.

It is good news because although we as leaders may fail to lead, God will not fail.

It is good news because although we as Christians may fail in virtue, piety, and faithfulness, God will not fail.

It is good news because although kingdoms rise and fall through pride, arrogance, and power, God’s kingdom will never fail.

I recall our eleventh primate of the Anglican Church of Canada, Michael Peers, offering these words, “We’re in it for the long haul.” His words are words of hope because it is true: while rulers rise and fall, we stand with Shepherd who fell and rose. Or rather – it is he who stands with us.

In every age the voice of the oppressed has called out for justice. Apocalyptic theology tells us that God will indeed execute judgment, or rather that the oppressors through their actions may have already executed judgment upon themselves. When Ezekiel speaks in today’s texts about the separation of the lean sheep and the fat sheep, and the deliverance of the oppressed and the punishment of those who have filled themselves unjustly, we must ask ourselves, in what way might we be amongst the “fat sheep.” Surely, we are not without guilt, both as leaders and as privileged people in the world. But are we without hope?

God continues to seek out his sheep even to the last. When Ezekiel enumerates the fate of the lean and the fat sheep, he adds this additional comment: “He shall feed them with justice.” To whom does this statement refer? One interpretation suggests he metes out justice by rewarding the good and exterminating the evil. Yet, if we read this statement through the lens of our Christian faith, and through the work of Christ, is not the justice of God that our Shepherd comes to seek out the lost sheep, the ones who have gone astray, and yes, even the evil ones? It is so easy to speak in terms of good and evil, and yet, what is evil if not human brokenness and disappointment? What is evil if not weakness hidden behind feigned power? What is evil if not insecurity and fear? Are there any amongst us who have not been the victims of brokenness, disappointment, weakness or insecurity and fear? And are there any amongst us who have not allowed ourselves to be overwhelmed by such things in negative ways? Ezekiel tells us that God promises to seek the lost, bring back the strayed, bind up the injured, and strengthen the weak. And this is precisely what he has done in Jesus Christ. What if God is seeking out all of humanity, the good and the bad, and seeking to bring about reconciliation, healing, and wholeness to all? This is a hard message because we, as human beings, have one view of justice. But God has another.

Is not the justice of God this: “I came not to seek the righteous but the sinner?” God became human that each of us, in all our brokenness might be made whole. I suggest to you today that each of us has within us both the “lean” and the “fat.” Each of us is both sheep and goat. Each of us is both sinner and saint. The work of Christ is the reconciliation of our inner struggle. The work of Christ is the healing of this dichotomy. The work of Christ, and the justice of God in Christ, is transformation of brokenness into wholeness. When this happens in any one of us, the world is healed, and we do indeed behold and witness the revelation, the apocalypse, of kingdom of our Lord and of his Christ before our very eyes.

Text copyright 2008 by the Rev. Daniel F. Graves. This sermon may not be reproduced or redistributed, either in whole or part, by any means, without the express, written permission of the author.

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