|Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24|
“Jesus is Lord!” This is perhaps the earliest known summary and creedal affirmation of the Christian faith. Saint Paul famously wrote, “If with your mouth you confess Jesus is Lord and believe in your heart that God raised Him from the dead, you will be saved.” So what does it mean to say that Jesus is Lord?
In ancient times the term “Lord” was used in a general way to refer to one’s superior, but at root it meant “ruler.” Throughout the ancient world, kings styled themselves as “Lord” and were hailed as divine, the Son of God, and so the term came to have an increasingly religious significance. The same word in Greek translated as Lord throughout the New Testament, for instance, is used in Greek translations of the Old Testament to refer to God. For Christians to proclaim Christ as Lord therefore meant proclaiming him as the true Son of God over and against Creaser. In doing so they were not only ascribing him kingly authority, but also identifying him with the one true God, creator, and ruler of the universe. This is a pretty radical claim!
The Pagan Roman Empire was an extremely pluralistic society. Roman citizens were free to worship any God they chose and encouraged to participate in private religious observance provided they also supplemented that with the worship of Caesar. Jews and Christians were considered odd and even dangerous for their insistence on the exclusive deity of their one God.
The pagan pluralism of Rome should feel familiar to us, because it is increasingly true about our own culture. The unique lordship of Christ is more and more considered unacceptable. In our secular society religion is considered a purely private affair and one god is as good as any other. It is one thing to say that Jesus is my Lord, and quite another to say that he is Lord of all creation What began as a purely pragmatic affair to ensure religious liberty for all, is increasingly becoming an ethos that seeks to banish God from public life -- leaving the powers that be to carve up the world as they choose.
It was in response to this state of affairs that Pope Pius XI instituted The Feast of Christ the King in 1925 and it has become an ecumenical feast embraced throughout the whole Church. It was a time during which new secular dictatorships were springing up all over Europe. Stalin had just taken power, Hitler had published Mein Kampf, and Mussolini was in control of Italy. The purpose of the Feast was to proclaim the supremacy of Christ in the face of these new challenges to his Lordship.
Jesus is not merely my personal savior, but the savior of the world! When we worship Christ we are doing more than expressing our personal feelings about him, we are proclaiming to the rest of the world that he is worthy to be praised and sits enthroned above every other power. He is not just my Lord but King of Kings and Lord of Lords. All earthly rulers are accountable to him and are subject to his rule. As the Dutch Statesman and theologian Abraham Kuyper said, “There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!”
To some the idea of any kind of king, let alone a King of kings, seems strange and even ominous. “Isn’t this the United States of America?” they ask. “Wasn’t our country based on the rejection of this antiquated and oppressive notion of royalty?” My answer is this, as a Christian I support democracy not because I reject the idea of authority, but because I believe in the Fall of Man. In other words, democracy is best not because people are meant to be their own Lords, but because no person is wise and righteous enough to be trusted with absolute rule. Because all human beings are sinful, unchecked power inevitably becomes cruel and oppressive.
In Ezekiel 34, from which our Old Testament reading today is taken, God pronounces judgment on the wicked shepherds of Israel who have ruled the people with oppression and violence. Because they have failed to rule his people righteously, God promises that he himself will come and judge them and in their place appoint his servant David as king. They have been wicked shepherds, but he will be the Good Shepherd. They have ruled with oppression, but he will rule with righteousness.
David was of course long since dead at the time of this prophecy, but Ezekiel is referring to the Son of David who God promised would be given an everlasting dominion. The Gospels proclaim Jesus as this Davidic king and heir of the prophetic promises. He is a much different king than the wicked kings of Israel. Only he can be trusted with absolute authority, because only he is absolutely good.
His is the rule we all long for in our hearts. I believe human beings were made to worship. We all bend the knee to something. If not the one true God, than some idol. If we do not know the true king than we inevitably fill that void with something else. Tyrants throughout the history have stepped into this void and exploited it for their own self-aggrandizement. C.S. Lewis wrote, “Where men are forbidden to honor a king they honor millionaires, athletes, or film-stars instead: even famous prostitutes or gangsters. For spiritual nature, like bodily nature, will be served; deny it food and it will gobble poison.”
Christ the King is a feast of hope. It may sometimes seem like the greedy, powerful, cruel oppressors rule the world, but they have already been judged and their doom is sure. Our reading from Ephesians assures us that God has raised Christ from the dead and, “seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come.”We believe that he will come again to judge the living and the dead. It is perhaps appropriate that here at the end of our liturgical year we remember in our Gospel that day to come, when all the nations will be gathered before the throne of Christ for judgment.
The prospect of judgment is indeed dreadful, not because we need to fear any unjust verdict—for Christ is the absolutely good king as he is the absolutely just judge—but rather the final judgment fills us with dread precisely because we know that the judge is just and that we are guilty! Nevertheless, the last judgment is a thing for which the saints in all ages have earnestly longed for. If we have heard the gospel we know that the judge is the same one who, while we were yet sinners in rebellion against him, laid down his life for our salvation and redemption.
One of the great documents of the reformation, The Heidelberg Catechism, puts it well. It asks, “What comfort is it to you that Christ will come to judge the living and the dead?” and answers, “In all my sorrow and persecution I lift up my head and eagerly await as judge from heaven the very same person who before has submitted Himself to the judgment of God for my sake, and has removed all the curse from me. He will cast all His and my enemies into everlasting condemnation, but He will take me and all His chosen ones to Himself into heavenly joy and glory”
The Last Judgment is to be rejoiced in because it is the time when God will decisively set our broken world right. God promises us, “I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.”
The promise of salvation is available to all who welcome Christ with an open heart. It is remarkable that those among the nations who are set aside for glory in our gospel text didn’t even realize whom it was they were serving. The King says, “If you have so much as given a cup of water to a poor stranger, you have done it for me!”
There is a warning connected to this however. The King will separate the sheep from the goats. Those who have oppressed the weak and turned away the poor—even if they acknowledged the King with their lips—have in fact rejected him. The tyrants who have exploited the people for their own ends will be exposed as the goats they are and condemned. As Ezekiel says, “Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged.”
With the Universal Church, I invite you to set aside this day as a Feast to Christ our King who is coming again to judge the world. Come let us sing to the Lord, let us shout for joy to the rock of our salvation! Come, let us bow down, and bend the knee, and kneel before the LORD our Maker. For he is our God, and we are the people of his pasture and the sheep of his hand.