Christ the King
26th November 2023
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Matthew 25:31- end
In the name of the +Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.
Today we celebrate the Feast of Christ the King, one of the most recent additions to the Christian calendar. Of course Christians have always recognized Christ as King, going back to the very beginning. But it was only in the twentieth century that it was felt necessary to have a special feast day dedicated to the kingship of Christ – this was very much a response to the political trends of the last century, and the world wars and totalitarian regimes that were sadly such a feature of it. It was only in the 1960s that the Feast of Christ the King found its current form, celebrated on the last Sunday of the liturgical year, before the new cycle begins with Advent Sunday. As such it becomes the climax of the church’s year, which really makes a lot of sense.
And since this Sunday is the last Sunday of the church’s year, there’s no harm in having a little sneak preview of what’s coming in the next. Whilst this year our gospels have mostly been drawn from Matthew, next year they will come mostly from Mark, but with quite a lot of John as well. Whilst this year our Old Testament readings have mostly been a semi-continuous selection from Genesis and Exodus, next year we will be looking at another great narrative ark of the Old Testament, that of the kings, starting with the unhappy Saul, and moving through some of the stories of David and Solomon, before finishing with some passages from the wisdom literature.
And this focus on kingship creates a nice link with today’s feast. The misfortunes of the Davidic dynasty lie behind today’s Old Testament reading from the prophecy of Ezekiel. Today’s passage comes at the end of a pretty fearsome double denunciation.
The first part, which we haven’t heard today, is one of the most uncomfortable passages in the bible for anyone in a position of authority or responsibility, not least the clergy. In it, the Lord, through Ezekiel, chastises those he describes as “the shepherds of Israel” who have failed to properly care for the sheep. “I am against the shepherds”, says the Lord, “and I will hold them accountable for my sheep”. The Lord goes on to promise, as we have heard this morning, that He will come in person to rescue the sheep from the false shepherds.
The second denunciation is directed against the sheep themselves, or rather, those who are accused of trampling the pasture and fouling the water with their feet, of pushing with flank and shoulder and butting with their horns. Again, there is a promise of deliverance, but this time it is a new David who will be their shepherd.
The shepherd image is the dominant biblical image for kingship and for leadership more generally. Ezekiel’s is perhaps the fullest exploration of the metaphor, certainly in the Old Testament. Their duties are described by the prophet as feeding their sheep, strengthening the weak, binding up the injured, healing the sick, bringing back the strays, seeking the lost. They are not to rule with harshness and force. And they are to judge between sheep and sheep, protecting the weak from the strong.
The image of the shepherd is one that combines a gentle and caring side with a certain toughness. There is a real tenderness in the care that the shepherd is expected to show for the sheep. As a model for authority and leadership, this is one that emphasizes care and service. It is not the job of the shepherd to dominate or to exploit the sheep; they are not to rule with harshness and force. But there is also a stern, tough side to the ideal shepherd – searching for the stray, seeking the lost, bringing them back to the fold: there is an element of discipline here. Likewise in judging between sheep and sheep, protecting the week from the strong.
For Christians Jesus is the perfect fulfilment of Ezekiel’s prophecy. He is the Good Shepherd who throughout the gospels is found feeding, healing, comforting, binding up, seeking the lost, bringing back the strays, reproving the strong. And more than that, He is both the fulfilment of God’s promise that He will Himself come to be the shepherd of His people, and also that He will set David over them. Jesus is both the fulfilment of the Old Testament tradition of God’s presence with His people, and the heir to the Davidic line of kings.
Today’s gospel reading clearly grows out of the earlier shepherd traditions of the Hebrew scriptures, and perhaps particularly from Ezekiel’s prophecy. Again we see the theme of judgement: judgement, as Ezekiel puts it, between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats. And again we see the familiar criteria for judgement: Jesus the Shepherd King is concerned for the welfare of the least of His brothers.
The Feast of Christ the King was instituted in response to the horrors of the twentieth century, contrasting the values of Christ the Universal King with the dictators and demagogues of that time. But of course Jesus always was a challenge to worldly authority: just ask Herod or Pontius Pilate. And thank God He still is. Our age as much as any other needs a different model of power and authority to those currently on offer. Jesus offers the perfect model of authority as care and service without thought for reward, and yet Jesus is also much more than that.
Yes, the Feast of Christ the King shows us that there are other ways, better ways of doing leadership and power. But more importantly it reminds us that Christ’s is ultimately the only true kingship, that Christ’s is the universal kingship, that Christ’s is the eternal kingship. The games and pretensions of our current crop of bullies and demagogues are just that; they will be swept away like all those who have come before them; they too will have to stand before the judgement seat and give an account of their care of the sheep.
So let us give thanks and praise to God for the gentle rule of Christ the King, and pray that the Church and the whole world may be conformed to His ways, to whom with the +Father and the Holy Spirit be all praise and glory now and unto ages of ages. Amen