The Shepherd King
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Today is the last Sunday of the Church liturgical year. You may know that in the Christian tradition, we mark the time a little differently than the secular world. Rather than beginning January 1st, the Church year begins with the First Sunday of Advent. It makes sense, of course, that we begin our year with the four-week season of preparation for the birth of Christ. The Christian year then flows through several important feast days, including Christmas, Epiphany, Easter, and Pentecost, before entering the long season of what we call Ordinary Time.
The last Sunday of Ordinary Time, which is also the last Sunday of the Christian year, is celebrated as Christ the King Sunday. On this day each year, the Church is called to end the year where we began it — waiting for the arrival of the king. But instead of remembering the birth of a child, on this particular day we are mindful of eschatology, the fancy theological word for the last things. Which is to say, we don’t just believe that Christ was King back then, when he was born in Bethlehem.
We also believe that Christ is King forever. And that he will return some day in glory, in a final judgment and victory that the creeds of the Church have long affirmed. Jesus told us that no one knows — not even he himself — when that day will be. We just know with the certainty of our faith that it will happen someday. And that when it does, it will be good.
But we also believe that Christ is King today. That while he will indeed return some day, we are called to live our lives as if he is our King here and now. In fact, the whole reason that we celebrate this particular day is to remind ourselves of this truth.
Because you see, Christ the King Sunday is actually the newest day in the Christian liturgical calendar. It was added to the calendar in 1925 by the Roman Catholic Church, in response to the increasing secularization of the early 20th century. In particular, the Church was alarmed at the plight of Mexican Christians, who were being told by the Mexican government that their ultimate allegiance must be to their government. The Catholic Church in Mexico rejected this notion, making clear to the faithful that God comes first, above all other loyalties or devotions. To teach and reinforce this assertion, they held public parades throughout the country defiantly proclaiming, “Cristo Rey!” “Christ is King!”
Pope Pius XI made that defiant declaration the basis for a Holy Day, naming it, “Christ, the King of the Universe.” After the Second Vatican Council in the mid 1960’s, the observation of Christ the King Sunday moved from October to the last Sunday of the Christian Year. And when the United Methodist Church adopted the Revised Common Lectionary, we began observing it, too.
Like so much of the Christian tradition, the theology of this day is both comforting and challenging. The theology of Christ the King is comforting because we remind ourselves that we love and serve a Lord who was, is, and ever will be King. Which means that though sin and evil and suffering and death might appear temporarily to hold the upper hand — as they have in recent months in heartbreaking acts of violence and hate — Christ the King is our Savior and Redeemer who will ultimately make things right in the end.
The theology of Christ the King is challenging because we love and serve a Lord who demands the first claim on our loyalty and devotion, above any earthly power. Which means that our faith must not only inform, but also guide our lives, our actions, our ideologies, and — yes — even our politics. Christ the King Sunday reminds us that our allegiance is due — first, best, and ultimately — to the life, ministry, teachings, and commandments of Jesus. And if you’ve studied his life, ministry, teachings, and commandments very long or in any depth, you well know that’s a challenging bar indeed. To say “Cristo Rey!”, “Christ is King!” of our souls and hearts and lives is no small thing, demanding no small commitment.
On Christ the King Sunday, I can’t help but think of the lyrics of Handel’s Messiah — “and He shall reign forever and ever.” The story of its writing, in the year 1741, is pretty incredible. Struck by a spirit of intense creativity, it took Handel just 24 days to compose the 260 pages of manuscript for Messiah. One of his biographers wrote, “Considering the immensity of the work, and the short time involved, it will remain, perhaps forever, the greatest feat in the whole history of music composition.”
Over the course of those 24 days, Handel did not leave the house where he was staying. One of the servants attending to him during those 24 incredible days observed about him later, “(All the time), he was praying, or he was weeping, or he was staring into eternity.”
One night, one of his servants was delivering a tray of food to him, food that would no doubt remain largely untouched, as had so many of the meals delivered to him during this 24-day period. As the servant swung the door open to the room where Messiah was being written, he and Handel startled each other.
The great composer was standing with tears streaming down his face, filled with emotion. Handel said, “I did think I did see all heaven before me, and the great God himself.” He had just completed the Hallelujah Chorus.
No matter how many times I hear it or sing it, during the Advent season when we do our Messiah Sing-along here as a fundraiser for Grand Central Station, or on Easter morning at the end of services celebrating the Resurrection, that line fills me with emotion — “and he shall reign forever and ever.”
But what, exactly, does that reign look like? Let’s turn to our text for this morning, which is the Old Testament lectionary text for the day…
[Read Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24]
Ezekiel was a priest and prophet who was taken into Exile in Babylon after the fall of Jerusalem. The Book of Ezekiel is a record of his work prophesying to his fellow exiles. And in our Scripture text for this morning, he is prophesying about the Anointed One, the Messiah who will some day rise up to lead God’s people out of the darkness.
But as Ezekiel sees it, the reign of this King will not be about military or political power. Ezekiel believed that Israel’s problems, including the catastrophe of the Exile, could be traced to their kings and other political leaders. Ezekiel believed that those in power were poor examples of shepherds for their people.
A few verses before our passage this morning, Ezekiel calls out these leaders for failing to care for the people: “…you shepherds of Israel who have been feeding yourselves! Should not shepherds feed the sheep? You eat the fat, you clothe yourselves with wool, you slaughter the fatlings; but you do not feed the sheep. You have not strengthened the weak, you have not healed the sick, you have not bound up the injured, you have not brought back the strayed, you have not sought the lost, but with force and harshness you have ruled them.”
Ezekiel prophesies that the Messiah will be the leader the people deserve, but have not had. A leader who will lead with compassion and not exploitation. A leader who will look to the needs of the people instead of himself. A leader who will be the opposite of the kinds of leaders the people have had to this point. A shepherd king, instead of a selfish and self-serving king.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus refers to himself as the Good Shepherd. No doubt with an eye to this prophecy of Ezekiel. This is the King we love and serve. This is the King whose life, ministry, teachings, and commandments should inform and shape our lives. This is a theology that is both comforting and challenging, because as followers of the Shepherd King, our lives should reflect the compassionate example he set for us.
Aside from the music itself, there’s another reason to love Handel’s Messiah. Its premiere was staged as a charity event, an event that raised enough money to free 142 people from debtor’s prison. Which, in and of itself, would have been an incredible legacy for Handel to have left. But that first performance of Messiah began a tradition that continued to the end of Handel’s life. Until he died, he performed Messiah at the end of the concert season only for charity, forbidding even the printing of the work, lest it take away from its charitable intent.
Who knows how many how many lives were improved by freeing Christ’s sheep from debtors prisons. How many of Christ’s sheep were fed. How many weak were strengthened. How many sick were healed. All as a result of Handel’s using his greatest work in service to others. Clearly, he took seriously the life, ministry, teachings, and commandments of the King he knew would reign forever and ever.
Following one of those performances of Messiah for charity, a member of the nobility congratulated Handel on the “splendid entertainment.” Handel replied, “My Lord, I should be sorry if I only entertained them. I wished to make them better.”
So, too, of course, did the Messiah. The shepherd king prophesied by Ezekiel whose reign would be marked by compassion and love, rather than the exploitation and indifference too often on display from our human leaders.
So the question for us as we close another year, soon to turn our attention to the Advent season, is this. How will our lives reflect the loyalty we pledge to Christ our Shepherd King? How will our lives be shaped by his life, ministry, teachings, and commandments? Specifically, as we prepare for his birth, how we will demonstrate that he truly is the King of our hearts, souls, and lives?
One of the things I love about serving this congregation is that we offer lots of ways to show compassion to others. Between now and Christmas, I hope you’ll consider participating in one of these ways.
We have once again adopted families for Christmas, to purchase gifts and food for families in need. If you didn’t get a chance to adopt a family last week, you can help sort and deliver the items. Contact Wendy Vellotti for details about how you can help.
At our Mosaic location, we are providing food for Piner families in need, and you can help with this project both by buying food and helping pack it.
You can come to our annual Messiah Sing-Along. Standing in the tradition Handel himself started and continued throughout his life, you can both enjoy the splendid entertainment and help raise money for the vital ministry of Grand Central Station.
And finally, you can come to church on Christmas Eve and leave a Communion Rail Offering for Methodist Children’s Home. As we continue a 120-year tradition of Methodist Churches supporting their work in our own North Texas Conference with a special offering during the Christmas season.
Friends, as one year ends and another begins, let us end where we began. With an expectant waiting for the One who was, is, and ever will be King. May we allow him to reign in our lives as the Shepherd King whose life, ministry, teachings, and commandments are our guide and inspiration.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.