Matthew 25: 31-46
Some of you might have heard of the Netflix series called The Crown. It’s a dramatization of Queen Elizabeth II’s reign beginning with her marriage to Prince Philip. The first season was released in 2017. It is now in its fourth and final season and the ratings are through the roof.
Americans are fascinated by royalty, aren’t we? We would never think of living under a monarch, but we love watching them from outside. We love to look on the glamour, the privilege that they enjoy.
The King receives the best of everything: the best food, the best wine, the best accommodations, the best transportation.
The King never waits for anything or anyone. He’s the last to arrive at any event and the first to leave. No one eats at his table until he lifts his fork. And no one continues to eat when he finishes his meal.
The King enjoys a life of enduring leisure, he never works – everyone works for him. And all of this privilege and preference is given him, not for what he’s accomplished in life. But because of who he is. Or should I say, because of whose son he is. He is born to be a king, he will live as a king, and he will die as the king.
When we see royalty, I think we wonder what it must be like to live that kind of life. And I think we Americans find that fascinating. I know I do. The Fourth season of the Crown won’t be on DVD until next year, but I’ve already put it on my Netflix queue.
But that’s just one side of royalty. There is another side of royalty. A side that we might find abhorrent, scary, and perhaps even repugnant. And that’s the side of Christ the King we see in this morning’s Gospel.
Now as I describe “Christ the King” using words like “scary,” “abhorrent,” and “repugnant,” some of you might want to put some distance between yourself and the pulpit lest that lightning bolt coming down from heaven at any moment does some collateral damage. But if we’re honest with ourselves, are we not just a bit uncomfortable with a Christ who judges, With a Christ who divides? With a Christ who condemns?
Does it not give us pause to hear of a Jesus who says, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”
Is this the same Jesus who says, “Suffer the little children to come to me”? Yes it is. It’s Jesus the King. And if we lived under a monarchy in biblical days, If we weren’t 21st century Americans, We would have no reservations about a king who judges, a king who divides, a king who condemns, And a king whose decrees stand as the supreme law of the land.
If we weren’t 21st century Americans and if we lived under a monarchy like those folks in the bible. . .. . .we would readily accept this imagery of Christ the King because we would understand what it is to live as subjects of a monarch. We would appreciate the sovereignty of a king.
But we live in the 21st century. We live in a wealthy, constitutional republic. We choose our leaders. And we chose them on the basis of what they can do for us.
Indeed, we frown on our leaders getting special treatment from their position. Peter Schweitzer created a furor when he released his book, Throw Them All Out. The book revealed how Senators and Congressmen were getting rich off of insider stock trading. And it’s legal!
We call our leaders “Public Servants” because they are supposed to be working for our benefit. What a far cry from the monarchy mindset.
Now make no mistake. I celebrate our constitutional republic. I abhor the idea of bowing to a king. . .or a queen. I fully embrace the idea that the President serves the people – we don’t serve him.
But that’s America. When it comes to the Kingdom of God, It’s just the opposite. Christ is the king. And as The King, he is the lord of our lives.
As 21st Century Americans, it’s easy to miss that crucial point. Instead, we often construct our own distorted image of God. And, the image we construct is not the image of a Sovereign King.
Remember the movie, The Devil Wears Prada? It was released in 2006 and starred Merrill Steep. She played the character of Miranda Priestly who is the ruthless, cynical, demanding editor of the top fashion magazine in New York.
Andi Sachs is a naïve young woman who has scored a job as Miranda’s personal assistant. Andi shows up early every morning to wait at her desk for Miranda’s arrival. When Miranda eventually shows up, she takes off her oversized fur coat and dumps it along with her purse on Andi’s desk. Then she marches into her own office without so much as a “Good Morning.”
It’s Andi’s job to be at Miranda’s beck and call – day or night – no excuses permitted. She lives to meet Miranda’s every demand and satisfy her slightest wish. When Miranda looks at Andi, all she sees is an expendable servant living to make Miranda’s life easier. When things go wrong, Andi is the one who has to deal with Miranda’s rage. And when Andi accomplishes impossible tasks for Miranda, there’s no thanks, no recognition. Andi is just doing her duty. That’s the life of a personal assistant to a high-powered, self-centered boss.
Some people view God, not as a king, but as their personal assistant. He’s like Andi standing ready at their beck and call 24/7. It’s his job to make life easier for them. He’s there to facilitate their success. When things go wrong in life, when stuff happens, he’s the one who get the blame. And when things go right, when God accomplishes impossible tasks for them, there’s no thanks, no recognition.
It’s kind of like the young MBA going for his first job interview in town. He’s running a little late and can’t find a parking space. He’s in a panic because there’s a lot riding on this interview. So he prays, “God, if you find me a parking space, I will always tithe 1/10 of my salary to you for the rest of my life.” Just then he looks ahead and sees a parking space. So he prays, “Never mind God. I found one.”
Here’s another distorted view of God. Betty Eadie published a bestseller called Embraced By the Light. It was on the N.Y. Times bestseller list for 40 weeks. She wrote of her experience in November of 1973 when she supposedly died while undergoing a hysterectomy and returned five hours later with the secrets of heaven revealed by Jesus.
Now you read Betty’s book and there’s no mention of hell in the after life revealed by Jesus. There’s no mention of judgment Instead, she says that, while she was in heaven, “Jesus never wanted to do or say anything that would offend me.” For Betty Eadie, Jesus is not a King who will judge and divide the sheep and goats, Instead, he is more of a happy, heavenly tour guide.
Matthew’s Gospel presents a very different picture of God. For those who have never lived under a king, it’s a disturbing picture. Instead of reading about mercy, people face judgment for deeds done in their former lives.
In this passage, Jesus executes judgment and divides people from one another. And to press the point, it might be appear that this passage tells us: salvation is by human effort – specifically, by acts of kindness toward others and not by grace.
Where’s the mercy of God?
Part of our distress with a judging, dividing God (a non-inclusive God) stems from a theological shift that occurred in the 20th century. It’s a shift that led to a great divide we see today in Christianity today over the Gospel and the person of Jesus. That shift is captured in the teachings of two theologians: Paul Tillich and Karl Barth. They both lived in the first half of the 20th century, but that’s where their similarity ends.
Paul Tillich was a German Lutheran theologian who taught at Union Seminary in New York. He pioneered the liberal school of theology. He saw the bible as just a record of people’s experience with grace.
Ask Tillich, “What’s the fundamental human problem?”, he would reply “The fundamental human problem is Separation.
Fundamentally, all our problems can be sourced back to our separation from God, from one another, and from ourselves. Separation is our fundamental problem that we face as human beings.”
Now contrast that with what Karl Barth taught at the same time. Karl Barth was a Swiss Reformed theologian who taught in Basel, Switzerland. He agreed with Tillich that mankind is indeed separated from God and separated from one another. But that separation is not the problem, it’s the result of sin.
Sin is what separates us from God and separates us from one another. Ask Barth, “What’s the fundamental human problem?” He would reply, “It’s sin. It’s our rebellion against God.”
So with two very different understandings of our fundamental problem, these two theologians had two different answers to the problem. Tillich says the answer to separation is reunion, inclusion, reconciliation. Both with God, with others, and with ourselves. And God has provided that reunion and inclusion. God has accepted us just as we are – no change is required on our part.
So it follows for Tillich: If God accepts us as we are, then we must accept others just as they are. Anything or any theology that would divide us from one another must be rejected. We bow at the altar of inclusiveness. Tillich’s theology was summed up by Rodney King: “Can’t we all just get along?”
Now contrast that with Barth. Barth says that since “sin” is our fundamental problem, God’s answer to our problem is “forgiveness.” It’s God’s forgiveness that leads to reconciliation with God, with others and with ourselves.
But God’s forgiveness comes at a great price. A just God cannot let rebellion go unpunished. So Jesus took our punishment. Jesus paid the price for our sin when he died on the cross.
This fundamental disagreement is more than just an academic exercise between two theologians. Because if Tillich is right – if the fundamental problem is separation, not sin – then I’ve got to ask, “What was that whole crucifixion thing all about?” We didn’t really need a savior to die for our sins – because “sin” is not the problem. Jesus and his work on the cross become an after thought.
So there is no need to conform to God’s expectations, because God sets no standards.There is no need for personal change; there is no need to pursue holiness. There is no need to please a Sovereign King because God accepts us just as we are. For Tillich, God is just a “live and let live kind of guy.”
Contrast that with Barth. For Barth, God is a king who exercises judgment, but He may also extend grace. He calls us to repent. He calls us to holiness, because He is holy.
How does that play out in real life? What difference does it make in real life if God is our Hang Loose Bud, or God is the Sovereign King? What difference does it make if we are God’s subjects or just God’s pals? Here’s the difference.
Tillich has a surface appeal, doesn’t he? I’d love to preach that God is a warm, cuddly Grandpa who thinks everything you do is just fine. But that would be cruel because that’s a false image of God. And it’s a false understanding of humanity.
Jesus did us a great favor when he revealed himself as the King who will one day judge all humanity. Because seeing God as King of life put things in perspective. It means that you exist, not for your own personal fulfillment, not to be all that you can be, It means that you exist for Him, for His good pleasure, for His glory.
When we understand that God is King and we are subjects, life works, life makes sense. Rick Warren puts it this way in the opening line of his book, The Purpose Driven Life,” : It’s not about you.
How many times have you cried out to God, “Why me?” Why do I always get the short end of the stick? Why do I do all the work and get none of the credit? Why do I have to be stuck in this relationship? Why do I have to suffer with this affliction?
There’s two problems with all those “Why do I?” questions The first problem is that you will never get an answer that satisfies you. The second problem is that you’re asking the wrong question.
Think about it. Can you imagine a servant ever asking “Why do I” questions of his King? It’s absurd. Instead he would ask, “How can I?” questions. “How can I serve you?” “How can I lead a life more pleasing to you?” “How can I build your kingdom?”
It’s a whole different mindset – it’s the mindset of a subject facing the king. And that doesn’t come naturally to us Americans.
Now look at the criteria the King will use to judge. It’s not your personal accomplishments. It’s the good deeds that you did for the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, naked, the sick, the prisoner.
It’s not that these folks merited your good deeds. Certainly, there are those who through no fault of their own, are suffering in life. But how many are suffering because of bad choices that they made? How many have found themselves at a dead end because of their own laziness, their own impulsiveness, their own greed, their own immorality.
The King judges based on the good deeds you do those in need, not because they deserve your good charity, but because when you serve them, you are serve the King. And in a monarchy, life is about serving the King.
There’s an old story about a boy named Tommy who lived in a children’s home. At the dinner table, the housemaster always prayed, “Come, Lord Jesus, be our guest, let this food to us be blessed.”
After this happened several times, Tommy said to him, “You always ask Jesus to come, but he never does. Will he ever come?”
The housemaster said, “If we really want him to, he will.” Tommy thought, “I really want him to, so I’m going to put a chair beside me tonight so he’ll have a place to sit when he comes.”
That evening at supper there was a knock on the door. When they opened the door, they saw an old man, poorly clothed, cold and hungry. The housemaster invited him to join them for supper and pointed to the empty chair. The man sat and, and the Tommy gladly passed food to him and even shared from his own plate.
When the man left, Tommy said, “I guess Jesus couldn’t come himself, so he sent this man in his place.” Exactly. As we serve those in need, we serve the King.
Look again at this morning’s Gospel. The judgment described in Matthew’s gospel reminds us that the arena of faith is not in a church building. It’s in our daily life. It’s in the ordinary, everyday encounters It’s in the deeds that seem hardly worth mentioning,
It’s in this arena that we exercise our faith. It’s where we can demonstrate that the one who paid the price for our sin, is not our pal. He is not our personal assistant, And he is not our tour guide through life.
He the one who will judge all of humanity. And He is nothing less than Christ the King.