When I was in seminary I interned at a church, and after a few months they gave me my first opportunity to preach. Just to be sure they weren’t opening themselves up to something terrible coming out of their pulpit, they checked in on my sermon prep a few times a week for almost a month. And they kept reminding me, time after time, that I was going to be preaching on Christ the King Sunday. I had no idea what Christ the King Sunday was. And to be perfectly honest with you, I still don’t. Do you have any idea what Christ the King Sunday is?
It’s usually around Thanksgiving, just before Advent. And perhaps it’s appropriate that it comes this time of year when, like these past three weeks, we’ve had all of these readings about final judgment and weeping and gnashing of teeth.
Because the Holidays are a difficult time for many of us. Some of us wish that we had a family to be with, others simply want their family to go away—to give them some space and room to breathe. During the holidays we’re reminded of what we’ve lost or what we’ve never had and loneliness and divisions among us can be intensified.
And so you come to church looking for some peace and comfort and unity and you hear what I just read.
Jesus gives us this final parable before his passion and crucifixion, the parable of the final judgment when He will come to judge the living and the dead and separate the sheep from the goats. Those who have done well will be separated to his right, and to his left will go those who haven’t. Find yourself on the wrong side of this divide, according to Jesus, and you’ll go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.
I think for obvious reasons this gives me pause, it really scares me, and begs the question, “is it really such a good thing that this guy is King, and that he is in control”? Are we supposed to hold an image in our minds of a terrifying God raining thunder down upon us at the final judgment?
I don’t think that our king is taking off his velvet gloves of grace, just this once, and putting on brass knuckles of fire and judgment. I think that even in this difficult parable we are being given some good news. The good news that we are judged by Christ’s own criteria. That it is the Lord, whose property it is to always have mercy who stands before us, and that His way is not the way by which the world judges us or by which we judge ourselves.
Jesus’ way is one based on unconditional, unmerited love, love for the least of these. Because you’ll notice that the sheep don’t know that they’re sheep, and the goats don’t know that they’re goats, in this parable. They don’t know what they’ve done or haven’t done to glorify Jesus. Like a blind farmer casting about seed, God’s grace seems to fall down upon the undeserving and the confused.
This is true, we are in need of some sort of a shepherd. To be a sheep means to be out of control, yet cared for. Not the master of your own destiny—the king of your own success and happiness, but someone desperately in need of help and love and forgiveness.
But what about the Goats? What about all those goats and their sentence of eternal punishment.
What if we didn’t try and explain away the difficulty of this passage? Like you might say I just tried to do. What if we looked it straight in the face, and listened and braced for impact?
I think that we are so exhausted by division in our families, nation and even within ourselves, that we’ve understandably developed an allergy to it. It just isn’t right to separate, so the main thing, I think, that we are offended by in Jesus’ parable is that some of us will be glorified over here, and some of us will be eternally punished over there. But this is what Jesus says.
Those who do the right thing will be with the sheep and those who do wrong are out of luck. This is conditionality at its peak. We get what we deserve. It’s uncomfortable, but on some basic level it’s true. There is a difference between right and wrong, between helping the least of these and not.
Here is where we begin to see the power of the Gospel. God is a just God. He doesn’t turn a blind eye to our sin, in fact he knows of it better than we do. He knows the difference between right and wrong and what it looks like to pass judgment on us, to see us in all our brokenness, in our mess. So when God looks out on the landscape of his creation, what he actually sees a world without any division at all, no divide between sheep and goats, but that’s because we are all goats. We’re all guilty. Guilty of imperfection, of placing our own interests above the least of these, of anger and being judgmental.
We are all guilty, planted firmly on Jesus’ left side with the rest of the goats. That is the final judgment, but it isn’t the final line to our story and relationship with God.
In the Roman catacombs, which are a series of underground burial places, you can find fabulous pieces of art that have fueled our Christian imagination for centuries. Such as the incredible fresco of a Good Shepherd found in the Catacombs of San Callisto—with its incredible detail of a brave shepherd carrying a beautiful, frightened white sheep to safety. It’s the classic image, the Good Shepherd rescuing the good sheep.
But if you travel a little further down the line of the catacomb, you’ll stumble upon another image, one a little less familiar. What you’ll see is an image, placed on an otherwise unmarked grave, of Jesus, carrying a grey, scraggly goat.
One of the reasons that the holiday season is so difficult for so many is because there is an impetus placed on being happy, enjoying our blessings and being thankful. But if your life feels just rotten, then this collective positivity and expectation of joy can feel like a salty thumb in our eye. And so this holiday season I pray that we might know that our joy and thanksgivings don’t come from being some dazzling white sheep, from our successes and blemish free Christmas cards. I pray that we might know that our mistakes and pain and losses are known by our Good Shephard, by our true king, and in our places of sin and sadness Jesus comes, offering the eternal and transforming gift of the forgiveness of sins. Which for a goat like you, and a goat like me, that’s really something to be thankful for.