‘When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, “Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” Then the righteous will answer him, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry and gave you food, or thirsty and gave you something to drink? And when was it that we saw you a stranger and welcomed you, or naked and gave you clothing? And when was it that we saw you sick or in prison and visited you?” And the king will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me.” Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” Then they also will answer, “Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?” Then he will answer them, “Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.” And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.’
Grace to you and peace from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen
We have heard a lot about the kingdom of heaven lately. Matthew writes a lot about what this event will look like. Most often we tend to think of the kingdom as this future, far-off hope. A place above the clouds where God dwells on the throne. But on this Christ the King Sunday, Jesus has a rather surprising view of the kingdom, and Jesus tells us that the kingdom doesn’t come exactly as we expect it to.
We tend to talk about the kingdom of heaven without realizing it. We talk about it at least once every week. Do you know where? In the Lord’s Prayer. Every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer together, we collectively ask for God’s kingdom to come. “Thy kingdom come,” we say. But what is this mysterious kingdom that we are praying for? Is it some mystical far-off place above the clouds? Is it some place with harps and wings and streets of gold, people in robes playing harps, and mansions in the sky? Is it a place with a king sitting high on a throne, looking down on all of his subjects? What is this place called the kingdom, and what are we praying for, when we pray, “Thy kingdom come.”?
In our gospel lesson for today, we hear more concretely than we maybe ever have about what “thy kingdom comes” really means. Jesus, in the weeks leading up to this Christ the King Sunday, has been pretty cryptic about what the kingdom of God is, speaking is parables that have been debated and discussed for generations. Today, though, we learn that the way the kingdom comes is a surprise to even those closest friends and followers Jesus. Jesus tells his disciples a story. Imagine it is the end of time, he says. And all nations are gathered before Christ the king. The king divides people into two groups: the sheep and the goats. To the sheep he says, “You made my kingdom happen. When I was sick, you visited me. When I was hungry, you fed me. When I was a stranger, you welcomed me.”
But the sheep don’t understand what the king means. “Lord, when did we do this?” they ask. “We never visited you when you were sick, or fed you when you were hungry. How could this be?” And he tells them, “Just as you did this to the least of these, you did this to me.”
This story was surely a surprise to all of Jesus’ listeners, including his disciples. They were surprised that this was how Jesus defined the kingdom coming. They were probably expecting something much more magnificent or dramatic. They certainly wouldn’t have expected the king to be seen in those most vulnerable in the world. Surely the king doesn’t show up among the LEAST of these. Kings have more dignity than that, don’t they? They wouldn’t be found among the dregs of society.
But Jesus tells them that this is the kind of king he is, and this is where his kingdom can be found. The king is found in unexpected places, and the kingdom is ushered in in unexpected ways. Because Jesus came to change the world. He came to turn everything on its head. His kingdom will be different, because he is different. And what is important to him is different. WHO is important to him is different.
Jesus wanted to change the way things were done. He wanted to change the way people viewed the kingdom of God and the way people viewed the world. The kingdom isn’t about power and riches. And he as king won’t be found far removed from the people, on some far off, inaccessible throne in the sky.
Rather, the kingdom is seen when people care for each other. The kingdom is seen when people love each other. The kingdom is seen when people welcome each other. And Christ the King is seen in the eyes of all those most vulnerable in the world. Not only near them. But dwelling in them. This is as concrete as the kingdom of heaven gets for us. It’s almost as if Jesus has just written a “Dummies Guide” for the kingdom of heaven. Feed each other, love each other, welcome each other. This is what is look like.
It was a story that was surprising to those listening at the time, even Jesus’ closest followers. And it is a story that is still surprising us today. As often as we have heard about what the kingdom of God is like, we still have a hard time wrapping our minds around it. We are forced to redefine our idea of the kingdom of heaven when we understand what the kingdom of heaven looks like in action.
Like those in Jesus’ time, when we think of a king, we don’t think poor and vulnerable. We think crowns and jewels and big castles. We think of pomp and circumstance. We imagine some person giving commands from a throne to the peasants below. It is hard to imagine a king dwelling in the lowest of the low in our society. It would be as if President Obama or Queen Elizabeth sleeping in a cardboard box or standing in line at the Community Kitchen. It just doesn’t come easily to us.
And we often expect God’s kingdom to come in a much more dramatic way than through service, love, and care, don’t we? We might expect trumpets blowing, the skies opening up and crazy things happening. That’s how a lot of people describe the coming of God, don’t they. Even in the Christmas story, there’s a heavenly choir singing praises to a baby king. But the kingdom is much more subversive, much more sneaky. It can come upon us, now and in the future, in ways that look much different than the pomp and circumstance we often expect. We don’t know what, exactly, the kingdom will eventually look like, when it takes full reign, but Jesus tells us not to worry too much about that.
Jesus says the kingdom is here, right now. The kingdom is seen today when the hungry are fed, the poor are provided for, the stranger is welcomed, the single mother and the homeless vet get the care they need and deserve, and those without a voice are given a voice. God’s kingdom comes when God’s will is done.
God’s kingdom comes at different times for each of us, when we live under the reign of Christ our king, following the challenges he sets forth for us in this Gospel lesson. God’s kingdom comes when we visit the nursing homes. God’s kingdom comes when we offer a bowl of soup to one in need. When we collect money for those who have gone through a disaster or to help people with malaria. When we make Thanksgiving baskets for those in our community. Or send school kits to those in other parts of the world.
God’s kingdom shows up in the most surprising ways. Not in the ways we expect. This text is a challenge for all of us not to miss those moments to make the kingdom happen. And just as this idea of kingdom and king is counter-cultural, so are we called to be counter-cultural. To reach out to those who the world forgets or wishes they could forget. To speak out for justice on behalf of the poor and the oppressed—those marginalized in our society. To touch those who are hurting. To visit and care for those who are suffering. To pray with those who are dying. To remember that Christ is in the ones who are the most vulnerable in this world.
This month, we have been talking about what it means to live as thankful people. Today, our theme is “Thankfulness is a way of life.” Being thankful people is about more than counting our blessings while we eat turkey on Thursday. It is a lifestyle that takes years to establish. Living as people who know what God has given us, and being willing to share those gifts to glorify God, to serve a world in need, and to make a difference. Thankfulness isn’t just a word we say. It is the way we live. As we reach out to a world in need, as we serve the world God has given us to care for, as we work to bring God’s kingdom into the world here and now…THAT is how we live as thankful people. People who understand the blessings of God…and can’t help but want to share those blessings with the world.
And we remember today, on Christ the King Sunday, that we have so much to be thankful for. We have a king who never turned his back on the little and the lost. For in the lost state of our sinfulness, he came to us. He walked in the shoes of the most vulnerable in this world. He gave up his throne and he gave his life for the sake of the little ones in his kingdom. Our king is unlike any king this world has ever known.
And often the world doesn’t know him. I think we call attest to that, especially if we are truly the hungry, poor, depressed, sick, or imprisoned. And I want to say that if you, listening here, are the poor, hungry, alienated, scared, hurting, sick, dying, Jesus the king promises that he is right there with you. His love for you and for all of us is so deep and so strong that he will go with us in the darkest places of our lives and lead us to the light of his love and grace. He will not abandon you. He will not leave us stranded or alone. We can love and care for others because we have a king who loves and cares for us that much.
And as we live out this tough challenge laid out for us in Matthew’s Gospel—as we seek to be people of the kingdom—Jesus promises to give us strength to do his work. To go with us on our journey. And to forgive us when we fail.
Every time we pray the Lord’s Prayer, we pray, “Thy Kingdom Come.” And I say again, “God, let your kingdom come. Let it come to us, here and now, and let us live in the freedom that only you can offer.” Amen