Tuesday, December 13, 2011

3 Advent, Year B, 20 November 2011

Ephesians 1:15-23, Matthew 25: 31-46
Preached by Rev. Jason Haddox

Our Gospel this morning invites us to see beyond appearances. And the imagery of the sheep and the goats, which is what often gets most of the attention in this passage, really isn’t the point at all.

The Son of Man (as Jesus calls himself repeatedly in Matthew’s gospel) is a mysterious figure. He is a human being, like any other, who eats and drinks and gets hungry and thirsty, who has to sleep and burp and sneeze and all those things that we all do.

And yet, The Son of Man is not like anyone else at all.

The Son of Man is a title, mentioned first in the Book of Daniel, one of the strangest, most dream-sequence-filled books of the Bible. In that story, the prophet Daniel sleeps, and dreams of unearthly creatures gathered in the heavenly presence of God. God is seated on the high throne, in majesty and awe. Into this scene comes one “like a Son of Man” to be greeted and welcomed and placed in a position of highest honor and dignity. The Son of Man is at once recognizably human, and at the same time unmistakably much more than that.

All our gospel readings for the last several weeks have been leading to this climactic episode. And many of them have shared the theme of waiting and watching without being exactly clear when, or how, the waiting will conclude.

The sleepy bridesmaids are waiting for the bride and groom to arrive so that the celebration may begin. Some of them run low on oil for their lanterns, and the others send them on a fools’ errand at midnight. And in their running around in darkness, they miss the party altogether.

The slaves are waiting for the master who went on a long journey, and left them with untold riches to tend and use. For the one who decided ahead of time that he was himself incapable of doing anything satisfactory, that decision became a self-fulfilling prophecy.

And this morning, we read this grand and overwhelming (and rather weird) passage about the sheep and the goats being separated, to the left and to the right of “the king.”

Notice what happens with the titles. “The Son of Man” of whom we’ve heard much in Matthew’s gospel already, disappears. “The King” seated on the throne, is revealed for the first time.

In the classic stories of childhood, there’s always that moment of revelation. The clock strikes midnight and the golden carriage turns back into a pumpkin. Beauty kisses the Beast, and the enchantment is broken, the prince and kingdom are released from bondage, and all is seen as it really truly is.

This passage of Matthew’s gospel is that moment. Everything has been leading to this point, and now all is revealed, just in time.

For if we were to keep reading, in the very next sentence we would hear Jesus reminding his hearers that it is now two days before the feast of the Passover. The cross is looming large in the background, the central drama of the Gospel—Jesus’ arrest, trial, death and resurrection—is about to begin.

Matthew presents Jesus as the good, the perfect, the most excellent teacher. He is Moses all over again, but more even than Moses, giver of the Torah, the teaching of God. Jesus is, in himself, the embodiment and completion of that teaching, as well as the one who brings it to the rest of us. And these last few gospel passages we’ve heard, from chapters 24 and 25, are the final Cliff Notes version of the teaching, given in the last minutes before the final exam begins.

For they will all—Jesus and his followers, way back then, and even now—undergo a trial of knowledge, endurance, skill and identity. EVERYTHING is up for grabs. And he wants them to understand, as clearly as possible, what they are to do.

I used to think of this story of the separating of the sheep and the goats as a clobber passage. Meaning “if you don’t get it right, God’s gonna clobber you and send you off to hell.” I grew up thinking that about a lot of the Bible, and it’s certainly possible to read large portions of the Bible that way if you want to.

But that sort of reading has two unfortunate effects: One, it puts God in the position of an omniscient bookkeeper in the sky, watching and waiting for any and every time I screw up, to catch me in sins of omission and commission. And two, it puts me in the position of somehow potentially being ABLE to work my way into God’s favor and approval by doing everything right and avoiding everything wrong, by my own will or determination. In neither of those effects is there any place for forgiveness, or mercy, or grace. To read this or any other passage of Scripture in such a way misses the point by making human beings more Godlike than God’s own self.

To read this passage literally would suggest that, if I went down to Broad Street one day, and declined to give money to a panhandler on the sidewalk, then immediately thereafter got hit by a bus, that I would therefore immediately be counted among “the goats.” We can’t read the passage in that manner, and do it any kind of justice.

But neither can we ignore it, or say it doesn’t mean anything much at all. The expectation is clear: Feed the hungry. Give drink to the thirsty. Clothe the naked. Visit those in prison, and who are sick. We see the images of those expectations every Sunday morning, in our stained glass windows in the vestibule, when we go in and out of church.

But notice something else in the gospel reading: Both the “sheep” and the “goats” ask exactly the same question. “When did we see you hungry and thirsty and naked and…and…and…?” They didn’t see the king. They didn’t see anything other than a Son of Man, or a Daughter of Woman. Another human being, just like themselves. This is the place of revelation. This is the moment when the enchantment is broken, the light dawns, and all things are seen for what they truly are.

They did not see with their eyes in any case. If they saw at all, if they perceived even in the slightest, then it was with the eyes of their hearts—discovering the hidden King, dressed in rags, masquerading as one of “them people.”

An old Scottish prayer tells us that
“Often, often, often, Christ goes in the stranger’s guise;
Often, often, often, Christ goes in the stranger’s guise.”

Christ is on his way to the cross, the place of ultimate humiliation and degradation. And yet that humiliation becomes the place where the enchantments of the world are broken, and the power and light of God are released to bring about grace, and mercy, and forgiveness. This is the power of which the writer of Ephesians speaks, “far above all rule and authority and power and dominion…not only in this age but also in the age to come.”

It does not look like any kingdom we have ever seen.
He does not look like any king we have ever known.

Let us pray.
Open the eyes of our hearts, O God, that we may see Christ, however he may come. Open our ears, and quiet our busy chattering minds, that we may hear his voice. Raise us up to follow and serve him, wherever he may lead. Amen.

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