Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
As I was preparing for worship for today, I mentioned to quite a few people that this was going to be a very sheep-y Sunday. So far we’ve had sheep going astray, lost sheep, found sheep, beloved sheep, thin sheep, and fat sheep, plus a few goats thrown in for good measure.
The image of God as the shepherd with God’s people as the sheep is pervasive in Scripture and probably familiar to us all. In some circles, being called a sheep is an insult, carrying with it the suggestion that people who act like sheep cannot think for themselves and just go along with whatever the authorities may tell them.
But for Christians, to be a sheep means that we are valued, protected, guided, and cared for by our loving, shepherding God. To be a sheep means that we belong to God our Shepherd, and to be a sheep means that we belong to the flock as well – to the community of God’s people.
Perhaps your mind goes to Psalm 23: “The Lord is my Shepherd, I shall not want. He makes me lie down in green pastures. He leads me beside still waters.” Or maybe you were paying attention last Sunday when the service included Psalm 100: “Know that the Lord is God. It is God who made us, and we belong to God; we are God’s people and the sheep of God’s pasture.”
Jesus’ words in John’s Gospel may also be ringing in your ears: “I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd lays down his life for his sheep… I am the good shepherd. I know my own and my own know me…”
Of course, our sheep-y Scripture texts today have more to say than simply that God loves us, and God protects and cares for us, and God does everything for us. Both the Prophet Ezekiel and the author of Matthew’s Gospel suggest that God has high expectations of the sheep.
God will judge us, based on how we treat the least among us. God will hold us accountable if we bully the weaker ones among us. God will not stand by and let such injustice continue, but God will sort us out. God will seek the lost, and bring back the strays, and bind up the injured, and strengthen the weak. And the fat and the strong, God will destroy.
Each text anticipates a coming Day of Judgement some time in the future, and encourages the sheep (the people of God) to be ready and prepared for that day when God will sort us out, either sending away the bully sheep or dividing the goats from the sheep.
The Gospel parable about the sheep and the goats is the last teaching story Jesus tells to his friends before the Passover meal and his arrest. And it’s part of his response to them when they ask him privately about the end of the age. We might imagine them asking, “What should we be looking for? How will we know when the judgement day is near? And will we recognize you when you come again?”
Next Sunday we will begin the Season of Advent – a time of waiting and expectation as we, like the earliest disciples, prepare for the coming of the Lord. In the most immediate sense, we are waiting for the coming of the Lord when Christmas Day draws near, and we celebrate his birth into our world 2000 years ago.
At the same time, we are also waiting for Christ’s coming again. Although we cannot know the time, we profess our faith that Christ will come again to judge the world and make everything right. In these days of war, violence, oppression, and injustice throughout the world and even within our own communities, we hope and pray that God’s Kingdom will come on earth as it is in heaven.
Bernard of Clairvaux, the twelfth-century abbot and theologian wrote eloquently of “three Advents”: the Advent at Christmas when Christ comes as a tiny child; the Advent at the end of the age when he comes again to judge the world; and a “middle” Advent, the everyday arrival of Jesus.
The Parable of the Sheep and the Goats combines the latter two: it’s about the last Advent, the end of the age and the Day of Judgement. But it’s also about the “middle” Advent when Jesus reveals his daily, mysterious presence in the hungry, the thirsty, the stranger, the impoverished, the sick and the prisoner. Jesus is coming, and he is here!
Jesus’ disciples, and the Christians of Matthew’s community, and Christians today as well may be wondering about when Jesus will come again, and what that will be like, and whether we’ll be judged worthy and righteous in God’s eyes. But Jesus tells us not to focus so much on looking for the Son of Man coming on the clouds. Instead, our job as sheep is to look for Christ showing up in the little ones right in front of us.
When we were discussing this passage in Bible study earlier this week, folks were paying close attention to the list of places where Jesus might show up. And I think we were kind of mentally checking off whether we had indeed done most of these things for the little ones, and therefore for Jesus.
Jesus said: “I was hungry and you gave me food.” Yes, I gave to the Food Bank and made sandwiches for Waterston House. Oh, and I donated to the Canadian Foodgrains Bank as well.
“I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink.” Does hosting coffee hour at church count? Or should I have done more to advocate for clean drinking water in First Nations communities that, shockingly, still have to boil their water?
“I was a stranger and you welcomed me.” I wonder if it was enough that I gave some used furniture for a refugee family. Do you think I’m also supposed to take the time to get to know them and help them feel at home?
“I was naked and you gave me clothing.” Oh gosh! This is quite the long list of things I’m supposed to do. I suppose I could go through my closets and see how many extra hats and gloves I have that someone else could really use.
“I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me.” The list goes on and on. And we could probably even add to it…
I was lonely and you reached out to me.
I was scared and you comforted me.
I was in danger and you sheltered me.
I was discriminated against and you spoke up for me.
I was silenced and you invited me to speak.
It’s not a check list of things we need to do to earn our “sheep” status, or to survive the judgement day, and get into heaven. It’s a way of life that we are called to as sheep of the Good Shepherd who have been loved, and gathered, and cared for first.
Probably we need to give less time and attention to worrying about whether we are sheep or goats, thin sheep or fat sheep, and just concentrate on living into our identity as beloved sheep of the good shepherd. Let’s flock together and help each other as we learn and grow into our inherent sheepyness.
May this coming Advent season be a time when we open our eyes to watch for the everyday arrival of Jesus, and when we welcome him… when we welcome them with love, justice, and generosity.