Three Mile Cross, November 24th 2002


Christ's Coming in Glory


Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24
Matthew 25:31-46


Praise the Lord who Reigns above
For the Fruits of his Creation
Come Divine Interpreter
There's a Spirit in the Air
At the Name of Jesus



I can't say I was thrilled when I first read the lectionary readings for this week. "Great," I thought. "Judgement. Just what I don't want to preach on." Still, I was determined to persevere with it, so I had a look at what my commentary had to say about these two readings. The answer is - very little, at least about the "judgement" bits of the passages. Well, it had nothing to say about the little mention of judgement in Ezekiel. There was a bit more about the bit in Matthew. Here's what's written in Matthew: "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.'" And here's what my commentary had to say: "This binary thinking may offend some." Well, I wouldn't say I'm offended by it as such, but it's not very reassuring. It goes on: "It stems from the deuteronomistic theology of a covenant conditioned by human obligation (as opposed to the covenant of unconditional divine commitment, represented in the New Testament by Paul's theology). It presupposes human moral responsibility and conscience and God taking human actions seriously." Well, that's helpful, isn't it? Okay, I thought. Let's see what the Methodist Catechism has to say. The question posed in the catechism is: "What do the Creeds teach about the second coming of Jesus and the final judgement?" The answer is, as another preacher put it recently, 'typically Methodist': "In his own way and in his own time God will finally judge the human race through Christ, bring all things together under the authority of Christ, and establish his reign of love for ever." Do you know, I can't really see how that particularly fits in with the passage.

So, after a bit of head-scratching, I decided not to preach on the judgemental bits of these passages. Well, maybe a little bit, right at the end of this sermon - and I'll warn you in advance that it's not much better than the two quotes I've just given you, but it's what I feel about the whole issue.

"The Good News"


Fortunately, there's a lot more to these passages than the bad news for some. We preach a Gospel of Good News, and there's plenty of that here too. Here are a few choice bits: "I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak." "I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged." "Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world." "The righteous will go into eternal life."

Sounds good, doesn't it? In fact, almost the whole of the Ezekiel passage we read is positive, and comforting. There's a lot about God seeking out those of his sheep who have been scattered, and that goes back to the bit before the part we read, where Ezekiel talks about the sheep of Israel being "scattered" because they had no shepherd. The men who were meant to be looking after them spiritually had instead been looking after themselves. So now God decides instead to look after them directly, gather them up and look after them.


Christ in Glory

The Matthew reading is at the end of Jesus' public ministry, which is appropriate as it deals with the second coming and the "final days" of earthly light. This reading's a bit grander than the Ezekiel one, and starts off with a marvellous image: "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." Now, however literally you may or may not happen to take sentences like that, it's an amazing image. Here is Jesus at the centre, and in my mind there's a heck of a lot of light around, shining on him and from him and round him. Next come the angels - not just some, but all the angels. He's on his throne of glory, more regal than anything we could possibly have seen on earth. Finally, all the nations are gathered before him. All the nations. Of all time. I don't know how big the biggest crowd you've ever been in is, but I shouldn't think I've ever been in one of more than a few thousand. Imagine that biggest crowd you've been in. Now imagine fifty times that many people - that might be roughly the population of Reading, right now. Now imagine, if you can, four hundred times that many people. That's roughly the population of the United Kingdom, right now. It's getting to be a bit of a stretch, I suspect, but multiply that by ten, to get roughly the population of Europe, right now. Another ten times that and we get to very roughly the population of the world, right now.

That's one snapshot of the nations of the world. Now think about all the people who've gone before us - and the ones still to come. It's hard to think about numbers that big - at least I find it hard. But that verse from Matthew talks about all those people being in front of Jesus, for him to judge, one by one. Wow. If that isn't a humbling and awe-inspiring thought, I don't know what is.

Our part

So, that's Christ - but what about us? What about the ones Jesus is judging? Well, let's first look at the ones he says are blessed by God. They have fed the hungry, given drink to the thirsty, welcomed strangers, given clothing to the naked, taken care of the sick, and visited those in prison. Incidentally, these acts aren't picked at random. They form six of the seven "corporal works of mercy in the catechitical tradition" - the one missed out is that of burying the dead. I think it's very important that in the passage, the righteous don't understand what Jesus is saying - they say they've never seen him hungry, or him thirsty, etc. When they did those things for others, they weren't doing it so they could give a list of things at the time of judgement. They did it out of a sense of justice and mercy. The definition of a Christian shouldn't be "someone who is nice to people". The definition of a Christian should be Christ-based, with qualities such as mercy coming from that naturally. As Paul says in Galatians, "The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control." When we accept Christ into our hearts, we reflect the love he shows us and the sacrifice he's made for us by showing love to others, and making sacrifices ourselves for those in need. We're like mirror-balls in a dance hall - we shed light to the rest of the world solely because of the powerful light shone on us in the first place.

That, in my view, is how the argument about whether Christians are saved by acts or by faith is resolved. We are saved by faith, but the natural result of that faith should be acts anyway.

So what is the fate of those saved in this way? They shall inherit the kingdom, and have eternal life. There are no detailed descriptions of eternal life here, but the passage in Ezekiel gives us more to fire our imaginations with. The nations will be like sheep fed with good pasture; good grazing land and the rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. The injured will be bound up, those who have strayed will be returned, and the weak shall be strengthened. They shall be fed with justice. That's something to keep our hope and faith burning within us.


Finally, I clearly can't preach on these readings without touching on judgement at all. Those who are judged to be unworthy are those who saw people hungry but did not feed them, saw people thirsty but did not give them something to drink. It is not good enough for them to say that they never passed by Jesus when he was hungry or thirsty - our mercy and compassion should be for everyone, inspired by the love shown first for us.

The part of Ezekiel that we skipped earlier gives an interesting perspective on this. It says: "As for you, my flock, thus says the Lord God: I shall judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats: Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture, but you must tread down with your feet the rest of your pasture? When you drink of clear water, must you foul the rest with your feet? And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet?" My probably over-simplistic interpretation of this in a modern context is that God's bounty is enough for the whole world. There is plenty for all, so long as we are not too greedy. It sounds clichéd, I know, but that doesn't make it any less true. Through campaigns like Jubilee 2000 we can make a difference, and help to redress the balance - and I think we can all agree that God wants the earth's riches to be more fairly shared.

I'm not, however, suggesting that God's judgement is going to be based on just acts of mercy. We can learn from the readings how our faith should transform our lives into ever more compassionate ones, but I'm certainly not going to try to say how God will judge anyone. It's not for me to know, and I suspect it's not for anyone on this earth to know. We can hold onto a few things, though:

God's judgement will be just - by whatever He deems justice to be, which may be different from our earthly ideas.

God's judgement is the ultimate judgement, and we should not be too hasty to pass judgement ourselves on earth.

Finally, and most importantly, Christ sacrificed himself that we might pass through God's judgement which would otherwise be unattainable.


I don't want to end on a difficult and ponderous note though. I want to end with the thought of Jesus returning in his vast glory, with more power and majesty than we could ever have the minds to imagine. Next week is the first week of advent, when we start to remember again how God first came into the world in human form. It seems apt to me that we remember today the purpose of that first coming - to prepare the way for his second coming, that we might face it with faith in our salvation through his name. As we will sing later: "For this same Lord Jesus shall return again, with his Father's glory, with his angel train; All the wreaths of empire meet upon his brow, and our hearts confess him King of Glory now."


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