The last Sunday in the year of the church is a time to think about the last breath in the life of a person; and so, the reading in the Gospel according to Matthew has us hearing the third in three teaching moments in the life of Jesus.
The story opens with the line: When the Son of Man …“The Son of Man,” how Jesus spoke of Himself all through His ministry, while others like Paul addressed Him as “The Son of God,” seeing Him “the visible likeness of the invisible God” (Col. 1:15)
But then Jesus went on to say, “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.” When He said that, the priests of the Temple and the teachers of the Law, picked up on the story line.
At last! At long last, the Hebrews’ “invisible God” was taking on the visible form of a king, coming to out-king all the kings of the earth; the despicable kings who had carried their ancestors off into exile; and now the Emperor of Rome and his armies were occupying their homeland and desecrating their Temple. At long last they would get their king back and be able to relive the glory days of King David! Now it would be their turn to raise their monuments to their king who would bring down anyone who tried to tyrannize them.
But the story, as told by Jesus, goes on to twist the word “king” into “shepherd.” A “Shepherd-King” – flashback to earlier times when the Hebrew people confessed: “Know that the Lord is God. It is he that made us, and we are his; we are his people, and the sheep of his pasture.”(Psalm 100:3) The one telling the story had said earlier: “I am the good shepherd.” (John 10:11)
The “king” Who when coming in his glory, to take the crown to rule and ascend to His throne to hold court, to judge, and to condemn all who are a threat to His reign, will cast off the regal robe for a shepherd’s cloak and lay down the king’s gavel to take up a shepherd’s crock, and those trembling in fear of the sentence, will hear an invitation, not an edict: ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father,’ The invitation the Shepherd-King extends to a sheep-like people to Whom He had pledged, “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.”
The magazine, Christian Century, provides reflections on upcoming Scripture under the title “Sunday is Coming ” with the one for today prompting Audrey West to remember when a rancher who knew one of his lambs needed extra attention to survive, asked her veterinarian-father to look after her, and so, “Puddles” as the children named her, was fed from a bottle, cuddled, and slept on a pile of blankets in the corner of a room. When the children said they were following her everywhere to keep her out of trouble, they simply wanted to be with her, and Audrey admits, “Through caring for her, we had grown to love her. Or maybe it was the other way around: we loved her, and so we wanted to care for and be with her.” After a couple of weeks Puddles was able to rejoin the sheep on the ranch, and left Audrey with a lingering thought: that God is our Shepherd, made visible, real, accessible in the “Good Shepherd, Jesus Who came to be with us, to love us into life.” That brief time of caring for Puddles opened up both eyes and heart to say, “We are God’s sheep, and God is our Shepherd, Who, at our last breath, we will hear saying, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;…’ Jesus’ invitation that has us taking a long view of life, seeing that our last breath released in death is our first breath in the eternal sheepfold of the Storyteller, the King Who is a Shepherd, welcoming those who are surprised to be welcomed, and puzzling, infuriating those who had thought of themselves as being “in” from the beginning, for they had learned every letter of the Law.
“Yes,” said Jesus, “For you tithe mint, dill, and cumin, and have neglected the weightier matters of the law: justice and mercy and faith. It is these you ought to have practiced without neglecting the others." (Matthew 23:23) …like “goats” nibbling and consuming, shoving and pushing, a haughty herd of hypocrites who had no time for sheep, nor for a Shepherd-King, nor for that kind of eternity.
According to Jesus, “those who belong there” will be those who find themselves asking, “How did I deserve to get here?”
Puddles taught Audrey West; it’s about seeing how much God loves us, seen in Jesus, cradling, caring, leading us His sheep, who learn how to love one another by being loved by Him.Dwight L. Moody who had a limited education, yet spoke with an eloquence that caused everyone to listen, especially the poor, said: “We talk about heaven being so far away. It is within speaking distance to those who belong there. Heaven is a prepared place for a prepared people.” prepared through practicing loving as we are loved.
An old story tells of a person who was able to get a preview of heaven where he saw a massive banquet table filled with food and each place was set with a long fork, knife, and spoon, too long to get to one’s mouth. “How,” asked the visitor, “do they eat?” and was told, “The diners feed one another across the table.” (Old Jewish parable)
Today we hear Jesus extending an invitation, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world;…’ the view that has us feeding, caring for, counseling and leading, accepting and welcoming one another, like sheep who do for others what their loving Shepherd-Jesus, has done for them.
His love of us is why we have love for another; it’s what brings heaven to earth until that day when earth will become heaven. It’s the long view of life, from here to eternity. Amen.
Rev. Dr. Martha B. Kriebel is the pastor of Trinity Reformed United Church of Christ in Collegeville, PA