Ezekiel 34:11-17; Ps. 100
Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46
Spoiler alert: close your ears if you have NOT read The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, because I’m going to tell you the ending. The king returns. The righteous ruler is placed up on the throne. Justice is restored. Power joins with mercy. The meek – or at least the beavers, nymphs, satyrs and other creatures, led by four sturdy, British children – inherit Narnia, the kingdom prepared for them by Aslan.
Spoiler alert again. C. S. Lewis’ friend, J.R.R. Tolkien, also writing in the terrible, war-torn years of the 20th century, ends The Lord of the Rings in the same way. The king returns. The righteous ruler is placed upon the throne. Justice is restored. Power joins with mercy. The meek – this time a Rainbow coalition of elves, dwarfs and swarthy men led by four sturdy, British hobbits – inherit Middle Earth, the kingdom prepared for them by Gandalf.
The British have built this longing for the return of the righteous king into their civic life. When the Tudors came to the throne in the late middle ages, they created a back story to give their ascent to the throne some legitimacy. The Tudors recreated the legend of Arthur, the true king of all the Britons, whose Round Table of equality and chivalry brought order to violent warlords. Even to this day the British monarchs vow to step aside if Arthur awakens from his slumber in Avalon and returns to rule England’s green and pleasant land.
We can chuckle at the quaint notion of “the return of the king.” After all, we Americans overthrew the king in 1776, dethroned in place of democracy. And yes, of course, Britain is a democracy, too – and in fact, democracies do a much better job than monarchies at maintaining order and distributing justice.
But when times are bad, social conditions unsettled and the way to a prosperous future unclear, do not these stories of a righteous king coming to settle account appeal to our deep longings? Maybe we can learn something from them, not to recreate a past that perhaps was not ideal, but how we can look to the future – how we can use our lessons from scripture – of Ezekiel’s description of the Good Shepherd-the Good Ruler, and of Matthew’s description of judgment day as righteous king coming to settle accounts.
How about another story? Ireland, at the turn of the 5th century, was a flourishing pagan culture. Patrick, who had lived there for some time as a slave, heard a call from God to evangelize the Irish. It was a culture governed by kings who were the representatives of the gods, who had to be appeased through blood sacrifice to bring about fertility and prosperity. Patrick did many things in his mission to the Irish, but this one point has relevance here: he replaced their warrior kings with “the high king of heaven,” their angry and fickle gods with a “God they could depend on.” Patrick used the image of the king bringing order to society not in a backward-looking, nostalgic way, but with a bright vision of a new society: a society of peacefulness, of new relationships, of a God who brought life from death.
Move ahead to the end of the 19th century, to Episcopal churches in cities like Chicago, New York, Boston, Philadelphia. It is the height of the industrial revolution, and suffering among the working classes is widespread, without any of the safeguards such as child labor laws, a 40-hour-work-week, health and safety standards. Many Christians are moved to alleviate this suffering, inspired by the reading of passages like today’s Gospel. Among the boldest leaders in this “social gospel” movement are Episcopal clergy and parishes. People at the time noted the paradox of the elite, aristocratic Episcopal Church at the forefront of movement of solidarity with the poor. Oddly enough, it is Episcopalians’ understanding of “kingship,” of a society guided and led by the church, that inspired their activism. The social gospel took what the righteous king would do and democratized it, advocated the spreading-out of power and privilege across society. They took this powerful image from the past – a righteous king restoring order during a time of social upheaval -- and adapted it for movement into the future.
Both lessons from Ezekiel and Matthew overthrow our traditional understanding of the regal monarch, the warrior, “the king.” Kings were to be the shepherds of Israel, feeding the hungry, binding the broken, gathering the lost. Ezekiel denounces those made themselves fat at the expense of the people they were there to serve. The king in Matthew comes down entirely from his throne, not just to help but to identify completely with the poorest and most desperate of society. By loving the stranger and the outcast, we indeed love the king; we love God.
The way these lessons take old images and turn them around for new, challenging times can be helpful to us Christians in this time of social dislocation. We may have to describe Christ the King in words from the past, using the old monarchical words and images that really don’t work anymore. But the reality they point us to is one very different indeed: it is the reality of God’s justice, where all the poor and neglected are welcomed, where their suffering is even part of God’s own self. This high king of heaven is indeed a God we can depend on -- not a benevolent despot who “knows what is good for us;” but a God who became one of us, and who took all of human nature into the divine.
We enter Advent next week with these “marching orders” of engagement, sacrificial giving, solidarity and hope. “The king shall come when morning dawns, and light triumphant breaks,” we will sing in the hymn at the end of the service. “and let the endless bliss begin, by weary saints foretold, when right shall triumph over wrong, and truth shall be extolled.”
How wonderful it is, even in these darks days, with no human king on the horizon, no Aslan getting ready to roar, no Gandalf on the ridge with armies of thousands behind him to slay the wicked orcs, no Arthur coming back from Avalon – how wonderful it is that we have been given the words to hope for something real.