Today is the last Sunday in the Christian year.
Next Sunday is Advent Sunday – which is the day we begin our journey towards Christmas. It is a new year, with the anticipation of the birth of a Saviour. Generations of Christians have used today as a moment to look back on the year – and to be reminded about our faith in God. It is at this moment that our church fathers ask us to turn to a story of a shepherd and a flock of sheep and goats.
This is one story – told by two people.
It was first told by Ezekiel – who was a prophet to the children if Israel 600 years before Jesus. Ezekiel tells of sheep who jostle for food - Ezekiel 34:18 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? 19 And must my sheep eat what you have trodden with your feet, and drink what you have fouled with your feet?
Ezekiel stands at the junction between the old and the new: He speaks to the chaos that was left after the Babylonians had invaded Judah and carried off their leaders. These leaders were fighting over the available resources – and the stronger pushed the weaker aside. Ezekiel castigates the leaders for being too busy enriching themselves to pay attention to the people. These are shepherds who failed their flocks. But God is not blind to this...... God will no longer rely on these shepherds. They have behaved like greedy sheep and so God will step in as the New Shepherd of this traumatised flock.
Ezekie 34:20 Therefore, thus says the Lord GOD to them: I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. 21 Because you pushed with flank and shoulder, and butted at all the weak animals with your horns until you scattered them far and wide, 22 I will save my flock, and they shall no longer be ravaged; and I will judge between sheep and sheep.
God sees the fat sheep who push the weaker ones aside.... and so the shepherd chases off the bullies so that the others can feed as well.
600 years later Jesus goes back to this story.......
Just like Ezekiel - Jesus lives in a world where the leaders of Israel enrich themselves at the expense of the people:
· King Herod collaborates with the Roman Emperor in order to keep his position.
· The merchants of Jerusalem collaborate with the Romans to set up a lucrative trade in fish and wheat,
· Joseph Caiaphas, in exchange for his appointment as High Priest by Governer Valerius Gratus, persuades the people that it is the will of God to obey Rome
And so Jesus reminds the people of his time of the story told by Ezekiel: He says that God is again judging the leaders.
Matthew 25:32 All the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, 33 and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at the left.
And how does God decide who sits at the right and who sits at the left.
Mat 25:41 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;42 for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink,43 I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.'44 Then they also will answer, 'Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or sick or in prison, and did not take care of you?' 45 Then he will answer them, 'Truly I tell you, just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me.'
Jesus speaks to Herod, and the greedy merchants, and the religious leaders.
He says that when they enrich themselves, and ignore the poor, the strangers and the sinners in prison – they will not be blessed by God but instead will be judged by God.
So the words of the Bible echo though history: both Ezekiel and Jesus tell us that when some sheep become rich, and fat, and comfortable because they pushed others into the darkness – the Shepherd of the Sheep will intervene.
I wonder what God is saying to us today?
At the ending of 2014 – what would God say to South Africa?
Are there people who are rich and comfortable at the expense of the poor, and the sick and the strangers?
· I suspect that Jesus would say to Herod – “Pay back the money”
· I suspect that Jesus would say to the leaders – instead of hanging out in the Parliament shouting insults at each other – fix our electricity, and pave our roads and care for the poor.
· Jesus might say to the religious leaders – stop asking for money on your television shows, and walk the streets alongside the people.
I wonder what he might say to you and me?
As I read the Bible I hear God asking if we are like the fat sheep who push the weak aside:In this past year – did we have compassion for the weak, and the widows and the strangers. Were we willing to be generous, and compassionate.
And if I am honest – really search deep inside myself – I must acknowledge my own selfishness. Most often I make sure that I am OK first. While it is tough to admit it (because I know that Jesus expects me to love my neighbour as myself) but it seems that I am hardwired to love myself before I love my neighbour. It is here that take us back to the story of the Shepherd and the sheep. ......
Eze 34:15 I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, says the Lord GOD. 16 I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed....
Here is the Good News: We have a Shepherd who can save us from ourselves. God is the shepherd who will rescue the sheep that stray – and who will help us be the kind of people he wants us to be. We do not struggle alone!
This is the good news of Christmas – a shepherd will be born who will show us a new way to live. Next Sunday offers an opportunity to begin a spiritual journey towards Christmas. Let us begin Advent with new anticipation..... This is not just about food and presents, but is rather about the chance to make a new beginning!
Let us pray for a renewed heart: for ourselves....... and for our families............and for our country.............and for our world.