Revised Common Lectionary, Year A
Twenty-sixth Sunday after Pentecost
Proper 29 (34)
November 26, 2023
Summary of the text:
This is Jesus’s last story before his Last Supper, and while we do not want to put too much emphasis on salvation at the expense of Kingdom life in the present, we cannot ignore clear statements about judgment when they are right in front of us. On this Christ the King Sunday, we have them right in front of us. There is not a lot of evasion in Jesus’s teaching here, but when we dig into the imagery and the full work of his instruction, we find that he is giving us advice for today by talking about our ultimate destination.
Herein, we have the images of the throne and the king. The day’s other passages give us a sense of his dominion and authority (Psalm 95:1-7 echoing the range of creation), his concern for us and judgment of our state (Ezekiel 34:11-16 and 20-24, respectively), his authority and his subjects (Ephesians 1:15-23), and our proper posture at his invitation (Psalm 100, including shepherd/sheep). It would be tempting to lean toward his care, his invitation, and his diligence in seeking us and de-emphasize his judgment, but to do so would be to give an incomplete picture of his kingship as the biblical witness—and Jesus himself—states it.
After all, real kings have jobs to do. Our present-day pictures of monarchy make it easy to forget that. The king must care for his subjects and secure their future, but to use a famous—or infamous—Presbyterian phrase, he must also ensure the “peace, unity, and purity” of the kingdom. The king makes the rules of the Kingdom, and even if there is much grace and if the king does all the work necessary to make the subjects eligible to enter, not all go willingly and not all take the road there.
Enter the sheep and the goats. During a conversation about scholar Kenneth Bailey with a missionary in Saharan Africa whom I cannot name here, the missionary mentioned the hundreds—if not thousands—of times he has seen animals brought to slaughter. He noted that most animals put up a fight, and that this is especially the case with the goats. Goats make noise, resist, and usually refuse to have vulnerable places exposed. They take multiple men to subdue, in addition to men who stand by ready to chase them if they get away from the subduers. Sheep, however, follow one person easily and are willing to lay down calmly, almost happy by comparison to have their throats cut.
The sheep comply with the master’s leadership, even at their own earthly risk. As Jesus suggests, that risk includes sacrificial giving, sacrificial hospitality, and sacrificial sharing. Following the king’s own example in those things prepares the follower to recognize and enter the Kingdom. Moreover, as we know from history and literature—even fairy tales—the king has agents all over the kingdom and messengers who act on his behalf. Part of being a messenger is the responsibility to report back to the king, but another part is representing the king to the subjects. In most cases, the subjects will never actually see the king. Jesus’s listeners were never going to encounter the Roman emperor, and they would probably not even lay eyes on Herod. They simply knew those rulers through their agents. People did, however, see Jesus and have access to him (John 14:6-9), and after his ascension his agents carry on in representing him and pointing to him.
As such, Jesus’s earlier exhortations to be alert do not only suggest that we be alert for his appearance or that of his emissaries, but also that we be alert for opportunities to carry out his will and expand the reach of his kingdom through word and deed. We expand the Kingdom by proclaiming and emulating the king. The sheep do this willingly, following the shepherd’s voice into the fields, the goats do not and are prone to go their own way (though sheep often do stray a bit, as Jesus points out elsewhere, particularly when they are left without leadership for a time). With the common shepherding practice of separating livestock into different pens at the end of the day, it makes sense that the Good Shepherd would do the same.
Allen Thompson is senior pastor at Fairview Presbyterian Church in North Augusta, South Carolina. Allen attended Pittsburgh Seminary (M.Div.) and Fuller Seminary (D.Min.) His wife, Kelsey, is a Marriage and Family Therapist, and they have two children.
Allen enjoys golf, hiking, camping, cooking pigs, ice climbing, and live music. He loves to imagine being in the story and culture of the Bible, wondering how we might have responded to God then and how we can follow Jesus now. As an “ideas” person, Allen is passionate about working with others to find out how God is calling us to use the many gifts and resources the Holy Spirit provides.
Allen holds a Doctor of Ministry (Fuller Theological Seminary) and a Master of Divinity (Pittsburgh Theological Seminary).
Nevertheless, what was shameful, even odious, to the critics of Christ, was in the eyes of his followers most glorious. They had learnt that the servant was not greater than the master, and that for them as for him suffering was the means to glory. More than that, suffering was glory, and whenever they were ‘insulted because of the name of Christ’, then ‘the Spirit of glory’ rested upon them.
There is not a square inch in the whole domain of our human existence over which Christ, who is Sovereign over all, does not cry, Mine!
See more quotes on glory.
Key Sermon Illustrations
Glorifying God in our Work
Work is one way, perhaps even the main way, we can glorify God in this life.
This may sound confusing if you tend to think of glorifying God as what we do in church when we sing praises to God. No question, this counts as glorifying God. But there is so much more to glorifying God than praising God, no matter how essential and wonderful this might be.
Let me use a personal illustration. I love it when my adult children want to spend time with me. I am doubly happy when they tell me how much they love me. These are, indeed, some of the sweetest moments of my life. But I wouldn’t want Nathan and Kara to spend their whole lives doing this. My wife and I have raised them, not just to be with us and to express their love to us, but also and mainly to be responsible citizens, influential leaders, and faithful disciples of Jesus.
My children honor me when they work hard in school, when they mentor high school kids, stage manage plays, contribute to academic conversations, or write pieces that inform and inspire others. To use language I would not ordinarily use, I am glorified when Nathan and Kara work, when they work hard, when they use well their gifts, when they excel at the tasks for which they are well suited.
Genesis 1-2 reveals that God made us to work. Thus, we glorify God when we do that for which we were made. Moreover, when we work for God’s glory, when we steward well all that God has given us for his purposes, we can enjoy God, sensing the joy he feels in us as we work. To be sure, there are times when we ought not to work. And there will be times when we glorify God through the praise of our lips and the worship of our hearts. But, God has created work as a chief means for us to glorify and enjoy him. This truth can change our lives, our workplaces, and our cultures.
Sheep Over Goats… Literally?
This is an aside as much as an illustration. While in seminary I did some research and editing work for a missiology professor, and I came across a story of a missionary who took Jesus’s illustration of sheep and goats quite literally when working with a people group in an arid climate. The people had a few sheep but mostly tended goats, which provided food, milk, hides, and waste disposal (goats will eat just about anything). Using Matthew 25:32-33 as his guide, the missionary convinced the people to switch from goats to sheep as their main livestock, with disastrous results. The sheep did not have a taste for scraps and waste, and as a result ate all the available vegetation. Their wool was useless in the hot climate, and the goats became more unruly and competitive as their numbers waned. Eventually the missionary was expelled and the people went back to their prior ways…and likely their prior beliefs.
Additional Sermon Resources
Calls to Worship
From Psalm 24
LEADER: Lift up your heads, O you gates; be lifted up, you ancient doors,
PEOPLE: That the King of glory may come in. Who is this King of glory?
LEADER: The LORD strong and mighty, the LORD mighty in battle.
PEOPLE: Lift up your heads, O you gates; lift them up, you ancient doors, that the King of glory may come in.
From Psalm 95
LEADER: Come, let us sing for joy to the Lord; let us shout aloud to the Rock of our salvation.
PEOPLE: Let us come before him with thanksgiving and extol him with music and song.
LEADER: For the Lord is the great God, the great King above all gods.
PEOPLE: In his hand are the depths of the earth, and the mountain peaks belong to him.
LEADER: The sea is his, for he made it, and his hands formed the dry land.
PEOPLE: Come, let us bow down in worship, let us kneel before the Lord our Maker;
ALL: for he is our God and we are the people of his pasture, the flock under his care.
LEADER: Shout for joy to the Lord, all the earth. Worship the Lord with gladness; come before him with joyful songs.
ALL: Know that the Lord is God. It is he who made us, and we are his; we are his people, the sheep of his pasture.
LEADER: Enter his gates with thanksgiving and his courts with praise; give thanks to him and praise his name.
ALL: For the Lord is good and his love endures forever; his faithfulness continues through all generations.
Prayer of Confession
Heavenly Father, we confess that in our pursuit of good, we often miss opportunities to bring you honor and glory. We try to address our shortcomings by compensating for them, rather than by orienting around your will. We seek what seems higher to us rather than what is holy to you. Help us to first seek your Kingdom, and to put your glory ahead of our own. Hear our prayers as we continue our confession in silence…
Assurance of Pardon
Seek the LORD while he may be found; call on him while he is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the evil man his thoughts. Let him turn to the LORD, and he will have mercy on him, and to our God, for he will freely pardon. “For my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways,” declares the LORD. “As the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.
Trust in the Lord and do good;
dwell in the land and enjoy safe pasture.
Take delight in the Lord,
and he will give you the desires of your heart.
Commit your way to the Lord;
trust in him and he will do this:
He will make your righteous reward shine like the dawn,
your vindication like the noonday sun.