There is a story that is told about a group of Americans who were invited by an MP acquaintance to a tour of the Houses of Parliament. Walking through the halls of that great, historical building they were awestruck when who should appear from a doorway , but, Lord Hailsham, splendidly attired in the official regalia of the office he then held as Lord Chancellor. He walked toward the tourists and as he did so he spied in the corridor beyond them the then Leader of the Labour Party, Neil Knnock. Wishing to attract his colleague’s attention Lord Hailsham raised his hand and called out “Neil!”, where upon all the Americans dropped to one knee.
We laugh, but sometimes we long for this kind of power — the power of position —to be obeyed just because of the title or the job we have. To say to our children or employee, “You do what I tell you because I am your mother, or father, or boss.” However, even this kind of power is suspect today. Most of us parent in families that resemble a democracy more than a monarchy. We live in a voluntary society where the values of personal freedom and egalitarianism are the rule of the day.
Most monarchs and royalty today serve through the will of the people; they are constitutional monarchs who don’t exercise any real power. The world, however, has spent much of its history ruled by kings with absolute power where obedience was demanded; where people have been deported, beheaded, hung, burned, dismembered and disgraced because they have refused to be obedient. In recent history dictators such as Hitler, Stalin, Pol Pot, or Sadam Hussein are additional examples of the saying by British historian, Lord Acton, that power tends to corrupt; absolute power corrupts absolutely.
So what are we to think when, in our scripture reading this morning, Jesus refers to himself as King and final judge and jury? This Sunday appears on Christian calendars as Christ the King Sunday. Perhaps some of you from a more liturgical background, Roman Catholic or Episcopal, are familiar with Christ the King Sunday. As a low-church protestant I’ve always been a little uncomfortable with the term. I think that for many of us the image of Jesus as King rubs us the wrong way. Jesus as king brings to mind images of overdressed and overfed monarchs ruling at the expense of their subjects, leading them into war to line the king’s pocketbook or extend his power. It is this militaristic image that led the editors of most mainline church hymnals to remove “Onward Christian Soldiers,” from the hymnal. Listen to the first and the final verse:
Onward, Christian soldiers, marching as to war, with the cross of Jesus going on before. Christ, the royal Master, leads against the foe; forward into battle see his banners go!
Onward then, ye people, join our happy throng, blend with ours your voices in the triumph song. Glory, laud, and honor unto Christ the King, this through countless ages men and angels sing.
Christ as friend, Christ as example, Christ as image of God or Savior, but Christ as King? Unfortunately we can’t avoid the image — it’s right there in the Bible.
The Israelites to whom Jesus was talking in this morning’s account in Matthew, like us, had a negative history of kings. They had resolutely asked God for a king, to be like other nations, and God granted their wish and Samuel was appointed the first king. But it was not long before Samuel disobeyed God and revealed himself as self-seeking, weak and untrustworthy. David was then appointed king and though he often faltered and failed in his role, he had a heart for God and he truly cared for and loved his people. Then king after king who succeeded David put his own desires above the needs of the people until the nation of Israel faltered in its faithfulness to God and was taken into slavery to Babylon. It was during this time that Jeremiah prophesied, “The days are coming,” declares the Lord, “When I will raise up to David a righteous Branch, a King who will reign wisely and do what is just and right in the land.” So the Jews at the time of Jesus were looking for a king who would come and liberate them from the power of the Romans. In Jesus some of them saw their chance to break free, but Jesus wasn’t the kind of king they were hoping for. He didn’t exert that kind of power.
What kind of king would you want and what kind of king did Jesus portray himself to be? My husband and I were in England staying with relatives when the news hit that Princess Diana was dating Dodi Al Fyed. We came down to breakfast on that morning to find the dining room table strewn with newspapers and gossip rags of all kinds, each with a large headline about and photographs of the couple. The conversation at breakfast was all about the couple and the royal family and the disappointment my cousins felt at the example set by the Royals. Instead of living lives that showed humility, sacrifice and hard work their lives seemed chaotic and lacking in self-restraint. What was the point in having a royal family if they looked and acted just like any family you might see in a soap opera?
In comparison, Jesus’ life, as God’s royal son, was neither chaotic nor lacking in self-restraint. He described his role as king, but a king who in the gospels of Matthew and John is also called the good shepherd. The New Testament refers to Jesus as the shepherd or good shepherd or great shepherd ten times. And so the scripture readings this morning combine these two images of king and shepherd to show us not only what kind of king Jesus was but to give us a good picture of what leadership in the image of God would look like.
The responsibilities of a shepherd were to know his sheep, defend them from attackers, heal the wounded and sick sheep, find the lost or trapped sheep and feed and care for them. My husband and I were recently in the countryside of Peru where we saw many shepherds with herds as small as 10 to 20 sheep.
There were also homes along the roads with three or fours cows or donkeys with a rope around one of their legs staked out near the house. Often there would be an old woman and a child, sitting together with a lunch basket beside them as they watched their animals. While on a bus we saw three sheep that had wandered down an incline and were standing precariously right beside the road. As I looked up from the sheep I saw two women making a mad dash for them to keep them safe and lead them back to their small herd. It occurred to me what an intimate relationship these people had with their animals. They knew each one, perhaps by name, and cared for them making sure they were safe and leading them to grass where they could graze. It made such an impression on me that when I saw sheep that seemed to be grazing alone, I began to worry and wonder if they were safe. Where was their shepherd and who was looking after them? Ezekiel prophesied, “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and find them a place to rest, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak, leave the healthy and strong to play. I will feed them with justice.” Through Ezekiel God promised the Israelites he would be their shepherd. In The Return of the King, the third volume of Tolkien’s classic Trilogy, The Lord of the Rings, Aragorn, or Strider, returns to claim the throne of Gondor. When the Hobbits first encounter Strider in The Fellowship of the Ring, he is a cloaked and mysterious Ranger of the North, a mercenary who patrols the borders of Middle-earth against bandits and evil-doers. As the novel progresses, we learn that Strider is Aragorn, the heir of Isildur, the last and greatest king of men who led the forces of Middle-earth against the armies of Mordor. He is recognized to be the king by his ability to heal, fulfilling the claim of Isoreth, wise woman of Gondor, who said that, “ the hands of a king are the hands of a healer.” The ability to heal and give comfort is one of the key traits of true nobility. It wasn’t through his ability to wield a sword, but through his ability to heal that Aragorn established his religious, as well as political legitimacy.
In the same way Jesus as shepherd establishes his legitimacy as our King. Tempted by Satan during his 40 days in the wilderness Jesus rejected Satan’s offer of the power of absolute domination when he stayed true to God’s call on his life to be a servant. The power of Jesus is not found in images of control but in the image of the benevolent care of a shepherd. We see in Jesus the power of accomplishment—the power that someone has because of who they are and how they behave, not because of what they are.
On November 10 we had an adult education class here at Kenilworth Union with Howard Morgan, President of the Board of Trustees of Chicago Theological Seminary and former VP of Citibank here in Chicago. He talked to us about Jim Collins’ book, Good to Great, that Chicago Theological Seminary trustees studied in preparing to create a strategic plan for the school. The book identified 15 companies that had gone from good to great as
evidenced by cumulative stock returns at least 3.0 times better than the general stock market over fifteen years. Collins found that each company had a leader who exhibited very similar characteristics. The first and most important characteristic Collins found was a combination of humility and will. “They are somewhat self-effacing individuals who deflect adulation, yet who have an almost stoic resolve to do absolutely whatever it takes to make the company great, channeling their ego needs away from themselves and into the larger goal of building a great company.” In comparison, Collins noted in the CEO’s of companies that were unable to grow or to sustain their growth the presence of gargantuan personal egos that contributed to the demise or continued mediocrity of the company. These leaders were ambitious for themselves, and they succeeded admirably on this score, but they failed utterly in the task of creating an enduring great company.
Morgan said that the more he studied the characteristics of these great leaders the more he began to reflect on the character of Jesus. The characteristics of a CEO’s greatness as described by Collins would certainly apply to Jesus as well as to a good shepherd. The shepherd always puts the welfare of the sheep before his own, risking his own life for the sheep. Being a shepherd is hard and dirty work but keeping the flock together, moving and eating and drinking is the shepherd’s main responsibility. Being a shepherd is usually a job for those lowest on the social scale and being a king or a CEO put someone on the highest level on the social scale but it takes the same thing to do the job well: humility, love for your subjects and putting their welfare first.
Jesus, our king and shepherd, cares for us as a shepherd cares for his sheep or as good parents care for their children. His power wasn’t found in his advancement of his own interests but in the passion he had for getting people to wake up to God, and to the needs of those around them.
I once heard a sermon where the preacher described two kinds of power, the power to lord it over other people or the power that finds expression in the proper exercise of responsibility. When we feed the hungry, give a drink to the thirsty, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked and care for the sick, as Jesus did, we are exercising our power and responsibility as followers of the shepherd. It is how he knows we are his. When we do these things there is no need to ask, “What would Jesus do?” These ARE the things Jesus would do, and in our doing them we follow in Jesus’ footsteps, being to others what he was to us, showing God’s love through example. Do you want to live more Christ-like lives? Be a royal shepherd. Amen. .