THE SHEPHERD-KING

Sermon delivered on the Feast of Christ the King, the Sunday Next Before Advent, the 26th November 2017 by Bishop Nicholas JG Sykes in the congregation of St. Alban's Church of England, Cayman Islands.

Scriptures: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24     Ephesians 1:15-23     S. Matthew 25: 31-46

Ezekiel 34:23 "I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them."

SHEPHERD-KING
One of the enduring concepts of human society is that of the king. Some Middle Eastern societies are believed to have possessed shepherd-kings in ancient times. The combination of shepherd and king seems strange to our western and modern way of thinking: to us the "shepherd" evokes an image of a lonely figure at the very edge of human society, forgotten and marginalised. The last such person I had to do with was a rather taciturn Welsh shepherd who in the late 1950s and early 1960s earned some extra income by leaving his sheep on the hills for part of the day and guiding walking parties of mostly English people up difficult mountain and waterfall tracks. In his reign over Israel David does not, unlike ancient eastern shepherd-kings, continue personally to shepherd flocks of animals, but in the account of King David we read that in his service to his family as a youth he had been a shepherd, an occupation from which he had learned some important lessons. The prophet Ezekiel in our first lesson speaks of the Lord's intention to seek out His people as a shepherd seeks out his flock, to rescue them from all the places where they have been scattered, and to restore the Davidic king that would feed his people and be their shepherd. "I will feed them on the mountains of Israel, by the fountains and in all the inhabited places of the country." “I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep”, declares the Lord God in Ezekiel. And when Jesus proclaimed "I am the Good Shepherd", we may be right to read into it a certain echo of kingship, both of David and of God Himself. "If you call Me a king", Jesus might have taught, "understand that in My Kingdom the king will be the Good Shepherd." In the person of Jesus, Ezekiel's king-shepherd imagery and prophecy come to pass in a double sense: for in Jesus God shepherds His sheep as God Incarnate, and in Jesus here also is the Davidic king feeding and shepherding his people.

CHRIST THE SHEPHERD-KING
We are observing this day as the Feast of Christ the King, and in our second Lesson from St. Paul's epistle to the Ephesians we have high language indeed about Christ's Kingdom. Christ was raised from the dead and made to sit at the Father's right hand in the heavenly places, "far above all rule and authority and power and dominion ... above every name in this age and in the age to come." It is good to have this reminder of the enthronement of Christ. Yet still, we might think that it is hard to be close to one so exalted. In the histories of most national monarchies the high language that was used to express the dignity of their office often had the effect of distancing their subjects from them. Perhaps the English monarchy might have got the combination of dignity and homeliness better than most because of the Christian heritage. Indeed, there is an appropriate "distance" of great magnitude between God, incomparably good, and all of us, frail and fallen human beings. That same great proper distance exists between the exalted Christ and ourselves, a distance not merely of space, but at the very least of moral stature. Nevertheless, both with God the Father and with our Lord, the Shepherd factor is present as well. Christ the King has a shepherd-component in His Kingship. If He was the Good Shepherd while on earth, how much more is He the Good Shepherd in His rule from the Father's right hand! Now if a king or a governor or a premier invites you into fellowship with him and offers you friendship, you will find him to be no less of a person in spite of all the dignity of his office, so long as he has resisted the temptation to make his office erode his personhood. Our Gospel declares that in Christ we have the King of all kings offering to us Himself without any erosion of personhood whatever. This King looks out for us as a shepherd looks out for his sheep. He is the exalted yet caring Shepherd-King.

PERSECUTED SHEEP
There is a host of injured sheep to be cared for, not only locally but all over the world. There is an escalation of persecution of Christians in many parts of the world today, and we of the West are often hardened to this reality. Yet it is a reality that has approached very closely to us as well. As religious and humanistic ideologies of various sorts get more aggressive and opposed to the Faith of Christ, the wolf of open persecution for Christians of the West is at the door, and certainly there are various degrees of oppression, condemnation, and anti-Christian marginalisation and indoctrination occurring in the West at the present time. One of the results of this is a denial of reality and truth in all sorts of fields, in favour of secular doctrinalism and real-feel populism. It was not difficult to detect in Cayman’s own constitutional negotiations and debates over eight years ago an undercurrent of apprehension that the new constitution and Bill of Rights might well become a platform from which such effects could be brought upon the Cayman Islands. In the East and South persecution is a daily fact of life for many Christians. We know of outright persecution in the Indian sub-continent, with calls in parts of India for mistreatment from a Hindu party, and in Pakistan the application of sharia to keep a Christian mother for ever and a day in prison under the threat of eventually applying a death penalty on extremely tenuous grounds, and in China where officials have for a long time mistreated Christians and churches and have imprisoned many. We must pray for these that in all the violence and turmoil they may be protected by the grace of the Lord. We in the West have been all too deaf to the cries of the persecuted for many years. But there is One who is not deaf and has strengthened their spirit to endure. Indeed the persecuted Church in different areas such as China and Africa is typically the fastest-growing ever. The Shepherd-King at the right hand of the Father has strengthened those that are persecuted and cry out to Him, and has kept close to them. If we also are to become good shepherds, imitating Him, we ought to do the same, and by prayer and action come to their aid.

THE ACCOUNT-TAKING
In today's Gospel Jesus teaches of when the Son of Man comes in glory. Gathered before Him will be the people of the nations, seemingly those who did not know Israel’s God, and then Christ the Shepherd-King will select out of them the "sheep", and gather them together, which is to say, He will gather together those who have been faithful to Him and His loving intentions, as manifested by their actions. The lesson is clear. The Shepherd-King who cares must at the end of the age administer an irrevocable judgement. There are many who want to make friends with a king, to serve their own advancement for selfish purposes, but Christ the Shepherd-King has offered us His caring friendship to advance us for selfless purposes. Our calling is to be re-constituted as men and women in Christ, from being men and women in Adam. The blessed Son was manifested that He might destroy the works of the devil, and make us the sons of God, as the Collect for Epiphany 6 puts it. Rather than our trying to get Him on our side, it is we who are called to be changed so as finally to be found on His side. The Gospel of Christ has always warned that in the final analysis the alternative to the incomparable privilege we are offered by the caring Shepherd-King is grim. The day approaches when we must be held to account to Him for the life-path that will have claimed us for itself.

BIBLE STUDY QUESTIONS

1. Why might the shepherd-king concept fit ancient monarchies, but not more modern rulers?

2. In what ways might Christ the Good Shepherd influence modern states and governments?

3. Are we aware of the "persecuted Church"? How can we come to their aid?