Pastor Kyle Bitter - Christ the King Sunday - Sunday, November 22, 2020

Text: Ezekiel 34:11-16, 23, 24

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Just over a week ago, I went in for my annual eye doctor appointment. As I look at those of you in person, I see a number of pairs of glasses, and I suspect there are some contacts I can’t see, so I’m sure many of you have had the same experience. If not, you can probably imagine it pretty well. First, the doctor checks the health of your eyes. He looks at them from different angles through different lenses and with different colors of light. Then the doctor checks your prescription by having you look through different lens combinations, one eye at a time. Which is clearer? One, or two? Three or four? And so on. Finally, the most interesting part: you look through your updated prescription with both eyes and see what 20/20 vision actually looks like. If you’ve had a big change to your prescription, or if it’s your first-time getting glasses, you can see what you were missing as you look around with 20/20 vision and See Life Clearly. It can be an amazing experience. I remember first getting glasses when I was in grade school and making the discovery that the candles in the front of the church weren’t actually candles at all…they were light bulbs that flickered! Apparently, I’d needed glasses for quite some time! Maybe some of you can remember a similar experience.

One could say that God’s prophets of the Old Testament functioned as spiritual versions of eye doctors – they helped people see life clearly by looking at the world through the lens of God’s promises – a perspective that sinful people are by nature blind to. Ezekiel was one such prophet, and he wrote the words of today’s first lesson to help God’s people see God’s perspective on the tumultuous times that surrounded them. As was mentioned in last week’s sermon, Ezekiel’s ministry spanned some of the lowest years of God’s Old Testament people. Most of them had been carried off into captivity. Their capitol city, Jerusalem, and the beautiful temple it contained had been destroyed. The glory days of powerful kings like David and Solomon were centuries in the past. Many of God’s chosen people had chosen themselves to abandon him. The political leaders they did have were in many cases little more than puppet kings dancing to the whims of much more powerful emperors. God’s chosen people? It sure didn’t look like it!

Does that, perhaps, sound like it has some parallels to life today? Maybe it seems like a different time, and it is. It was 2500 years ago. But there are some parallels. Even though in a geopolitical sense we have suffered nothing remotely like the captivity God’s people were enduring, there have certainly been times in the last year when it seems like life as we used to know it is coming apart at the seams.  We might not be scattered around the known world like the Israelites, but when it comes to opinions and ideas it seems as though we could hardly be much more divided! We might not be at war in a military sense, but there is certainly more than enough fighting to go around! We might not be under the thumb of a foreign emperor, but you don’t have to look very hard to see all kinds of political turmoil. It’s undeniable that God has blessed us tremendously by allowing us to live in the United States, but our society struggles under the curse of sin just as has every society that has gone before us!

That’s why it’s so strange that our sinful nature is prone to the temptation to stake our hopes, our happiness, and our contentment to these always changing whims of a sinful society. You can see it in life in a lot of ways, but perhaps here’s a current one. Think about your personal reaction to the recent election. If you find yourself absolutely overjoyed at the result, or if you find yourself experiencing an incredible sense of relief that it’s now done, or if you find yourself filled with an overwhelming sense of anxiety over what the future might hold simply because of what happened in an election, you might be able to see the problem. Now, don’t get me wrong. It’s a blessing to live in a society where we have say in who our leaders will be, and there’s nothing wrong with being either excited or disappointed with how an election comes out. But, if you find yourself thinking that the outcome of an election means that your life will finally go the way you want it to go, or that the outcome of an election will affect God’s ability to take care of us, or that the outcome of an election will have an impact, either positive or negative on God’s plans for the world and building his kingdom, then you can see the problem. It’s a form of idolatry – trusting something else above God. Such idolatry only leads to disappointment in life right now because sinful people and the institutions we set up never fail to disappoint. Worse than that, such idolatry drives us away from God, robbing us of peace and contentment and is really a form of blasphemy, as if the almighty God is somehow controlled by a political election in one country at one time in the history of the world! 

Because of that ongoing temptation, Ezekiel invites God’s children of every generation to look through the lens of God’s promises. He invited the people of his day to lift up their eyes from the warfare and destruction, Babylonian armies and inept Israelite kings that surrounded them and see what God promises to do. He invites you and me today to lift up our eyes from pandemics and riots and shootings and political games that surround us and See Life Clearly by focusing on what God promises to do. When we do that, God blesses us with a completely different perspective by allowing us to both See God’s Kingdom and to See God’s King, showing us that there is nothing to fear.

See God’s Kingdom

Ezekiel begins by using the picture of a shepherd and his sheep to illustrate God’s promises of what his kingdom will be like. As you think what Ezekiel is telling us about God’s kingdom through this poetic picture, you realize pretty quickly that God Sees Life Clearly too. He knows what his people need. He knows what problems we try to fix but can’t. But his kingdom is different! When it comes to American politics, you hear people bemoaning the divisiveness and longing for national unity. When you See God’s Kingdom, you find exactly that. Ezekiel describes God’s promise like this: “For this is what the Sovereign LORD says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them. As a shepherd looks after his scattered flock when he is with them, so will I look after my sheep. I will rescue them from all the places where they were scattered on a day of clouds and darkness. I will bring them out from the nations and gather them from the countries, and I will bring them into their own land.” (Ezekiel 34:11-12 – NIV84). The clouds and darkness of sin drive people apart in so many ways, but in God promises that in his kingdom people from every political ideology, every racial background, and every geographical part of the world will be brought together.

There’s more. I’m sure the Israelites in captivity desperately wanted to go back to their homeland and live quietly without being bothered by the power struggles of neighboring countries. They wanted peace, but as we still see today, a sinful world is pretty much constantly filled with turmoil and unrest. Once again, God promises his kingdom will be different. “I will pasture them on the mountains of Israel, in the ravines and in all the settlements of the land. I will tend them in good pasture, and the mountain heights of Israel will be their grazing land. There they will lie down in good grazing land, and there they will feed in a rich pasture on the mountains of Israel. I myself will tend my sheep and have them lie down, declares the Sovereign LORD.” (Ezekiel 34:13-15 – NIV84). The idyllic image of a shepherd grazing sheep on the hillside beside a stream under a sunny blue sky is about as peaceful as it gets, and that’s how God describes his kingdom. But there’s still more!

In a sinful world, people constantly take advantage of each other. The powerful abuse the weak. The rich oppress the poor. Accusations of racism, injustice, and inequality abound, and despite our best efforts seem to remain an ongoing challenge. Not so in God’s kingdom – he promises perfect justice! No one will take advantage of anyone else! “I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the sleek and strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.” (Ezekiel 34:16 – NIV84). No matter which angle you look at it from, the picture becomes clear. When you See God’s Kingdom, you see a description of everything we could want from life.

See God’s King

So where is that kingdom? That question had to be on the minds of the Israelite people of Ezekiel’s day, and it’s the obvious question today too. We look around, and we don’t see anything that remotely resembles a single aspect of what Ezekiel has describes. Even the greatest civilizations in the history of the world don’t even come close to what Ezekiel describes here! But you know what? That’s exactly the point. It would do no good for God to replace struggling, sinful earthly leaders with more earthly rulers who will share in the same struggles laboring under the same curse of sinfulness. God certainly blesses his people through the nations and societies he allows us to live in, but when it comes to solving problems in a permanent and lasting way human society cannot pull itself out of this mess of sinful division, turmoil, and injustice by ourselves. Someone else has to come to the rescue. It all makes sense when you See God’s King.

That’s what you saw in today’s gospel. It didn’t look like the coronation of a king – it looked like a brutally beaten man in the hands of powerful people who would do with him as they wished. But, through the lens of God’s promises, the same scene becomes an entirely different thing. Jesus wasn’t behaving the way a person would. He wasn’t trying find unity with the religious establishment of his time. He wasn’t content to settle for the peace of getting along with the political leaders of his day. He wasn’t pursuing justice by trying to do enough good to cancel out the bad. He was laying down his life to pay for your sins. This is the shepherd, laying down his life for the sheep, defeating our enemies for us, because only when sin is defeated can he continue to deliver on his promises! Ezekiel describes this shepherd king by reminding the people of the great king David from centuries past – and God’s king will be so much greater than even he! “I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. I the LORD will be their God, and my servant David will be prince among them. I the LORD have spoken.” (Ezekiel 34:23-24 – NIV84).

When we lift up our eyes from what’s going on around us and look at how God kept his promises in Jesus, we can See Life Clearly – meaning you can see where God’s kingdom is. It’s in the hearts of his people, and will be realized fully in heaven, and that puts everything else into perspective. When you See Life Clearly and realize that you’re already a citizen of God’s kingdom, looking forward to enjoying that in heaven, everything else falls into perspective. As a citizen of Jesus’ kingdom, fears about the future here on earth don’t have to consume you anymore, because the future in heaven is secure! As a citizen of God’s kingdom, you can look past political divisions and wildly differing opinions and see people as God sees them – as his dearly loved children! As a citizen of Jesus’ kingdom, decisions about how to spend your time or money take on different set of priorities as you realize that God has entrusted you with a mission that has impact far beyond your time here on earth!  And finally, as a citizen of God’s kingdom, when the craziness of a sinful world starts to overwhelm us, you can take a step back and look at life through the lens of God’s promises. There, you will See Life Clearly, and Seeing Life Clearly, you’ll also see that there’s no need to be afraid. Amen.