When I first became a Christian at the age of 16, I soon began to find out about books like Revelation and how they spoke about the end times. I was quite naive about scripture and began to look through the prophesies trying to link world events to what I was reading in the Bible. I tried my ideas out on my Christian friends who quickly and gently guided me away from treating the Bible as some kind of crystal ball. I respected their better understanding as they had grown up in Christian households and know their bibles much better than I did. So I put my ideas aside. But every now and then, I would come across a Christian who would talk about the end times with all sorts of scary interpretations. I would listen but then put these ideas aside especially as some of these people seemed a little too intense or even a bit weird, especially in contrast to my more level-headed friends back in Christchurch, New Malden.
Mark 13 was one of those passages which people would get excited about and it is understandable why. Jesus begins by talking about the destruction of Jerusalem earlier in the chapter. He then mentions future events and declares that these things will happen within his disciples’ generation. Christians want to maintain the integrity of the Bible and of Jesus’s words and end up creating all kinds of hypotheses to explain what Jesus meant.
Mark 13 is not an easy passage to understand because there appear to be conflicting messages within it. It seems to be going in different directions. The first part of the passage (verses 24 – 31) talks about what is going to happen and that it will be very close. It talks of watching the fig tree and noticing that the leaves on the tree mean that summer is approaching. There are signs that something is very close at hand and it should be obvious to us. Verse 30 says that this generation will not pass away until these things happen and that in verse 31 we can depend on Jesus’s word. It can be hard to understand what Jesus means here when 2000 years later Jesus has not yet returned.
Then in verse 32 everything is different. We do not know when Jesus will return, and not only that, neither does Jesus. We find that surprising considering that Jesus is God, the second person of the Trinity. Only God the Father knows when Jesus will return. If Jesus does not know exactly when the end times are, then our speculation is futile. All we are told is that we must keep watch because we do not know when He will come back.
How do we reconcile these passages and apparent contradictions? If your read the passage and interpret it in a linear manner with one event following on from another, then there are problems with understanding events and apparent contradictions. But the passage contains a mixture of earthly and heavenly events. The earthly events, such as the destruction of Jerusalem which happened in AD70, are very close at hand and the signs are to be seen. But Jesus makes it clear that these events are not the end. The heavenly events speak of stars falling from the sky and the moon becoming darkened in the apocalyptic style of language used in Revelation. These two sets of events appear to be intertwined together like a piece of rope: you go from one to the other and back again which makes this passage hard to follow. This means that Jesus is switching between talking about events which are earthly and imminent and then about heavenly events which are far off. It seems that one is a picture of the other: the earthly events create an image of what is happening in the heavenly realms. The destruction of Jerusalem is a terrible judgement on all those who reject God and live Godless lives. It is also a pledge that if the destruction of Jerusalem happens then the return of Jesus will happen too. If the earthly events happen, then the heavenly ones will also.
If we read the passage in an intertwined way rather then a linear way, with the earthly events acting as pictures and reminders of the heavenly ones, then the apparent contradictions start to fall away. Also the main purpose of the passage becomes more clear.
So what is the main purpose of Jesus’s teachings here? The main point is to be ready and Jesus uses the word ‘watch’. We now know that he does not mean keep watching and looking out for His return like a child trying to wait up for Santa or trying to use historical events to predict the future. The passage tell us to be ready for Jesus’s return. And by ready we mean having our hearts, minds and lives focused on doing God’s work so that when he returns we are caught still in service. The parable which begins in verse 34 tells us that watching is working. A person who is watchful is someone who is working and a person who is not watchful is someone who is asleep. In this context, those who are asleep are those who have backslid or ignored the gospel. In the parable, Jesus is the master who leaves the house and has assigned everyone a task. We are the servants with our assigned tasks. We all have work to do. Our tasks may be hospitality, serving as elders, sharing and demonstrating the gospel to our neighbours, commitment in prayer but our work must always have our love for God and the centre of whatever we do.
Every Christian has a reason for living and we all have jobs to do. Our meaning in live comes from doing the work which God gives us. Does that not sound exciting? It could be! Think of those times when you have noticed God working in your life and you may well notice that you were involved in doing God’s work. It is a real joy to work and see God make a difference. And so in this time of Advent, we can be looking forward to Jesus’s return knowing that we can take joy from working for our God as we serve others with God’s love, mercy and gospel.
In some ways the title, ‘ King’, is an odd word to ascribe to Jesus, in a world and an era when monarchy is very much out of fashion, except in a minority of countries like our own! And, as St John tells us, Jesus hid himself when the crowd wanted to make him a king. Instead, he entered Jerusalem on a donkey, his throne was a cross, and his crown made of thorns. So, to understand why we call him ‘king’, we’ll be thinking today about what kingship ideally means in the Bible – where, in fact, most of the kings do not get a good press! and, from this review of the Scripture’s idea of kingship, we will consider, what it means for us when we call Jesus ‘King’.
You are going to hear quite a lot of scripture reading today, because the passage from which the Old Testament lectionary reading is taken is such a splendid chapter, beautifully written, using an extended image, or picture, of God and of his people, which is as relevant today as when it was written. First, a little bit of history. The nation of Israel was really only fully united under two kings – David, and Solomon. In the reign of Solomon’s son it split back into two tribal kingdoms, Samaria in the north, and Judah in the south. Samaria was over-run by the Assyrians in 721 BC, and never again functioned as an independent state. In 597 BC Judah was defeated by the Babylonians, and many of its important, wealthy or healthy citizens taken into exile in Babylon. One of these exiles was the prophet Ezekiel. Some years later the news reached the exiles in Babylon that Jerusalem had been sacked and Solomon’s Temple destroyed. It is after this disaster that Ezekiel receives this message from God.
Reading 1: Ezekiel 34: 1-16
The word of the Lord came to me: ‘Son of man, prophesy against the shepherds of Israel; prophesy and say to them: “This is what the Sovereign Lord says: woe to you shepherds of Israel, who only take care of yourselves! Should not shepherds take care of the flock? You eat the curds, clothe yourselves with the wool and slaughter the choice animals, but you do not take care of the flock.
You have not strengthened the weak or healed those who are ill or bound up the injured. You have not brought back the strays, or searched for the lost. You have ruled them harshly and brutally. So they were scattered because there was no shepherd, and when they were scattered they became food for all the wild animals. My sheep wandered over all the mountains and on every high hill. They were scattered over the whole earth, and no one searched or looked for them.
‘ “Therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord. As surely as I live, declares the Sovereign Lord, because my flock lacks a shepherd, and so has been plundered and has become food for all the wild animals, and because my shepherds did not search for my flock but cared for themselves rather than my flock, therefore, you shepherds, hear the word of the Lord: this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I am against the shepherds and will hold them accountable for my flock. I will remove them from tending the flock so that the shepherds can no longer feed themselves. I will rescue my flock from their mouths, and it will no longer be food for them.
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. I will pasture them on the mountains of Israel, in the ravines and in all the settlements in the land. I will tend them in a 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 be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will make them lie down, declares the Sovereign Lord. I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak, but the fat and the strong I will destroy. I will feed them with justice.
So, in this passage, who are the sheep, and who are the shepherds? The prophet speaks of Israel, not just Judah, so he is thinking of the whole people of God – the Israelites from the northern kingdom who vanished into exile more than a hundred years before, and the Israelites from the south, many of whom are in exile in Babylon with Ezekiel, while the remnants left behind struggle in a ruined country. Those who should have cared for them were the leaders of Samaria and Judah, the kings and their courts, the wealthy and the strong. It is their failure to establish a just society, which left the poor and the weak defenceless. Instead, their rule has been harsh and brutal; and so the country has been over-run and the weak and poor scattered over barren land, the prey not just of wild animals but of brigands and foreign armies.
But there is, I think, another target – the religious leaders. When prophets speak about ‘every high hill’ they usually refer to the pagan worship on high places. So the neglect and apostasy of the religious shepherds has left their flocks to the worship of pagan deities. God’s people Israel were left defenceless because their leaders cared nothing for them, or for the Lord, but thought only of living in comfort themselves. Instead of caring for the vulnerable they simply ‘fleeced’ them.
But a time of judgement has come, and God will hold those bad shepherds to account. The rulers and priests have lost their positions of wealth and security in the disaster of exile. No longer can they fleece the people of God. But that is not all. Hear what God promises!
He himself will come to his people, will tend his flock, search for the strays, bring back the exiles, bind up the wounds, ensure that they are fed – body and soul. But the fat and the strong, who did nothing to help the poor and weak, will face divine justice. This is surely a picture, not only of the eventual return of the exiles from Babylon, but of the end times when God’s rule will be established over the earth.
Reading 2: Ezekiel 34: 17-24
As for you, my flock, this is what the sovereign Lord says: I will judge between one sheep and another, and between rams and goats. Is it not enough for you to feed on the good pasture? Must you also trample the rest of your pasture with your feet? Is it not enough for you to drink clear water? Must you also muddy the rest with your feet? Must my flock feed on what you have trampled, and drink what you have muddied with your feet?
Therefore, this is what the Sovereign Lord says to them: see, I myself will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep. Because you shove with flank and shoulder, butting all the weak sheep with your horns until you have driven them away, I will save my flock, and they will no longer be plundered. I will judge between one sheep and another. 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.’”
In these verses God’s justice is directed at the ordinary people – he will judge those who always manage to push to the front and help themselves, making no allowances for their weaker brethren. For them, Might is Right! Those who behave like this are not part of God’s flock, it seems.
This passage, with its references not only to taking for ourselves but also destroying what would otherwise be left for others, must make us uncomfortable in the industrialised west. Much of the environmental damage done in third world countries in the past was done ignorantly, or, more culpably, carelessly. But now we have the scientific knowledge which should prevent harmful exploitation; and each one of us has the obligation to examine our lives, our lifestyles and our consciences about the effect that the production of what we consume has on the environment where it is produced. We must not be the fat sheep, trampling the pastures and fouling the waters of God’s sheep in other lands. And in our own land, where the corona virus epidemic has weighed especially harshly on certain sections of the population, we need to examine our own political and financial priorities. Poverty is a religious concern – at least, according to both Old and New Testaments, it is, in God’s eyes!
The closing section of this chapter 34, which I have not read to you, but which you may wish to read for yourselves at home, is a lyrical foretaste of the end times, when the people of God, the sheep of his pasture, will dwell in safety under his reign. But in the last verse of the passage which we read, we met the figure of the Prince who will, under God, shepherd the people; one in the line of David, Israel’s great Shepherd King.
And now we will have a hymn about him, which is based on that favourite psalm of the shepherd King David. We will use the hymn for a brief time of meditation
So what can we say about the Bible’s view of the ideal King? From the passage in Ezekiel we learn God’s complaint about what the rulers of Israel have not done:
They have not tended the sick and injured: they have not created a just distribution of the means of life, or a good and safe society. They have not brought oppressors to justice; they have not protected the people from enemies, so that the vulnerable were scattered and homeless, and they have not gone out to search for and rescue the lost. So, all these are things that a good King should do, and they are what God’s Prince and Shepherd, of the line of David, will do.
And indeed we see Jesus doing these things in the Gospels; he heals the sick, cares for the oppressed like lepers and widows, seeks out and welcomes the outcasts like tax-collectors and prostitutes, and preaches a just and sharing society, such as will bring in the Kingdom of God.
In John’s Gospel Jesus calls himself the Good Shepherd, who lays down his life for the sheep, and who has other sheep, beyond Israel, whom he must bring, so that there shall be one fold, and one shepherd.
But there are two other attributes of the King of the line of David. One, from the early days of Israel, is that he is a warrior, defeating the enemies of his kingdom. Now the man Jesus will not have a sword raised in his defence: but on the Cross he fought, and won, the great battle of all time, when he defeated the powers of death and darkness.
The other attribute, which we dare not forget, is that Christ, as God’s Anointed one, judges the world. The elements of judgement and justice were strong in the passages which we read from Ezekiel, but are also prominent in the parable of the Last Judgement which may, I think, have come to your minds, when God in Ezekiel’s prophecy speaks of judging between one sheep and another, and between rams and goats. Matthew’s chapter 25 tells how the Son of Man, the King, will come in his glory to judge the nations, and will separate the sheep from the goats. And the judgement is based, quite simply, on how they have treated other people. Have they fed the hungry or given drink to the thirsty? Have they welcomed the stranger, clothed the naked, tended the sick, or visited those in need or in prison? Because what they have, or have not, done to one of the least of Jesus’ family, they have, or have not, done to him.
Warrior prince, just judge, righteous ruler, Shepherd of his people, caring for the vulnerable and seeking and saving the lost – this is Israel’s ideal King, as taught by the prophets; and this is the One we celebrate today, on this Feast of Christ the King. Amen.