Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24; Psalm 95:1-7; Ephesians 1:15-23; Matthew 25:31-46


Sermon by Reader Christopher Ward


May I speak in the name of Almighty God, Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Amen.

This Sunday is a very important Sunday in the Church calendar. It is the last Sunday of the Church year. And we stand on the cusp of Advent, that season of hope and anticipation.


And just as we celebrate the secular New Year’s Eve, so I think it entirely proper that we also celebrate our spiritual New Year. And what better way to do than to prayerfully reflect on the divinity of Christ, the universal and eternal King. And that divinity and kingship can I think be summed up in just seventeen words, the seventeen very familiar words from the Authorised Version with which John opens his Gospel, “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God.”


Just as we do at the end of the calendar year in a secular sense, the turning of the Church year is perhaps an appropriate time for a spiritual look back. We can give thanks for all the good things that God has brought into our lives over the past year, acknowledge the times when we may have strayed from Him or ignored Him, and reflect on lessons learned.


I also want this morning to spend a little time on one aspect of kingship which has been a recurrent theme in our readings over the last couple of weeks, and which naturally leads us on into Advent. And that theme is judgement. Kings judge, and we are familiar with this in the secular context in the name of the largest division in the High Court, the King’s Bench Division.


Last week we heard from the prophet Zephaniah, who graphically described how the Lord would search Jerusalem with lamps and “punish the people who rest complacently on their dregs” . In the Gospel reading , in which Jesus is painting one picture of what the kingdom of heaven will be like when the Apocalypse comes, we heard the parable of the Talents, and of the differing judgements of the master on the three slaves to whom he entrusted his money.


Today we heard a passage from the prophet Ezekiel in which God describes how he will seek out his sheep and care for them. The image of God as a shepherd is of course a familiar Old Testament image, as is the image of the people of Israel as sheep. And Ezekiel paints a rosy picture of the life that God has in mind for his faithful sheep. But not all his gathered sheep will enjoy that life because, once gathered, the sheep – in reality the people of Israel – will be judged by God. And while the outlook for those who are injured and weak is good, the outlook for the fat and strong, the ones that have prospered by abusing their fellows, is not.


And there is a similar message in our Gospel reading. Jesus is describing what will happen at the Apocalypse, when all the nations will be gathered before him. He will then separate people into ‘sheep’ at his right hand, those blessed by God and who will inherit His kingdom, and ‘goats’ at his left hand, those consigned to the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. As we say when we recite the Creed – He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead.


Now this is a passage which has always fascinated me, because it leaves both the sheep and the goats in a state of confusion. Neither group can understand why they have been classified as they are. Jesus explains: his judgement is based on how people treated him when he was in need. However, both camps are still confused, because neither has any recollection of ever encountering Jesus in such a situation. Jesus then previews the answer that God will give on Judgement Day: just as they did do it, or did not do it, as the case may be, to the least of those who are members of Jesus’ family, they did, or did not, do it to Jesus himself. In other words, it is in our service to each other that we serve Jesus our spiritual King.

Buried in that deceptively simple answer is, I think, a very tough call for each of us. Can we know for certain whether we are getting it right? Judging by our Gospel passage today, and the genuine confusion in the minds of both the sheep and the goats, I suspect that the answer is probably ‘no’.

I still remember an incident in my own life from many, many years ago. Our next door neighbour was having the tarmac replaced on his front drive. A single workman did the job, and there was something very odd about him. He was delivered daily from the back of a van, not the passenger seat. Even a friendly greeting seemed to cause him a problem. It was only some years later, when the proprietor of a business in the area that resurfaced drives was convicted on multiple counts of abuse of workers over a long period that I realised that this workman was probably a victim of what we now call modern slavery. And I had completely missed this.


But I have confidence that our God is a merciful God, who will judge kindly. But the fact remains that he will judge each one of us, and that mercy, if granted, follows judgement; it does not substitute for it.


Finally, I would like to come back to another New Year tradition: New Year’s resolutions. There is surely no reason why these cannot be associated with the spiritual New Year, just as they are with the secular? In chapter 22 of  his Gospel, Matthew recounts  how the Pharisees sought to trick Jesus by asking him which was the greatest commandment in the law. Jesus’ response can be summarised as first and foremost to love God wholeheartedly and second to love one’s neighbour as oneself. So my own Resolution is to strive with renewed energy to do both. The first is no more than Christ the eternal King deserves, and the second may, and I stress may, see me at God’s right hand on Judgement Day. At least, I hope and pray that it will!