“The Shepherd King,” preached at Grace Lutheran Church, Advance, NC, November 26, 2017
Ezekiel 34:11–16, 20–24; Psalm 95:1–7a; 1 Corinthians 15:20–28; Matthew 25:31–46
In the 16th Century, the Geneva Bible was the favored Bible of the people. It was the Bible of the Puritans, the 1591 Cambridge edition is the Bible that the Pilgrims brought to America, where Scots was the main language at that time. One of the innovations of that Geneva Bible was that it was the first study Bible. It had marginal notes by notables like John Calvin, John Knox, and Miles Coverdale—each one a Reformer.
In 1522, Martin Luther published his German New Testament and William Tyndale, an Englishmen, got his hands on one that same year. He was inspired to translate the entire Bible into English. The Catholic Church was not happy about it, thinking it should only be in Latin, ordered him to stop, and after he refused, forced him to flee the country. He landed in Worms, Germany. Sound familiar? Luther was a continuing inspiration and help to Tyndale. But he was eventually hunted down, captured, and imprisoned.
Miles Coverdale, one of the authors of the study notes in the Geneva Bible, took up the task of finishing Tyndale’s translation of the Old Testament into English. In 1536, Tyndale was strangled to death and burned at the stake for his so-called heretical English translation, which was the entire New Testament but only about half of the Old Testament. Fires evidently did not scare Coverdale, who picked up the gauntlet and his pen and finished the work of translating the Old Testament.
John Knox, a Scotsman who ended up founding the Presbyterian Church of Scotland, was first exiled to England for his trouble-making, reforming ways. He then moved to Geneva where he met John Calvin.
John Calvin, was a French theologian and the Reformer of Geneva, Switzerland. Philip Melanchthon, the author of so much of the Lutheran Confessions, sometimes seemed to favor Calvin’s theology nearly as much as Luther’s.
These three—Coverdale, Knox, and Calvin—wrote much of the study notes in that Geneva Bible—a Bible that King James, himself a Scotsman, hated with a fire redder than his own hair. Why? Because the notes are harsh regarding words that refer to a monarchy. Although the Geneva Bible uses the word “king,” the Puritans were so anti-monarchical that its marginal notes repeatedly employ the word “tyrant” when commenting about a king. The word “tyrant” would not find its way into the King James Bible, but it appears in the Geneva notes over 400 times. The translation favored by the Puritans must have been very popular at the court of England.
Let us pray: Sovereign Lord, at the end of time your eternal reign will be fully revealed, and all will stand in awe of your Son, the King of kings. As we gather in your holy presence, nourish us with word and water, bread and wine, that we may go forth making his kingdom known through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
Indeed, I think one of the driving forces behind the Scotsman who became King James was not just to have a Bible that would unify Great Britain, but that would unify it around its British king. That could never happen with that anti-monarchy Geneva Bible.
Kings can certainly be a problem, if only for being self-centered. Still, the Apostle Paul urges us to pray for kings and others in authority, adding that this pleases God (1 Tim 2:1-3). This is because God wants us to live peaceably and because all authority comes from God, existing rulers and powers receiving their authority from God (Rom 13:1). So, even kings, emperors, and presidents are subjects of a greater ruler, that great King above all gods, as the Psalmist calls him in our Psalm today. Even greater powers than kings and presidents are subject to God. Powers like sin, death, and the devil must also answer to him. As the Second Reading asserts: all things will be subjected to him—even death, which will be destroyed forever.
How does God enforce this; how does he accomplish his authority? He does so in a way no one would have dreamed. He comes to earth as a man who would become a shepherd like his great-grandfather, 13 generations removed, King David. Ezekiel says that God himself will seek out his scattered sheep. What kind of king goes in search of lost sheep? A shepherd king does. Jesu doess. He is the one who has made his wandering sheep lie down and rest so that he may dress their wounds and strengthen them with his own hand. The psalmist says that “we are the people of his pasture, and the sheep of his hand.”
Now, it may not seem like you have a very good spot to lie down and rest. It might seem a bit rocky or uneven to you. Life may be treating you pretty roughly, perhaps unfairly from your perspective. Whenever this seems to be the case to you, you may be assured that you are at that moment, lying in the wrong place. For the green pastures where he makes us lie down are none other than the Good Shepherd himself. Any tougher turf in life is made comfortable because the Shepherd gives you rest—not an easy life. He satisfies your needs—not affluence, good health, and the applause of people. It is the hand of the shepherding God who upholds you through this life, not the platforms of presidents or the councils of kings.
We are carried by the Shepherd King’s mighty hand through the valley of death, for it is but a momentary shadow. We will pass through in the flitting of the eyes, as though awakening from a peaceful slumber. Because our Shepherd King was the firstfruits of the dead, we who believe will be raised as the latter fruits. Paul’s image in our Second Reading is taken from the Jewish celebration of Passover. Passover was both a remembrance of their deliverance from bondage in Egypt, and a barley harvest festival. The Law states:
“When you come into the land that I give you and reap its harvest, you shall bring the sheaf of the firstfruits of your harvest to the priest, and he shall wave the sheaf before the LORD, so that you may be accepted” (Lev 23:10–11).
At Passover, the barley was threshed, dried over fire, exposed to the wind so that the chaff would blow away, then ground in the mill, and offered to God. Just so, Jesus had to be offered to God and raised from the dead, the firstfruits of the dead, a second harvest is coming when all who have fallen asleep in the Lord will rise and be caught up with the Lord into heaven. Our shepherding King rose victoriously from the grave, and he will raise us too. Having put all things in subjection to Christ, God will destroy death at the last. We who were bound to die because of Adam’s sin within us, will be made alive forever because we are bound in faith to the King who overrules sin and death.
But kings do not only pardon; they also judge. The Shepherd King will sit on his glorious throne, and there separate the sheep from the goats, the favored sheep sent to his right hand, the goats to his left. Sheep and goats were pastured in mingled flocks, just as we live in this world with unbelievers. It takes a king who is a shepherd to tell the difference between the two. What is it that the Shepherd King will be looking for in distinguishing these similar species? While we cannot infer from this story that we will be justified because of our good works, for we are saved by grace alone. Yet we do see that the Shepherd will be looking for evidence of that faith. That evidence is illustrated by a variety of good works, done to the less fortunate whom Jesus identifies with so strongly that to feed the hungry, give drink to the thirsty, welcome a stranger, clothe the naked, visit the sick and the imprisoned is to do so unto Jesus himself. These are the righteous deeds of those who have true faith, the acts of the faithful sheep of God’s right hand.
Our great Shepherd King is no tyrant such as Calvin, Knox, and Coverdale wrote about, but his judgment is keen nonetheless—make no mistake. Bear fruit in keeping with repentance, the Baptist admonished. That is what faithful sheep do, for they know they do it unto their king.
For these sheep of God, these people of a real and living faith, are the ones whom Ezekiel’s God will go in search of, seeking and rescuing them from the dark places of sin, death, and the devil. He will rescue them from these evils and feed them in good, rich pasture.
He has set a table before you in the presence of these enemies. This holy table embodies his promise that his goodness and mercy will follow you all the days of your life, that the Shepherd King has prepared his house for you to dwell in forever. Fear no evil, for the Good Shepherd King is with you. Be comforted at his table. Come!