A sermon on Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 & Ephesians 1:15-23 by Nathan Nettleton
Issues of how leadership is exercised and how power is handled have been high on the agenda this year, both in the news of the world and in our own congregation. Where are we to learn about how power and leadership should be exercised? Who are the models we can safely follow? How do we recognise when it is going right and when it is going wrong?
Today, the last Sunday before the season of Advent, is called “Christ the King” Sunday in the Church calendar, and so by putting up the image of Jesus Christ as our king, it calls us to consider Jesus as the example of power used rightly, and to ask questions of our world in light of that example. Some of us, me included, have been known to object to calling Christ “the king”. I have always found hereditary monarchies to be an offensive concept of government, and I’ll certainly vote in favour of cutting Australia’s ties with the monarchy whenever I get the chance, and so I have rejected the image of king as one that has all the wrong associations. But I now think that shying away from calling Jesus “the king” was an overly simplistic mistake. In fact I now think that objections to the way power and governance are handled might be an argument for naming Jesus as king. To name Jesus as king can be an intentional challenge to others who would be called king. “If Jesus is our king, then you’re not.”
Rejecting titles because of bad experiences and bad associations can be a bit counter-productive. If we refuse to call God “Father” because of bad experiences of fathers, then we lose the lose the chance of God’s fatherhood becoming the model for and critique of other patterns of fathering. When we say that God is father, we are not so much saying that God is like the average human father, but that God’s pattern of love and care for his children is the model that human fathers are called to follow. And so similarly, when we say that God is king, we are not so much saying that God is like the average human monarch, but that God’s pattern of loving justice and mercy for those over whom he rules is the model that human monarchs, presidents, governors and politicians are called to follow. If we toss out titles based on bad experiences, we’ll soon run out of words. We won’t be able to call God pastor, priest, prophet, saviour, messiah, or lord, either. There are plenty of people who reckon they’ve had bad experiences of God, so perhaps we won’t even be able to call God God!
In the reading we heard from the prophet Ezekiel tonight, we hear both God’s critique of the abuse of power among his people, and God’s description of his own coming alternative. The prophet uses the image of a flock of sheep and says that there have been strong sheep who have thrown their weight around to bully and abuse the weaker sheep. In the process they have reserved all the best pasture for themselves and grown fat on it, while those they bullied have become skinny and weak. What we have, then, is a picture of power being exercised for its own benefit. The powerful exercise their power in order to improve their own pasture with no thought for the needs of others. Power benefits the powerful, and this is so much the normal pattern of the way things operate in our society, that we seldom stop to question it. We might occasionally complain about it, but come election day we obediently elect another batch of wealthy bully boys who will continue to perpetuate the stereotype and feather their own nests.
Through the prophet, God denounces such power mongering, and promises a very different kind of leadership: “I will rescue my people from all the places to which tragedy has scattered them. I will bring them from exile into their own land; and I will feed them on the hills and by the watercourses of the promised land. I will feed them with good pasture, they shall lie down in good grazing land. I myself will be the shepherd of my sheep, and I will let them lie down, says the Lord God. I will seek the lost, and I will bring back the strayed, and I will bind up the injured, and I will strengthen the weak.”
What a contrast! What we are seeing here is a description of power which is exercised, not for its own sake, but for the benefit of the people, and especially for the benefit of those who are most powerless, the lost, the strayed, the wounded, the ones without adequate resources. This kind of power is good, healthy, life-giving. Without such power and good people to exercise it, the world is a more dangerous and frightening place: the little people would be even more defenceless and vulnerable to the abusive games of corrupt power mongers. Good power is selfless and self-giving. But of course, those of us who are called to exercise it need to remain prayerful, self-aware and self-reflective, because we are fallible humans with our own needs. It is very easy to get meeting our own needs confused with the needs of others, and every leader needs to keep working at understanding such dynamics and seeking to be constantly accountable for what we do and its relationship to the model held up to us by God.
But the message of these readings is not only a message for leaders about how to exercise power rightly. It is firstly a wonderful vision of God and a promise to us all about who God is and how God relates to us. You see, far too often we have fallen into exactly the trap I spoke of before and run the comparison back-to-front. We have indeed imagined that God exercises the divine power the way we have seen the holders of power exercise it in the world we live in. There has, of course, often been deliberate propaganda to get us to do exactly that, because it is in the best interests of the powerful to persuade us that God is like them and is endorsing their power and their exercise of it. Ironically, “Christ the King Sunday” was first inserted into the calendar as exactly such a piece of propaganda, but it is wonderful the way the irony of God can cause such a thing to subvert its own intended corrupt agenda. Instead of becoming the legitimator of excessive power, it has become a challenge to it.
For herein is the good news of salvation. Jesus has come that we might be set free from such destructive misconceptions about God. “I will come,” says the Lord, “I will come and seek them out and bind up their wounds and lead them safely to the promised land.” Jesus has come so that we might know that we don’t need to hide from God, expecting God to stand over us and push us around and oppress us with burdensome expectations like the power mongers we have grown used to. Jesus has come so that we can see how God exercises power, saving us from evil and harm by placing his own body in its path to shield us, and absorbing its full venom without ever turning it back on anybody or passing it on in any way. Jesus has come so that we might be set free from the mistaken images of a God who would lord it over us and instead know ourselves beloved, cherished, cared for, and lifted up and empowered. Jesus has come to set us free to put our trust in God, knowing that God can be trusted to care for us and lead us safely home. And Jesus has come so that, knowing ourselves beloved and protected by such a gracious power, we might be set free to live with joy and gusto and freedom.
In the words of the apostle in our reading from the letter to the Ephesians, it is this joyous and liberating power that God put to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, and so now it is this power, seen so fully and graciously in Jesus the Messiah, that is enthroned far above all rule and authority and power and dominion, and above every name that is named, not only in this age but also in the age to come. This is the promise, the hope, the faith we hold, for God has put all other authorities under Jesus’ feet and has made him the head over all things for the church, which is his body, the fullness of him who fills all in all. This is our life. This is our hope. This is our freedom. Amen!