Its a Kingdom Not a Democracy
The Influence of Democratic Thought
Standing above the grassy fields outside Gettysburg, PA, President Abraham Lincoln captured the essence of a democracy when he stated that the United States was a nation, “of the people, by the people and for the people.” This concept has been the founding principle of our country. In a democracy the authority to rule derives solely from the consent of the people. The laws of our nation are not written and enforced by a self proclaimed monarch or “President” but by representatives elected by the people. Every citizen maintains the right to vote. Every constituent may freely express their opinions and thoughts concerning the rule of government, Both are essential to the democratic process.
Democracy thrives when citizens are actively involved in the process at all levels of government. Legislatures need to know how laws and regulations impact commerce, education, and the health of their constituents. Effective presidents or prime ministers wisely consider the opinions of the public as they are expressed through town hall meetings, opinion surveys, letters and public appearances. While judges should not make their interpretation of law based upon the passing whim of the popular opinion, the public has the opportunity to elect judges that share their view on the interpretation and application of civil and criminal law.
The democratic process is so ingrained in our world view that we carry it into all aspects of our life. We prefer to work for companies that welcome feedback and input from all their employees. We bristle when supervisors demand unquestioning obedience to their inane instructions. Teenagers are much more cooperative if they have had input in the formation of the family's rules. Husbands and wives will enjoy a much more harmonious relationship if decisions are made through the mutual exchange of ideas and not by the dictatorial whims of one person.
We have even carried this thinking into our spiritual lives giving rise to an age of pluralism in which every person seems to have their own ideas about who God is, what God expects of us and what will happen at the end of this age. In the Presbyterian church we call this “freedom of conscious.” It means that neither a pastor, session, presbytery, or even a General Assembly can force a person to believe in a certain way. Each person much be allowed to form their own theological beliefs, ethical and moral norms, and values. Unfortunately in an intellectual period that places a premium on creativity, originality, and non-traditional thinking this has produced a vast array of theological thinking.
Sometimes these ideas and beliefs are completely disconnected from Scripture. During a discussion with a Presbyterian elder on the role of the Spirit in the Christian life I cited a passage from one of Paul's epistles. The woman rebuffed me saying, “Oh, that's from the apostle Paul and he did not know what he was talking about.” She had rejected all of the apostle's teaching because she did not agree with instructions to women to submit to their husband. She concluded that she could be selective in her understanding of the NT. However, we must understand one very basic concept, the kingdom of God is a kingdom not a democracy. God does not ask for our opinions, suggestions, feedback or ideas. Jesus makes this very clear in the passage before us this morning.
The Kingdom's King
He begins by telling his disciples that when the Son of Man comes he will sit on his throne. After that he refers to the Son of Man as “the King.” The term “Son of Man” occurs over 80 times in the NT and refers specifically to Jesus in all but one instance. The NT authors do not make any attempt to define it. Let us simply be assured that Jesus is referring to himself and that one day he will assume his throne as King.
I am not sure we Americans really appreciate the unqualified, unhesitant, unquestioning obedience demanded by royalty in ancient times. We have no modern equivalents. Most European monarchs are powerless figureheads. When they are not enjoying scandalous escapades, they are honoring charitable organizations or visiting memorials to honor those who gave their lives in service to their country. The only citizens that obey their orders are their butlers and chauffeurs. We prefer to think of Jesus in his role as our servant rather than as his servants. But Jesus, quite clearly at the end of time the Son of Man will ascend to his throne. We may refer to him as the Good Shepherd. We may call him are Savior. We may talk to him as a friend but unless we also prepared to bend our knee and serve him as King we have greatly misunderstood who he is.
Once King Jesus has called all the people of the earth before him, we are told he will divide them into two groups. He will direct the goats to his left and the sheep to his right. This is still very common in that region of the world. Goats and sheep have different needs. At night the shepherd must secure warm lodging for the sheep but in this story tending to the needs of the goats is not the intent of King Jesus. The goats are goats because of what they have not done. They have not offered a cup of cold water to King Jesus nor fed him nor provided clothes for their King. They have not done anything. By their inactivity they have proven themselves to be goats. The sheep on the other hand have done all of these things.
Both groups are surprised by the verdict because neither one ever recalls meeting their king during their life. The goats never recall turning their King away and the sheep never recall offering him food. I wonder why neither the goats nor the sheep could see the face of King Jesus in faces of the people they ignored or helped.
In Port-au-Prince, Haiti there is a woman named Ruth serving the children who live on the street. The people of Haiti are desperately poor. The average life span is just over 40 years. Unemployment is over 80% and the land is terribly depleted from over farming. Ruth left her native Wisconsin to work as a nurse among the poor in Haiti. She changed careers when she saw the need of physically and mentally handicapped children in this poverty stricken land. They are abandoned and left to wander the streets. Ruth and her fellow workers collect them off the street and give them a home until they die. Ruth has arranged for some to fly to the states for surgery.
Each day Ruth takes time to hug every child and praises them. She calls each one by name, even those who cannot feed themselves and lie in bed all day. She minimizes her work. She says that she just saw a need and tried to fill it. She prevents getting discouraged by focusing on one child at a time. She does not worry about how effective she is at solving the poverty of Haiti. All she sees is the faces of the children. I wonder if the goats ever recognized their King because they never looked long enough into the face of those in need. The faces of hungry children are not easy to look at. The face of a father dying of AIDS does not present an appealing portrait. The look of desperation in the eyes of a homeless woman is tough to consider. But King Jesus is saying that we will see his face in the faces of others.. I also wonder if the sheep were too busy caring for the many needs to recognize the face of their King.
The Seriousness of the Kingdom
Jesus concludes the story by telling us that after the two groups are divided, the goats will go away to eternal punishment. Many people are uncomfortable with the word punishment. It sounds too punitive. This is an age of understanding, compassion and tolerance. Parents are told not to punish their children but rather to redirect their behavior through positive affirmation. If parents do not punish, and the schools do not punish then most certainly God does not punish. How can a loving, compassionate God condemn anyone? How can the God of grace pronounce judgment upon his children?
Our society is not the only one who had trouble with the idea of a God who judges and punishes. In the 2nd century a church leader named Marcion also struggled with the passages that mentioned God's judgment so he eliminated the entire OT, most of the gospels and only ten of Paul's letters. His gospel was based upon the gospel of Luke but did not contain any references to the demands of the Law. Thomas Jefferson took a similar approach but he used either a pair of scissors or a razor to remove the passages that troubled him.
While we may have trouble with the idea of an eternal punishment Jesus did not. He mentions the ideas at least five times in the book of Matthew alone. In each passage the concept is connected to those who have failed to live in obedience. My point is not to defend the existence of an eternal hell but to show how serious Jesus considers the matter. Caring for the hungry, comforting the homeless, providing drink to the those who thirst are not optional duties. They are essential to the gospel. The person who is not willing to minister to less fortunate should be very cautious about calling themselves a child of the King.
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Walled Lake MI 48390
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