Christ the King A: The Unexpected God

Dear Partner in Preaching,

Do you like surprises? I’ll be honest, I’m a little conflicted about them. Actually not all that conflicted, as I really like surprising others – with an unexpected visit or gift, for instance – but I really don’t like being surprised myself. A bit hypocritical, perhaps, but there you go. I think it’s that I like being prepared, feeling more or less ready for what’s coming, and surprises undermine that kind of confidence.

I ask this question because I think this passage turns on the matter of surprises. Notice that both those identified as sheep and those named goats are surprised by what Jesus says. “Lord, when did we…” and “when didn’t we…” both capture the shock each group expresses when Jesus commends or condemns their behavior.

But what exactly are they surprised by? That they acted either in a righteous way by feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick, and visiting the imprisoned or, on the other hand, in an unrighteous way by neglecting to do the same? Interestingly, no. Neither group denies their behavior. Rather, they are surprised by their failure to recognize the Son of Man. Or, more to the point, they are surprised by where the Son of Man hangs out.

No one, that is, expects to see Jesus in the face of the disadvantaged, the poor, the imprisoned, and all those who are in manifest need. Perhaps that’s to be expected. When we think of God, we typically think in terms of power and might and glory and all the rest. And, indeed, the parable begins by describing the coming of the Son of Man in glory to sit on his throne attended by angels, seemingly only reinforcing our preconceptions.

Yet might this be a deliberate set-up? The rest of the parable, after all, depicts this same royal figure as identifying with “the least of these” and thereby seems to undermine our tendency to look for God in places of power. If so, then this parable might not only call into question where we typically look for God, but actually reorient us to discover and experience God’s presence in our lives more fully than ever before.

In this parable, it seems to me, Jesus promises to be always with and for those who are in greatest need. Which means that if we want to experience God’s presence fully, deeply, and truly, we will look for God in the need of those around us and, indeed, in our own need as well. This is not, I realize, what we expect of God. We typically think of God in ultimate terms – all knowing, all-powerful, all-just, and so on. And that makes a certain sense, as we are talking about the creator of the cosmos and author of all life. But that’s not where Jesus invites us to meet, or be met by, God. And this act of condescension takes us by surprise, upsetting our expectations and disrupting our plans.

But maybe it shouldn’t, as the God we know in Jesus seems to delight in such surprises. After all, God didn’t come to reign over humanity at Athens or Rome or any of the other major cities where one would expect God to arrive, but rather – surprise! – God came to identify with us by being born in lowly Bethlehem in the form of a vulnerable infant. And God didn’t come to conquer the world with military or political might, but instead – surprise! – in the scandal, shame, and pain of the cross. So also God continues to come where we least expect God to be: in the plight of the homeless, on the side of the poor, in the face of the needy, and in the company of the imprisoned.

And that’s not all. If we are willing to suspend our expectations and live into the surprising reality of the God we know in Christ, then we are invited to meet God not in some distant eternal life or other-worldly reality but here and now, in the concrete and real need of our neighbors, just as they are invited to meet and be blessed by God as they tend to our needs as well. The God we know in Jesus is revealed, that is, not in power but in vulnerability, not in might but brokenness, and not in judgment but in mercy.

I know that this last one – about coming in mercy rather than judgment – may be, at least in this parable, the one that feels most like a stretch. After all, the whole parable seems to reach its climax when the Son of Man who comes in glory dismisses the unrighteous to eternal fire. But Jesus shares this parable on the way to the cross. Indeed, these are his last words before the beginning of his passion, an account that begins in the very next verse with these words: “When Jesus had finished saying all these things, he said to his disciples, ‘You know that after two days the Passover is coming, and the Son of Man will be handed over to be crucified.’”

Which may mean that the Son of Man’s “coming in glory” does not anticipate some final judgment at the end of time but rather describes the unexpected revelation that the Son of Man and Son of God is revealed – as the centurion who crucified him confesses – most clearly in the cross. Perhaps Jesus says in this parable what he has been saying all along through his teaching and actions and what he will soon say in and through his very body: that God loves us and all the world so much that God has decided to identify with us fully and completely. And so we recognize God most easily in the face of our neighbor, meet God in the acts of mercy and service we offer and are offered to us, and live in the blessing of God as we seek to serve as Christ served.

And this seems to me like surprisingly good news: that God is with us, here and now, revealed in the fellowship of broken people we call church, made manifest in the ordinary elements of bread and wine, and available to us in the seemingly small gestures of mercy we offer and are offered each and every day. It may not be where we expect God to show up, but it is just where we need God to be.

Thank you, Dear Partner, for your willingness to share the news of God’s unexpected mercy and grace with your people. It will be the best surprise they receive all year.

Yours in Christ,

PS: As always, I welcome your insights as we work together at finding a fit and faithful word for Sunday.