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Basic Instructions Before Leaving Earth
Ezekiel 34:11-16, 20-24 Ephesians 1:15-23 Matthew 25:31-46

The other day, as I was going through some of the science journals on the Internet, I found this wonderful photograph of the very center The Milky Way galaxy. Taken with the Chandra X-ray telescope, you can see that the center of our galaxy looks like a very busy, even chaotic place. In fact, what you see is a huge cloud of gas being illuminated by a number of stars that quickly orbit around what is called a super black hole that is estimated to be four million times the mass of our sun. And astronomers have actually been able to pinpoint the location of that super massive black hole and named it Sagittarius A-star – or Sag A* for short. And that’s what the arrow is pointing at in this picture.

Now, one of the interesting things about this picture is that the light that we’re seeing from the center of our galaxy is 28,000 light-years away from us. That’s the same as saying that the center of our galaxy is 168 quadrillion miles away. What that means is this: In spite of what Creationists might tell you, what we’re seeing there in the center of our galaxy actually happened 28,000 years ago, because light can only travel along at about six trillion miles a year.

On the other hand, there are other galaxies that we can see that are a whole lot farther away than that, like this one, for example: a galaxy that is about 13 billion light years away. That’s why astronomers know for sure that the universe is at least that old and at least that big.

Isn’t that amazing?

And, yet, our scriptures for this morning are all based upon the belief that God is in ultimate control of the destiny of the universe, which includes us. And that is an amazing thought, in and of itself. For compared to the size of that whole universe and in the midst of all that wonderful chaos it would seem that we are nothing but specks of dust. And, so we might ask, “Why would God even begin to care about us?” And, yet, we believe that God, the creator of all of that immensity, really does have a personal and caring relationship with little old us!

Almost 2600 years ago, some 587 years before Christ was born, the Israelites started to seriously think about the role God played in their destiny. They firmly believed that God had been a part of their history, up to that time. So, they started to wonder how God might affect their future.

And the reason they started to think about this is that in 587 B.C. the Assyrians (to the north and east) invaded their country, destroyed the Temple in Jerusalem, and took the Israelite people as prisoners, dispersing them in various places around the Assyrian empire.

So, you can imagine what the Israelite people thought about that and how it might have affected their religion! For hundreds of years the Temple in Jerusalem had been the seat of their faith. But now the Temple was gone and they didn’t even have their country, anymore.

But, the interesting thing is that their faith in God didn’t suddenly evaporate. Rather, their understanding of God changed. And they started to believe that God would eventually lead them home, again; that a great leader would arise from among the people who would gather the people like a shepherd gathers his flock, and take them back through the dessert, returning them to the Promised Land. So, we have the book of Isaiah, and the book of Ezekiel, and Jeremiah, and Amos, and Micah, and others that took up this theme.

And that’s where our Old Testament lesson for this morning is coming from. In fact, Ezekiel 34 is making it very clear to the people who are in exile in Assyria that the day will come when God will lead them back home, again; that all they need to do is be faithful. In fact, Ezekiel lists essentially ten things that he believes God will do for God’s faithful people, like a shepherd taking care of his sheep. According the Ezekiel, God says:

1. I will seek the lost.

2. I will bring back the strayed.
3. I will rescue those who have been scattered.
4. I will make you lie down in rich pastures.
5. I will bind up the injured.
6. I will strengthen the weak.
7. I will justly destroy the gluttons and bullies among you.
8. I will save my flock.
9. I will feed my sheep.
10. I will be your shepherd.

And, indeed, after about fifty years of exile, Assyria was conquered by the Persians. Then Cyrus the emperor of Persia gave permission to the Israelites to go back home, putting Ezra and Nehemiah in charge of the project. And, within about thirty years the people were back home and the Temple in Jerusalem was rebuilt. So, the hopes and dreams and prophesies of Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel and Amos and Micah were fulfilled, giving credence and affirmation to the belief that God holds in God’s hand the future of those who have faith.

And, of course, we believe it, today, as well. And we believe that because God created us, the things that are important to God should be important to us, as well. Just as Ezekiel listed the ten things that were important to God, God’s people went forward into the future firmly believing that those things were important to them, as well.

Seeking the lost – rescuing those who have strayed and who have been scattered – finding rich pastures for a people to make a home – healing the sick – giving strength to the weak – culling out the gluttons and bullies – keeping the people safe – feeding the hungry – providing good leadership. All of these became ideals taught by the people of God. And these should be our ideals, as well.

And, in fact, every so often, even as we have wandered away from these ideals, God seems to remind us occasionally how important these teachings are.

In the history of Israel it happened again when Antiochus Epiphanes of the Selucid Empire decided in about 164 B.C. that the Jews in Palestine should worship Zeus and made the practice of the Jewish faith illegal. So, Antiochus Epiphanes sent an army to Israel to enforce his new law. And, in fact, many of God’s faithful people were tortured and killed because they would not forsake their faith. And, again, God’s people were reminded of the encouragement they had received centuries earlier from Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel and Amos and Micah. And the book of Daniel was written to encourage Israel to keep the faith; that God was still them with them; that in spite of the terrible and frightening things going on in their world and in their midst, God was still in control. And Daniel and other religious leaders of his day proclaimed that the day of the Lord would come; that the likes of people like Antiochus Epiphanes would be defeated; that a new world order would come.

And it did come! In about 161 B.C. there was a Jewish revolt. The Maccabees took power which led to a time of Jewish autonomy (which is essentially what Hanukkah celebrates). It was a hundred years of nationhood that Israel had not seen since the day of King David; a time that lasted up until Rome invaded Jerusalem in 63 B.C. It was a time of celebration that reminded the people that God is certainly in control, no matter what the present or the future may bring.

Well, that’s a lesson for us all to remember, isn’t it? That is the message of encouragement that all biblical apocalyptic literature offers to those who read it. In fact, the word Apocalyptic literally means a “lifting of the veil” or the revealing of God’s mysterious purposes, often in regards to an end of an age. And one of the common themes of Jewish apocalyptic literature was how God’s steadfast love always stands in opposition to and is ultimately victorious over the powers and principalities of this world. That is seen in what Isaiah and Jeremiah and Ezekiel wrote after the exile in 581 B.C. And it is seen in what Daniel wrote about Antiochus Epiphanes four hundred years later.

And the tradition of apocalyptic literal continued, into the first century A.D., being picked up by Jesus Christ, himself in our Gospel lesson for today. After the Romans had been in power for several generations, people were once again beginning to wonder if God was really in control. And, so, in Matthew 25, Jesus told them that on the day of the Lord God will have all the nations standing before him. And when that moment comes only six things will be important, even as God judges those who are Christians. Six things! And they’re pretty much the same things as were important 580 years earlier when Ezekiel prophesied the return of Israel from Babylonian captivity and when Daniel prophesied the defeat of Antiochus Ephiphanes. And what is that list?

Here it is: Six simple things that the eternal Shepherd does for us and wants us to do, as well:

1. Feed the hungry
2. Give water to the thirsty
3. Welcome the stranger.
4. Clothe the needy.
5. Heal the sick.
6. Visit the imprisoned.

Doing these things or failure to do these things shows evidence of whether or not we truly have the grace of God in our hearts. Certainly, we are saved by faith and offered God’s grace. But, our response to God’s grace demands at least these six things.

So, how are we doing in regards to these six things? Statistics indicate that over 40 million Americans, including 15 million children, live in households that suffer directly from hunger. In today’s world over one billion people do not get enough to eat. And every day about 16,000 children die from hunger related diseases.

We’re also told that 884 million people in the world do not have access to safe drinking water. And then, in spite of Jesus’ demand that we welcome the stranger, how often do we hear people, many of them saying they’re born again Christians, bitterly complaining about how there are 15 to 20 million illegal aliens living in our country?

And, how are we doing with our community projects to help folks who can’t afford warm coats, hats, and gloves for the winter?

And, while many of us have adequate health insurance from our employers, how many more of us are losing or have lost that benefit because of cutbacks and cost saving measures and loss of jobs? Do we hear those who have what they need cruelly ridicule those who must go without? Do we really take Jesus’ seriously when he says, “Heal the sick!”?

And when Jesus tells us to visit those in prison, do we think that only refers to those who are persecuted for Jesus’ sake? Do we make up reasons not to do it? Or, did Jesus really mean it when it said, “Visit those who are in prison!”? When our church pays its apportionments, we support chaplains all over the state who visit people in prisons, no matter why they’re there.

But, what it boils down to is this one apocalyptic concern: Do we really believe that God is in control, no matter what? Do we center our lives on that principle? Are we encouraged and empowered by that thought?

The apostle Paul, writing to the Ephesians encouraged and empowered them, saying, “God put this power to work in Christ when he raised him from the dead and seated him at his right hand in the heavenly places, 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.”

Notice that in this case, Paul describes the reign of Christ as not just something that is going to happen in the future. Rather, as is common in most apocalyptic literature, the coming of Christ encompasses all of time. It has been, is now, and ever more shall be. It’s just really neat when we’re even occasionally able to figure that out!


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