Christ Episcopal Church, Valdosta
“King of the Mountain” Ezekiel 34:11-12
November 26, 2017
Dave Johnson

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

This final Sunday of the church year is one of my favorites, Christ the King Sunday.  The church year that begins with the season of Advent, continues through Christmas and Epiphany, through Lent, Easter, and Pentecost, culminates on Christ the King Sunday.  On Christ the King Sunday, as we prayed in the powerful collect for today, we are reminded that we worship a God “whose will it is to restore all things in (his) well-beloved Son, the King of kings and Lord of lords,” Jesus Christ.

We are also reminded in the collect for today of the reality that we live in a world that needs to be restored, a broken world “divided and enslaved by sin.”  This year in the news we have seen the truth of this again and again in the resurgence of angry racism, an increasing number of mass shootings, an escalation of depression and anxiety, nearly daily accounts of yet another high profile person accused of misconduct…you can fill in the blank.

Think about your own life for a moment.  Where do you need to be restored?  Where are you divided?  Where are you enslaved by sin?  On Christ the King Sunday the gospel speaks right into those places with a word of hope based on the historical and unconditional love of Christ the King.

In today’s Old Testament lesson the prophet Ezekiel, whose ministry in Israel took place about six centuries B.C., prophesied about how God would personally bring hope to a world “divided and enslaved by sin”:

Thus says the Lord God: I myself will search for my sheep, and will seek them out.  As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep.  I will rescue them from all the places to which they have been scattered on a day of clouds and thick darkness (Ezekiel 34:11-12).

God did not delegate searching for his lost sheep; God did it personally.

I recently took a road trip to North Carolina and Virginia to visit my older kids.  Between visits I spent a day on memory lane in my old stomping grounds of Northern Virginia.  In Alexandria I visited the house I lived in from age four to seven, a house I had not seen in over forty years.  There was my old upstairs bedroom window—and there it was…my favorite tree, a tree I spent hours climbing and hanging out in, now much bigger four decades later.

In Springfield I visited my elementary school.  I stood near the entrance where my friends and I used to wedge ketchup and mustard packs from the cafeteria under the bus tires so that as the buses pulled away whoever happened to be standing by would be blessed with a spray of ketchup and mustard.  I walked inside the school for the first time since I was twelve, the memories flooding over me.

While speaking with an administrator I was asked if I remembered any specific teachers.  I asked about Mrs. Powell my amazing music teacher.  “Ruth Powell!” the administrator replied excitedly, “She wrote our school song.”  Then she grinned, “She retired like fifteen years ago.”  And I remembered Mrs. Powell with her 1970’s Dorothy Hamill style haircut playing her guitar and teaching us these famous Pete Seeger lyrics:

If I had a hammer
I’d hammer in the morning
I’d hammer in the evening all over this land
I’d hammer out danger
I’d hammer out warning
I’d hammer out love between my brothers and my sisters
All over this land
(From his 1950 song “If I Had a Hammer”)

I then drove to the neighborhood where I lived from age seven to eighteen.  As I walked my old Washington Post paper route I had so many flashbacks—“That’s where my best friend lived…that’s where I started my lawn mowing business…that’s the house where we performed air band versions of songs by the rock band Kiss (I was always the drummer, Peter Criss)…and that’s where the prettiest girl in the neighborhood lived.”  The old street lampposts that marked the goal lines for our touch football games in the street were still there too.

And I saw the backyard of one of my friends, a backyard that featured the steepest hill in the neighborhood.  On that hill my friends and I used to play King of the Mountain, a simple but violent game where you did whatever it took to stay alone on top of the hill while others tried to push you down or pull you down.  Although you might “win” sometimes, your “reign” as King of the Mountain would only last a few moments because eventually, try as you might, you would be removed from the top of the hill and be replaced by a new King of the Mountain.  No matter what, eventually you would experience “The king is dead, long live the king.”

As I played that game forty years ago I had no idea how true to life it was.  Metaphorically our lives are marked by many games of King of the Mountain—in families, at work, in the community, at the mall on Black Friday, and yes, sometimes even at church.  Each of you could share your own versions of this.  Ultimately the game King of the Mountain has no winners, and is one of the reasons we live in a broken world “divided and enslaved by sin.”  It is a game that will leave you wounded and worn out.  Being your own king does not last.

I have always enjoyed gangster movies, and one of my favorites is the 1949 classic White Heat starring James Cagney as the deranged gangster Cody Jarrett who was obsessed with power and myopically focused on being King of the Mountain.  (He also had serious issues with his mother, but that’s another sermon for another time).  At the end of the film Cody Jarrett is cornered by the police and refuses to surrender.  “Come and get me!” he yells defiantly.  The police begin shooting and Jarrett is struck by a couple bullets.  But rather than surrender he begins laughing, his quest to be King of the Mountain having literally driven him insane.

Cody Jarrett is at the top of a huge gas storage tank, and instead of shooting back at the police he begins firing at the tank, sending the police running for their lives.  As he shoots at the tank he stands facing the sky and screams out to his dead mother, “I made it, Ma!  Top of the world!” and then the gas tank explodes.  As the flames hurl into the sky one of the police officers sums it all up, “Cody Jarrett…he finally got to the top of the world…and it blew right up in his face.”

For those of you who do not watch gangster movies from the 1940’s here is another illustration that being your own king does not last.  On her latest album pop music phenomenon Taylor Swift sings:

My castle crumbled overnight
I brought a knife to a gunfight
They took the crown but it’s alright

And what brings hope when you realize that being your own king does not work, when your castle crumbles and your crown is stolen, when you are left wounded and worn out from playing King of the Mountain?  What brings hope then?  Love—as Taylor Swift continues by describing unconditional love she received:

All my flowers grew back as thorns
Windows boarded up after the storm
He built a fire just to keep me warm
(From “Call It What You Want” on her 2017 album reputation)

In response to a broken world “divided and enslaved by sin,” a broken world that cannot stop playing King of the Mountain, Jesus Christ came as a shepherd—again, as Ezekiel prophesied, “As shepherds seek out their flocks when they are among their scattered sheep, so I will seek out my sheep” (Ezekiel 34:12).  In fact, Jesus identified himself as the Good Shepherd who came “to seek and to save the lost” and lay down his life for the sheep (Luke 19:10 and John 10:11).

And in today’s gospel passage Jesus tells about his second coming when, again as a shepherd, he will separate “the sheep from the goats” (Matthew 25:32).  To the sheep on his right hand Jesus will say:

Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you gave me clothing, I was sick and you took care of me, I was in prison and you visited me (Matthew 25:34-36).

The sheep ask Jesus when they did all these things, and Jesus responds, “Truly I tell you, just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me” (Matthew 25:40).  Then Jesus rebukes the goats on his left hand for not doing any of these things and consigns them to everlasting punishment.  This sobering passage has nothing to do with playing King of the Mountain, and everything to do with caring for those in need.

Jesus the Good Shepherd did and does everything listed in this passage for all lost sheep “divided and enslaved by sin”—including you.  To a hungry world Jesus is the bread of life (John 6:25).  To a thirsty world Jesus is living water springing up to eternal life (John 4:14).  To the strangers wounded and worn out from playing King of the Mountain Jesus offers a warm welcome: “Come to me all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens and I will give you rest” (Matthew 11:28).

For naked and vulnerable sinners Jesus clothes them with love and righteousness (Colossians 3:14; Romans 13:14) and proclaims, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick; I have come to call not the righteous but sinners to repentance” (Luke 5:32).  To the sick Jesus brings healing—as scripture tells us “by his bruises we are healed” (Isaiah 53:5).  To those imprisoned by sin Jesus offers forgiveness as he proclaimed at the outset of his earthly ministry, he came “to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor” (Luke 4:18-19).

And on Good Friday, “a day of clouds and thick darkness,” Jesus took part in the ugliest game of King of the Mountain ever played—not by pushing or pulling others out of his way, but by allowing sinners to push and pull him to the top of a mountain called Calvary where they nailed him to a cross.

And in allowing the nails to be hammered into his hands and feet, in a way no one could have ever predicted, Jesus hammered out love for all his “brothers and sisters all over this land,” Jesus hammered out love for all those wounded and worn out from playing King of the Mountain, Jesus hammered out love for all those “enslaved and divided by sin,” Jesus hammered out love for you.

You see, the gospel is a word of hope for those who have learned the hard way that being your own king does not last, a word of hope for those whose attempt to be King of the Mountain has blown up in their face.

Today may the Holy Spirit take you on a different trip down memory lane, to a different tree, the cross, where the only true King of the Mountain who ever lived, Jesus, personally died for you—and may the Holy Spirit remind you that the Risen Jesus, Christ the King, will indeed return someday “to restore all things.”