I am fascinated by people’s last words, the thing they choose to leave us with. In some ways, our first words as a child and our last words at death are some of our most important. Only parents record or remember our first words, but history often records our last. Of course, my favorite last words – which I’ve shared before – come from Major General John Sedgwick of the Union Army who, at the start of the Battle of Spotsylvania Courthouse said, “Why are you dodging like that and worried about those sharpshooters? They couldn’t hit an elephant at this dist…” That choice is followed closely by playwright Henrik Ibsen who, when his maid said his health was improving, uttered the last words, “On the contrary.” On a more serious note, John Wesley, the founder of Methodism, spent his dying breath saying, “Best of all, God is with us.” Henry Ward Beecher, the great evangelist, used his last breath to say, “Now comes the mystery.” And Jesus, we know from Luke’s Gospel, said from the cross, “Father, into your hands I commend my spirit.
We have a lifetime of words that we don’t pay much attention to. We send e-mails, we text message, we exchange casual small talk, but we have only one chance to say our last word. Our conclusion. Our final reflection on this life and what it was all about; what we remember, and the way we want to be remembered.
In the Christian calendar, today is Christ the King Sunday. It is the final day of the Christian year. On the day that Christ the King Sunday was first celebrated, the church was trying to get in the last word. The year was 1925 and the world was reeling from the effects of World War I. Dictators were rising up in some countries and in other countries there was a general movement to secularize the government. Both sides of the political spectrum were doing all they could to weaken the influence of religion in society and on the government. In the creation of this special Sunday, in response to the shifting tides that sought to weaken Christianity and therefore the church, the church sent a bold statement out on the last Sunday of the Christian year, saying, “Do what you will, but Christ will have the last word”. The church was saying that the things of the world, the decisions and choices leaders and people make, do not really matter. In the end, Jesus will have the last word.
And I can’t think of a more important message for our current time, either. Amid a year like no other in recent memory (or long-term memory, for that matter), we need to know that Jesus will have the last word. Shout and demand your rights while completely ignoring the rights and lives of everyone else, Jesus will have the last word. Loot, pillage, and incite violence while marching against police brutality, Jesus will have the last word. Claim you are only trying to protect the public voice while totally denying what the public said, Jesus will have the last word. Never has it been more necessary for the Church to stand up and say that the things of this world do not really matter, for Christ will have the last word!
This is the message echoed in our passage for today from Ephesians. Paul is writing to bring hope to this church that is struggling amid the chaos, fear, illness, persecution, and uncertainty of the world around them. If you are at all like me, you’ve spent the bulk of this year feeling like chaos, fear, illness, persecution, or uncertainty are swirling around you. And you know others who feel the same. These words of hope and promise that Paul offers to the church in Ephesus are certainly words we need to hear today in our lives and in our world.
In verses 17 & 18 Paul offers up this wonderful prayer for the Ephesians: “I keep asking that the God of our Lord Jesus Christ, the glorious Father, may give you the Spirit of wisdom and revelation, so that you may know him better. … that you may know the hope to which he has called you.” It is a prayer that we could use in our day to day lives as well. We all need God’s wisdom and for Him to be revealed to us more and more as we seek to grow in Him. As God’s truth takes root in our hearts, we come to know this hope of which Paul writes. It is the hope of eternal life. It is the ultimate good news about death. Death does not win.
Death does not have the last word. Jesus does. On that day when we pass from this life into life eternal, in that moment, Jesus will welcome each of us into “his glorious inheritance in his holy people.” He will say welcome home.
But in today’s passage Paul is not relegating Jesus to being just the one who helps us transition from this life into the next. It is not all about Jesus being “seated at his right hand in the heavenly places.” The text today from Ephesians is also about how Jesus walks with us in the here and now as we live out our days here on earth. Jesus’ kingship here on earth transforms us into new creations and it reworks our understanding of life and death.
Jesus’ kingship transforms every allegiance, every relationship, even our understanding of life and death. Christ’s place in eternity demands our attention in the here and now. The work of faith is to live in the confidence of God’s final word in Christ. Today we proclaim to the world that Christ is the firstborn of all creation, the one for whom angels sang, the one through whom all that is came to be. But in giving Christ the last word, we declare that in the here and now, He is our king.
Ezekiel 34: 11-24 is also one of the Lectionary readings for this week. The theme of this reading is that the Lord wants to be our good shepherd. Verse 11 begins with these words: “For this is what the Sovereign Lord says: I myself will search for my sheep and look after them.” Ezekiel is writing at the end of the time of exile in Babylon and the sheep are scattered. The people are discouraged and broken. In verses 12-15 the Lord promises to gather up His sheep and to bring them to “good pastures” where they will lie down and be protected.
This is what we feel when life is good, when God is looking down lovingly on us, the sheep of His pasture. This is a good place to be. But the passage from Ezekiel does not end there. In verse 16, the Lord God says, “I will search for the lost and bring back the strays. I will bind up the injured and strengthen the weak.” This is the loving, kind, compassionate, caring God we want to know. This is who we want God to be for us and for all people. We want our God to seek the least and the lost and to redeem and restore their lives. But even this is not the last word.
At the end of verse 16, God says, “…but the sleek and the strong I will destroy. I will shepherd the flock with justice.” You see, these sheep became fat and strong by preying on the weak, by taking from the poor and powerless. And, look around, this is still the way of the world! It is no wonder God seeks to bring justice.
In verse 20, God promises, “I will judge between the fat sheep and the lean sheep.” This is an ominous promise indeed. One day judgment will come. Ezekiel’s message of comfort and divine restoration takes a turn against any who would seek to continue the cycle of exploitation promoted by the bad shepherds. It seems that Ezekiel is warning of any who perceive the leadership void as an opportunity for personal gain.
The imagery of sheep trampling down good grass or muddying clean water indicates individuals who would shortchange or oppress others simply out of malice or ill will (v. 18–19). Not unlike the judgment against Judah’s bad leadership, God stands against any who look for ways to marginalize or exploit others. Ezekiel’s message points the finger of judgment at any who would jostle for position in what seems to be a power vacuum (v. 21–22).
In the moment when the people are in need of a strong shepherd, God offers a strong promise of a coming Davidic king who would rule well (v. 23). And so God ends by offering hope: “I will place over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he will tend them; he will tend them and be their shepherd. I the Lord will be their God,” It is a day we long for. One day when God restores and redeems all of His sheep, then all will be right in the world. This will be the last word. All things will be made new. Christ will reign forever.
The forever reign of Christ is what Paul is writing of in our passage from Ephesians when he writes that in Jesus is “the immeasurable greatness of his power for us who believe, according to the working of his great power. 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.” He is now and forever, the first and the last, the beginning and the end. All things are under Jesus’ power and authority, in this age and in the age to come.
It is in this age that Christ will be our King when we sit in the waiting room, praying for our loved one to have a successful surgery. Christ will be our King when we wait day after day for the test results. Christ will be our King as we see the pandemic numbers spiking. He will be our King as we continue to hear of wars and the acts of terrorism. Christ will be our King in the darkness of this world. And Christ will be our King when the darkness is inside of us, when the depression wells up or when our dream is shattered or in the moments when the doubt seems to be winning the day or when we cannot imagine that anything can ever fill that hole that is within us. It is then that Christ will speak words of hope and love and compassion into our lives. It is then that we will feel His presence. Because Christ is the King, He will always have the last word.
This is the great “now-and-not-yet” of our faith. As we walk with Christ as our shepherd and King in this life, we celebrate a victory that the world cannot see. We hold tightly to a hope that defies every instinct, every form of logic. We trust in the King enthroned on a cross. There is nothing this world can bring that has not already been defeated. There is no power greater than His power. Christ is the last word. Christ will always be the last word.