Sunday, December 2, 2007

Sermon for December 2nd (Advent 1)

‘He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead’

So, have you started to ‘give like Santa and save like Scrooge’ yet?

At this time of year the Christian church – or at least, the parts of it that follow the ancient calendar of the church year – are at odds with the culture around us. To put the difference bluntly, in the secular world Christmas has already started, but in the Christian calendar we’re just starting Advent.

This orientation was brought home to me a few years ago when I realised that in the secular world, the song ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ is assumed to be about the twelve shopping days before Christmas. Is that what you thought too? Well, it’s not! ‘The Twelve Days of Christmas’ refers to the fact that in the Christian calendar, the Feast of the Nativity of Christ starts on December 25th and runs for twelve days until January 6th, which is the Feast of Epiphany. So the secular calendar starts Christmas before December 25th, but in the church the celebration starts on December 25th and runs for the twelve days afterwards.

Mind you, the secular calendar and the Christian calendar have this in common – they’re both about hope. The difference, of course, is that we’re not hoping for the same thing! The secular calendar is driven by the retail industry, which is looking forward to its most profitable time of year. In the retail industry, Christmas starts the day after Hallowe’en, because they need two months to persuade you to buy into the kind of ‘hope’ they have on offer – the hope of the most impressive looking gifts at the lowest possible price – ‘Only $999.99’ – hence, ‘giving like Santa and saving like Scrooge’. But in the church, we’re hoping for something much more important – the fulfillment of God’s promises for the coming of his kingdom, an end to war and injustice, oppression and greed, and the establishment of a world of justice and love, community and peace. Those promises are found in the Old Testament prophecies, and some of them are fulfilled in the coming of Jesus. But there is obviously a future fulfillment as well, so we think not only of Jesus’ first coming at Christmas, but his second coming ‘to judge the living and the dead’.

That phrase – ‘to judge the living and the dead’ – comes from the Nicene Creed, and over the next three weeks I want to explore with you three phrases from that Creed which sum up the biblical teaching we’re celebrating in Advent. Today we’re going to look at the theme of judgement – ‘He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead’. Next week we’ll think about the kingdom – ‘and his kingdom will have no end’. On the third Sunday of Advent we’ll think about our future resurrection – ‘We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come’.

Today, then, we’re starting with the unpopular idea of judgement: ‘He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead’. In the Christian world these days there’s a certain reluctance to speak about judgement. In mainline churches we’ve reacted against the excesses of what we refer to as ‘hellfire and brimstone preaching’ – the sort of preaching that talks a lot about the Lake of Fire and the eternal torments of the damned in hell. We don’t see ourselves as that sort of church, and we look down on churches like that, and call them ‘fundamentalist’.

Mind you, I’ve noticed that we’re not entirely consistent here. Paradoxically, there is in our culture a real hunger for some sort of accountability. There’s a common idea that the criminal justice system is too soft on criminals, that jails are a sort of luxury hotel experience, and that we need tougher sentencing to act as a real deterrent to crime. And when we look at the big picture of the global situation, many people long for a time when mass murderers and war criminals could actually be brought to justice. How can it be a just world when people like Hitler and Stalin and Pol Pot and Osama bin Laden get away with their heinous crimes without ever being brought to account? Are they going to go unpunished forever? What sort of God would allow that to happen?

We hear this sort of question often in the psalms. Some of the psalms we find the most offensive today – like Psalm 137, which blesses the one who bashes Babylonian babies against rocks – need to be understood against the background of people who had experienced exactly that sort of atrocity from Babylonian armies. The people were crying out to God: ‘Are you going to let them get away with this?’ No, God is not going to let them get away with it. The biblical teaching is quite clear; there is a God of justice, and he will hold people accountable for what they have done.

There’s a popular caricature of the Bible story that goes like this: in the Old Testament we read about a stern God of judgement, but in the New Testament Jesus sets us straight and tells us that God is really a gentle father who wouldn’t hurt a flea. But anyone who has read the Bible knows that this is a caricature. All the sternest warnings about judgement and hell in the Bible come from the mouth of Jesus himself! Jesus is the one who talks about people being ‘cast into the outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth’.

Jesus is also the one who tells the parable of the sheep and the goats, where he pictures the day when the nations will be gathered before him and be separated into two groups like a shepherd separating sheep from goats. He will say to the sheep ‘Come into the kingdom, because I was hungry and you fed me, thirsty and you gave me something to drink, naked or sick or in prison and you helped me’. ‘When did we do that, Lord?’ they will ask, and he will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, when you did it to the least of these members of my family, you did it to me’. But the goats don’t experience such a pleasant surprise; they’re heading for the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels, Jesus says, because when they saw Jesus in need, they refused to help him. ‘When, Lord?’ they ask, and Jesus replies, ‘When you refused to help the least of these, it was really me you were refusing to help’.

So it’s not true to say that the God of Jesus is not a God of judgement; the note of judgement is very clear in the teaching of Jesus. And there’s an uncomfortable shift in it; it’s not just about other people, which I would prefer it to be – particularly heinous war criminals, for instance. Bruce Cockburn says in one of his songs, ‘Everyone wants to see justice done – to somebody else!’ But the teaching of Jesus won’t allow me to wriggle out of my own responsibility so easily. The reality is that the human evil in the world is the sum of the acts of evil committed by individual human beings – and I’m one of them. This includes active sins – things like cruelty, violence, betrayal, greed, selfishness and the like – but also passive sins, the times I just can’t be bothered to love my neighbour as myself.

God’s judgements on those actions are not arbitrary; in fact, in this life, they often seem to consist of the natural consequences of the choices we make. On the night of his betrayal Jesus told his disciples who wanted to defend him with violence to put away their swords because, he said, “all who take the sword will perish by the sword” (Mt. 26:52), and in Romans Paul talks about God ‘giving people over’ to the natural consequences of their acts of rebellion. Live by the code of dog eat dog, and sooner or later you’ll be the dog who gets eaten. Live by the principle of selfishness, and you shouldn’t be surprised if no-one wants to put themselves out to help you when your time of need comes. Live your whole life rejecting God’s company, and you may find yourself spending eternity in isolation from him; as C.S. Lewis once said, hell may well be God’s greatest compliment to our human freedom of choice.

The same principle applies to God’s rewards; they often seem to be the natural consequences of godly choices. “Blessed are those who hunger and thirst for righteousness”, says Jesus, “for they will be filled. Blessed are the merciful, for they will receive mercy” (Mt.5:6-7). So often in life, we find that love is its own reward; people who cultivate love and forgiveness do in fact seem to enjoy their lives more than those who cultivate hatred and bitterness. We shouldn’t be surprised to find that principle extending to eternity as well.

‘He will come again to judge the living and the dead’. Yes, the New Testament teaches us that there will be a day of accountability, when our actions will be produced as evidence for the faith that is in us. But some might object to this emphasis on judgement on the basis of our actions. Doesn’t the New Testament say that we are justified by faith? Haven’t we said over and over again that we don’t have to obey the Law in order to be saved, but simply put our trust in Jesus? Are we going to go back on this now and recreate a religion of fear, in which we obey God because we’re scared of hell?

Absolutely not. What the New Testament is teaching us is that true faith will always show itself in acts of love and compassion – and if it doesn’t, it’s not true faith. Do you remember the story of how Jesus was teaching in a house one day and four men brought him a paralysed friend, lying on a mat, in the hope that Jesus would heal him? The house was full of people, and there was no room for them to bring their friend in, so they ended up digging a hole in the roof of the house and letting their friend down with ropes, right in front of where Jesus was standing.

What happened next? Mark says, ‘When Jesus saw their faith, he said to the paralytic, “Son, your sins are forgiven”’ (Mark 2:5). But what did Jesus actually see there? You can’t see faith – what you can see are the actions faith produces – in this case, the actions of four men letting their friend down in front of Jesus because they loved him and wanted Jesus to heal him. Jesus saw their actions and rewarded their faith – and that’s what he will do for us as well in the last day. Many other biblical verses support this idea; even Paul, the great teacher of justification by faith, says in 2 Corinthians 5:10 ‘For all of us must appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense for what has been done in the body, whether good or evil’.

So the question I need to consider is this: If I were to be put on trial for being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict me? And if I were to ask, ‘Well, what sort of evidence would be admissible?’ all I need to do is go right back to the parable of the Sheep and the Goats, where Jesus talks about feeding the hungry, clothing the naked, caring for the sick and visiting those in prison. Or perhaps the parable of the Good Samaritan, where we’re told that anyone in need is our neighbour, so we’re to go through our day with our eyes wide open to human need wherever we find it. Or the parable of the wise man building his house on the rock, who, we’re told, represents those who hear the words of Jesus and put them into practice.

Of course, it’s absolutely impossible for us to live up to this standard apart from the work of Christ in us. That’s part of what faith is all about. It’s like the little boy who’s learning to shoot with a pool cue for the first time. His dad stands behind him, puts his hand on the little boy’s hands, points the cue in the right direction, moves the boy’s hands and makes the shot through him. The cue ball shoots straight and true, connects with the target ball and drops it into the corner pocket with a satisfying ‘plop’, and the little boy is so excited – he’s such a good shot with a pool cue! His dad is just as excited and congratulates him, even though he knows that it’s really his own skill that has put that ball in the pocket.

That’s what the work of Christ in us is like. We have all received the gift of the Holy Spirit, and we all have the pattern of Jesus’ life to follow. All it takes on our part is an active choice: ‘Yes, I will put the teaching of Jesus into practice today in such and such a way; Lord, please help me to do it’. With a prayer like that we are able to call on resources far beyond our own strength and ingenuity. We may think we’re the ones holding the cue and making the shot, but in reality the hands that are doing the deed are far stronger than ours.

The earliest Christian confession of faith was the simple statement, ‘Jesus is Lord’. To Paul, this was good news, because it meant that the Roman emperor was not Lord, despite the fact that it was his title – ‘Lord’ - that Paul was giving to Jesus. The Roman emperor might think that all his citizens are ultimately accountable to him, but the Gospel tells us that the one we’re truly accountable to is not some godless tyrant, but the Son of God who loved us and gave his life on the Cross for us. So let us put our faith in him, and let us put that faith into practice in acts of love and compassion, so that by his grace we may stand before him with joy and confidence on the day of his appearing.

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