The Four Last Things: Judgment

Sermon delivered on Advent Sunday B, December 3, 2017 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH. What better time to consider your present and future but now?

If you prefer to listen to the audio podcast of today’s sermon, usually somewhat different from the text below, click here.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 64.1-9; Psalm 80.1-8, 18-20; 1 Corinthians 1.3-9; Mark 13.24-37.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Happy new year, St. Augustine’s! Today is Advent Sunday. We begin a new calendar year for the Church, a new lectionary cycle, and have lighted the first purple candle on our wreath that represents the patriarchs. Advent comes from the Latin word, adventus (parousia in Greek), and means coming or arrival. Advent is a season of expectation and preparation in which the Church prepares to celebrate the coming (adventus) of Christ in his incarnation and also looks forward to his final advent as judge at the end of history. Advent is not part of the Christmas season but rather a preparation for it. It is an appropriate time for us to reflect on the Four Last Things—Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. While none of us really want to talk about these things, talk about them we must because they remind us of the reality of our standing before God and no amount of denial or discomfort on our part is going to change that fact. Better for us to think clearly and soberly about the human condition and our relationship with Almighty God than to whistle through the graveyard hoping everything will turn out all right in the end.

Before we talk about God’s judgment, it is critical that we place it in the overarching story of Scripture so that we understand God’s judgment in its proper context. Recall that Scripture contains the story of how God is putting to rights all that is wrong with his good creation. God created everything good and created humans in God’s own image to be wise stewards of God’s good world. But human sin and the evil it unleashed thoroughly corrupted God’s world and us. We are hopelessly enslaved by the outside and hostile power of Sin and the forces behind it, unable to fix ourselves. Don’t believe me? How many of you are still keeping those new year’s resolutions you made back in January? How many of you are still trying to break those sins in your life you know you need to break but you keep on doing them regularly? Me too. So God’s judgment is an integral part of God righting what is wrong with God’s world and us.

The first thing then we need to observe about God’s judgment is that there is a positive dimension to it. God’s judgment is always wrapped in God’s love for his creation and creatures. If we do not understand this critical dynamic, we will never understand why God judges in the first place. God judges all in God’s world that corrupts and dehumanizes us, which is what Sin does to us as God’s image-bearers. If God really loves us, how can God not judge that within us and outside us that afflicts us and diminishes us as his image-bearers? What loving parent would stand by idly and watch evil afflict his or her child? We all understand this instinctively. That is why there is always a yearning in Scripture for God’s justice, even with its accompanying judgment. We see it in our OT lesson where the prophet yearns for God to rend the invisible veil that separates heaven and earth, God’s dimension and humans’ dimension respectively, to defeat God’s enemies who afflict God’s people. Likewise the psalmist yearns for God to intervene on behalf of God’s people to break the power of their enemies over them. Behind such a yearning, of course, is the recognition of God’s great love for and faithfulness to his people.

And we too have this yearning as we look at the world we live in with its increasing madness. It’s not necessarily that the world is more evil than before. It’s just that now we have the means to learn about the depths of human depravity almost as it happens. When we read horror stories about mass murders or racism or exploitation or addiction or the increasing scandal of sexual abuse and harassment among the famous and powerful, we know in our bones that something must be done about it. We know, for example, that murderers and drug dealers must receive justice because of the lives they ruin or destroy. But even if they do receive human justice, their victims are still lost. Those who loved them still grieve their death. Human justice will not and cannot restore the dead to life. Likewise for those who have lost loved ones to truly evil diseases like cancer or Alzheimer’s that ravage body and mind before destroying the victim. If God truly loves us, God must judge both the Evil and the evildoer as part of God’s restorative and healing justice. Otherwise Evil will always corrupt and destroy God’s good world and God’s image-bearers. How can a loving God allow that to continue?

And while we are all for God’s fierce judgment being pronounced on the bad guys, especially those we despise most, we are much less enthusiastic about God’s judgment when we find ourselves standing in God’s dock. When we hear the NT writers like Paul remind us that we all must stand before the judgment seat of Christ [to] receive whatever we deserve for the good or evil we have done in this earthly body (2 Corinthians 5.10) it strikes fear in our hearts. We remember all the wrong we have done and we are mindful of God’s terrible wrath on all that is evil for the reasons we’ve just discussed. We, along with the psalmist, ask, “Who can stand before God when once God’s anger is roused? From the heavens God uttered judgment; the earth feared and was still” (Psalm 76.7-8). Think, for example, what fear Fathers Bowser, Sang, and Gatwood must feel when contemplating standing before Christ’s judgment seat and having to answer for all the mediocre sermons they preach. Or see Bishop Ames tremble as he realizes that he must answer for ordaining a loser like me to the priesthood. It is a fearsome picture.

On a more serious note, Scripture tells us we will all have to answer for the evil we have committed in our lives, great and small. As St. Paul makes clear in our epistle lesson, one day  our Lord Jesus will appear again to judge once and for all the Evil that corrupts God’s good world and God’s image-bearing creatures as well as those who commit that evil. This is a very sobering thought, especially when we remember what St. Paul says about human sin in Romans 3.10-12. Echoing Psalm 13, the apostle reminds us that, “No one is righteous—not even one. No one is truly wise; no one [seeks] God. All have turned away; all have become useless. No one does good, not a single one” (NLT). It is here that we must stop and remind ourselves where judgment fits into the overall story of Scripture. This is God putting to rights all that is wrong in God’s world, us included. No wonder we hear the call to abandon our evil ways and turn to God. i.e., to repent.

But many of us, hearing the call to repent, lose heart and hope because we know how thoroughly enslaved we are to the power of Sin. We say we love God but we keep on committing the same sins. We say we believe the Good News of Jesus Christ but then set out to pull ourselves up by our own bootstraps so that we will be right with God when we stand before Christ’s judgment seat. So we resolve to read the Bible more, to pray more, to be nicer to the people we really don’t like, to come to worship more regularly. More self-help. That’s the ticket we tell ourselves. It must be. After all, the bookstores are full of self-help books. We can do it if we only try harder. Right. This is not believing the the Good News, my beloved. It is another form of self-worship and indicative of our inherent hostility and rebellion toward God. We don’t trust God to deal with the problem of human sin and God’s judgment upon it and those who commit it. We want to trust ourselves. But to trust ourselves is utter foolishness and folly because we are defeated before we ever get started. We are that thoroughly infected by Sin.

But if we really do understand and believe the Good News of Jesus Christ, we have nothing to fear. We hear Isaiah remind us in our OT lesson that God is our Father with all that is good about a father’s heart. To be sure we all must stand before Christ’s judgment seat. But we who put our hope and trust in Christ will hear the verdict of not guilty as St. Paul states boldly in our epistle lesson. Part of repentance, therefore, is learning to trust in the love and faithfulness of God the Father to do as God promises. Listen to St. Paul again:

You have every spiritual gift you need as you eagerly wait for the return of our Lord Jesus Christ. He will keep you strong to the end so that you will be free from all blame on the day when our Lord Jesus Christ returns. God will do this, for he is faithful to do what he says, and he has invited you into partnership with his Son, Jesus Christ our Lord (1 Corinthians 3.7-9, NLT).

Did you catch that? As people of God gathered here as St. Augustine’s, despite our brokenness, despite our ongoing short-sightedness, sin, and folly, we as God’s people collectively don’t lack any needed spiritual gift to help us be God’s true image-bearing creatures. Why? Because we are empowered by God’s Holy Spirit to overcome our sin and folly. To be sure this is quite a long and messy process. But as St. Paul reminds us, it’s a done deal because it’s not about us. It’s about what God has done, is doing, and will do for us in Christ. As Christians, we will be held accountable for our good deeds and bad. But we will hear the verdict of not guilty pronounced on us. Why? Because of what God has done for us on the cross. If you want to know what God’s justice looks like, a justice wrapped in God’s love, look no further than Calvary. There you will see God’s only begotten and beloved Son, Jesus Christ our Lord, dying a criminal’s death in utter humiliation for our sake. As we’ve seen, God’s wrath must and will be poured out on Evil and evildoers. But God became human to die for us and take on his own terrible and just punishment for our sins so that we do not have to bear it. Are we worthy of such love and grace? Of course not. But again, it’s not about us. It is about God’s great love and perfect justice for us.

We are astonished by this and cry out that it’s just too good to be true. Well yes it is. That’s why we call it the gospel or Good News of Jesus Christ. God’s love for us is greater than our sin and hostility toward God. We deserve none of it but it is offered to us freely anyway. God offers it to us because this is how God has decided to put to rights all that is wrong in this world. On the cross of Jesus Christ, God has condemned our sin in the flesh and defeated the power of Evil. As we have seen, evil has not been fully vanquished. That remains for when Christ returns. But God has done what needed to be done to reconcile us to himself, even while we were still God’s enemies, and God has defeated the power of death by raising Jesus from the dead. All who are Christ’s will share in that new life. Then God’s restorative justice will be fully revealed. Evil will be annihilated, death will be no more, and God’s redeemed and fully healed people will be raised from the dead to assume their rightful roles as God’s wise and loving stewards over God’s new creation, the new heavens and earth. Amen?

This is why Advent is so important, my beloved. It gives us a time to reflect intentionally the midst of holiday madness on who God is and what God has promised to do for us. It is a time for us to get our house in order with the help of the Holy Spirit so that we act like we really do believe the Good News of Jesus Christ. God’s judgment reminds us that God is not indifferent to the suffering and injustice in God’s world and our lives. God hates all evil and will restore fully his good creation and image-bearers. So we watch and wait, firmly resolved to give our lives to the One who loves us and and gave himself for us so that we could have life. This is the Good News of Advent that we are to proclaim and live out as we await the return of Jesus our Lord and Savior. May we all grow in grace to really and truly believe the Good News, to take what God has done for us on the cross seriously and not just pay it lip service as we await his kingdom to come in full. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever.

In the name of God: the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. Amen.