Sermon delivered Sunday, November 13, 2011 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church.
Lectionary texts: Zephaniah 1.7, 12-18; Psalm 90.1-12; 1 Thessalonians 5.1-11; Matthew 25.14-30.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.
As we approach Advent with its season of patient watching and hopeful anticipation—can you believe that it is only two weeks away?—it is appropriate for Christians to turn our attention to things pertaining to the end times or the last days. The latter is a term that the NT writers use to denote the period of time between Christ’s first and second comings. It is appropriate that we do this as Christians because we believe history is going somewhere and that God is firmly in control of it.
As we think about the end times, about heaven and hell, death and judgment, it is natural that our fears should be aroused. We can see this phenomenon illustrated clearly in today’s OT lesson, epistle, and psalm. It is also echoed in our Gospel lesson. Typically, if we think about the end times at all, two broad categories of fears are evoked. We wonder what will happen to us and our loved ones when we die. We addressed that question last week when we looked at the hope of New Creation that the resurrection of Jesus previewed for us. We know that when we die in the Lord, we go to be with him for a period of rest, refreshment, and healing as we await his Second Coming and the gift of being reunited with our new resurrection bodies fitted to live forever in God’s New Creation.
Closely related to these fears about our eternal destiny is our fear about God’s judgment. This is natural because it is the biblical message that all humanity will fall under God’s wrath and judgment when God finally moves to end evil forever and put all the world’s wrongs to right, a good thing. This naturally arouses our fears because if we are honest with ourselves, we are aware that we’ve missed the mark a lot of times and we don’t really see God’s judgment as being a good thing, even when it is. And so when we think about the eschaton (end times) it is natural for us to wonder if there is any hope for us to escape God’s wrath and judgment.
Of course, it is the glorious Good New of Jesus Christ that we as Christians have every reason to have hope, even as we contemplate the end times. We see this illustrated powerfully in Paul’s letter today. There, like the good pastor he was, Paul addresses the Thessalonians’ concerns about the end times and we would profit by paying attention to what he has to say so that we have real hope as Christians. So this morning I want to look briefly at what Paul and other biblical writers have to say about God’s judgment and the hope that is ours in Christ. What can we learn from them and what does it have to do with the living of our mortal days?
As today’s psalm lesson clearly states, human sin and rebellion have caused alienation from and hostility toward God. This has resulted in evil and death, among other things, and the psalmist uses language that alludes to Genesis 3.19 (dust to dust) to make his point. Simply put, when humans rebelled against God it not only got us kicked out of paradise, it also resulted in our death because it separated us from the Source and Author of all life.
Not only that, human rebellion has led many to live in a state of denial about the consequences of their sin. As both the prophet Zephaniah and Paul state clearly in their respective lessons, many folks live their lives under the delusion that either God does not care about their rebellion or that he will not do anything about it. Some even think God is just too nice to be angry about their sin. Like the false prophets in Jerusalem who prophesied that all was well even as the Babylonians prepared to bring death and destruction to the city and its people, many today go through life blithely ignoring (or outright denying) that there will be any lasting consequences over their hostile and rebellious behavior toward God and their fellow humans.
Paul sums up this delusional thinking quite well. Those who have no room in their lives for God go around saying that all is well when in reality all is not well. For as surely as a pregnant woman will enter into labor before giving birth, so too will God’s judgment fall on rebellious and hostile humanity. This is not a pretty picture to contemplate and no one who cares about people should find any pleasure when contemplating the great and terrible day of the Lord, even if it is the time when God will put to right all wrongs. No wonder our fears are aroused when we think about the eschaton!
Now before I go any further, let me be clear about what I am and am not talking about here. When I talk about human sin and rebelliousness, I am not talking about our ability to follow the rules, so to speak. God is not some kind of Resident Policeman who is determined that his human creatures should never have any fun and who will punish us if we try. What I am talking about is a life that is turned inward on itself. It is a life that says by its actions that the person does not care about anyone or anything except himself. And God? No love there either. At best the person believes God is irrelevant because God is powerless or impotent to act in any kind of meaningful way in life. This is the kind of overall selfishness and hostility that the writers of Scripture have in mind when they talk about human sin and rebellion.
So when we as Christians think about the end times and God’s righteous judgment on sinful humanity, why should we not be afraid? Why should we have hope when we think about the eschaton? Paul tells us in today’s epistle lesson. We can face the end times with hope and even anticipation because of what God has done for us in the cross of Christ. There is no developed atonement theology here, but Paul clearly has in mind what he later articulated in chapter 8 of his letter to the Romans, that in the cross of Christ God condemned sin in the flesh and bore his own terrible wrath himself so that we would not have to bear it.
We as Christians are not spared from the wrath of God because we are better people than others. We are every bit as broken and flawed as the rest of humanity. But by God’s grace we have faith to accept God’s gracious gift of life offered freely to everyone in and through the cross of Jesus. This, in turn, gives us real hope because when we see the cross we realize we are looking at God’s symbol of justice. In the cross we find God’s mercy and love for his children made known in a powerful and unexpected way, and we find peace and reconciliation with God. As the prophet Isaiah said, “by his wounds we are healed” (Isaiah 53.5).
Not only that, but as we saw last week, we have the hope of resurrection and New Creation awaiting us. This confirms God’s intention in and through the cross of Christ to offer us a hope and future, not death and destruction. Again, we did nothing to deserve this gift but we claim it through faith in Jesus. And when, by the power of the Spirit, we embrace our faith it changes everything for us. We know the Day of the Lord is coming and it will not be pretty. But we also know that God did not destine us for wrath but for salvation. That is why he became human and died for us and that is why we are to live in hopeful expectation. Our sin is great but God’s love for us in Jesus is even greater and it is offered freely to everyone, not a select few.
And as Paul also reminds us, our hope in God’s tender mercy made known in the death and resurrection of Christ will impact not only our future but our present lives as well. Because our eternal destiny is made secure by the mercy and grace of God, we are freed to live in God’s good but fallen world as his children of light and this is where today’s Gospel lesson comes into play. Contrary to what some have taught, we are not to withdraw from the world and wait for the end to come. Neither are we to spend any time trying to predict when the end will come. Instead, we are to use the gifts God has given us right now to bring his healing love to bear on his broken and hurting world. We are to share our resurrection faith and hope with others by our actions and words in loving service to them. As Jesus implies in his parable, there is no reason for us to fear using our talents to bring God’s love in Christ to bear on his world because God is the author of these gifts and expects us to use them wisely and on his behalf. God cares passionately about his creation (and creatures) and intends to ultimately redeem, not destroy it (and us). Why would those of us who put our whole hope and trust in Christ not want to do likewise? We cannot change the world by ourselves but we can be open to letting God use us to help usher in his New Creation. Can you think of a more awesome privilege and responsibility?
But it all starts by us being changed first. It starts only with the help of God’s Spirit living in us, changing us into the very image of Jesus and helping us use our gifts to embody Jesus’ presence to others. And when our work for the Lord gets hard and we get beaten up (or down) by it, we remember that we do not do it alone. As Paul further reminds us, we are to offer each other help and encouragement precisely because we do have a hope and future in Christ.
In closing, I would like to offer two final observations. First, talking about the human condition and God’s judgment is never an easy thing to do. We live in a culture that increasingly denies such things but as we have seen, self-delusion is not a healthy response to these matters. If we really love people, we must love them enough to speak the truth in love and order our lives to reflect God’s love and glory to them so that by God’s grace they will hopefully see what it is they are missing. In other words, when we live faithful and Spirit-filled lives in loving service to others, we put ourselves in a position to talk to them about God’s love for all people.
Think about it this way. Would you stand by and do nothing if you saw that a person was about to drive his car off a cliff? At minimum, would you not try to persuade that person to change his course so that he would avoid catastrophe, even if he didn’t initially believe you that he was driving toward a certain death? The message of the eschaton should give us the same sense of urgency. We know the way to life through our faith in Christ. And while we cannot force people to change their course in life or impose our beliefs on them, shame on us if stand by and let unbelievers drive toward the cliff without even trying to use our talents to show them the better way–Jesus, the way, the truth, and the life.
Second, if you are still looking at the end times with fear because like David’s lament in Psalm 51, you know your transgressions and your sin is ever before you, then you are still making it all about you. You are in effect rejecting God’s great gift of healing, mercy, and life offered to you through the cross of Jesus. I would encourage you to stop doing that and accept God’s good gift offered to you. No Christian who really believes in Christ crucified has any reason to fear the eschaton. And when, by God’s grace, you learn to appropriate the present and future hope of God’s love for you made manifest in the death and resurrection of Christ, not only will you not be afraid, you will discover how to live your life with meaning, purpose, and power. And that, folks, really is Good News, now and for all eternity.
In the name of God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.