Advent—The Four Last Things: Judgment

Sermon delivered on Advent 2C, Sunday, December 5, 2021 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

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

Lectionary texts: Malachi 3.1-4; Luke 1.68-79; Philippians 1.3-11; St. Luke 3.1-6.

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

This morning we observe the second Sunday of Advent, a season of watchful waiting and anticipation. Our preaching theme continues on the Four Last Things—Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell—and this morning I want us to focus on Judgment. 

Advent begins in the dark, literally and metaphorically. We are rapidly approaching the shortest day of the year and the extended darkness wears us down. It is especially hard if you suffer SAD like I do. Advent is the season for Christians to take stock of the world in which we live, a world filled with the beauty of God’s creation but also blighted by the darkness of Evil, Sin, and Death. Advent asks the hard but real questions about God’s justice and care for his world and us. Its hope is rooted in the power of God, not human window dressing, and this requires sober thinking on our part about our past, present, and future. Advent is based on the promise of God contained in the overarching narrative of Scripture to put all things right in this desperately wrong world of his, a good and beautiful world marred by human sin and the evil our sin ushered in, Death being the ultimate evil. This is why observing Advent isn’t for the faint of heart—it forces us to confront the reality of Evil and our part in it—and often takes folks by surprise who come from traditions that don’t observe Advent because we don’t play the Christmas game the way our culture does. That’s why I know, e.g., that there are some of you out there this morning—your music director being one of them—already grumbling that we are not singing Christmas carols during Advent. That’s value-added for me, of course (I live to irritate), but off point. While the secular world rushes about putting up lights and decorations, hoping that all things shiny and bright will make it all better in the morning (it won’t), the Church spends its time during Advent reflecting on the promises and power of God to bring real justice to his creation and allows us to hear afresh the Good News of Christ. Don’t misunderstand. I love the lights and decorations and sounds of Christmas. Our house is a veritable Christmas wonderland. But much as I enjoy the light and beauty of Christmas decorations, they do not address the darkness of our world and therefore cannot provide any real comfort to those who need it most. No, if we want to find real comfort, a comfort based on the love and power of God rather than ourselves, we will find it here as the gathered people of God—even if we are gathered in the darkness of exile on the virtual island of Patmos (Zoom) as we await entry into our new home.

So what comes to mind when you think of the judgment of God? If you are like many, if not most, folks you equate God’s judgment with punishment and that’s understandable. In our OT lesson, e.g., the prophet Malachi wonders who can endure the Lord’s terrible judgment and both St. Paul and St. Matthew warn us indirectly that we had better repent lest we face that judgment. And of course a quick survey of the OT reminds us that indeed when fallen humans try to live in the holy presence of God on their own terms, it never turns out well for us; that was the whole reason for the tabernacle/temple system. God’s holy perfection simply cannot tolerate any form of corruption and/or evil, no matter how small it is. And who among us does not tremble a bit when we hear the writer of the letter to the Hebrews declare that, “It is a terrible thing to fall into the hands of the living God (Heb 10.31)? The punitive dimension of God’s judgment leads many of us to believe—incorrectly—that God is a constant, angry ogre, eager to strike us down at the first opportunity because we all miss God’s desired mark as his image-bearers whom God created to be wise and good stewards on God’s behalf over God’s good creation. 

But this view of God’s judgment is skewed at best because it really impugns God’s character as a loving and just God and it fails to recognize the positive dimension of God’s judgment that Scripture celebrates throughout. What’s that you say? How can God’s judgment be positive? Hear the psalmist now:

Let the sea and everything in it shout his praise! / Let the earth and all living things join in. Let the rivers clap their hands in glee! / Let the hills sing out their songs of joy before the Lord, / for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with justice, / and the nations with fairness (Ps 98.7-9; cf. Ps 96).

NLT

If God’s judgment were strictly punitive and the result of a mean, vindictive Creator, why would the psalmist tell the nations and all creation to rejoice over its coming? I don’t know too many people who rejoice over being punished and the ones who do need our prayers and help more than anything! No, the psalmist tells all creation and us to rejoice because God’s judgment, while bringing punishment to the forces of Evil and their minions, also makes all things right! This is the essence of real justice and only God is capable of executing it. At its core, justice restores all things to their rightful state in the created order and brings balance/order out of chaos. And we get this at the deepest level of our being. Who among us in their right mind doesn’t long for all the wrongs in this world to be put to rights? Human systems of justice, even the best of them, cannot fully achieve these goals. We might try murderers, e.g., but even just sentences will not bring their victims back to life. Or what about those individuals who contract terrible diseases that rob them of their health and inflict terrible suffering on them and their families/friends? What about victims of war or natural disaster? What about the terrorist who ran down those innocents at the Christmas parade in WI or the child mass murderer in MI? What about the slaughter of the innocents that St. Matthew reports or the unjust death of John the Baptist? What about babies who are aborted before ever seeing the light of day or all the social and economic injustices that are being perpetrated against people around the world? What about children who grow up in fatherless, loveless families who eventually seek out gangs to fulfill their needs and become sociopaths? Or what about victims of car accidents or other acts of human failure/folly? Where is the justice for them? We hear and see and experience stories like these (and much more)—every one of us today carries an awful burden—and we know in our heart of hearts that something needs to be done about all these terrible injustices and needless, senseless suffering. Enter the judgment/justice of God. If God really is a loving God—and we believe him to be exactly that—he must also be a just God who loves his creation and creatures enough to one day put everything to rights and restore all things to their original goodness. And only God has the power to do this because only God can raise the dead and call things into existence (or back into existence) that did or do not exist. So at the last day, the great and terrible day of the Lord about which Malachi speaks, when God’s judgment will be finally and fully executed, God will restore the lives of those who had them unjustly and/or cruelly ended by whatever means. Relationships will be healed and restored. Loneliness and alienation will be a thing of the past. So will sickness and sorrow and anxiety and all that bedevils us, especially Death. This will happen because God is a just and loving God, not a cruel, angry tyrant. Advent with its fading light and darkness is the perfect time for us to reflect on all this, not only the darkness of this current age but the hope and promise of the time when Christ returns to put all things back to rights when he brings in full the promised new heavens and earth. Hear St. John announce this promise in his Revelation:

Then I saw a new heaven and a new earth, for the old heaven and the old earth had disappeared. And the sea [symbolic of Evil] was also gone. And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down from God out of heaven like a bride beautifully dressed for her husband. I heard a loud shout from the throne, saying, “Look, God’s home is now among his people! He will live with them, and they will be his people. God himself will be with them. He will wipe every tear from their eyes, and there will be no more death or sorrow or crying or pain. All these things are gone forever.” And the one sitting on the throne said, “Look, I am making everything new!” And then he said to me, “Write this down, for what I tell you is trustworthy and true.” And he also said, “It is finished! I am the Alpha and the Omega—the Beginning and the End. To all who are thirsty I will give freely from the springs of the water of life. All who are victorious will inherit all these blessings, and I will be their God, and they will be my children. But cowards, unbelievers, the corrupt, murderers, the immoral, those who practice witchcraft, idol worshipers, and all liars [evildoers]—their fate is in the fiery lake of burning sulfur. This is the second death” (Rev 21.1-8).

NLT

Ponder this vision carefully, my beloved, and read it everyday during Advent along with its OT equivalent in Is 25.6-9 because it has the power to encourage, strengthen, and heal. Besides the breathtaking hope and beauty found in St. John’s vision, this passage reminds us that history is going somewhere really good and God is in control of things, whether it appears so to us or not. The New Jerusalem, NT code for God’s space or heaven, only arrives after Satan and all the dark powers and their human minions are judged and the resurrection of the dead occurs (Rev 19-20). Of course you and I cannot fully imagine the perfect beauty of such an existence because none of us have ever experienced it. But we all have gotten glimpses of the promised day contained in the passage above. This hope—the sure and certain expectation of things to come, not wishful thinking—has the power to sustain us as we walk through the darkness of this age and our lives. This is our Advent hope, my beloved, and this is why Advent is so important to us as Christians—it is Good News. And if this vision is not Good News to you, I don’t know what possibly could be because there is no greater promise than the promise to end all traces of Evil, Sin, and Death, all made possible only by the power, love, and justice of God our Father, thanks be to God! Amen?

Contrast this with the hopelessness of our current age where God is dead and/or incapable of bringing about real justice and history is spinning hopelessly out of control because the human race is incapable of fixing itself despite all the programs, indoctrination, and money spent to solve the perpetual evils that plague this world. No wonder there is great anxiety in any society that progressively loses its faith and hope in God. Being on the “right side of history” depends on who is in power, not on God! If there really is no God or God is not really willing or able to bring about real justice that will produce a world envisioned in St. John’s Revelation above, we are most of all to be pitied because we have no basis for real hope, only pipe-dreams and futile, incomplete thinking. 

But what about the punitive dimension of God’s judgment? Doesn’t St. Paul echo the OT in declaring that all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (Rm 3.23), thereby making us liable to the just punishment of God when God deals with evildoers about which Malachi warns in our OT lesson? This is where our faith in Jesus Christ becomes an integral part of the biblical idea of God’s good and right judgment/justice because on the cross, God condemned our sin in the flesh so that he would not have to condemn us. God the Son willingly agreed to humble himself and take on our flesh so that God the Father would not ultimately have to condemn us, and that is why Christians no longer have to fear God’s condemnation because God has born it himself by becoming human to die for us (Rom 8.1-11). The cross of Jesus Christ proclaims that God’s justice is also tempered by his love and mercy for us because none of us deserve this gift of God’s offered freely to us. None of us deserve the second or third or millionth chance God offers us through Christ, but it is ours for the taking because God is a God of love and justice, two sides of the same coin. When we have faith to believe this Good News, we no longer have a reason to fear God or God’s judgment because we believe our sins have been dealt with once and for all on the cross; we are covered by the blood of the Lamb shed for us. We who are baptized are promised that where Christ is, there too shall we be; and because Christ is raised from the dead, we will share in the full future inheritance of God’s new creation. Death no longer has any power over us, even though our mortal bodies die, short of the Lord’s return in our lifetime. When we have real faith in Christ, it is reflected in our thinking, speaking, and doing. We focus on doing good works on behalf of our crucified and risen Savior who gave his life for us. We are firm advocates of justice, but always tempered with mercy because we have desired and been the recipients of God’s mercy. That means we are generous in spirit, willing to forgive, slow to anger, humble in spirit. None of us are very good at this because we are all thoroughly sin-sick and corrupted. But by the grace and power of God working in us through the Holy Spirit, we become new creations one tiny step at a time (and sometimes one or two giant leaps backward) before God restores us to holy equilibrium. That is the point of having faith in Christ: to become his holy saints who imitate him as faithfully as we can with the help and power of the Spirit. 

The cross of Jesus Christ also reminds us that the judgment of God is a serious and terrible thing, and since we are all sin-stained we must leave the ultimate judgment of people and things to God. This doesn’t mean we suspend our moral judgment where we call good things good and evil things evil. It simply means that we commend our enemies and evildoers to God, asking God to turn hearts and minds to Christ so that they too can escape God’s terrible but good justice. 

In closing, then, I urge us all not to be faint of heart or people who have no hope, but rather to focus this Advent on the return of Christ with its great hope and promise that God will restore all things to at least their original goodness and in judging the world will put all things to rights, i.e., to long for God’s judgment with its perfect justice. Let each of us do this with great humility, realizing that none will escape the judgment of Christ and all are worthy of eternal separation from him—the very definition of Hell—except by the mercy and grace of God. Let this holy fear lead us not to despair over our own sins because we know our sins have been dealt with once and for all, but rather let this holy fear strengthen our resolve to lead lives that are worthy of the Name we love and honor: Jesus Christ, the only Son of God. He is our merciful Savior and just Judge, and he calls us to follow him each day, imitating his love and goodness and mercy and justice in all we encounter. Let us therefore be people known for proclaiming and living out the hope and promise of God’s judgment with its promise of God’s perfect justice. Advent is a time of darkness, symbolic of the darkness of this sin-stained world. But fear not! The light has come into the world and by it we are promised a spectacular future and purposeful present. Therefore let us all keep our lamps burning brightly for Christ, lamps powered by the very love of God, as we await our just and merciful Savior’s return to finish his saving work and bring about the promised new heavens and earth. To him be honor, praise, and glory forever and ever. 

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