The Last Judgment

last judgement

Lessons – Isaiah 65:17-25; Psalm 126; I Thess 5:12-28; St. John 3:23-30

Let me begin by pointing out a liturgical matter. Today is the 3rd Sunday of Advent and it is known as Gaudete Sunday. That name means “rejoice” which in the older liturgies was the first word of introit for the day. Its color can be rose to indicate that the end of this penitential season is close and rejoicing draweth nigh. (By the way when I wear it, it is a rose vestment. When Fr. Chris wears it, it’s okay to call it pink).

Sixty five years ago, December 1952, the angel of death swept through London. London has always been famous for their pea soup fog but this was a fog of a whole other magnitude. Stale calm air wrapped London like a blanket. It was called an “anticyclone” because it was the exact opposite of whirling winds. It was a deadly calm like the one mentioned in the Rhyme of the Ancient Mariner.

It was also extreemly cold so Londoners were stoking their coal fires. But because the premium coal was being shipped to the US to pay back war debts Londoners were burning dregs and coal dust. This made the smoke from the thousands of fireplaces more acidic than usual, and combined with the blanket of still air, it became deadly. Visibility dropped to less than one foot. Buses and cars came to a stop. Many abandoned their vehicles and tried to make it through the darkness on foot. By the time they arrived at their homes their lungs were filled with blackness, like that of a West Virginia coal miner, except in the case of the Londoners it took only hours instead of years. In the first 7 days 4,000 died and some estimates put it as high as 12,000 deaths over the next few weeks. It gave occasion to some to wonder if London was experiencing divine judgment.

In this season of Advent we are to be preparing ourselves not only for Christ’s first advent but also for Christ’s second when He will come to judge the quick and the dead. We say that we believe this when we recite the Creed but what do we actually believe about Judgment Day?

More progressive views suggest that the idea of God’s judgment is a primitive idea from the Old Testament that should be replaced by the kinder and gentler God of the New Testament. But it is not that easy to dismiss this concept. When you compare the plagues of Egypt with the judgment that Jesus Himself speaks of, when He describes a place of weeping and gnashing of teeth (Mt 13:42), the NT judgment makes the OT judgment seem tame by compariston.

So as uncomfortable as it may be for us to think about the final judgment, it is a reality that we need to face. Perhaps the place to begin is to determine on what basis we will be judged.

It will not surprise you to know that this is a matter of debate within the Church. And this is so because some passages seem to indicate that we will be judged according to our works while other passages seem to indicate that we will avoid judgment if we have true faith. For example at the end of our Gospel reading today John the Baptist say this; “Whoever believes in the Son has eternal life; whoever does not obey the Son shall not see life but the wrath of God remains on him.” (John 3:36). Well which is it John? Is it belief that saves us or is it obedience? Is it faith of is it works?

And lest you think that John is mistaken here because St. Paul makes it clear that we are saved by grace through faith, listen to St. Paul in Romans chapter 2. “For there is going to come a day of judgment when God, the just judge of all the world, will judge all people according to what they have done. He will give eternal life to those who persist in doing what is good…but he will pour out his anger and wrath on those who live for themselves, who refuse to obey the truth and practice evil deeds.” (NLT)

Okay so which is it? Are we saved from judgment by trusting in Jesus or are we judged based upon our works. The Anglican via media answer to that question is “Yes.” It is “Yes” because the apparent contradiction is just that, not a true contradiction. In essence we are talking about two sides of the same coin. One side of the coin may produce the other but without two sides there is no coin.

Let me illustrate it this way. Imagine that you were in abject poverty and a very wealthy person had compassion on you and opened a bank account for you with $10,000,000. But even though you know that this had been done for you, you never touch a dime of it. You could go around and tell everyone that you are a millionaire ten times over, but because you are still in rags, there would be no evidence of it. In spite of the numbers in your account you would not be in a place to help anyone else and you would die as a pauper.

Now imagine the opposite. Imagine that you took the 37 offers for new credit cards that you get each day in the mail and open numerous accounts and max each card to their limits. You purchase new clothes, new furnishings, even a new car. From outward appearances you would look like you are rolling in the dough, but in terms of real assets, you would be totally bankrupt.

The pauper that was made rich but did nothing with it, is like the person who has faith but never puts it into action. That is the empty religion about which James warns us when he says that faith without works is dead. That is the person to whom Jesus says, “But I was hungry and you did not feed me, naked and you did not clothe me….I never knew you.”

Meanwhile the person who acts rich, but in reality is bankrupt, is like the person who thinks that they will be saved by their good works. They ignore the reality that their debt of sin is so monumental that no amount of good works could ever cancel the debt. That is why we need a Savior to pay the price for us that we cannot pay.

The true picture of how faith and obedience are two sides of the same coin is seen in the person who realizes that they have been made “rich” by the mercy of God and then use their “riches” to love and serve God and neighbor. Faith without works is poverty. Obedience without faith is bankrupt self-righteousness. Faith accompanied with obedience is storing up treasures in heaven.

So if we have faith accompanied by obedience are we exempt from the day of Judgment? The short answer is “No.” We are exempt from the wrath of God, we are exempt from the punishment of the second death, but we are not exempt from having our works judged. This is from Corinthians. For no one can lay any foundation other than the one already laid, which is Jesus Christ. If any man builds on this foundation using gold, silver, costly stones, wood, hay or straw, his work will be shown for what it is, because the Day will bring it to light. It will be revealed with fire, and the fire will test the quality of each man’s work. If what he has built survives, he will receive his reward. If it is burned up, he will suffer loss; he himself will be saved, but only as one escaping through the flames.”

What we have built with our lives is going to be inspected on the Last Day. If we used wood, hay and straw, our works will not pass inspection. If we used gold and silver and costly stones, we will not only pass inspection but we will be rewarded.

If you didn’t know better you would think that St. Paul stole this analogy from the story of the 3 little pigs. But message of both is the same. We can build our lives around things that are temporary and common or we can build our lives around things that are permanent and precious. We can focus our lives on the things of this world that are passing away or we can seek the permanency of God’s kingdom and His righteousness.

So in preparation during this Advent it would do us well to ask ourselves what Christ will find in our lives on the day of His coming? Will He find the wood of consumerism or the gold of generosity? Will He find the hay of selfishness or the silver a servant’s heart? Will he find the straw of amusement or the costly stones of worship.

And here is the good news. In fact it is really good news. If we will build our lives with gold and silver and costly stones then we can actually look forward to the Day of Judgment rather than dreading it. Why would we look forward to it? Because, as Calvin once said, on that day we will be receiving not a “slaves wages” but a “son’s inheritance.”

Listen again to the words of the prophet Isaiah. “Thus says the Lord, ‘Behold I create new heavens and a new earth; and the former things shall not be remembered or come to mind. But be glad and rejoice for ever in that which I create: for behold I create Jerusalem and be glad in my people; no more shall be heard in it the sound of weeping and the cry of distress.’”

Every day we wake up to very bad news. We learn of some bonehead decision of our government, or corruption in the highest places, or shootings in our cities, or terrorist attacks at home and abroad, or a little maniac in North Korea threatening to start World War III. You have to work hard at being an optimist and live a life that is marked by joy. But it is still possible if we will fix our hopes where they should be fixed. Jesus told us that in this life we will have much tribulation but then He went on to say, “But fear not, I have overcome the world.” In this life there is no end of sorrows but in the new heaven and new earth there will be no more weeping. Sin and death will not even be remembered or come to mind. God will be glad in us and we will be glad forever. Our calling is not only to prepare ourselves for that wonderful day but also to tell others about it so that they will share in that joy with us.

The result of the tragedy that happened 65 years ago was a revamping of the way Londoners lived. They moved quickly from having coal fires as almost a birthright to other forms of energy. The tragedy literally made them clean up their acts. We do not have to wait until a tragedy to do the same. The knowledge that the Bible gives us about the Day of Judgment tells us what we need to do. Because we know that He is coming like a thief in the night, and we because we know why He is coming, we can act now so that rather than fearing the day of His coming we will welcome it with joy. That is why this day begins with “Rejoice.” Amen.

 

Put off the Deeds of Darkness: Put on the Armor of Light

Armor of Light

I know that “hate” is a strong word but I think that it accurately describes my feelings. I hate, hate, HATE daylight savings time. It is bad enough that the days grow shorter by themselves but we also have the federal government stepping in and fiddling with our clocks so that by 7 pm it feels like midnight. Even my chickens get confused. I find all of the darkness downright depressing and I know that I am not alone.

Evidently our aversion to darkness goes much further back than the advent of daylight savings times. A recent study at the University of Toronto suggested that our aversion is a “foreboding anxiety” that goes back to the days when man was not at the top of the food chain. It goes back to the days when saber tooth tigers would ask each other who they were having for dinner.

That study makes sense to me but I would argue that there is also a spiritual connection to our negative feelings about darkness. I believe that because throughout the Scriptures, in the vast majority of cases, darkness is a state to be avoided. In Genesis, what was the first thing that God created? It was the light was it not? This was to end what the Hebrews called “tohu va vohu” which is “formlessness and void.” It was God’s light that broke the darkness over the abyss and brought form and order, goodness and beauty.

In Exodus, darkness was the ninth plague the God sent over Egypt. The Bible describes it as a darkness that could be felt. The text goes on to day, “but all the people of Israel had light where they lived.” (Ex 10:21,23).

God chose Israel to be His people, not just for His own possession, but as Isaiah says, to be a light to the nations because the nations were walking in darkness. Israel failed in this task so God in His mercy sends the True Light who said, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness but will have the light of life.” (Jn 8:12).

Not only does the theme of darkness and light continue all through the Gospels but that same imagery appears multiple times in 11 of the New Testament Epistles. And when we come to the end in the Revelation of John we see the utter defeat of darkness. Speaking of the New Jerusalem that descends from heaven we read, “And the city has no need of sun or moon to shine on it, for the glory of God gives it light and its lamp is the Lamb. By its light will the nations walk and the kings of the earth will bring their glory into it, and its gates will never be shut by day – and there will be no night there.” What a fit ending to a story that began, “And God said, ‘Let there be light.’” 

Thus in our collect today we pray for grace to cast away the works of darkness and to put on the armor of light. This is phrase taken directly from St. Paul’s letter to the Roman chapter 13 verse 12. Then in the next two verses he tells us in very practical terms how we can go about casting away the works of darkness and putting on the armor of light. Given that we are entering the penitential season of Advent, that seems to be exactly what we should be about these days.

St. Paul continues; “Let us walk properly as in the daytime, not in orgies and drunkenness, not in sexual immorality and sensuality, not in quarreling and jealously. But put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh to gratify its desires.”

Before we dig into this injunction I want to ask a question. This directive is about 2,000 years old, so how could it possibly be relevant for us today? We certainly wouldn’t take medical advice that is 2,000 years old. Back then if you were suffering from migraines they drilled a hole in your head to let the demons out. So why would we accept ancient spiritual advice?

The simple answer is that we heed it because it is God’s truth and God’s truth is never outdated. Jesus said that heaven and earth would pass away before God’s truth passes away and so these texts always remain relevant. Allow me to demonstrate how that is so.

At first it may appear that St. Paul is just grabbing some random sins to illustrate his point about walking properly as Christians but the commentators of the English Standard Version point out that the sins that he listed fall into three categories. The list includes personal sins, interpersonal sins and societal sins.

He illustrates personal sins by pointing out orgies and drunkenness. Or what today we refer to as addictions. The difference between St. Paul and modern therapy however is that while St. Paul would probably have no trouble calling addictions an illness, he would also call it a sin from which a believer should repent and turn. In fact this more complete understanding of addiction is why Christian treatment facilities have such a high degree of success. I knew one such facility in Florida that had the federal government come study it because they could not believe their results. But of course the Feds did not want to hear the reasons why they were so successful. Even back then it wasn’t pc to tell an addict that as well as being ill he was also a sinner.

Is St. Paul’s council relevant today? Is addiction a problem today? Accidental death by drug overdose is the number one killer in the US. From 1999 to 2008 it has increased by 400% and much of this is due to the current national plague of opioid and heroin addictions. So yes, we could still use St. Paul’s help.

The next category is interpersonal sins. St. Paul mentions “sexual immorality and sensuality” I really don’t need to ask if this is still relevant today do I? Bill Cosby, Bill O’Reilly, Harvey Weinstein, Kevin Spacey, Al Franken, Matt Lauer….and the end of the list is not in sight! The objectification of women is rampant in every level of our society and if you don’t see this as the bad fruit of the so-called sexual revolution of my generation then you are not going to be a part of the solution. How ironic it is that our culture spews out so much garbage and then is shocked to discover that it stinks.

By contrast a man who puts on Christ will treat women with the same respect that our Lord did when He walked among us. St. Paul says that a husband is to see his wife as an icon of the Bride of Christ and therefore is treat her with the same love and respect as Christ does the Church.

The third category of darkness that St. Paul says we are to avoid involves societal sins. He speaks of quarreling and jealously. I believe that those two sins, along with the sin of covetousness, are fueling some of the deep deepdivisions within our nation.

If you have a job then you know how hard you have to work to earn your money and make ends meet. And yet a new crop of social justice warriors have emerged to tell you that you are not doing your fair share and that you need to give them more free stuff. As it stands today nearly half of our nation pays zero federal income tax but to the jealous and covetous those of us who do pay taxes need to do more and more and more. Jealousy and covetousness are never satisfied.

And what is even worse to me is that in spite of the horrible fact that communism murdered over 90 million people last century, a recent survey by a site called federal.com reports rapidly increasing positive attitudes in our nation towards Karl Marx and his beliefs. One generation of our citizens give him a 64% favorable rating. This acceptance of a murderous atheistic philosophy will only further our divisions.

By contrast an important societal fruit of the Gospel is that it heals our divisions. Rather than quarreling and jealousy and covetousness, there is peace and unity and genuine joy when you see your brother blessed. Instead of allowing the government to steal from its citizens and redistribute the wealth, the early Church voluntarily cared for their own because the love of Jesus compelled them to do so. But even then the Church was not given to wholesale welfare. She helped those who could not work, but not those who would not work. We know this because of St. Paul’s admonition in II Thessalonians. He said, “Even while we were with you, we gave you this command, ‘Those unwilling to work will not get to eat.’ Yet we hear that some of you are living idle lives, refusing to work and meddling in peoples’ business. We command such people and urge them in the name of the Lord Jesus Christ to settle down and work to earn their own living.” NLT (3:10-12).

The spirit of mercy and generosity flourished with the Church and it is why so many benevolent institutions around the world today can point to their Christian roots. As one guy put it, you don’t find many atheist run soup kitchens.

I hope that I have demonstrated the relevancy of St. Paul’s admonition for us to cast away darkness and put on the armor of light. But some may think that because they are not actively engaged in addictions or sexual abuse or quarrels that they are off the hook. But allow me to take our application of this passage one step further.

I will remind us that when Jesus taught about these kinds of sins He not only told us not to engage in such activity but He went further and said that if they even exist in our hearts then we are equally guilty. “You have heard that it was said to the people long ago, ‘You shall not murder, and anyone who murders will be subject to judgment.’  But I tell you that anyone who is angry with a brother or sister will be subject to judgment… “You have heard that it was said, ‘You shall not commit adultery.’ But I tell you that anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart.”

Thus when we think of not engaging in deeds of darkness we must also address any darkness that may exists in our hearts. And so this penitential season of Advent is a gift to us so that we may prepare our hearts to receive the light of Christ.

And herein is another key point. The text not only commands us to cast off the works of darkness but it also commands us to “put on the armor of light.” How do we do that? Again I go back to the commentators for the English Standard Version. They say, “The metaphor of putting on clothing implies not just imitating Christ’s character but also living in close personal fellowship with him.” (p. 2180).

Brennan Manning writes beautifully of how he came into this close personal fellowship with our Lord. “For too long and too often on my journey I have sought the shelter of hand-clapping liturgies and cerebral Scripture studies…yet when the scholarly investigation was over I was struck by the insignificance of it all…But when the night is bad and my nerves are shattered…when God Almighty shares through his Son the depth of his feelings for me, when his love flashes into my soul…I face a momentous decision…either I escape into skepticism and intellectualism, or with radical amazement I surrender in faith to the truth of my belovedness.” (Reflections of a Ragamuffin p.335).

In his first epistle of St. John tells us two things that God is. John says that “God is light” and “God is love” and the implication is that to experience one is to experience the other. It is the love of God that leads us to His light and it is the light of God draws us to His love. So I pray that the light of this season will draw us deeper into God’s love and as we experience that love we find yourself drawn more fully into the light. Amen. “Put off the deeds of darkness and put on the armor of light