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.