advent, hope, judgment, hell

My sermon from this past Sunday. I have in many ways followed the interpretation laid out by James Kay, and have quoted him directly toward the end of this sermon. See his article at: http://www.religion-online.org/showarticle.asp?title=677

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In the Gospel of Luke we find the words “good news” on lips of many.

The angel Gabriel says to Zechariah, who would become the Father of John the Baptist: “I have been sent to bring you good news.”

An angel appears to the shepherds out in the field and says: “Behold I bring you good news of great joy.

Later on in Luke’s gospel, we will find Jesus in the synagogue, quoting from Isaiah the prophet: “The Lord has anointed me to preach good news to the poor.”

Good news.  These words are everywhere in Luke’s Gospel – they are at the centre of Luke’s history of Jesus and the early church.

In our passage for today – the narrative of John the Baptist – Luke again gives us this language of good news. At the conclusion of this passage in chapter 3, Luke says: “So, with many other exhortations John proclaimed the good news to the people.”

In many ways scripture passage that language of good news will make sense to us. But when it comes to his passage in Luke chapter 3, that phrase might leave us wondering a bit. In fact, you almost wonder whether the gospel-writer Luke is joking – or trying to be ironic or something. When we look at everything that John has been saying, you’ve got to wonder why and how Luke can say this is good news.

Here’s what John the baptizer is saying to the people who are coming out to hear him: “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance. Do not begin to say to yourselves, ‘We have Abraham for our ancestor;’ for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. Even now the ax is lying at the root of the tree; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

This is good news? Repent and be changed – or else!

John goes on to speak about the coming messiah, whose sandals he is unworthy to stoop down and untie. And here’s part of what John says: “He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. His winnowing fork is in his hand, to clear his threshing floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

Good news? The messiah is coming – he’s going to sift out the wheat – and he’s going burn all the useless chaff.

It’s interesting that in this season of Advent we light candles of hope, and peace, and joy, and love. For us this seems perfectly natural – it feels normal. Advent is about our expectation of hope and peace and joy and love for ourselves and for our world. Advent is about the beautiful life with Christ for which we wait. But it wasn’t always obvious to Christian women and men, or to leaders in the church, that this should be our focus.

In fact, in the medieval church there was a very different focus during the season of Advent. On the four Sundays leading up to Christmas, the medieval church reflected on what are called the four last things. What are the four last things? Well, the four last things are: death, judgment, heaven and hell. Of course we tend not to think about these aspects of our faith very much – except perhaps at funerals, where we might put in a good word about heaven. In our day, we could call the four last things the orphans of advent – they have no place to lay their head. To say the least, we would find it unusual to explore these aspects of faith in advance of Christmas.

Evidently, however, John the Baptist would find the four last things an entirely appropriate theme for reflection. John the Baptist is old school, you might say. He’s a prophet of the Old Testament variety – strong, angry, strange, and faithful. And no doubt Jesus himself would also find the four last things an entirely appropriate theme for reflection in this season. After all, it is this Jesus who, in Matthew’s gospel speaks of the Son of Man coming to judge the sheep and the goats. According to Jesus, the Son of Man will say to those on his right: “Come, enter the kingdom prepared for you.” But to those on his left he will say: “Depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.”

So the question is: Why does Luke describe the teaching of John the Baptist, and by extension, the later teachings of Jesus, as good news? How was this message of judgment good news for the everyday people who were listening to John out there in the desert? How is this message of judgment good news for us today?

Perhaps John’s message is an invitation for us (and John’s first listeners) to get into the spirit of judgment – that can feel pretty good. John speaks in a context of oppression. The Roman Empire is oppressing the Jewish people. Occupying their land, desecrating their religion, denying their traditions, taking their money. There’s more than a few of us, perhaps, who will raise our heads a little bit to hear that there may be some people who are going to get what’s coming to them.

Those responsible for World War II gas chambers – they’ll get what’s coming to them.

Those responsible for the deaths of tens of thousands in Rwanda – they’ll get what’s coming to them.

That person who attacked me and hurt me – he’ll get what’s coming to him.

That person who betrayed me and lied to me – she’ll get what’s coming to her.

More than a few of us, perhaps, can get into the spirit of judgment and receive it as good news. It means that those who have done wrong, who have done evil, will get the justice and punishment that they deserve.

Although, we might not want to stay in that spirit of judgment for too long. After all, eventually we’ll have to take a good look at our own lives – and when we do, the prospect of such judgment might make us feel a little awkward, or worse. If we’re honest with ourselves, we all can find evidence of anger and bitterness and unkindness and not too far down. We may not want to stay in that spirit of judgment, when we discover that John might be talking about us. We’ll come back to the idea of judgment in a moment, but we want to move on to something else first.

There is a part of the passage we’ve skipped over that might offer an alternative view of how John’s message as good news. When John declares that every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire, the people respond to him by saying: “What then should we do?”

What do we do? If there is this reality of judgment,

if the axe is at the root of the tree.

if the fire has been kindled.

What do we do, John? Tell us what to do.

And John’s response to this question is astonishingly simple. Here’s what he says:

If you have two coats, share with those who have none.

If you have food, share with those who don’t.

If you are in business, if you are a tax collector, only take the prescribed amount – no brown envelopes – no extra 3%.

If you are a soldier – don’t threaten people or use your authority for ill.

 What’s astonishing about these words of John the Baptist is that the instructions of this strong, angry, strange, and faithful prophet – his instructions sound almost like the kinds of things a kindergarten teacher would teach her students. They are so simple – so straightforward. Be kind. Share your stuff. Don’t be mean. Don’t hurt others.

Through John the Baptist, who prepares the way for Jesus, God meets his people where they are. He met the common people in their everyday life. He met the soldiers in their lives as soldiers. He met the tax collectors in their lives as tax collectors. God comes and meets his people where they are.

Each of us has our own family situations – God meets us where we are.

We all have particular neighbours, and friends – God meets us where we are.

Each of us has specific resources and abilities – God meets us where we are.

We all have our own weaknesses and failings – God meets us where we are.

God comes to us in our particularity – not in order to wrench us out of our context – not to wrench us out of our relationships – not to demand more of us than we have to give – not to insist that all of our weaknesses suddenly be overcome.

God comes to us in our particularity, and invites us – calls us – to a deepening of our faith. God comes to us in our particularity and invites us – calls us – even commands us – to discover new faithful to the ways of his kingdom. In my situation,

how can I manifest his love in new ways?

How can I express his kindness in new ways?

How can I pursue his justice in new ways?

How can I live his forgiveness in new ways?

Of course there is a multitude of ways in which each of us, in our particular situation, can give more faithful expression to the goodness of human life – the goodness of God. It’s not rocket science.

Before we come back to the question of judgment, perhaps one point of clarification is in order. It’s very easy, when we hear a message like this, to think that everything has been placed on our shoulders, or placed in our hands.  It’s very easy for us to reduce all of this to the idea that we just have to go home and try harder – just try harder to be kind, generous, and gracious people. Even more, in our particular cultural and religious context it’s so easy for us to think that if we all just tried a little harder, then we could make our world the kind of place we want it to be.

But as we expand our vision beyond John the Baptist, to Jesus, we discover that this is not the message of the gospel. Rather, the message of the gospel is that the truly human life has been lived. The one who was laid in a manger in Bethlehem,

who taught in the countryside of Galilee,

who suffered on a cross outside Jerusalem,

who was laid in a hillside tomb, and

who appeared in the garden Easter morning – this one has lived the truly human life. His name is Jesus, and he brings his resurrection life, the truly human life, to our lives and to our world. It’s not simply that we have to try harder as a people to be kind, good people – because oh the disillusionment and shame when we inevitably fail – it’s not just that we have to try harder.

Rather, there is one who brings that new and beautiful life to us where we are. And he takes us on from where we are into that new and beautiful life. This is the message of the gospel – this is the message in which we delight. Not a message of judgment – but of a hopeful life lived with the truly human one. Too often when those famous words from John 3:16 are quoted, verse 17 is left out. “For God so loved the world, that he sent his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him will not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might have life through him.”

What, then, is judgment against the backdrop of this good news? Perhaps the best way to describe judgment is simply as our refusal to live in the goodness and beauty and love Christ. Judgment is our abandonment of ourselves to a life without Christ – judgment is an individual and collective abandonment of ourselves to a life without Christ – our abandonment of ourselves to a life outside of God’s coming kingdom. Pushing a little further, James Kay, professor of preaching at Princeton Theological Seminary describes hell as the destiny we make for ourselves outside of Christ. He writes: “Hell means going it alone, apart from God, all the way to the bitter end.” Hell is an ultimate kind of setting ourselves outside of the goodness and purposes of God.

We have all seen hell over the past couple of days – hell in a beautiful little corner of Connecticut. Hell, not as a place to which God condemns anyone. Hell, not as a place of eternal punishment. But hell as it sometimes erupts in our world of broken relationships, broken lives, a broken social fabric, broken gun laws, a broken mental health care system. We don’t know why exactly hell erupted there in Connecticut on Friday – but we know that this hell somehow expresses our distance from the beauty and kindness and justice that comes to our world in Jesus Christ.

As followers of the risen Jesus, we are not called to proclaim judgment or hell – or to fear its reality. But as James Kay again puts it: “We are commissioned to proclaim the advent of Jesus Christ. He has come, as John the Baptist promised. Alone and abandoned this Jesus descended into the depths of Hell. And this means that there is no possibility for us that is beyond the reach of God’s inexhaustible grace.”

God in Christ come to us and meets us wherever we are – even if we find ourselves in hell. And by his grace he leads us on in the way of hope and peace and joy and love. Thanks be to God. Amen.

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