Tag Archives: judgement

Is there an End?

Where will it all end? – and will there be tears? The early followers of Jesus came to believe he was the promised coming King, the Messiah. He spoke of God’s Kingdom. When he met opposition and slander, they found his acceptance of suffering, and then of a criminal’s death, difficult. His resurrection, and the Old Testament prophecies (not least Isaiah’s Suffering Servant), helped them to see it all as part of God’s plan to save.

So the Christians met, worshipped, and wondered – Where would it all end? It is a question, not only for their times, but for ours. It has been echoed by many in times of war, persecution, and suffering. Destruction, death and disaster add weight to it. What can we hope for? What is the point? Political or economic insecurity adds to the doubt, but Christians ought to have some answers settled. As we remember the consequences of conflict elevated into war, what hope of peace, of justice?

Christians remember Jesus identification of John the Baptist as Elijah, and understand the “Day of the Lord” as the day Jesus returns with power for judgement. That day is mentioned in Matthew 24 and 25, at the Ascension, and in 1 Thessalonians 4 & 5, (and today we read 1 Thessalonians 5:1-11) among other places. The language is pictorial, the main theme clear: Jesus return brings to an end this time of uncertainty and conflict. God will rule, and his enemies be disarmed and judged.

In the Old Testament (we read an example in Zephaniah, but it starts with Amos, and is reflected in many prophets) a popular idea of the Day of the Lord – when “our God” would come to defeat “our enemies” – is turned round. Amos insists that God is not impressed by the unfaithfulness of his people, and the Day of his Coming would bring judgement on them, as well as on others. (so Zephaniah 1:12 “I will punish the people who are self-satisfied and confident, who say to themselves, ‘The LORD never does anything, one way or the other.'” ) By the time of Malachi, the last words of our Old Testament: “But before the great and terrible day of the LORD comes, I will send you the prophet Elijah. He will bring fathers and children together again; otherwise I would have to come and destroy your country.” (Malachi 4:5-6)

When? We don’t know. 1Thessalonians 5:1,2 Suddenly and unexpectedly; but that is not to say we are unprepared. Paul speaks of a thief in the night. You don’t know when – but if you know he is coming, you can be ready. Valuables hidden or secure, doors firmly locked, people safe. We don’t know when, but we are to be ready. “We must wear faith and love as a breastplate, and our hope of salvation as a helmet.” 1Thessalonians 5:8

The Kingdom of God – his rule of justice and love, is something great, to be looked forward to and celebrated (at least by those who try already to live its life). The Day it comes and replaces all opposition is beyond our imagining, and unlikely to be uncontested. We need to be ready,

Dealing with death.

Remembering the dead – it might seem an occupation for the bereaved, and the military, but in fact it may be important for all of us, and for the way we live. On the one hand, we live with modern medicine removing so many of the threats of early death (TB, typhoid, cholera . ) and in a time of peace (at least in Europe). On the other, the news reminds us of those who value life little, and sometimes lose it – on the roads, in fights with knives or guns, by self-destruction with drugs or alcohol.

Paul wants those in Thessalonica to understand “the truth about those who have died” (that’s verse 13 of today’s reading: 1 Thessalonians 4:13-18). Perhaps he spoke to them about the Kingdom of God, and when some of the congregation died, they thought they might have missed it.

At any rate, he is clear that the Christian reaction to death is very different to classical fatalism (or contemporary attitudes). Since Jesus died, and rose from the dead, believers can look forward, even at death, to resurrection. (He is not talking here of those outside Christian faith – there are other places in the New Testament which suggest for them both justice and mercy in judgement, which involves some not gaining heaven – but this is the hope for Christians). There is to be no fatalism, no imagining that all ends with life on earth. Nor is death an escape from justice.

He goes on to describe how, on the last day, Jesus will return, and his faithful followers – both those still alive at that time, and those who had died – will all meet him and stay with him. It is a picture of heaven worth reflecting on – does the thought of an eternity with Jesus appeal to you? When I was a child the thought of endless church services was not one I liked at all! Now I see the challenge more in being fully known for what I am – no secrets, no self-deception. Again, you may feel that being gathered up in the clouds is a bit primitive. See it rather as a place of power (a storm contains much more energy than a nuclear reactor), a place we cannot go without help – so a new order.

So Paul tells these Christians that those of their number who have died will not miss out, because Jesus resurrection means a future beyond the grave. He tells them to encourage one another with this. That, surely, is part of the point for us. Our attitude to death will affect our attitude to life. Socially and culturally we don’t handle death well. Better medicine and smaller families mean less familiarity with bereavement. That’s good, but we have lost the ways of expressing grief, and sympathy, through rituals of mourning. We find it harder to help others to adjust to life without someone, and sometimes add our embarrassment to their burden.

Christians ought to do better. Let’s use the fact of Jesus resurrection to face our own deaths with hope, and encourage others to do the same. Facing death without fear, let’s recognise that life is to be lived with purpose. We are to serve. Perhaps the forces are helped by military discipline, but the Christian is not just to “follow orders”, but to follow Jesus, and find the purpose of our life in using gifts and opportunities in that service.

Of course death is still a shock, and for the young (in uniform or out of it) untimely and difficult. Some, in war, will have found identity and opportunity to serve in its fullest sense. Some, in peacetime life, will have learnt rapidly what they have to give, and given freely. Perhaps the loss of their early death is ours, not theirs.

Let the dead, whom we remember, remind us to live well: fully, and in the service of one worth serving. Let the living encourage one another with the Christian hope, as Paul reminded the Thessalonian church.

Who’s in Charge?

Who’s in Charge? – we usually ask when things aren’t working. No service, no progress, no satisfaction. Who’s in Charge? Last week, we looked at Romans 7, talking about the struggle within, knowing what we ought to do and want to do, but not always doing it. This week, on to Romans 8:1-11

“there is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus”

Romans 8:1

That has to be good news. Nobody likes being put down, and being judgmental is a sure way to unpopularity. But what does that mean? not everybody escapes, so who? The rest of our reading explains.

“Those who live as their human nature tells them to, have their minds controlled by what human nature wants.” Good News Bible, may be clearer than
NIV “Those who live according to the flesh have their minds set on what the flesh desires”

Romans 8:5

This is what we might call selfishness – but might not always recognise. It can be like the child “I want this, I won’t do that, tantrum..” But it can also be the clever executive who plans their way to the top, by fair means or foul, stopping for no one, or even the charming and subtle person, who will never put themselves in a position they don’t want to be in, for anybody.

What does it mean to “live according to human nature” (other translations have “sinful nature” or “the flesh”)? It means:

  • “Who’s in Charge?” – I am!
  • “What are you going to do?” What I want to
  • “What’s life all about?” ME.

[Some years ago, Jane Williams surprised a Conference in Oxford. She was talking about Spirituality, and reminded us how popular it is, how every personality has their diet, their routine and personal space carefully designed. But it is all about their fulfillment, their career, their choices & ambitions. Christians shouldn’t have that, but a different thing, called discipleship, about following God, not our own choices.]

“To be controlled by human nature results in death;” or
NIV “The mind governed by the flesh is death”

but

“to be controlled by the Spirit results in life and peace.” or
NIV “the mind governed by the Spirit is life and peace”

Romans 8:6

God doesn’t leave us to do our own thing, and suffer other people doing theirs. His love finds a better way –

“For the law of the Spirit, which brings us life in union with Christ Jesus, has set me free from the law of sin and death. What the Law could not do, because human nature was weak, God did. He condemned sin in human nature by sending his own Son, who came with a nature like our sinful nature, to do away with sin.   God did this so that the righteous demands of the Law might be fully satisfied in us who live according to the Spirit, and not according to human nature.”

Romans 8:2-4 GNB

This is where we find what it means to “live in union with Christ Jesus”. We accept, not only that Jesus lived and died for us, but that our lives need now to be directed by his Spirit. This is what we ought to know as Christian life, or discipleship – but we don’t always recognise it. It is not being a doormat, trampled by everyone else. It is not failing to enjoy good and beautiful things. It is not letting our talents and abilities go to waste. Nor is it being very religious. But it is a new set of answers to those questions:

  • Who’s in Charge? God is, both of the big plan, and the details in my life
  • “What are you going to do?” What God wants
  • “What’s life all about?” God’s plan, which includes me, and the people I love, and much, much more.

Too often we try to fudge the issue with comments like “I’m not doing any harm”. This passage is much blunter:

“And so people become enemies of God when they are controlled by their human nature; for they do not obey God’s law, and in fact they cannot obey it.  Those who obey their human nature cannot please God.”
while for Christians it works differently
“But you do not live as your human nature tells you to; instead, you live as the Spirit tells you to—if, in fact, God’s Spirit lives in you. Whoever does not have the Spirit of Christ does not belong to him. But if Christ lives in you, the Spirit is life for you because you have been put right with God.”

Romans 8:7-8 and 9-10a GNB

The challenge for us is not to understand, it’s very simple: Who’s in charge? God, or your human nature. The challenge is to trust God, and let him control, and go on with that, so that he has more and more control, and we get more confidence to let him drive faster.

Kingdom Hazard

When Paul writes his second letter to the Christians in Thessalonica, [2 Thessalonians 1:1-12] two things are clear. They are having a hard time, with “persecutions and trials”. But at the same time there are good things to give thanks for. Faith and love are mentioned immediately, and perseverance.

It is in this context that the fate of those causing the trouble is mentioned. When Christ returns, they will be shut out of his presence. It is the consequence of their wilful refusal of the good news of God’s Kingdom – they are punished for not obeying the gospel, not for not knowing it.

While the fate of the wicked seems once to have been a popular theme for Christian preachers, today we seem more reluctant to judge. That is surely a good thing! God alone knows the full truth about peoples actions, and certainly their motivations. But for ourselves we might beware of ignoring what is said about the danger of ignoring or refusing the offer of Christ to enter his Kingdom, benefit from his grace, and learn a new life.

But is this the message of Jesus? It could sound a bit negative, not like the good news of grace and love. After all, we read today [Luke 19:1-10] of the party at Zacchaeus’ house, where Jesus eats with “sinners”. Perhaps we need to notice that the Kingdom welcomes Zacchaeus, and his repentance – but there is real danger for those who complain. Those who label the “sinners” at the party are in real danger of missing the eternal party!

Things were not perfect in the Thessalonian Church, but there was faith. Yes, their Christian life needed some corrections, but they were learning the ways of the Kingdom. Wherever God’s Kingdom is seen, there is the danger of missing out, with terrible consequences. We shouldn’t let a proper reluctance to judge blind us to the real danger of missing out in God’s judgement.

Useless?

Why does Jesus need John the Baptist? There’s not much competition between them; Jesus outshines John from the moment his ministry gets into its swing. So why? Is it an accident, some sort of political gesture – or have we missed something?

The first thing that comes out of these readings (Luke 3:1-6, and Malachi 3:1-4) is that John fills the role of the forerunner, the “messenger preparing the way” foretold by Malachi (and indeed Isaiah 40:3). It is part of God’s plan that those who knew the writings of the prophets should have had several chances to recognise and understand what was happening, as John revived the long-dead tradition of prophecy, and Jesus came with his teaching.

That would mean John was needed to explain the significance of Jesus as fulfilling the Old Testament – and I am sure that is true. But, even so, isn’t that just a detail? Will Jesus not be heard, because he is Jesus, or because of the delightful message he gives?

Look again. Malachi 3:2 “But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap;” burning and caustic – that is not quite the gentle message we expect. But John has heard the same tone, for he proclaimed “a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins,” Luke 3:3

Why? John’s message is not an optional icing on the cake. The coming he speaks of is dangerous; there is the possibility of catastrophic failure. Those who would not repent were heading for disaster. The reality of judgement, even in the ministry of Jesus and not only at his second coming to judge the world and – us; is something we like to leave out, but should not. John’s ministry, even in its ferocious and forthright denunciations, was an act of merciful warning – of a real danger. A danger that is not past.

It would be nice to say that John gets through to those who need shouting at, and Jesus speaks with love. Nice, – but not true. Jesus is quite capable of speaking sharply and directly, of judgement and hell, as well as of God’s love and forgiveness. We may have trouble fitting them together, but he didn’t and we need to learn.

In the same way, John offered people a way of escape and salvation. Repentance and baptism were freely available, and clearly popular as well. John the Baptist is part of God’s plan, and in that sense Jesus needs him. He

  • makes clear the fulfilment of the Old Testament in Jesus
  • shows us that new life doesn’t happen without leaving the old; repentance, commitment, faith are not “options” but the necessary route to heaven
  • he announces the demands of a holy God, who requires holiness in his people.

John the Baptist is a forceful antidote to a sentimentalised Christmas which does little more than excuse a conventional holiday. He won’t have that. The arrival of Jesus is the turning point of world history, an opportunity for every human – but one which could be missed, with eternal consequence.

Impact!

For Jesus first disciples, the arrival of the Holy Spirit was a moment of impact – confusion, transformation, power, awe. Fire and wind symbolise power, with an edge of dangerous uncontrollability.

But Jesus had warned them! (Only then, as now, it was one thing to hear the words, and quite another to experience the reality!). First (John 15:26-27) was the point about “testifying”. The Spirit gives evidence for God, and God’s activity in Jesus. It is so obvious in the change in the disciples that day. Peter made a great start on the Day of Pentecost. But today’s Christian disciples are also to give evidence by what they say, and what they do. Perhaps we are sometimes too hesitant.

There is more in John 16:4b-15. Jesus had to leave – among other reasons, to stop disciples wanting to find and ask him personally, rather than the Holy Spirit who could be in contact everywhere. The Holy Spirit has some important corrections to make to our understanding:

  • about sin – interestingly, about the refusal to accept and trust God in Christ. We are more hung up on morality and standards of behaviour. Without ignoring them, should we focus more on allowing a fuller and wider trust of God. What might follow from that?
  • about righteousness – Jesus returns to heaven vindicated and victorious. Against all those who said his way was not practical, not politically viable, not realistic, or just wrong, he parades the Father’s affirmation and approval of his way of life, teaching, and choice of the cross.
  • about judgement – because the “ruler of this world” (that’s Satan, representing all evil) has been condemned, the Kingdom of God starts here. There is judgement, but with a focus on sweeping away the false, rather than finding individuals to condemn (they have a warning and a little more time).

So the Holy Spirit brings truth, exposing the corruption and compromise of “worldly” fashion and wisdom. God is glorified, as his love in restoring what ought to be, and healing what is, is seen in action.

The arrival of the Holy Spirit had an enormous impact. It still does, when lives are changed, and communities opened to liberating truth.

The Climax

(There is also a Dialogue Sketch on this gospel passage, which you can read here.)

If you watch films classified as “Thriller”, or read paperbacks, you expect a Climax: chase, showdown. But you don’t know how it will start, or what form it will take.  This week, Passion Sunday, we find out how the gospel will climax.  Jesus will die.

The arrival of “Greeks” (John 12:20-33) – probably not Jews – seems to make Jesus aware of what is coming, and he talks of the death of a grain of wheat, and recoils in horror, (verse 27), before seeing the glory of God in this.

This is the climax of the gospel. This death, unjust, inhumanly cruel, marking the apparent victory of all that is against Jesus and the Kingdom he announces – this is the glory of the Son of God. That is exactly what they mean. Jesus is not going to march into Jerusalem as King and replace Herod, or Pilate, or even the High Priest. He will allow himself to be captured, condemned, flogged, and crucified. Then he will rise. No wonder he hesitates.

We still find this odd, and also recoil. How can this be? What sort of success is this? The answer is history – history we prefer to forget! Jesus’ Kingdom does last, and offer better hope to all, than any other.

And then there is this odd verse about judgement. John 12:31 “Now is the time for this world to be judged; now the ruler of this world will be overthrown.”  How can the cross bring judgement? Remember John 3:17 “For God did not send his Son into the world to be its judge, but to be its saviour”. What does this mean? John seems to be saying that the cross brings, not a judgement of demons carrying you away to the furnace, but – well compare

  • John 12:47 “If people hear my message and do not obey it, I will not judge them. I came, not to judge the world, but to save it.”
  • John 12:48 Those who reject me and do not accept my message have one who will judge them. The words I have spoken will be their judge on the last day!
  • And John 9:39 Jesus said, “I came to this world to judge, so that the blind should see and those who see should become blind.”

There is judgement for those who fail to see in the crucified Lord the Saviour – Messiah, Suffering Servant, Son of God. That the judgement is a missed opportunity, a continuing in darkness, makes it no less terrible. It does not make Jesus a punitive figure, the main actor in a “Sting” operation to catch the unwary. He remains the sign of God’s love, the costly opening of the door to life. But to refuse the life he offers is to take a dark and terrible way, and represents a most terrible judgement, equal, and greater, to the terrors he endured for us.

The Gospel is a thriller. Its climax comes at the Cross. At one and the same time, the Cross brings freedom, and judgement to those who will not take it.

Judged – for what?

Sometimes it really helps to understand Jesus words when we know what he is referring to.  This week we read Matthew 25:31-46, but it may be easier to first read the Old Testament prophet Ezekiel 34:11-24, which is also a reading for this Sunday which we call Christ the King.

When Ezekiel, prophet of the exile in the 6C BC, spoke of God shepherding his people, it was a direct and forthright criticism of the leaders of the nation. Read the rest of chapter 34, and you will find no excuses for the abuse of power by the powerful.  But the prophet has more to say than to denounce the leaders of the time. First, he makes clear that God is concerned – concerned not just with punishing the abuse and removing the abusers, but with stepping in to care for his victimised people.

But there is more. In verse 17 he says “I myself will judge between sheep and sheep, between rams and goats”.  And in verse 23,“I will set up over them one shepherd, my servant David, and he shall feed them:”

Jesus clearly finds several points of contact with Ezekiel’s prophecy. Yes, like it or not, Jesus is talking about judgement, and about a judgement which divides people into just 2 groups. In the context of his day, the criticism of the leaders of the people is very clear. They have opposed him, refused to hear his message or to recognise his God given status.

The basis of the judgement is not “Have you been nice to people?”, despite what so many seem to think. It is not even “have you been religious?”. Jesus says “just as you did it to one of the least of these who are members of my family, you did it to me”. Earlier in the gospel (chapter 12:48f) he has made it clear that his “family” are not the blood relations, but those who followed him. It seems that here he is saying that our support of, and identifying with, poor Christians is critical.

You will understand why we read this today, on the the feast of Christ the King, last Sunday before Advent. The promised King Messiah, descendant of King David, has arrived. He will assume the role of shepherding leadership of the people, and will be judge of all.

But what are we supposed to learn, and – perhaps more important – do? We know that we are not saved by being good enough – because we are never up to God’s standard. Our hope is that faith in Jesus, and the forgiveness he offers, brings us to new life now and after this life.

The punch line is that it has to be real. Christian faith is not about mental acrobatics, or sophisticated pretending. Our faith is a trust which has to work through and show in every part of our life. There is an old joke which says, “If you were arrested and charged with being a Christian, would there be enough evidence to convict you?” Would you, perhaps, be able to pass it off – I didn’t really mean it, just went along with some friends, it didn’t change the way I worked, or spent money, or who I socialised with. . . .

We won’t frighten people into heaven with talk of judgement, but as Christians we dare not be unprepared to face our Judge. Is my faith more than words and vague good intentions? Am I prepared to support and stand with Christians, even poor, vulnerable and needy Christians against their sophisticated and rich critics? Both sheep and goats seem surprised at the judgement – but neither argue the truth of it.

Tolerance and Discrimination

Strange how public morality goes; you can apparently choose your faith, lifestyle and sexuality freely, but you must be tolerant.  In much the same way, you can belong to any group or subculture, but must not discriminate.  The rightness of tolerance and the wrongness of discrimination are seldom argued, just demanded.  At the same time, the popular press make the practical limits of toleration clear – rich fraudsters, terrorists and paedophiles are beyond the pale.  And we all know how to discriminate between a good workman and a “cowboy”, or a real friend and a gossip.

So, will you be shocked if you look in the Bible for these words?  Tolerance is not found in traditional translations (only, of God, in Romans 2:4 Good News Bible), discrimination not at all.  Why?  I suggest that, while there are some similar ideas, the concepts are not quite right for Christians.  Why not?  This weeks gospel parable (Matthew 13:24-43, leaving out vv31-35) may help.

The story of the wheat and weeds is about tolerance and discrimination – of a sort.  Wheat was, and is, an important food.  The weeds in this story are not a nuisance or something that spoils the picture, but darnel, a plant that looks very similar to wheat, but is host to a dangerous, poisonous fungus.  Jesus is suggesting that in human life, and that includes Church congregations, good and bad people are mixed.  We should not try to sort them out, because of damaging the wheat, because we can’t reliably tell the difference, (and because people, unlike plants, can repent.)  That’s not to say “anything goes”, in Church, or in society!  We need to help people sort themselves out – but we shall never gather a perfect group.  There will always be those in process – and those who resist God, but pretend.  There is a place, if not for tolerance, at least for patience and love, and for letting God do the final sorting out.  (We lack the qualification!).

At the same time, there is talk of a division at harvest time.  The harvesters will be under orders how to discriminate into just two categories.  No discrimination?  Well, you can’t tell wheat from darnel until the ear appears just before harvest (wheat turns golden brown and bends over, darnel seed darkens and stays upright), so no premature judgements.  But if “no discrimination” means “nobody can tell me I’m doing wrong” that doesn’t include God!

The idea of being tolerant and not discriminating is one of those half-Christian confusions which can obscure the faith of Jesus.  We don’t want to be intolerant and discriminatory – nothing Christian in that!  Letting him tell the story, and listening carefully, should save us getting it wrong.

 

Rewards ?

We read in Matthew 10:40-42 of rewards, but don’t think God owes us a place in heaven.  It is hard to say tactfully that none of us – not even the best – earns favour.  To think of marching up to the gates of heaven and asking for what we deserve would be disastrous.  By comparison with the holy goodness of God, we all fail and cannot hope to meet the standard.  What we deserve – is judgement, a “fail”.

Mercifully, that is not the end of the story!  God’s goodness has made an opportunity for us through Jesus and his sacrifice.  Accepting as a gift what he has done, we are offered not only forgiveness, but also a new life and status as God’s children.  (That is by adoption, not by right, so we talk about God’s “grace”).  So we live as those who are free, turning our backs on evil and walking the Christian way in thanks.  Yes, we still try to do the right thing, but as a reaction to a God whose love is beyond expectation, not as earning a place.

But what about rewards?  They are talked about several times in the New Testament.  Those who welcome Christians will benefit. Their welcome or kindness may help them hear the good news that will free them for ever.  Jesus explains more fully in Luke 18:29,30:

“Then Peter said, “Look, we have left our homes and followed you.” And he [Jesus] said to them, “Truly I tell you, there is no one who has left house or wife or brothers or parents or children, for the sake of the kingdom of God, who will not get back very much more in this age, and in the age to come eternal life.”

So some of the reward is in this life.  [There is more about rewards, for example in Matthew 6 which has much to say about hypocrisy and “looking good”.  1 Corinthians 3 also has some comments about the rewards of Christian ministry.]

If all this sounds great, there is a warning in the Old Testament lesson.  Jeremiah 28:5-9 is an extract from a longer story of conflict between Jeremiah and Hananiah.  Jeremiah had spoken of God’s judgement on an unfaithful people, and his ministry has cost him popularity and his security.  Hananiah prophecies a rapid return of the exiles and life as usual – a popular message, avoiding difficult issues of responsibility and the need to repent of wrongdoing.  While he would like it to be true, Jeremiah emphasises the test of prophecy (does it come true?), and later accurately prophecies judgement on the false Hananiah.  Those who speak for God have to keep to God’s messages; it is a sad warning!

So we have the encouragement of knowing that our Christian mission is not unnoticed, and will be rewarded.  Alongside that comes the reminder to be faithful.  It cannot be right to say just what people want to hear as if it was God’s message.  Indeed, to pretend to know God’s will without understanding can be – fatal.  If that is a sobering thought, it emphasises the importance of the gospel, and our witness to it by action and word.  Getting it right matters!