Tag Archives: 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!

Good – but not enough!

Nicodemus deserves credit (John 3:1-17).  He comes to Jesus – yes, at night, which might look embarrassed, but also allows him to ask questions freely.  He already has a life of disciplined goodness.  We suspect Pharisees, and some were guilty of pride and religious red tape, but for others the life meant knowing and living the Old Testament Law in detail.  Perhaps most important, he wants to know more.  That is good.

So, why does Jesus ask him such difficult questions?  We might have thought this polite man an ideal disciple – or church member.  But it seems that he won’t do.  Why?  Jesus refers (v13,14) to his ministry and his coming death.  What Nicodemus knows is not enough – for him, or for other good people.  Christian faith depends on what God does and gives – Jesus and his sacrificial death.  There are real benefits in living a good life, following the commandments, but that is incomplete.

Nicodemus goes away puzzled, but doesn’t give up.  He reappears in the pages of the gospel story at John 7:50, and again at John 19:39.  Sometimes the most important changes come “between events”, as the Holy Spirit works.

Our passage hasn’t finished.  v16 is one of the best known in the gospel, but we should read on.  John 3:16-21 goes on to speak of judgement.  This picture does not see God handing out suffering and pain (a deity we would find it hard to worship!)  It seems that Nicodemus was ready to come into the light.  We have to ask if we are also ready to be examined, and perhaps embarrassed, in order to receive the gift.

Ready? (Advent 1a)

Some years ago I had a car accident. I was driving home in busy traffic when, without warning, there was a thump – a boy had run out and been hit by my car. I stopped, jumped out, was relieved to see him getting up, but made him wait to be checked by ambulance paramedics. Thankfully, he was OK – shocked (a nasty colour 5 minutes later, and very shaky), bruised. Police came, breathylised me and took a statement, then talked to the boy, and his friends. When they had done all that, they said it would probably be OK – the boys had been chasing one another, and it was an accident. Relief!

I had to go and take my licence and insurance to be examined at a police station. I found my licence, looked for the insurance. It wasn’t in the file, so I rang up the company. It was my wife’s car, and the insurance rolled over year by year automatically – but her bank card had been renewed, and the old one had not paid. No insurance! That’s a criminal offence. I went and reported, feeling terrible. I anticipated being called to court – and reported in the press “Vicar sentenced . .”

It took me an uncomfortable week to realise that while I was driving my wife’s uninsured car, my car was insured. And that insurance covered me to drive another car! Straight back to the police station. Relief! Life began again.

With Advent Sunday, we begin a new Church year, – you’ll see the gospel readings coming mainly from Matthew (it was Luke until last Sunday). We focus on the coming of Jesus – but today, the Second Coming. Not the baby of Bethlehem, but the return in power of the Son of God at the end of the world.  Our readings are full of it – Matthew 24. 36-44, Romans 13. 11-14

We are told it will be unexpected, -that many will be caught unprepared. There is a strong implication that it will then be too late to put things right. Judgement will follow, and as Christians we are warned to be ready  – ready to give an account of ourselves, our lives, our stewardship of all that God has given us, materially and spiritually.

Judgement does not mean God is hostile and wanting to punish. Think if you like of being seen as you really are. Think of how I felt, facing prosecution for driving without insurance! Yes, that was unintended, and accidental – but if the accident had been more serious, my insurance might have been needed to provide continuing treatment and care for a casualty. I would have been mortified to be exposed as failing to provide what the law required. I was so relieved to be – accidentally – not guilty.

Judgement is real. Everything we are, everything we do, everything we want, will be known – with all the reasons, and none of the excuses!

Do check your car insurance!
Do check your life is ready for examination in detail, without notice. The Son of God will return – it could be thousands of years after we die, or Tuesday afternoon. We don’t know, we are just told to be ready.

A familiar story? (Kingdom 1c)

Zacchaeus may only appear as a story in Luke’s gospel (Luke 19:1-10), but it is a familiar story to many – and perhaps familiarity does not help us see its value.  Jesus is going through town when he calls to a figure up a tree to come down and offer him a meal.  The crowd don’t like it – this is a Tax collector (collaborator with the Roman occupying power, cheat, outsider . .).

Apparently Jesus has seen more in this man.  Zacchaeus not only gets down and offers a meal, but he offers to make up to anyone he has cheated, and gives away half his money!  This is a real turn-around (repentance, in Christian language).  Jesus emphasises his ministry “to seek out and to save the lost”, something we may be glad of, but which the crowd are suspicious of.  The disciples (then and now) have to learn both what Jesus is doing, and who is part of this new “Kingdom” family.  Who is “safe”?

The picture we may miss is of the disciples, Jesus, with Zacchaeus and perhaps the blind beggar (healed on the way into town) eating with a group of doubtful characters, some of whom may be about to follow Zacchaeus into a new life.  Outside – by their own choice, but perhaps unaware how serious that choice is – are those who prefer to criticise and stick with “their own kind”.

Safety is – learning with the disciples.

Expectations (Bible Sunday)

When Jesus went to synagogue in Nazareth (Luke 4:16-24), he announced the fulfillment of prophecy going back centuries, the opportunity for his hearers to be involved in the turning point of history, the moment God’s plans were put into action.

And they didn’t want to know.

They should have been ready.  The scriptures they read week by week, and discussed, had all the clues.  The Messiah was expected, the Servant was known from Isaiah – this was nothing new.  But the lack of expectation meant that Jesus could not be heard.  It was as if God was not welcome in synagogue.  What happened there had to conform, to affirm the social order and its leaders.  If Jesus wanted anything to change, Who Did He Think He Was!?  (a rhetorical question – a correct answer would have saved them).

It is not difficult to see how it could happen.  Social pressures can make us blind to what God is saying and doing.  But will I go to worship with an expectation of meeting God, of hearing – perhaps what I don’t want, or expect, to hear?  Will my congregation be ready to hear, pray, pick up the clues from scripture?  Will it matter enough to override other plans, assumptions, and the weariness of another week?

Jesus went to worship, but the congregation could not hear God.  It is the worst thing that can ever happen to a congregation.