“I am confident of this: that the one who began a good work in you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.”
Sermon preached by the Reverend Dr Zachary Guiliano
In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Preparation. The whole world around us is abuzz with it. Everywhere you look, you can see signs of it: Fairy lights twinkling in almost every corner shop; festive music playing at all hours; signs outside restaurants reminding us it’s not too lateto make a special holiday booking; “shoppers, rushing home with their treasures”; and small armies of volunteers for every charity imaginable, taking advantage of the wonderful fact that at this time of year, our hearts turn not only to buying gifts for our loved ones, but also to the needs of the poorest. For it is at this time of year, says Dickens, that “the pinch of want is felt most keenly,” when all around seems to be is joy and light and festivity. Preparations are afoot all around us. Preparations for Christmas. Thanks be to God. It’s a great time to be alive.
I’m sure some of you have participated in these sorts of preparations, but we are called to prepare in other ways as well, not only for the first coming of Christ, but also for that great and terrible day, the last day, what St Paul calls “the day of Jesus Christ.” This is the day when, as we confess in the Nicene Creed each Sunday, Christ will “come again in glory to judge the living and the dead, and his kingdom will have no end.” “We must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each one may receive his due for the things done in the body, whether good or bad” (2 Cor 5:10). These are the themes we have been considering in church over the past three weeks after the 10am service in our Sunday Supplement series on the Four Last Things: Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell.
These are not popular topics in contemporary society. If you look at attitudes towards religious faith in modern Britain, a number of interesting statistics appear. A great number of people believe in God, about 40 to 54 percent, and about the same number believe in heaven. But do you know how many believe in hell or judgment? Between 17 and 21 percent. That’s a much smaller number.
This collapse of belief in a judgment is primarily a phenomenon of the past 50 years (and primarily one that has occurred in Northern and Western Europe, by the way; belief in hell is fairly robust globally across religions; in my own home country around 58 percent of people believe in hell). Why has this happened?
No doubt, the reasons are many. Some churches have taught about judgment and hell in abusive ways. I know friends and family members who grew up in a state of almost constant fear: fear of falling short, fear of the judgment of their neighbors, fear of God. If you spend most of your waking hours thinking God is some kind of sadist, looking forward to casting you into an eternity of punishment for relatively minor infractions, like a little impatience at a slow wifi connection, I can see why you might want to be free of teaching on judgment. It would make God seem petty. But, let’s be honest, not that many of us have been raised by fundamentalists – and that is not the Church’s teaching on hell.
Another reason we might not believe in judgment: we think judging others is a bad thing, and morality is simply relative. You know the clichés or slogans: You go your way; I go mine. Co-exist. Different strokes for different folks, and so forth. Of course, this can’t really be the reason many of us don’t believe in hell. If there’s anything electoral politics of the past three years have taught us, it’s that we judge our neighbors relentlessly and mercilessly, whether it’s out loud or in our hearts.
If you’ve ever been in a conversation where someone mentions Brexit or the name Donalt Trumptat the wrong moment, you know what I mean. Shoulders tense, reality warps, and a bitter Hobbesian wind blows through the room, as all prepare to make war on all. We love judgment, so long as we are the ones doing it, for matters petty or portentous: the cut of someone’s clothing, the way they speak, their politics. People say this is an age of moral relativism. Give me a break.
So what is it? I’m convinced that the problem is primarily theological. Few of us believe that the God of love revealed in Jesus Christ could possibly judge the earth. “God is love,” we reason, and love forgives. To use the famous words from 1 Cornithians 13, often read in the wedding service:
Love is patient; love is kind. … It does not insist on its own way … It bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things. Love never ends.
So how could love judge?
In some ways, this view of God’s love is the result of Christian faith. It’s very close to what the Church has taught historically, but not quite the same. It’s as if someone walked up to a beautiful mosaic, picked out a handful of lovely tiles they really enjoyed, and then used them in a new arrangement, all the while calling the mosaic by the same name as the old: love. But the love revealed in Jesus Christ is not a love that refuses to judge or make choices or proclaim values, even as it is not a justice untempered by mercy.
Our Jesus, revealed in the Gospels, was heralded by John the Baptist, who preached a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins. Acknowledgement of our sins is how we prepare the way of the Lord.
Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill shall be made low, and the crooked shall become straight, and the rough places shall become level and plain.
I don’t know about you, but I can never hear or read those words without the voice of Martin Luther King, Jr. resounding in my memory, as he called out the sins of racism in American society. The God he preached was a judge of this world, who weighed American society in the scales and found it wanting, just as so many societies today remain wanting. “Every valley shall be filled, and every mountain and hill laid low”: the righteous God cut down the pride and folly of racism, and lifted the humble.
Jesus himself, as he proclaimed the kingdom of God, said “Repent, and believe the good news.” The message of judgment, repentance, and therefore hope, is the message of Jesus, the message of love himself. Jesus may have been “all compassion, pure unbounded love,” but he did not hesitate to rebuke the proud and the wayward, while he gave grace to the humble (Prov 3:34).
For me the Gospel story that sums up this truth so poignantly involves the woman caught in adultery in John’s Gospel (7:53-8:11). I’m sure you remember it: a group of men come before Jesus, dragging along a woman they say they’ve caught in a sinful act, and they accuse her before Jesus, in order to test him. He does not respond at first, but draws in the dust. Eventually he says, “Let him who is without sin cast the first stone.” And they all slink away in shame, for he cut down their pride and folly. When they are all gone, he asks the woman what has happened to her accusers. “Did none of them condemn you?” he asks. “Neither do I condemn you. Go and sin no more.”
Here we see judgment and mercy: judgment for those who would dare use another human being as a tool; judgment and mercy for the woman. Many would say he simply forgave her, that he simply showed mercy and love, but this is not true: he also acknowledged the problem at hand. “Go and sin no more.”
Here is the love and justice of Christ our Saviour; here is the judge of all the earth. “He will by no means acquit the guilty” (Exod. 34:7; Nah. 1:3), but he will cut through every lie and falsehood of the proud, while “he lifts the humble from the dust” (1 Sam 2:8; Ps. 113:7).
St Paul says: “I am confident of this, that the one who began a good work among you will bring it to completion by the day of Jesus Christ.” For everyone of us here, God has begun a good work in us. He has reached out to us, and is lifting us up from the dust even now. He is not ignoring our sin, but is giving us clemency now in the time of this mortal life. He has given us the opportunity to come to perfection; we have time to prepare, to prepare as carefully as we’d do for the coming of a loved one into our home at Christmas. And more than that: we are not preparing alone, but God is at work in us, beside us, and through us, preparing us “both to will and to work according to his good pleasure” (Phil 2:13).
“This is my prayer,” to borrow the words of Paul:
that your love may overflow more and more with knowledge and full insight, to help you determine what is best, so that in the day of Christ you may be pure and blameless, having produced the harvest of righteousness that comes through Jesus Christ for the glory and praise of God. (2:9-11)
May the love that fills the heart of Jesus Christ abound in your heart. May his wisdom rule your every thought, word, and deed, as you prepare for his coming, and may his grace lift you to what is best, to the good, the beautiful, and the true.