Thursday, November 30, 2017

The Day of Judgement

The speaker at our diocesan priest retreat this year, Fleming Rutledge, told a story of a venerable old New England clergyman who had a significantly modernist sensibility. He was asked to officiate at the wedding of his grand daughter and her fiancĂ©. As he was going over the service with them—which was to be celebrated from the 1928 prayer book—he came to the part in the service in which the priest addresses the couple with the words,

“I require and charge you both, as ye will answer at the dreadful day of judgment when the secrets of all hearts shall be disclosed, that if either of you know any impediment, why ye may not be lawfully joined together in Matrimony, ye do now confess it.”

He paused and remarked, “Maybe we ought to just leave that part out…”

His granddaughter objected, “Oh but Grand-pa-pa, I love the dreadful Day of Judgment!”

Our gospel lesson this morning, for Christ the King Sunday, is the Parable of the Sheep and the Goats. It is all about the Day of Judgment when the Son of Man comes in his glory, with all the angels with him, and when he sits on the throne of his glory while all the nations of the world are gathered before him.

I think that many of us these days are a lot like that old clergyman. When it comes to the Day of Judgment, we prefer to just leave it out. It seems harsh and punitive and we prefer instead to focus on the kindness and love of God. I would like to suggest, however, that the Day of Judgment is an essential element to understanding God’s love and mercy. It may be dreadful, but it is good news for those who love justice and righteousness. There is good reason why we should—like the young bride in the story—love the dreadful Day of Judgment. Allow me to suggest three.

First, on the Day of Judgment Christ will return to reign as the true King of Kings and all tyrants and abusers of power will be dethroned and judged. Our Old Testament reading comes from the 34th chapter of Ezekiel in which the prophet pronounces judgment on the wicked shepherds of Israel, the corrupt rulers who have abused his flock and failed to lead them with justice. Ezekiel promises that God himself will seek out and save his people from the wicked shepherds and that he will set up a true king from the house of David who will be a good shepherd to his people.
Christ is the fulfillment of that promise. He will gather his people who have been scattered throughout the world; he will bind up their wounds, and restore them to health. He will lead them into peaceful, quiet, pastures of plenty.

We should love the Day of Judgment because on that day God will at last become king on earth as he is in heaven.

Second, we should love the Day of Judgment because on that day God will cast out evil once and for all. As it is, evil exists side by side with the good. The presence of evil is blight on God’s good creation.

On the last day Christ is depicted as a shepherd who separates the sheep from the goats. This is true not only in our Gospel lesson but in the reading from Ezekiel as well which says, “I will judge between sheep and sheep.”

In those days it wasn’t always easy to distinguish the sheep from the goats. Today, after generations of breeding, sheep are easily recognized by their thick fluffy wool but In Biblical times the two would have been nearly identical in appearance. This is still the case in certain parts of Asia and Africa. So what is the difference between them?

Sheep hear and obey the voice of their shepherd, but goats go their own way. They refuse to be led and often disrupt the peace of the flock. They will often push and ram the sheep with their horns.

The comparison is clear. The sheep are those who submit to God’s rule, who hear and obey his voice. The goats are those who refuse the will of God and go their own way. At the last Judgment, God will separate those who are evil from those who are good. The evil will no more trouble the good.

Elsewhere a similar image is used of a harvester who winnows the grain separating the wheat from the chaff. The chaff is swept up and thrown into the fire.

There is a sense, however, in which there is a bit of goat in all of us. Each of us are a mixture of both wheat and chaff. At the last judgment, that which is evil in us will be named and judged. The prospect is indeed dreadful but it is ultimately for our good. We will finally be purged of the sinful propensities that plague us in this life.

Saint Paul puts it this way, “each one's work will become manifest, for the Day will disclose it, because it will be revealed by fire, and the fire will test what sort of work each one has done… If anyone's work is burned up, he will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved, but only as through fire.”

If we love what is good, we will look with joy for the day when what is evil is separated and destroyed.

Finally, we should love the Day of Judgment because we have confidence in the mercy and goodness of the judge.

Question 52 of the Heidelberg Catechism asks: ‘What comfort is it to you that Christ “shall come to judge the living and the dead”?

The reply is a beautiful summary of our Christian hope:

That in all my sorrows and persecutions, I, with uplifted head, look for the very One, who will come from heaven as the Judge, the same, who before offered Himself for me to the judgment of God, and removed all curse from me.

Who would you rather have your judge on the last day? Your peers? The media? Would you stand under that judgement? Could you even stand under the judgement of your own standards? None of these are as merciful a judge as our Lord Jesus Christ.

The Day of Judgment is not terrifying for the Christian because we believe that the one to whom we must give an account is the merciful and gracious savior of the world, the Lord Jesus Christ. He is the very one who loved us while we were yet sinners and who bore the penalty for our sins in his own flesh on the cross.

By faith we know that we are justified before God on account of the merits of Christ. What fear can we have of judgment seeing as there is no condemnation in Christ?

On the last day everyone will be judged according to the deeds done in this life. That should be sobering to us. The basis of our acquittal or rejection however ultimately rests on how we respond to Christ. Have we welcomed him or turned him away?

Jesus Christ died to purchase salvation for every person. The grace of God has appeared to everyone. He comes to every human heart with the opportunity to receive him with joy, to serve him or to reject him.
Notice that God’s judgment is not a theology exam. It is not ultimately about what we know or accept on an intellectual level, but about our openness to divine grace.

In the parable there are some among the righteous who seem unaware that the one they have served is Christ. They say, “When did we see you hungry and feed you or thirsty and give you drink?” What they have done for the least of God’s messengers they have done for him. They did not fail to regard him when he came to them unaware.

There is a day that God has appointed in which Christ will judge the world in righteousness, but the judgment begins now. If we open our hearts to receive his grace, confessing our unworthiness, we can be assured of his verdict of mercy. By faith we can stand justified before God today.

Brothers and sisters, “I love the dreadful Day of Judgment!