A sermon preached
Readings: Amos 5:18-24, Matthew 25:1-13
We read today one of the parables in Matthew 25 –
they all have a common theme –
about the coming judgement of the world.
The imagery varies –
but in a week when the streets of Paris have been ablaze
and on the day after Bonfire Night,
it seemed appropriate to choose a fiery image.
So from the Parable of the Sheep & the Goats:
”Depart from me, ye who are cursed,
into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels”
The word “bonfire” apparently comes from the earlier word
– from the burning of animal bones in big outdoor fires.
Jerusalem had its own perpetual bonefire
it was situated just outside the city in a valley called Hinnom or Gehenna –
a sort of Dickensian Rubbish tip where constant fires burnt
consuming the corpses of dead animals and criminals
as well as all manner of rubbish.
Jewish traditions, Gehenna was thought of as the
gateway to hell –
indeed in the Gospels “Gehenna” is one of the names used for hell itself –
the eternal bonfire of the vanities
where the wicked and the impure go to destruction.
So do you believe in
hellfire and damnation?
Is that the eternal destination for those who are sinful or faithless?
Today’s lectionary readings really make us think about
these issues –
they are all about the Day of Judgement and what it involves.
Amos tells the Israelites that they are doomed –
God is going to intervene decisively in the affairs of Israel –
but that is not (as the Israelites think) Good News –
it is bad news, because the Israelites have been unfaithful to God.
“Why do you long for the Day of the Lord?” asks Amos (5:18) –
Don’t you realize it will be not be a Day of reward but a Day of dire punishment?
turning to the NT,
Jesus in Matthew’s Gospel seems to pick up a similar theme –
talking now not merely politically about the End of Israel
but cosmically about the End of the World.
Read the whole of Mt 25:
3 parables with different imagery, but a common theme -
“Beware of the coming Judgement Day lest you be found wanting”.
If you are, you will be left
· out in the dark with the foolish bridesmaids,
· with the foolish servant in the place of weeping and gnashing of teeth,
· with the goats into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels.
So do you believe in a Day of Judgement
when the righteous and faithful will be saved
and the wicked will go to eternal damnation??
On the surface that is certainly what the Bible says.
But the Bible also says that God is love –
not fairly loving, or inclined to love – but utter love with no remainder.
And how do we reconcile hell fire with a God of love?
a human father were to condemn a child to eternal torment
not in order to reform or teach the child
but simply as an everlasting and hopeless act of retribution,
we would say that person was not fit to be a parent.
Could God be such a parent?
· Could this be the God went to the cross for us?
this be the God who searches o’er crag & fen
for the 100th & final sheep when 99 are already safely gathered in? (Lk 15)
this be the Lord from whose love
neither life, nor death, nor things present nor things to come,
nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation
will separate us? (Rom 8)
And tell me - what sort of joy is the joy of heaven for
those in glory
should there be even one poor sinful child of God
left out in the dark beating on the gates and denied admission??
So let me suggest that however we understand the passages
they have to be compatible with
and not undermine the passages about God’s love.
So how do we
interpret these threats & warnings
in the Scriptures we have read today?
Think about a parent whose child is forever shouting
when there isn’t one. In the end the mother says to the child:
“You just stop doing that. Or one day there really will be a fire,
and you’ll shout out and no one will take any notice of you
and you’ll be burnt to a cinder- and that’ll be the end of you!!”
(cf John Hick, Death and Eternal Life p 249)
What is the mother saying in that story?
Is she seriously saying to her child:
“I hereby predict that unless you mend your ways
you will be burnt alive one day in the future”
not – and indeed if there really was a fire,
we know that mother wouldn’t just stand by and say
“Well I told you so – you should have listened to me sooner” -
No, we know she’d throw herself into the flames
and risk her life to save her child,
however wicked he may have been….
mother is doing when she says
“You keep doing that and you’ll be burnt to a cinder one day”
is not predicting the future,
but trying to alert her child to the gravity of his action
and guide him into the right ways –
it is a graphic warning not a prediction or conditional promise.
So when Christ speaks of fire and brimstone
and wailing and gnashing of teeth for the faithless and wicked,
he is not delivering a threat only to be averted
by their faith and righteousness –
he is alerting them to the seriousness of the situation.
you may say –
you are wriggling out of what the NT says
and interpreting it to suit your theology.
Well maybe I am – but you have to interpret one way or another –
if you are going to combine
the threat of judgement and the victorious power of God’s love.
What we can’t do is lose the core of the Gospel which is not negotiable:
“Thy sovereign grace to all extends, Immense and unconfined; ….
So wide it never passed by one, Or it had passed by me.”
(Charles Wesley, HAP 46)
So what then do we expect on the Last Day?
Will it be Heaven or Hell?
Salvation or Judgement?
Light or Darkness?
The answer I suspect for all of us will be all of these at the same time.
Someone once said that on the Day of Judgement
God will appear before us not as a bewigged judge
but as a kindly mother who will place us on her knee.
And there she will tell us what our life has been about –
and for the first time we will see fully and clearly
and without self-delusion what our life has been and what we are –
We will see clearly the face of every person
we have loved and who have been blessed through us.
And we will see clearly the face of everyone we have hurt and ignored.
And as God looks into our eyes and shows us who we are,
speaking now with joy then with deep deep sorrow,
but always with love –
That will be both our hell and our heaven.
words of Judas from “A Man Born to be
(and on Judgment Day we will all play Judas) –
“Do you know what hell fire is?
It is the light of God’s unbearable innocence
that sears and shrivels you like a flame – it shows you what you are”
imagine a time when you have hurt someone very badly.
You go to see them to confess your fault.
You stand before them, your head hanging,
awaiting their anger & rejection.
But then they say
“Its OK. Yes you have hurt me terribly
and I carry the pain with me now –
but I forgive you. I still hurt, but I still love you.”
And what do you say? You feel like saying
“Why don’t you shout at me, or hit me?
That’s what I deserve –
but this heart breaking love is almost impossible to bear”
And that is
God’s judgement -
not the judgement of his hate and rejection,
but the searing saving judgement of his almost unbearable love and acceptance.
On the Day of Judgement we will
meet our God –
not see him in a mirror dimly, but see him face to face.
And he will show us our life – warts and all.
are one of the Holy Saints,
that will be a most wonderful moment of unadulterated joy.
like the rest of us you are one of the deepest of sinners,
it will be a moment of deep remorse and shame.
Judgement Day – a day of darkness and sorrow –
It will I fear be a hard day with tears to be shed –
But fear not –
the tears are because of God’s wounded love not his anger –
and will not the Lord who once washed the feet of his disciples
kneel with us in our sorrow and gently soothe our brow?
And then, as the Scripture says (Rev 21:4),
there shall be no more death or mourning or sadness or pain,
“and he shall he wipe every tear from our eyes.” Amen.