“THE FIRE OF JUDGEMENT” –
a sermon for THE 2ND Sunday of advent
A sermon preached at
Top left: Winnowing
wheat in Palestine Bottom Left: Westboro Baptist Church members picket a funeral
Words of John the Baptist, talking about the coming Christ:
fork is in his hand,
and he will clear his threshing floor and gather his wheat into the barn,
but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire." (Mt 3:12)
have seen recent news coverage
about the Rev Fred Phelps and his Westboro Church in Kansas.
difficult to find much of the Gospel
in the activities of Pastor Phelps’ flock.
The congregation picket American military funerals displaying signs such as
“Thank God for Dead Soldiers” and “God Is Your Enemy.”
We can only imagine the effect that must have on the mourners.
The church was recently ordered to pay a Baltimore family
$11 million in damages for picketing their soldier son's funeral.
Why the hateful slogans?
Phelps and his followers believe that US military deaths
are divine retribution for tolerating homosexuality.
Indeed, any calamity that befalls America,
including 9/11 and Hurricane Katrina,
is seen as a sign of the Almighty's anti-gay wrath.
Church members, even the children, trample flags,
chant hate messages and wave signs saying
“God Hates You”, “God Is Your Enemy” and “Your Pastor Is a Whore.”
– whilst gay members of the local community are condemned
as “evil beasts” who are “going to hell forever”
I hope I don’t even need to
say that such activities
are a total distortion of the Christian Gospel.
But for the record –
and for any here who are new to the Christian faith:
our God is a God of love, not hate,
and he loves all his children, regardless of their nationality,
their politics or their sexual orientation.
God is love –
and whatever we understand by the “unquenchable fire” of judgement,
it has to be seen as a part, a sub-set, of his essential being -
a outworking of love, not hate.
Imagine if you will a social worker visiting a family –
mother, father and three small children –
in response to anxious calls from neighbours.
The parents tell the social worker
that their children have been wicked and disobedient,
and so they are now locked permanently in the cellar.
Each day the parents go down to take them enough food to keep alive
and each day they beat them and leave them in the dark.
The social worker is appalled and asks why they do this –
Even if the children were that wicked,
how would this regime of deprivation and torture
help them reform their ways?
Oh, the parents say,
we do not punish them to help them improve –
they have had their chance, and there is no way back for them now -
we punish them simply to satisfy
our sense of justice and as an act of vengeance.
We know of course what would happen in such a situation:
the children would be immediately removed from the house,
and a process begun to bring the parents to court
on charges of gross neglect and cruelty.
Such behaviour is totally
unacceptable for a human parent –
even in our sinful and flawed society
we do not allow parents to do such things.
And yet, amazingly, there
are still those
who paint a picture of our loving Heavenly Father
as just such a vengeful and sadistic parent -
who throws his children into eternal hellfire
as an act of justice and vengeance.
This is no God of love –
and such flames of vengeance can be no part of our creed.
So then, how do we deal
with our text today –
which says how God will
“gather his wheat into the barn,
but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire"?
How do we deal with these and other passages
about the fires of hell, and the flames of judgement,
without losing sight of the infinite love and mercy of God?
We cannot ignore judgement and write it out the
That would be to make God a sentimentalist
who winked at evil and turned a blind eye to evil & corruption
and no longer stood for truth & justice.
BUT – and this is the key point –
the fire of a loving God
is and must be creative and redemptive,
not vengeful and sadistic.
It is the
difference between the forest fire
which simply destroys all in its path,
and the refiner’s fire, which purges and purifies.
And if I am to fulfil my potential as a complete human
full of love and joy and peace and justice,
then all that is less than loving, joyful, peaceful and just
must be purged –
I need to be like a piece of ore dug out of the ground,
put into the furnace until the pure metal alone remains.
writes to the Corinthians, (1 Cor 3:13-15)
our work will be tested by fire –
and some things we have built will survive the fire
like gold and silver in the furnace –
others will be destroyed –
The one who suffers much in the fire
“will suffer loss, though he himself will be saved,
but only as through fire.”
And this is the fire of judgement –
painful and searing and yet ultimately liberating and creative….
Or, to use the image of today’s passage –
if we are to be wholesome wheat,
the stuff of the bread of life in all its fullness,
we need to allow the chaff –
the worthless coating around the divine image within us –
to be taken off and thrown in the fire –
so that what remains is good and wholesome.
Some people understand the separating of the wheat and the
as God separating two kinds of people -–
the wheat are the saved
(and the people who see it this way
tend to identify themselves with the wheat) -
the saved who are placed in the heavenly storehouse;
whilst the chaff are the damned who are thrown into the fire.
I don’t see it that way.
I reckon we all grow as one head of corn - wheat and chaff together –
and for every one of us there is in need to strip away
that which is worthless and offer to God what is wholesome –
We will all know the fire and we will all know the granary –
we will all know hell and we will all know heaven.
I guess we have all been fascinated by the Panamanian Canoist –
the guy who disappeared 5 years ago
and was pronounced dead in 2003,
but appears to have been photographed with his wife
in Panama last year.
As far as we can tell,
it is an amazing story of deception and subterfuge –
but now it seems he is going to have to face up
to the reality of his past deeds and present situation.
Whether he knew it or not,
as he walked into that police station,
the process began which would lead inevitably
to the stripping away of all the pretence and subterfuge and charade
which had marked the last five years.
And when we walk into the presence of God,
we know that in that meeting, all our past life
(however well hidden we may have kept it from public view,
or even from our own view)
all our life will be brought out into the light
of God’s holiness and truth and love.
will that feel? Well,
you have lived a holy and saintly life,
the coming into the presence of God
will be an overwhelmingly affirming and warming experience –
yes, all you have valued and worked for in this life
will be fulfilled in God’s presence…
· But if we have lived a shallow,
selfish and thoughtless life,
how will we feel seeing that life laid bare before God?
How do we feel when he shows the nail prints
and the scars and says “You hammer this nail, and this one …”
– for insomuch as you did it to one of these you did it to me –
and how then will we feel when he says
“But I forgive you, I love you,
I have always loved you and you are safe now with me”
And “Oh my child, there is more rejoicing in heaven
over one sinner who repents than over 99 righteous….”
And as we feel the wounds we made,
& feel the burning shame and remorse,
and yet at the same moment feel our Lord’s loving arms around us
and see his tears of joy, tell me -
Is that hell or heaven or hell? -
Is that salvation or judgement?
It is of course both.
It is the searing fire of remorse, repentance and regret,
and yet in the same moment the wonderful moment of liberation
when we feel our newly recognized sins forgiven
and our burden fall from us and rise up to be with God..
So this advent-tide,
let us look for the coming of the Christ.
And let us never fear the fire.
Let us enter the furnace of his love,
There at its heart, where the heat is greatest,
shall we find the Son of Man alongside us –
laughing and smiling
and leading us to life eternal.
ORDER OF SERVICE
10.30 a.m. Morning Worship led by Rev Andrew Sails
Organ: “Wachet Auf”- JS Bach
“Nun komm, der Heiden
Heiland” - Dietrich Buxtehude -
Noels – Claude Balbastre:
(1) À la Venue de Noël
(2) Joseph est bien marié
Hymn "Sarah's God" (Tune HAP 452 “Leoni”)
Barbara Moss in “Shine On Star of Bethlehem” 2001 © Barbara Moss CCLI 58752
All Age Ministry – John Wiseman
Hymn SOF 640 “You shall go out with joy”
You shall go out with joy
and be led forth with peace,
And the mountains and the hills shall break forth before you.
There'll be shouts of joy and the trees of the field
Shall clap, shall clap their hands.
And the trees of the field shall clap their hands (x
And you'll go out with joy.
The Peace Leader: Let us share the peace
Adults: The peace of the Lord be with you
Children: And also with you
Leader: Go in peace
[Young people leave for their own sessions]
Lighting of the 2nd Advent Candle
One candle in the darkness brings hope; the second is to remind us of the prophets who believed in God during dark days & looked forward to the coming of God’s chosen one.
See, your God comes; then shall the eyes of the blind be opened & the ears of the deaf be unstopped. Then shall the lame leap for joy and the tongue of the dumb shall shout aloud!
God of promise, we thank you for those who, since time began, have trusted your word. Let us be ready to see you, listening for your good news so that we may dance and sing our way into the Kingdom. The Lord hears our prayer.
Thanks be to God. Amen.
Reading: Matthew 3:1-12 (p. 967)
Hymn 236 “Hark, what a sound”
Sermon “The Refiner’s Fire” - Andrew Sails
Hymn “How firm a foundation” (Tune HAP 9 St Denio)
How firm a
foundation, ye saints of the Lord,
Is laid for your faith in his excellent word;
What more can he say than to you he hath said,
You, who unto Jesus for refuge have fled?
Fear not, he
is with thee, O be not dismayed,
For he is thy God and will still give thee aid;
He’ll strengthen and help thee, and cause thee to stand
Upheld by his righteous, omnipotent hand.
the deep waters I call thee to go,
The rivers of woe shall not thee overflow;
For I will be with thee, thy troubles to bless,
And sanctify to thee thy deepest distress.
fiery trials thy pathways shall lie,
My grace, all sufficient, shall be thy supply;
The flame shall not hurt thee; I only design
Thy dross to consume, and thy gold to refine.
The soul that
on Jesus has leaned for repose,
I will not, I will not desert to its foes;
That soul, though all hell should endeavour to shake,
I’ll never, no never, no never forsake.
(Richard Keen c.1787)
Prayers and Lord’s Prayer
Leader: …….Lord, hear our prayer
People (sing) Bless the Lord, my soul,
and bless God’s holy name
Bless the Lord, my soul,
who leads me into life.
[© Taize Community NHAWS 381 Calamus Licence 1613]
Hymn 238 “I cannot tell”
Organ Voluntary: “Fiat Lux” - Théodore Dubois