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The Reverend Canon Michael Smith (Pastor)
Sunday 16 December 2018 10am
Philippians 4.4-7 & Luke 3.7-18
In the gospel reading today John the Baptist calls the crowds who were following him a ‘brood of vipers’. He talks about the ‘wrath to come’ and trees that don’t bear good fruit being chopped down and burned in the fire. He calls the people to live generously and compassionately and then again warns them that the wheat and the chaff will be separated on the threshing floor and the chaff will be burned with unquenchable fire. All of this fearsome rhetoric takes us from chapter 3.7 to chapter 3.17 and then we are told in verse 18, ‘So, with many other exhortations, he proclaimed the good news to the people’. Good news? Vipers, wrath, unquenchable fire ….. John seems to have an interesting view on what might be considered Good News!
We talk a lot about The Good News as if we know what it means! I suppose that if we took a survey of what we all thought it meant today we’d say things like;
The Good News is that God loves us.
The Good News is that Jesus takes away our sins.
The Good News is that Jesus gives us eternal life.
As ever with our beautiful and mysterious bible there is no one answer. There are many ways of talking about The Good News. The chopping down of unfruitful trees and the burning of chaff – thinly veiled images of Judgement – is this really Good News? This has got me thinking this week. After pondering these words I have concluded that, yes indeed, Judgement is good news and yes, of course, it is good news that we are called to live in a morally upright way.
You are all sitting there now thinking that I am about to launch it a good old fashioned Hell Fire and Brimstone sermon. The kind of sermon we need more of – we are constantly told by people who used to go to church! Well I am not going to preach a ‘Hell Fire and Brimstone Sermon’, but I am going to muse about the idea that Judgement is actually Good News.
Imagine spending a great deal of time and energy writing a report at work, you deliver it, on time, to your boss ……. and then you hear nothing more.
Imagine doing your homework (I know that is difficult for some!) a difficult essay or some hard sums and your teacher forgets to mark it and then loses it.
Imagine you arranged for a friend’s house to be decorated while they were on holiday and they come home and don’t even notice!
If any of these things happened you would feel pretty peeved, to say the least. You would feel that all your hard work was not valued and had been wasted.
Maybe we should stop seeing Judgement exclusively in terms of the chopping down of unfruitful trees or the burning of useless chaff and start seeing it in a more positive light. Judgement is God’s way of saying that you, and what you do, matters. It makes a difference. Judgement also a reinforces the fact that we have freewill – we have choices in life and God values each one of us so much that God is interested in the choices we make.
Ah, so Judgement is a kind of divine system of appraisal is it? If that’s the kind of language you like – then yes – why not?
The problem with the church and the subject of Judgment is that we only ever think of it in terms of the metaphors used in the bible, sheep and goats being separated, eternal sulphurous flames, the chopping down of unfruitful trees, the burning of chaff, vicious images of divine retribution unleashed when people get things wrong. The world likes things to be binary, good or bad, acceptable or unacceptable, people have to be saints or sinners. Because the bible has so much frightening imagery surrounding the idea of judgement and because there is also talk of ‘Judgement Day’ – one day in the future when the good will go to heaven and the bad will go to Hell, we all get very edgy about Judgement and people like me often try not to talk about it too much because it is uncomfortable. Imagine having your only appraisal session on the day you retire – imagine waiting until then to learn whether you were any good at your job or not! Ridiculous! Maybe we should think of everyday as Judgement Day? Every day we should assess how our life is going and reflect on our behaviour and our activity prayerfully in the presence of God. Maybe part of our prayers should be about asking ourselves, am I living in the way I should? Am I sharing my possessions? Am I taking more than my fair share? Am I bullying people? We should be aiming for the very highest standards of moral behaviour, not because we are afraid of burning in hellfire but because it’s the best, most fulfilling and sustainable way of life for us and for everyone – because it brings us closer to God. We have been given freewill as a gift from God. Imagine you give an expensive present to someone this Christmas, a brand new, expensive and shiny mobile phone, and then you watch all Christmas afternoon as the person you gave it to fiddles with it, loses the charger, spills a drink on it, scratches the screen and then drops it on the drive as they leave because they were carrying too much. That must be how God feels as he watches us misuse the great gift to of freewill. Freewill is a precious gift we should value and the giver of the gift is interested to see that we use it well.
So St Luke was right when he describes St John the Baptists exhortations about judgement as Good News. Judgement is good news because it means you matter. We are not just nameless, insignificant people. We are people loved and valued by God. The choices we make in life are important to God. The choices we make in life make a difference. If we only ever think about Judgement in terms of biblical imagery we will not get very far – we’ll stop thinking about it all – think of Judgment as a sign that you are important to God – it is another expression of God’s love.
Cardinal Basil Hume, who was the Roman Catholic Archbishop of Westminster some time ago described Judgement like this;
’Judgement is whispering into the ear of a merciful and compassionate God the story of my life which I had never been able to tell’. To be a Pilgrim’ p.228
So let us think positively about Judgement, let us give thanks for Judgement and let us ensure that we use our freewill wisely and carefully – we are accountable for the choices we make in life. Above all let us give thanks that our judge is merciful and compassionate and that our judge loves us.
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