Psalm 16; Daniel 12:1-4a; Hebrews 10:31-39; Mark 13:14-23
If you took time to read the lections for this Lord’s Day, or if you listened carefully to the day’s lessons in song and speech you may have discerned a common thread running through all of them, the theme that connects the opening verses of Daniel 12 with the tenth chapter of Hebrews and the “Little Apocalypse” in Mark 13. In their own unique ways and through images and visions and symbols apocalyptic and potentous the day’s passages warn and threaten and raise the hairs on the back of one’s neck. They tell of a coming day, a day of dread for many and of destiny for all, a coming time of judgment and of accountability, when the Lord God Almighty will bring God’s purposes for his creation and his creatures to their appointed end, the redeemed of the Lord through God’s unmerited grace will be rewarded for their faithful and sacrificial servanthood, and those who have lived for self and have spurned the ways and the will of God will receive their just desserts as well. In that day the divine scales of justice will be brought into cosmic balance and faith and faithlessness will receive the promised consequences.
In the mainline churches of this country we do not often speak of Judgment Day, the Day of the Lord, the End Times, the Parousia, the Second Coming. Oh, to be sure, there is a tip of the hat to Christ’s return early in Advent. Very soon now Advent I will return us to Luke’s apocalyptic discourse, but on the whole we are not for the most part very comfortable with or very well versed in end times talk. We modern preachers avoid it like the plague. Only reluctantly and rarely do we focus on judgment and accountability. It strikes the modern mind as rather intolerant and archaic, as something better left to the residents of earlier, less enlightened times. Or else we concede all of this talk of end times, accountability and judgment to the fanatic fringe of Christendom, and to shouting evangelists who glower through Satan-tilted eyes on late night television. No, no, mercy is our message! And if we speak of justice and judgment at all it is in decidedly earthly and political tones. Why worry or fret about eternity and Judgment Day, we ask? Why debate whether one holds pre-millennial, post-millennial, or a-millennial views? There is so much to do in the here and now, what difference does it make what we believe in the there and then? Judgment Day? Well, it seems so—judgmental! It seems so—unseemly!
Of course, it is very fashionable these days in academic and theological circles to dismiss out of hand all of this apocalyptism, to question the notion of a literal heaven and hell as the destiny of the godly and godless, to discount the very idea of a coming day of judgment and even to question the validity and value of resurrection hope and eternal life beyond the grave. But this is the prerogative of the privileged, the domain of the doctrinaire, the consolation of those who live in comfort and ease, the theological parlor games of those who have nothing to lose save their tenure and everything to gain through the publication of a new text.
But friends, if we dismiss Judgment Day, if we excise from Scripture all of those passages that speak of resurrection, of heaven and hell, of eternal life and personal accountability before the Holy One—we do so at our own peril and we lose that aspect of the faith that has sustained the people of God in days of trial and tribulation which come around inevitability for God’s people. Because make no mistake about it, apocalyptic truth, belief in resurrection and judgment and divine accountability is never more necessary or more empowering than when God’s people are being persecuted and are suffering for righteousness sake, for the very integrity of their faith. The wealthy, the healthy, the privileged, the secure, may feel no need of heaven and hell as they scoff at both. But those who live beneath the heel of oppression and poverty, of privation and persecution; not only need but happily embrace a vision of the future that offers them a promise of justice, of a coming redemption, of rescue and reward.
Now, I love to play golf and fortunately have been invited to play some spectacular courses with breathtaking views in our part of the country. This summer on a beautiful day in the mountains of North Carolina I was able to play the new Diamond Creek course designed by Tom Fazio outside of Banner Elk. The three friends in my foursome joined with me for a delightful dinner afterwards at one of my favorite restaurants. At the meal’s conclusion I joked about how wonderful the day had been and remarked that while I still hoped to go to heaven when I die, I wasn’t nearly as enthused about it as I once was! I may have been joking at the time, but the truth of the matter is that those that are living la dolce vita frequently aren’t nearly as hopeful for the bliss of heaven nor as fearful of the threat of hell as those whose lives are far less idyllic.
And so it is that in cultures of privilege and class, among elitist enclaves in academic, ecclesiastical and literary circles we can well afford to dismiss all this talk of end times, of Judgment Day, of apocalyptic cleansing, of eternal rewards and punishment. Why waste time and energy speculating about one’s eternal destiny when there is so much to be said and done in the here and now. The more enlightened and learned among us surely recognize that the biblical images about the end times are puzzling at best and disturbing at worst and can lead to all manner of theological and ethical distortions. All this may be true, but while I wouldn’t suggest that we take all of this apocalyptic imagery and insight with any kind of wooden literalism, the longer I live, the more I study, the more complex and interrelated and convoluted our world becomes, the more I am convinced of both the truth and necessity of eternal rewards and punishment, of personal resurrection and a second Advent, of divine justice and accountability for all. Indeed, apart from judgment there is little substance or shape to the hopes we entertain for ourselves and our world or to the hopes that sustain and inspire and equip us to become the people and the church that God is calling us to be.
Remove the substance of hope from our lives and life itself becomes pointless and depressing. Our ethical struggles and our moral decisions, our striving after justice, compassion and peace, our pursuit of truth and beauty and integrity are pointless if this life is all there is, if God doesn’t balance the scales and achieve his divine and sovereign will for the creation and its creatures, if God doesn’t finally reward good and annihilate evil. And that, I believe, is what the biblical writers are trying to communicate through their apocalyptic warnings and promises.
Paul the apostle was on target when he wrote to the Corinthians that if our hope in Christ is for this life alone we are of all people the most to be pitied (I Corinthians 15:19). Earlier he had spoken of God’s great and enduring gifts of faith, hope and love. Love may be the greatest gift, as Paul concludes, but hope is surely the most essential for the living of these days. We can exist without love; we can function without faith; but living without some semblance of hope for this life or the next is well-nigh impossible.
The Lord assured Daniel and his peers and through them the faithful in Israel during the terror-filled days of persecution under Antiochus IV Epiphanes in the second century before Christ, that the faithful would be raised to everlasting life where they would shine like the stars forever. There would be deliverance for the righteous, if not in this life, then in the next and God’s people took courage and as a result, stood their ground, as had the faithful in Babylonian exile. And in Hebrews generations later the writer calls upon the faithful in the face of trial and adversity to persevere because their struggles and their suffering would not be in vain. He encourages them to be confident and to endure for they will ultimately receive their reward.
When times are tough, when faith puts us at odds with our culture, when complex issues divide us in nation and in church, when the future seems bleak and threatening, when fears frighten and paralyze us, we need the good news of God’s coming judgment. Yes, you heard me right. God’s judgment is good news, gospel. God’s settling of accounts for the righteous and the unrighteous is what enables us to do what is right in the face of wrong, to stand for the things of God against the world’s principalities and powers, and to act with courage and conviction as the children of God.
“It is a fearful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” says the writer to the Hebrews. That may well be true, but far more fearful is the thought of having no living God into whose hands one might fall.
Now I know, critics of this idea of apocalyptic judgment, of an eternity spent with or apart from God, say that the doctrine is manipulative and self-serving, that it causes its practitioners to do the right thing out of fear of hell or because of the promise of eternal rewards. But the doctrines of judgment and eternal life and death, do neither. The doctrine of the resurrection to eternal life, of divine judgment and accountability, serves rather as a comfort to those who suffer for righteousness sake, and as an incentive to the faithful, not as a tit for tat kind of works righteousness but as a promise that God cares and notices when we act in faith.
John Polkinghorne, Anglican priest and mathematical physicist at Cambridge has a provocative little devotional book for Advent that I would commend to you. It is entitled Living With Hope (A Scientist Looks at Advent, Christmas and Epiphany). He relates in his book a wonderful illustration from Peter Berger (A Rumour of Angels):
“A child wakes up in the night frightened by a bad dream and a parent who goes to comfort the child says, “It’s all right.” Berger asks us to consider what is happening. Is the parent uttering a loving lie? For after all, a world with cancer and concentration camps in it looks very far from “all right” in any straight forward sense. Yet, Berger claims, and I agree with him, that the reassurance the parent utters is not a deception, but a true insight that is vital for the child to receive in its growing up into human maturity. In other words, there is a profound human conviction that ultimately all will be well, a belief that is a sign of the stirring of a deep hope within us.”
And my friends, if there is not a day of accountability and judgment, on what possible grounds can we dare to believe or confess that “it’s all right,” whether we are six or sixty. Apart from the justice and judgment of God we are left, not with hope, but with mere optimism or wishful thinking which are far different matters altogether. Yes, my friends, the judgment of God for you and for me and for all others is, rightly understood, gospel or good news.
And finally, judgment is good news not only because of the comfort it provides when conviction and courage are costly but because it frees us to act, leaving the consequences to our God. Another way of saying this is that it keeps us from unraveling our shorts. Did he just say what I thought he said? you’re asking yourself. Let me explain. One day a few years ago I noticed a thread hanging out of the pocket of my shorts. I should have cut it, but I didn’t, I proceeded to pull it . . . and pull it . . . and pull it. I was intrigued at how the string became longer and longer until I noticed that the hole in the front of my shorts was enlarging at the same rate as the thread leaving my pocket. For me it became a parable of sorts. Just consider all the complex, interrelated issues before us as a nation and as a people of faith—the liberation and democratization of Iraq, Palestinian and Israeli claims on the land we call holy, the ordination of gay and lesbian persons, global warming, nuclear proliferation, NAFTA, transnationals and transsexuals, AIDS, poverty, vouchers for public education, tariffs for U.S. steel producers, partial birth abortion, national health care, urban blight, medical malpractice, civil rights, etc., etc., etc. And the problem so often in trying to take a position or work toward solutions is that ordinarily we can neither understand nor see the full ramifications of any decision we make. In other words, we cannot know in advance what good or evil will come from any act, faithful or faithless.
Last month in Richmond, Virginia at Union Theological Seminary’s Carl Howie Center for Science, Art and Theology there was a conference entitled “For What Can We Hope (Toward Justice and Harmony in the Global Society)”. Dr. Douglas Ottati, Pemberton Professor or Theology at Union addressed the conference on the complexities of our interrelated interactive existence. We can hardly see or control the consequences of some stand or some action, be it righteous or unrighteous. We haven’t the capacity to see the good that may derive from some evil act or the evil that might flow as a consequence of some act of compassion or courage. Ottati has an intriguing example that comes right out of the nexus of this city’s political and religious convictions. He asked as an example:
“Should the United States and other wealthy nations eliminate the agricultural subsidies that they pay to their own producers? Possibly, although it may be difficult to predict all the relevant consequences. Some argue that the elimination of subsidies will aid farmers in poorer nations. Others contend that simple elimination will make poorer nations more attraction to big Agri-businesses, thus bringing further damage to the environment and also reducing the already meager prospects of peasant farmers.”
So how can one know or predict the full and final ramifications of one’s actions? One cannot. And thus our options are to do nothing, to be paralyzed in fear and uncertainty, which has its own consequences, or else we may choose to make the most informed and faithful decision we can with the information available and leave the results to the One who we believe will use the best and worst of our decisions to accomplish God’s sovereign will in God’s time and manner. Thus are we liberated, to do our very best in our time and to live in the hope that God will bring his purposes to fruition despite our worst or our best efforts.
Our hope, you see, is in God alone, not in ourselves, not in our political party, not in our nation, not in our denomination or religion. Our confidence is in God’s future and that colors how we live in the present.
I would close with a philosophical parable that comes from John Hick, Philosopher of Religion and Theologian at Claremont School of Religion. His parable is entitled “The Road”.
Two men are traveling together along a road. One of them believes that it leads to the Celestial City, the other that it leads nowhere; but since this is the only road there is, both must take it. Neither has been this way before; therefore, neither is able to say what they will find around the next corner. During their journey they meet with moments of refreshment and delight and with moments of hardship and danger. All the time one of them thinks of his journey as a pilgrimage to the Celestial City. He interprets the pleasant parts as encouragements and the obstacles as trials of his purpose and lessons in endurance, prepared by the king of that city and designed to make him a worthy citizen of the place when at last he arrives. The other, however, believes none of this, and sees their journey as an unavoidable and aimless ramble. Since he has no choice in the matter, he enjoys the good and endures the bad. For him there is no Celestial City to be reached, no all-e