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Last Things - Judgement

Advent 3 BCP

17 December 2006 11:00 | Fr. Roderick Leece

Even back in the early 70s the theologian Norman Pittenger recalled hearing only one sermon on death and one on judgement in many a year - and none on heaven or hell, despite all four subjects being constituent elements of the Four Last Things traditionally preached about during Advent. So he wrote a book on a subject that for decades had been out of theological fashion, with the notable exception of contributors such as Professor John Macquarrie. I was quizzed about the Four Last Things on Advent Sunday. Given today's gospel reading when John the Baptist expects a sovereign judge as Messiah, I will talk about judgement…I'm pretty sure I've preached on death during the last year - not least on Remembrance Sunday.

The Old Testament had been a gradual unfolding of God's character and purpose, and there had been plenty of time for people to form quite rigid ideas concerning the long expected Messiah. John the Baptist, as I have already said, had been preaching about the coming Messiah as one who would judge, and sort out the good and the bad with divine justice. John is so confused and perplexed that he sends to Jesus to enquire 'art thou he that should come, or do we look for another?' The answer is revealed as God's saving love both heals the sick, and gives sight to the blind.

There was an amusing comment in the recent debate about faith schools during which Bruce Anderson of The Independent wrote that the average Muslim has more in common with Philip II or John Calvin than he does with the modern Anglican…he observed that only relatively recently has fire and brimstone been abandoned in the Christian church: 'Until about 1970, the great majority of Roman Catholics were convinced that if anyone brought up in that faith were to renounce it, he would go to hell. By "hell", they meant the everlasting bonfire.
Over the past generation, all that has changed. In today's Church of England, the four last things are Oxfam, homosexuality, anti-racism and the wickedness of Margaret Thatcher.' (Bruce Anderson Independent 30th October)

In today's blame culture which passes the buck and seems to avoid a sense of responsibility it is interesting to look again at what Pittenger wrote in 1970. I quote: 'The stress on judgement in the old scheme made apparent the place of decision in human life and at the same time the responsibility that comes with decision. Having made the decisions we have made and having become what we are in consequence of those decisions (although obviously other factors have entered in as well), we cannot evade or avoid appraisal in terms of them. Who appraises is not the issue here; but that there is appraisal is plain enough.'

Another word for appraisal is, of course, judgement. 'From thence he shall come to judge both the quick and the dead'. In the presence of Christ, who is the Way the Truth and the Life, the truth of each man's relationship with God will be laid bare. The Last Judgement will reveal, to its furthest consequences, the good each person has done, or failed to do, during his time on earth. St. Augustine tells us: 'all that the wicked do is recorded, and they do not know. Jesus turns to those on his left hand…'I placed my poor little ones on earth for you…I as their head was seated in heaven at the right hand of my Father - but on earth my members were suffering, my members on earth were in need. If you gave anything to my members, what you gave would reach their Head…but if you have placed nothing in their hands; therefore you have found nothing in my presence' (Sermo 18, 4,4 PL38, 130-131 cf. Ps 50:3)

Truth coming to light is most often a relief, despite fears and worries to the contrary. I met a formerly prominent politician (who went to prison for his crimes) at a party on Friday evening, and was struck by his now relaxed and contented demeanour. Having nothing now to lose seemed to suit him fine. You also hear that criminals, after weeks of sleeplessness, rest soundly on the night they have been discovered (with the exception, perhaps, of those with an appointment on death row). It is a comfort (of a sort) for the truth to out. There is relief in getting the diagnosis of a doctor (whatever the outcome). The patient is either freed from fear, or else free to face a fact. So think how much more comfort there is for the soul to meet the judgement of God, who has no desire to condemn but rather to save. Knowing the absolute truth about ourselves, as He knows it…we are delivered from delusion, guilty fears, haunting worries. Divine justice is always cloaked in mercy and forgiveness. The punishment is our knowledge of causing hurt…to God…to others…that we have not done the best we might have done. And judgement is that we may know the truth, and in that knowledge be set free.

Judgement is whispering into the ear of a loving and merciful and kind God, the full story, the whole truth about my life which I have never been able to tell…for fear of being misunderstood, or ashamed, or due to plain ignorance about the hurt caused to others. Judgement and truth embrace.
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