Sermon for 22 Pentecost Yr B, 9/11/2003
Based on Heb 9:27-28
Grace Lutheran Church, Medicine Hat, AB
By Pastor Garth Wehrfritz-Hanson
Death, judgement, and the second coming of Jesus. On this third last Sunday of the church year, as well as on the next two Sundays, there is an increasing focus on these sort of themes—which foreshadow and prepare us for the next season of the church year, Advent. We mainline Christians tend not to dwell much on these biblical themes of death, judgement and the second coming of Jesus. So, today I’m inviting you to explore with me a little what these themes mean for us as followers of Jesus in the twenty-first century.
First then, death. The author of Hebrews says that, “it is appointed for mortals to die once.” The Good News Bible puts it like this, “Everyone must die once.” And the Revised English Bible translates it as follows, “it is our human lot to die once.” The author obviously faces and accepts the reality of death, and instructs readers of this letter to do likewise. As you know, it has often been said that there are three certainties in this life—death, taxes, and change. It seems that we humans have our difficulties dealing with all three, don’t we?! Our society and culture is a death-denying society and culture.
It seems that we do almost everything we can to deny the reality of death. It was comedian Woody Allan who about summed it up for a lot of folks, when he said: “It’s not that I’m afraid to die, I just don’t want to be there when it happens.” Mark Twain, in his usual, hard-hitting satirical, matter-of-fact, ironic way once quipped: “We owe a deep debt of gratitude to Adam, the first great benefactor of the human race: he brought death into the world.” What both Woody Allan and Mark Twain communicate here is the difficulty that our society and culture have in dealing with death.
One wonders why this is the case. One reason may be that here in North America life is too good. For many of us, we enjoy heaven on earth. If that’s the case, then why be in such a hurry to leave all that we enjoy here, right now?! We have been blessed—some would say cursed—with the highest standard of living in the world. Our consumerism and materialistic-obsessed lifestyle would have us believe that our quality of life is bound up with the power to purchase and possess goods and services. Why would people want to die and leave all of their “stuff” behind?
Another reason why we have such a time facing death is that our society and culture bows down and worships at the altar of “eternal youth.” Eternal youth has become one of the most popular false gods of our society. We see it especially in the mass media, where most of the advertisements immortalize eternal youth. One of the greatest sins of today is for a person to grow older, and reveal their grey hair and wrinkles. Someone was in a conversation with a surgeon and they asked her: “What is the most common kind of surgery you do?” The surgeon replied, “Facelifts!” The more our society and culture can hide and ghettoize the aging process and our senior population; the more they can deny the reality of death. Rather than honouring our seniors and learning from the wisdom that they have embodied through a lifetime of experiences; our society and culture ignores them, belittles them, and makes them feel that they are guilty of the unforgivable sin of growing old. I cannot count the number of seniors who have told me: “Pastor, I don’t want to be a burden to my family or anyone else.” Such a remark reflects how disenfranchised seniors really are—it is an expression of how they feel reduced to live their lives in a ghetto rather than in the midst of everyone else and continuing to make significant contributions to others.
Yet another reason why some people have such difficulty in facing death is their lack of faith in another life beyond this one. For some, this life here on earth is the only one that we’ve got—hence, we must cling onto it with all the power that we can muster. For such people, this life is not a dress rehearsal, a preparation for some better life to come. No, it is all we’ve got. Therefore, it is pointless to waste any time living in hope or dreaming of a future life. For such folks, there is no such thing as an afterlife or a heaven.
Over against all of these attempts to deny death, we as people of faith offer another counter-cultural approach to the reality of death. In faith we are able to face death, accept it, and even look forward to it with the hope of a better life beyond this one. Here we have much to learn from some of our heroes of faith. Listen to the following last recorded words of these heroes. Martin Luther said: “Our God is the God from whom cometh salvation: God is the Lord by whom we escape death.” John Knox said: “Live in Christ, live in Christ, and the flesh need not fear death.” John Calvin said: “Thou, Lord, bruisest me; but I am abundantly satisfied, since it is from Thy hand.” John Wesley said: “The best of all is, God is with us. Farewell! Farewell!” And his brother, Charles Wesley said: “I shall be satisfied with Thy likeness—satisfied, satisfied!”
In these last words, we have a deep sense of confidence that “all is well.” As Christians then we need not deny the reality of death or fear it. Rather, we can place all of our trust in Christ who is the resurrection and the life; he will see us through death, and he has promised a place for us with him in the life to come.
This leads us into the second theme of the day, judgement. The author of Hebrews tells us after death we shall face “the judgement.” Once again this is a subject that most of us don’t like to dwell too much on, we’d rather avoid it. Who really enjoys being judged, even in this life? Most people have a lot of anxiety about and dread the thought of having to go to court. Likely none of us really enjoys being called on the carpet to be confronted with the wrongs or sins that we have committed. How much more do we dread and perhaps fear the thought of facing God the All-Seeing, All-Knowing Judge, who shall set before us every single thought, word and action! Who can face up to such a Judge? However, as difficult as it might be, it is quite clear that we shall face the judgement of God; there are a number of references in the Bible to a day of judgement or a day of the Lord. Reading the various passages that address this subject of judgement, one soon realises that there are different views of it, hence, most likely, different layers of tradition.
For example, in John 9:39, Jesus says: “I came into this world for judgment so that those who do not see may see, and those who do see may become blind.” Again, in John 12:31, Jesus speaking of his life, work and imminent death says: “Now is the judgment of this world; now the ruler of this world will be driven out.” This judgment refers to the here-and-now, the present time. There is a sense that we are all being judged every day in what we do and fail to do. Here Jesus is attesting to that kind of judgement.
Then, in Mark 13, where Jesus speaks of the end times the judgment associated with this is referred to in the future, which is left open ended, without a specified time. Jesus says: “But about that day or hour no one knows, neither the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.” (Mk 13:32) In the Hebrew Bible, the prophet Amos is very sober about “the day of the LORD;” he wonders why people would desire such a day. Rather, he sees it as a day to be avoided and dreaded, he says: “Is not the day of the LORD darkness, not light, and gloom with no brightness in it?” (5:18-20) According to the prophet Zephaniah 1:14-18, the day of the LORD will bring fire and punishment on all the inhabitants of the earth. No one and nothing is able to escape it. In the New Testament there are also two very sobering stories of the future judgement and the finality of it all. In both Luke 16:19-31 and Matthew 25:31-46 the future judgement involves no negotiating or compromising or allowing for excuses regarding what one has done or failed to do in this life. We shall be held accountable for our life and, according to these passages, be rewarded or punished eternally based on the life that we have lived here in this world. Once again perhaps we would all do well to pay heed to the following words of Mark Twain: “Let us endeavour so to live that when we die even the undertaker will be sorry.” Does that mean we Christians ought to live forever in fear of God as Judge? NO! Rather, we need to balance these more sobering passages of scripture with other more comforting passages, which offer us hope and promise. For example, in 2 Corinthians 5:17, the apostle Paul says: “If any one is in Christ, s/he is a new creation; the old has passed away, behold the new has come.” And in John 14:1-3, Jesus speaks words of great comfort, hope and promise; saying that he has prepared a place for us in the life to come and, one day, will come for us to bring us there with him. Thus, in light of these passages we can balance our having to face God’s judgement and give an accounting of our lives with the hope and promise that even though we’ve failed and sinned, nonetheless we rely on Christ for forgiveness and commend our lives into his eternal care.
This leads us into our third theme of today, Christ’s second coming. Over the centuries, there have been all kinds of predictions about Christ’s second coming—all of which have been wrong. If this teaches us anything, surely it points out that we are not to waste our time concentrating on predicting when Christ shall come again. The author of Hebrews speaks of the second coming like this: “So Christ, having been offered once to bear the sins of many, will appear a second time, not to deal with sin, but to save those who are eagerly waiting for him.” As we discovered earlier Jesus himself said he didn’t know when the end times would occur. Why then have so many people supposed that they know more than Jesus himself and therefore made their predictions of Christ’s second coming? Is not such a focus due to a misreading and incorrect interpretation of the Bible? I believe that it is!
For example, a careful reading of the Bible indicates that Jesus himself at least hinted life would continue to go on for a while. When he speaks to his disciples in Matthew 28:19-20, he charges them first of all with the task of going to make disciples of all nations, and secondly, he ends with this promise: “And remember, I am with you always, to the end of the age.” Here we are definitely given the impression that it is going to take some time to make disciples of all nations, and the reassurance that Jesus is going to be with us always, would not be necessary if he were coming soon. Therefore, what this and other passages do for us as followers of Christ is to give us hope and confidence that he is with us no matter what. We need not fear the end or his coming again. Rather, we can be among those “who are eagerly waiting for him” by living freely each day and making the most of each day. In such a way, the present and future are not motivated by fear or dread; but trust and hope that our lives can make a difference for others and are well looked after by a God and Saviour who loves us, both now and forever. Amen.