In the Catholic tradition of the church, that is, in the Roman tradition and the Anglican tradition, preachers often used the four Sunday s of Advent to explore what are called The Four Last Things; that is Death, Judgement, Hell and Heaven. There are several reasons for doing this. One reason is that every person alive knows that one day they will die. Death is very hard to understand. We want to know what happens to us when we stop breathing and our body is buried or otherwise returned to the elements from which it is made, earth to earth, ashes to ashes, dust to dust.
Over the centuries the teachers in the church have used the scriptures, the traditions of the church and their own intelligence to try and find an explanation which is simple, truthful and comforting. St Paul wrote that “whatever was written in former days was written for our instruction, so that by steadfastness and by the encouragement of the scriptures we might have hope.” In the letters he wrote Paul took his own advice; whenever he spoke of death, judgement, hell and heaven he encouraged the people of God to trust God, to follow Christ and to live lives giving glory to God and gaining the respect of other people.
Today, as we think about judgment, we’ll begin with the Old Testament. From the very beginning we read that God is a God of judgement, punishing wickedness and rewarding faithfulness. When Adam and Eve ate the forbidden fruit, God shut them out of the Garden of Eden. When Abraham was prepared to sacrifice his only son Isaac as a burnt offering, God rewarded his obedience by making him the father of many nations. Every day God watched his people, judging all their actions, testing their obedience and giving curses or blessings as they deserved it. It sounds as if God was some sort of policeman, judge, jury and executioner all rolled into one.
This is not true of course, because God has a future and a hope for his people. The prophets spoke of the Day of the Lord when all wickedness and horror would be swept away and God would replace the human rulers of the world with a kingdom of peace and justice. In our reading from Isaiah today, the prophet says that God will take one of King David’s descendants and “The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him, the spirit of wisdom and understanding, the spirit of counsel and might, the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord. His delight shall be in the fear of the Lord. He shall not judge by what his eyes see, or decide by what his ears hear; but with righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth; he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.” Isaiah was talking about a human king in a real city, Jerusalem and a real earthly kingdom. Other nations, who did not have the Lord as their God, could only look on with amazement and wonder. Israel would be the perfect kingdom and other nations would have to learn from them. This was the end of God’s judgement; this was the future for God’s people. God establishes his perfect kingdom and the Nations would compare themselves to this perfection and pass judgement on themselves.
Between the Old Testament and the New Testament big changes took place. Alexander the Great came sweeping through from Macedonia to India, establishing an empire which gave Israel a new language, Greek, and new ideas from the Greek philosophers and teachers.
Into this exciting new period of history came John the Baptist and Jesus of Nazareth. John surprised people by saying, “the kingdom of heaven has come near.” God’s kingdom was breaking in to the world of the living and the dead. God was starting to turn the whole world into his perfect kingdom. In the letter of St Paul to the Romans, Paul states quite clearly that the Gentiles are to be as much a part of God’s kingdom as the children of Israel. In fact, John the Baptist warns the children of Israel that it is useless to say, “We have Abraham as our father.” because God can turn stones into his children.” Anybody can be a child of God.
And, says John, they can choose to be part of God’s kingdom. “Repent!” says John, “Prepare the way of the Lord.” Get ready for the coming kingdom because it is already here! The kingdom of God is not a worldly kingdom, but a kingdom of the Spirit of God, a kingdom of the heart and of the mind, a kingdom of the soul. If you like, it is a kingdom of the conscience. And more surprisingly, if the kingdom of heaven is breaking into the world, then judgement has already begun. The axe is lying at the root of the trees, fruitful trees are spared and barren trees are burned.
When we realise the hope and promise of God’s kingdom and compare that to our own lives we are called to judge between God’s kingdom and our own behaviour. God judges us simply by being God. When we look at someone like Nelson Mandela and how they have lived we find ourselves thinking, “What have I done in my life? Have I done anything to match such a man?” We might even find ourselves asking, “How can I change my life to make it better; how can I make an impact of the world?” If we did that, then we would be judging ourselves by the standards of Nelson Mandela. Nelson Mandela’s life stands in judgement over the lives of other national leaders.
John the Baptist was proclaiming the arrival of something far greater than Nelson Mandela, someone so powerful that I am not worthy to carry his sandals. To see him is to be filled with a desire to follow him, to catch the fire of his love and live according to the Holy Spirit.
He will shake up our lives like a farmer tosses the wheat into the air. All that is good and worthy within us will survive like the grain, but the chaff, the husks of the wheat, will be blown away and burned in the fire, destroyed as if it had never existed.
This is the judgement which John the Baptist is proclaiming, a judgement which, if we choose, leads to everlasting life, but if we reject it, will lead to an eternity of grief and regret. It is a judgement, a choice which we have until we die and come face to face with Christ. St Paul told the Corinthians, “At present we see indistinctly, as in a mirror, but then face to face. At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known.”
And what will that final judgement be like? Paul is saying that we cannot see beyond our own death, except that we will be in the arms of God, our God of justice and holiness, our God of mercy and steadfast love. We know that in Jesus, God was reconciling the world to himself and through his death we are saved. We know that Christ’s resurrection is the promise of our own. And, because of that, I am prepared to trust God, because in Christ all fear of death is taken away.