Sunday, July 20, 2008

Proper 11 Year A July 20, 2008

Matthew 13:24-30,36-43

Jesus put before the crowd another parable: "The kingdom of heaven may be compared to someone who sowed good seed in his field; but while everybody was asleep, an enemy came and sowed weeds among the wheat, and then went away. So when the plants came up and bore grain, then the weeds appeared as well. And the slaves of the householder came and said to him, `Master, did you not sow good seed in your field? Where, then, did these weeds come from?' He answered, `An enemy has done this.' The slaves said to him, `Then do you want us to go and gather them?' But he replied, `No; for in gathering the weeds you would uproot the wheat along with them. Let both of them grow together until the harvest; and at harvest time I will tell the reapers, Collect the weeds first and bind them in bundles to be burned, but gather the wheat into my barn.'"

Then he left the crowds and went into the house. And his disciples approached him, saying, "Explain to us the parable of the weeds of the field." He answered, "The one who sows the good seed is the Son of Man; the field is the world, and the good seed are the children of the kingdom; the weeds are the children of the evil one, and the enemy who sowed them is the devil; the harvest is the end of the age, and the reapers are angels. Just as the weeds are collected and burned up with fire, so will it be at the end of the age. The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Then the righteous will shine like the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Let anyone with ears listen!"

Sermon

It’s an odd thing, but most Christians today really don’t like to talk about hell.

We like to accentuate the positive, and hell is certainly not a positive place. But how can we avoid talking about it when Christ preached about hell 22 times?

John F. MacArthur, in his book Ashamed of the Gospel relates this:

“One survey of evangelical seminary students revealed that:

  • Nearly half—46 percent—felt preaching about hell to unbelievers is in “poor taste.”
  • Worse yet, three out of every ten self-professed “born again” people surveyed believe “good” people will go to heaven when they die—even if they’ve never trusted Christ.
  • One in every ten evangelicals say they believe the concept of sin is outmoded.”

So whatever happened to our concept of hell? Research shows that only 32 percent of Americans believe that hell is a real place of torment. Is hell passé?

In today’s gospel lesson, Jesus talks about the sons of the evil one being thrown into a fiery furnace at the end of the world. This is a reference to the fires of Gehenna, also referred to in the book of Revelation as the “lake of fire”. Gehenna was different that Sheol, a place where the dead pretty much just hang out waiting for the final judgment. Gehenna was actually a name of a garbage dump outside of Jerusalem. There were fires there constantly, burning the garbage of the city. They never went out. Jesus used it as an illustration of what would happen to those who reject God at the time of the last judgment.

Some biblical scholars feel that Gehenna is an actual place of fiery torment; others speculate that it is a symbolic metaphor for eternal separation from God. But whatever we believe about the nature of the punishment that is to come to those who reject God, we cannot deny that Jesus himself said that there would be such a punishment. Martin Luther said, “What hell is, we know not; only this we know, that there is such a sure and certain place.”

Once we come to such a conclusion, we often ask ourselves why a God of love would send anyone to such a place as Jesus described.

James Packer, in his book Your Father Loves You, says this:

Why do men shy away from the thought of God as a judge? Why do they feel unworthy of him? The truth is that part of God’s moral perfection is his perfection in judgment. Would a God who did not care about the difference between right and wrong be a good and admirable being? Would a God who put no distinction between the beasts of history, the Hitlers and Stalins (if we dare use names), and his own saints be morally praiseworthy and perfect? Moral indifference would be an imperfection in God, not a perfection. And not to judge the world would be to show moral indifference. The final proof that God is a perfect moral being, not indifferent to questions of right and wrong, is the fact that he has committed himself to judge the world.

It is clear that the reality of divine judgment must have a direct effect on our view of life. If we know that retributive judgment faces us at the end of the road, we shall not live as otherwise we would. But it must be emphasized that the doctrine of divine judgment, and particularly of the final judgment, is not to be thought of primarily as a bogeyman, with which to frighten men into an outward form of conventional righteousness. It has its frightening implications for godless men, it is true; but its main thrust is as a revelation of the moral character of God, and an imparting of moral significance to human life.

There will be a judgment. To deny that would mean that God would be not have placed much importance on what we do or do not do. It would negate the whole necessity of the sacrifice of God’s only son to save us from such a fate. What would be the point of Jesus’ death on the cross if God were just going to say, “oh all right…you can come in anyway!”?

Anglican Bishop J.D. Ryle said,

A flood of false doctrine has lately broken in upon us. Men are beginning to tell us “that God is too merciful to punish souls for ever...that all mankind, however wicked and ungodly...will sooner or later be saved.” We are to embrace what is called “kinder theology,” and treat hell as a pagan fable...This question lies at the very foundation of the whole Gospel. The moral attributes of God, His justice, His holiness, His purity, are all involved in it. The Scripture has spoken plainly and fully on the subject of hell... If words mean anything, there is such a place as hell. If texts are to be interpreted fairly, there are those who will be cast into it...The same Bible which teaches that God in mercy and compassion sent Christ to die for sinners, does also teach that God hates sin, and must from His very nature punish all who cleave to sin or refuse the salvation He has provided.

God knows that I never speak of hell without pain and sorrow. I would gladly offer the salvation of the Gospel to the very chief of sinners. I would willingly say to the vilest and most profligate of mankind on his deathbed, “Repent, and believe on the Lord Jesus Christ, and thou shalt be saved.” But God forbid that I should ever keep back from mortal man that scripture reveals a hell as well as heaven...that men may be lost as well as saved.

Jesus’ death on the cross is the most incontrovertible proof of the existence of a final judgment; without that judgment, there would be no need for salvation.

So what are we to do with our knowledge of the reality of hell? Do we rush about, pointing fingers, telling people to get to church or they will go to hell? Do we spend our time telling sinners that they will burn if they do not become Christians?

Critics of Christianity often call it a religion of fear, as if we have all become Christians because we are afraid of going to hell. But I have to wonder how many people become Christians because of the fear of hell. While Christians who were polled by ChristiaNet.com came in with a 95% belief in the existence of hell, if the first number I quoted, that of the number of Americans who believe in hell, is any indication, the number of people who have become Christians because of the fear of hell is probably a fairly low number. I believe, though, that that number probably rises the closer people come to the end of their lives.

My personal reason for becoming a Christian had nothing to do with fear of an afterlife in hell. My concern was more for my life here and now. If Christianity had nothing more to offer than an escape from hell, it wouldn’t be much of a way of life, would it? And really, why would anyone choose to believe in God because of the threat of an afterlife that they could choose NOT to believe in instead? Reading anecdotal accounts of people who have turned from Christianity to atheism, it’s often because of the doctrine of hell. People would rather not believe in God at all so that they can avoid believing in hell as well. One could easily say that atheism is religion of fear: fear of a belief in hell.

But, as Christians, we know that Christianity is more than an escape route from hell. It is the way we, as humans, can become whole again. It is the only way we can repair the damage that sin does to our lives and the damage we do to those we love. It is all about raising us above ourselves, not keeping us from falling lower than we are.

The only motivation that hell should have for Christians today is to encourage them to spread the gospel freely among family and friends. It’s impossible to motivate people to believe through fear, yet our fear for their fate should be one of our motivating factors.

When you read today’s gospel lesson, you’ll see that God does not give us the responsibility of judging who will end up in hell…it is reserved for the angels to gather up those who will be cast into the fiery furnace. The primary message we need to bear to the world is that God loves us and that he has provided a way for us to be with him in heaven someday through the sacrifice of his Son. People who are ready for what the gospel has to offer will crave that message.

Jesus used the imagery of seeds and sowers very wisely. We can only spread the seed. The Holy Spirit provides the water and light that helps the seed to grow. We can only be the means of distributing that seed. We are not the ones to decide how well it is growing and where it will end up, as our gospel lesson illustrates. We can’t tell which is the rocky ground, the hard path or the good soil. We can only spread the seed and trust God to do the rest.

Sunday, July 6, 2008

Proper 9 Year A July 6, 2008

Matthew 11:16-19, 25-30

Jesus said to the crowd, "To what will I compare this generation? It is like children sitting in the marketplaces and calling to one another,

`We played the flute for you, and you did not dance;

we wailed, and you did not mourn.'

For John came neither eating nor drinking, and they say, `He has a demon'; the Son of Man came eating and drinking, and they say, `Look, a glutton and a drunkard, a friend of tax collectors and sinners!' Yet wisdom is vindicated by her deeds."

At that time Jesus said, "I thank you, Father, Lord of heaven and earth, because you have hidden these things from the wise and the intelligent and have revealed them to infants; yes, Father, for such was your gracious will. All things have been handed over to me by my Father; and no one knows the Son except the Father, and no one knows the Father except the Son and anyone to whom the Son chooses to reveal him.

"Come to me, all you that are weary and are carrying heavy burdens, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and humble in heart, and you will find rest for your souls. For my yoke is easy, and my burden is light."

Sermon

The image of a yoke is often used in the Bible to indicate servitude and bondage. In today’s gospel reading, Jesus talks about his yoke being easy and his burden light. In contrast with the pharisaical law, what Jesus offered must have seemed very light indeed.

The Pharisees had developed a system of 613 different laws, including 365 negative commands and 248 positive laws. To follow all of these laws to the letter was a very heavy burden indeed.

By contrast, Jesus offered two laws: love the Lord your God with all your heart and with all your soul and with all your mind and love your neighbor as yourself. This must have seemed like being free indeed to the law-burdened Jewish people.

So why do we make such a heavy burden out of following Christ?

One of the most dangerous fallacies that followers of Christ fall into is legalism, that is, the tendency to focus on the mechanism of faith rather than the substance.

Throughout the history of our faith, certain beliefs and practices have drawn criticism as being too legalistic, including:

  • Fasting
  • Keeping the Sabbath
  • Not dancing, playing cards or drinking
  • Belief that the King James Version of the Bible is the only valid version
  • The use of statuary in the church
  • The belief that the only way to pray is in tongues and only those that do are true believers

Yet this has been going on since the very beginning of Christianity. Christian schools in the 2nd century commonly instructed the believer to wear only white clothing, sell their musical instruments, to stop sleeping on a soft pillow and to not eat white bread, shave their beards or to take warm baths. The list has had additions and subtractions over the years.

All of these restrictions observed by various denominations all focus on the mechanism of faith rather than the substance. They turn what was meant to be freedom from observing a suppressive law into yet a new suppressive law. We lose our freedom in Christ and our yoke is no longer easy or light.

We may be patting ourselves on the back at this point, saying, “We don’t do any of this.” I hate to tell you, but being an Episcopalian can bring its own special brand of legalism.

For instance, when I was first attending this church, I read a book called Introduction to the Episcopal Church. In it, there were some rules about how to take communion, including the fact that you should not eat anything before taking communion, which would be rather a burden for someone with problems with their blood sugar who happened to enjoy attending a later morning service. In addition, the book instructed that you should never let the host touch your teeth after it was placed in your mouth…it was supposed to dissolve slowly on the tongue. I find that rule impossible to keep when singing in the choir: I simply cannot wait for the host to dissolve on my tongue because I have to return to the choir and sing the anthem before that could possibly happen. I have to chew and swallow. There seems to be no good reasons for these rules, but I imagine at some point someone thought there was a good reason. And that is the true mark of legalism: following a rule because it is there, even if it no longer makes sense, much as that often repeated story about the woman who cut the end off the ham, because her mother always had done it, only to find when her mother was asked why she cut it off, it was because her mother had always done it. And when grandma was asked why she cut off the end of the ham, she said it was because her roasting pan was too small to fit the ham unless she cut off the end.

We also have a tendency to cling fairly rigidly to our liturgy. Some of our churches insist that the 1928 prayer book is the only valid prayer book. Part of the reason is that liturgy that is familiar can be very comforting in a world of rapidly changing technology, morals and values. But that very familiarity can become dull and uninspiring, leading our thoughts not to God, but to mental listing of what is needed to buy at the grocery store or if it’s time to change the oil in our cars.

But apart from the unique legalism of being an Episcopalian, we also create our own private legalism. We wonder how long we should pray, how much we should pray, what words we should use when we pray.

Should we read the Bible every day? How much of it should we read? Should we attend church every Sunday, or can we miss some Sundays? Should we take communion every Sunday, or is it okay not to have a Eucharist every Sunday? By focusing on such questions, it’s very easy to forget why we are in church to begin with.

Charles Spurgeon, that most famous of 19th century preachers, wrote:

“I have found, in my own spiritual life, that the more rules I lay down for myself, the more sins I commit. The habit of regular morning and evening prayer is one which is indispensable to a believer’s life, but the prescribing of the length of prayer, and the constrained remembrance of so many persons and subjects, may gender unto bondage, and strangle prayer rather than assist it.”

We want to do the right thing, so we try to conform ourselves to some sort of discipline. Yet in conforming to that discipline, we often lose the very reason why we are doing what we are doing in the first place. Bible study and prayer are both wonderful and essential to the believer who wants to deepen his or her relationship with God. But when we force ourselves to study and pray when we can’t give all your attention to it, we lose the joy of study and prayer, it becomes burdensome. We feel guilty when we can’t follow the rigid course we laid down for ourselves. We can tell ourselves we aren’t “good Christians” so it becomes easier, as Charles Spurgeon noted, to sin since we are already convinced we are not that good at being Christians anyway.

The flip side of the legalism coin can cause us to place too much emphasis on what we do to please God in comparison to what others do.

In searching out articles on legalism online, I came across an interesting blog called The Shepherd’s Scrapbook. One of the posters on this blog, who goes by the user name of Spurgeon, said this about legalism:

“Legalism is the damning lie that says God’s pleasure and joy in me is dependent upon my obedience.

It is legalism that causes the Pharisee to look proudly into the sky in the presence of a tax collector. It is legalism that causes a missionary in Africa to think God is more pleased with him than the Christian businessman in America. And it is legalism that causes the preacher behind the pulpit to think God is more pleased with him than the tatooed Christian teenager sitting in the back row.”

We need to be aware of our tendency to fall into legalism as we try to live our lives as Christ would have us live them. Our focus should be not what we (or others) do in church or the world, but why we do what we do. Jesus said, “I have come that they may have life, and have it to the full.” By putting our focus on Christ and listening to the direction of the Holy Spirit, we can prevent ourselves from placing too much emphasis on the mechanisms of our faith and can rediscover the joy that awaits us as we discover the abundant life that Christ promises us. F. F. Bruce, one of the greatest theologians of the twentieth century, said that “Doing the will of God is not a matter of conformity to outward rules but of giving expression to inward love, such as the Spirit begets.” By listening to the Holy Spirit, we can discern what God’s will is for our life, rather than relying on rules and regulations.