I suspect that one of the reasons I got interested in ecumenism, and the relationship between churches, is that I have something of an ecumenical past. I grew up in what some would describe as a “fundamentalist” denomination. It was a Christian tradition which majored in judgment!
We stood in fear of God’s judgment, we feared the judgment of other people, and yet we were just about as likely to judge others as unworthy as we felt ourselves to be! And while lots of people still live in that kind of religious world today, more of us have exited that form of Christianity and sought out a more “generous orthodoxy.”
My family and I spent some time in the Presbyterian and Methodist churches before a next door neighbor, who figured out that we were searching, invited us to attend their Episcopal Church and we never looked back! We fell in love with the liturgy and the sacraments, with the kind of pastoral care we received, and perhaps above all else, the kind of common sense and non-judgmental preaching we heard from that pulpit.
For myself, I have no doubt that was the right decision. But there is a danger here of a kind of “flabby” Christianity! The kind of Christianity which views God as a kindly old favorite uncle who makes no demands, is easily persuaded to wink at our transgressions, and – as a matter of fact – does not take what we do or do not do very seriously at all!
Today’s Lessons challenge both of those inadequate expressions of Christianity. Our First Reading from Isaiah makes it perfectly clear that God does take what we do seriously and that God will be the ultimate judge of all our actions. “Therefore hear the word of the Lord, you scoffers who rule this people in Jerusalem,” the prophet thunders, “…See, I am laying in Zion a foundation stone…a precious cornerstone, a sure foundation…And I will make justice the line, and righteousness the plummet…for I have heard a decree of destruction from the Lord God of hosts upon the whole land.”
It’s worth noting that God’s anger here is directed against the civil leaders in Jerusalem. Instead of trusting in God to deliver them, they’ve made alliances with Egypt, and sought out foreign military aid against the threatening Assyrians. God is displeased with their faithlessness and the futility of their “homeland security measures”. And so Isaiah warns of the fall of Jerusalem.
Lest we think that it is only the Old Testament “God of wrath” who is concerned about judgment, the Gospel reading today has some hard sayings from Jesus as well! When he is asked, “Lord, will only a few be saved?” he replies, “Strive to enter through the narrow door; for many, I tell you, will try to enter and will not be able.” And then we hear those frightening words about “…Abraham and Isaac and Jacob and all the prophets in the kingdom of God, and you yourselves thrown out!”
Again, we need to remember, Jesus is talking about a specific set of people here: the religiously “pious”! He’s talking about those who are so sure they are the righteous ones and everyone else is going to hell in a hand basket! We know that because he concludes, “Then people will come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. Indeed some are last who will be first, and some are first who will be last.” Once again, it’s the “little ones” who can be assured of God’s grace here – the lost and the lonely…the last and the least!
So, God will judge the unrighteous and the unjust of this world. God has made us the stewards of creation and it does matter how we carry out that stewardship. But that doesn’t mean that we need to cower in fear like Jonathan Edwards’ “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God!” Rather, we can be comforted by what I’ve always believed to be among the most beautiful passages in the entire New Testament, our Second Lesson today from Hebrews:
“You have not come to something that can be touched, a blazing fire, and darkness, and gloom, and a tempest…But you have come to Mount Zion, and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem…” (from Hebrews 12:18-19, 22-24)
The author is hardly holding up a vision of that permissive “favorite uncle” God I spoke of earlier! No, we do indeed stand before the living God and heavenly Jerusalem, before innumerable angels in festal gathering…and before God…the judge of all!
But we stand there surrounded by the communion of saints – in the assembly of the first-born who are enrolled in heaven…the spirits of the righteous made perfect, and…We stand in the presence of Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant…
Because of his life, death, and resurrection and because of our baptism into that life, death and resurrection, we have learned to trust that – one day – people will indeed come from east and west, from north and south, and will eat in the kingdom of God. Our deeds will be taken seriously and judgment is inevitable. But the life of Jesus teaches us that God’s judgment is always tempered by mercy!
Our motivation for doing “good deeds” is not to earn God’s love and forgiveness. We already have that! Our motivation for doing good is gratitude! We are so grateful that we have been given God’s love and the gift of eternal life that we want to live the kind of life God wants us to live! We don’t do good in order to be saved; we do good in thanksgiving for the fact that we’ve already been saved!
We already sit at God’s table. Today, we eat and drink in the kingdom of God! Today, we who really are last…are welcomed as among the first! Today, the words of the Psalmist are fulfilled in this place:
God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble.
Therefore we will not fear, though the earth be moved,
And though the mountains be toppled into the depths of the sea;
Though its waters rage and foam, and though the mountains tremble at its tumult.
The Lord of hosts is with us; the God of Jacob is our refuge!