Painting by El Greco
What a confusing choice for today's Gospel, the same reading we have in the Blessing of the Palms before the Palm Sunday Mass. What does this have to do with the main theme of Advent, that we must be prepared for the second coming of our Lord Jesus Christ in glory to judge both the quick and the dead? After all, as everyone should know, it is about our own real preparation to come face to face with God. The season is about the Four Last Things, death, judgment, Heaven and Hell. Among these, heaven and Hell take on powerful significance as the Resurrection to immortality, to live and reign with Christ forever, and the resurrection of those who will go into the lake of fire. As the Lord said: "Marvel not at this: for the hour is coming, in the which all that are in the graves shall hear his voice, and shall come forth; they that have done good, unto the resurrection of life; and they that have done evil, unto the resurrection of damnation."1 In light of these themes, it is not enough to be aware of the joy that awaits those who will enter the blessed state of glorification as the sons of God. We must also be aware of the terror of the Lord so as to persuade men,2 including ourselves, to be in a state of Grace at all times.
Several religious leaders from various churches must have voted, about a century or more ago, to close Hell. Like some prisons, it has perhaps become overcrowded, and so nobody else can go there, even though some people are dying to get in. Why else would it sound so strange to hear me preach about it? Maybe Hell has become the sort of topic, like for example sin, that we cannot discuss in Church. It's not nice, it's not warm and fuzzy, and it contributes, no doubt, to global warming. The problem is, the ultimate "fire and brimstone" preacher in the Bible is Jesus Christ-no more Mr. Nice Guy to anyone shocked to learn it. Yes, St. John the Baptist has a few words to say about it. St. Paul never mentions it directly, though clearly warning about it indirectly. Some theologians want to blunt the effect of every passage that does mention it. If we are to be serious about the words of the Lord Jesus Christ, we must face this subject, namely, the danger of being lost forever, going into the outer darkness "where their worm dieth not, and the fire is not quenched."3 The Greek word for that ultimate Hell is Ge'enna (γέεννα). It refers to a terrible place mentioned in the Old Testament as a site where children were murdered in sacrifice to Molech, the Valley of Ben-Hinnom. In the First century A.D., this place had become a dump, and trash was burned there day and night. In that dump the worm was kept alive, and fires were always burning. And so, our Lord spoke of it in terms of that final and dreadful verse in the Book of Isaiah: "And they shall go forth, and look upon the carcases of the men that have transgressed against me: for their worm shall not die, neither shall their fire be quenched; and they shall be an abhorring unto all flesh."4 The terror of the Lord that ought to persuade each of us, and with which it is a mercy to persuade others, is that of being thrown away as the garbage.
No one need be thrown away, because God "commandeth all men everywhere to repent."5 The Gospel command to repent is also a word of hope. It is centered on the grace of God, and the love of God that has its ultimate expression and manifestation, its ultimate revelation, in the cross of Christ. 6 How simple and yet powerful are those words of St. Paul, "Christ died for our sins."7 In that light, we can embrace the command to repent in such a way as to be filled with joy because of the hope given to us. "Repent, confess, thou shalt be loosed from all."8 This alone gives hope. A false gospel of acceptance and inclusion cannot revive and comfort anyone's conscience. The words of today's Epistle tell us how to live our lives in this world in the fear of God, and also in the grace of God. "The night is far spent, the day is at hand: let us therefore cast off the works of darkness, and let us put on the armor of light. "
Why this selection from the Gospels? Why this picture of Christ being welcomed as the Son of David, the king, and then getting off from the back of the donkey, going into the temple, and casting out the money changers? We understand why this leads to the Passion, and is read at the start of Holy Week when we bless the palms. We understand that other judgment, that in the cross of Christ it was the Prince of this world who was judged and cast out. 9 When we begin Holy Week it makes sense. What, however, does this have to do with the coming again in glory of our Lord Jesus Christ, to judge the quick and the dead? As an event in history, how do we place some meaning of it in the future? as a recorded past event, how does it find its way into eschatology?
The simple answer (so obvious once we realize it) is that, in her wisdom, the Church puts before our eyes this picture of our Lord Jesus Christ from his first coming that most closely resembles what we may expect in his second coming. Here is the Lord who suddenly comes to his temple and cleanses it. We see the Lord who casts out from the place of that holy presence of the Shekinah, those who have been living in unrepenent sin. The authority of the Lord, to mete out judgment, to evict sinners from his presence, to cleanse, to purge, and to purify, is seen in this Gospel passage. That harder side of the One who was able to forgive and heal with compassion is here made visible. This picture shows the judgment of the Lord; it shows his unique authority as the Word and Son of the Everlasting Father, that power that comes so genuinely from within himself that all of these men felt compelled to obey his voice, and had no power in themselves to resist his words of eviction from the Holy Place. He had no visible army to carry out his commands, no soldiers to enforce his decree; and yet his power was such that no one could resist, and no one could refuse. Just as he had power to cast out demons so that people would not be tormented any longer, so his word with power casts out willful sinners so that they can no longer defile. Yes, this is the best picture we have of the Lord who comes again as Judge.
St. Peter wrote: "For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God: and if it first begin at us, what shall the end be of them that obey not the gospel of God? And if the righteous scarcely be saved, where shall the ungodly and the sinner appear?"10 If we allow the work of the Holy Spirit among us, we will experience that gentle judgment that saves us here and now. After all, even though St. Peter makes direct reference to the End, that is the Last Day when Christ comes again, and does so with words to place the fear of God in our hearts, he begins with "the time is come." If the message is to do with "the end" of those who are removed, thrown into the dump of Ge'enna with its nourished worms and perpetual burnings, what judgment is there that begins now, and does so in the house of God? Jesus cast out the works of darkness from the house of God, the temple in Jerusalem, by casting out those who worked that darkness openly and unashamed, and who insulted the holy place no less than the sons of Eli had done long before.11 But, St. Peter urges us with a present hope: "For the time is come that judgment must begin at the house of God." What is this judgment that must begin now? It is the very self-examination that aids those who repent to make a good confession of their sins with all of the sincerity of a heart moved by the Holy Spirit.
What are we planning to do here today? What follows every sermon in a Mass? Before I supply the answer, let us recall that other name, that specifically Anglican name that we give to this service: "The Holy Communion." Other names are good too, such as The Divine Liturgy (the Orthodox name), and the Holy Eucharist. But, I like the Anglican name, The Holy Communion. It was first used to make something very clear to the people of the Church of England, which is that the purpose of the Sacrament of Christ's Body and Blood, is that it be taken and received. The Catechism tells us that two of the sacraments are generally necessary for salvation, Baptism and the Lord's Supper. The purpose of coming here and receiving this Blessed Sacrament is to feed on the Living Bread that comes down from heaven, which if a man eat, he may live forever. Jesus told us that this is the food of eternal life, to eat his flesh and drink his blood.12 First we make confession of sin based on the self-examination we should make every time; as St.Paul wrote: "But let a man examine himself, and so let him eat of that bread, and drink of that cup."13 It is in that self-examination and the resulting genuine confession, that we prepare for the coming of the Lord right now, that is, his coming to our altar, and then into our very mouths as we eat and drink the food and drink of eternal life. If we live always ready for this Sacrament, we will live also always ready to meet the Lord face to face. I close by quoting myself from another sermon for the First Sunday in Advent.
In this Gospel passage, we see important elements of His Second Coming, elements that are true to the Person of the Son of God, the everlasting Son of the everlasting Father. He is the only king and savior. He is the judge “Whose fan is in his hand, and he will throughly purge his floor, and gather his wheat into the garner; but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire (Matt. 3:12).” Judgment will begin at the House of God, until His whole creation is cleansed and purified, made ready for a habitation of His righteousness, a dwelling place of His glory among men. The purpose of a Penitential season is to learn to sharpen and focus our self-examination, the same self-examination that we should do every time we draw near to receive the Body and Blood of Christ. I know that a “feel good” religion is the popular model for success in today’s “spiritual” market; but the only good feeling we should ever trust is that spoken of by the Psalmist: “Blessed is he whose transgression is forgiven, whose sin is covered (Psalm 32:1).”
1. John 5:28, 29
2. II Corinthians 5:11
3. Mark 9:42-50
4. Isaiah 66:24
5. Acts 17:30
6. Romans 5:8
7. I Corinthians 15:3
8 From Weary of Earth and laden with my sin, Hymn 58 in The Hymnal 1940.
9. John 12:31, 32
10. I Peter 4:17, 18
11. I Samuel 2:12f
12. John 6:26-59
13. I Corinthians 11: 29