The Effect of the Absence of Judgement in Modern Preaching

wrath

In the background of the biblical narrative lies the threatening clouds of judgement. There is hardly a book in the Bible that does not touch on this great theme at some point. From beginning to end, the storm clouds of judgement roll through the pages of scripture until they dissipate forever in the glimpse of the New Jerusalem in the last chapters.

Even the crucifixion of Jesus when rightly understood is a legal transaction betwen the Son and the Father, in which the former carries the judicial penalty of sin on behalf of repentant sinners. The fact that judgement is inextricably entwined with the mission of the Lord Jesus Christ himself, is used by the apostles as an urgent warning that the wrath of God must be taken very seriously. To trample upon the blood of the Messiah leaves one with no forgiveness of sins, even if he performs mountains of good works.

Our first encounter of judgement is found in the opening of Genesis. Already, we are to understand that a fallen angel, Satan, had been cast out of heaven and had grown maximally evil and malignant. We infer that a terrible rebellion had taken place and an equally terrible judgment had been meted out to the disobedient angels.

Judgement quickly appears in the life of humankind. No sooner are they created, God warns the man and the woman that disobedience will lead to death. This is tragically demonstrated when our first parents are expelled from the garden of Eden and the gate is guarded by a fiercesome power that prevents re-admission.

Later, as the human race expands and grows exceedingly sinful God finally sends a promised judgement in the form of a global catastrophe. The Flood of Noah, which nowadays is maligned and scoffed at by sophisticated moderns, is used by the Lord Jesus as a template for what we may expect in the future. Thus it is that the story of the human race is bookended with judgement.

Notably, God did not reserve these judgements only for sinful unbelievers. In the Pentateuch, God outlined progressively more serious judgements (or “curses”) that would befall Israel should it disobey his law. Regrettably, the Old Testament unflinchingly reveals a church that perpetually falls into sin. Over and over again, Israel turned from God to idols; and their worship became trival and hollow.

As a result, the prophets of God spent a lot of their time either trying to impress upon their hearers the importance of obedience, or trying to call their nation back to God. They sought to reform, correct, and warn. For this reason many of the prophets came to a violent end. They said things that their rebellious countrymen simply did not want to hear. And when people habitually sin, enjoy sin, and make sin a core aspect of their personality and life, it tends to produce explosive results when such men are reminded of ultimate accountability before a holy God.

Despite the poisonous spiritual toxins of the peddlers of the prosperity gospel, the threat of judgement does not end with the coming of Christ. Although Christ certainly came to save men’s lives and not to condemn, yet for all of his kindly and gracious entreaties, Christ the Incarnation of God is still presented by scripture as the faithful witness who proclaims frequently the theme of judgement and of hell.

Repeatedly the Lord calls people to obedience. His parables draw sharp and urgent lines across the religious landscape. Jesus leaves us with vivid images of unprepared men and women who are surprised by the sudden return of the Master or the coming of the Bridegroom. Or, if we look to another of Christ’s signature images, he gives to us the graphic picture of the closed door with men and women locked on the wrong side of it, knocking in vain to be admitted.

At the end of the Bible, in the Revelation, the glorified Christ sends seven churches some letters from heaven. Seldom in scripture do we receive such a sense of the intimate closeness between heaven and earth; between Lord and church than here. The boundary line between time and eternity seems to blur and bend on these pages.

Through the pen of St. John, the Lord Jesus who once walked on earth speaks to his foundation churches who are buffeted by the world, persecution, heresies, and “faith decay”. The letters reveal a Christ who is fully aware of the struggles of his church in an ungodly age, the struggles we share still today. The phrase “I know” appears in all of them. Christ knows his people’s works, where they live, and their inner disposition. He knows because he is always observing his church.

Yet, these letters warn the five of the seven churches of imminent judgement upon them. Jesus tells them that due to their present spiritual condition they have strayed from his expectations, and if they do not immediately amend their ways, their lampstand (or candlestick) will be taken away, presumably extinguished.

Regardless, then, of systems and schemes of theology that seek to downplay these warnings and make Christianity all about blessing and feeling good, the New Testament’s consistent backdrop is the urgent need to escape from coming judgement.

Moreover, if scripture illumines anything for us, it is that the judgements of God are not to be taken lightly. From Sodom to Babylon; from Moab to Edom, when God’s hammer fell, the devestation was indescribable. Even the Old Testament church was not spared God’s wrath.

The judgements that fell upon Israel were often described by writers (like Josephus, and also unbelieving gentile writers like Tacitus) as being apocalyptic in nature. They were accompanied with strange signs and wonders in the heavens and on earth. For example, the Roman historian Tacitus reports that prior to the destruction of Jerusalem in 70 AD, people spoke of a rushing wind leaving the temple which Tacitus interpreted as “the gods” exiting the temple. Josephus records similar cosmic phenomena.

Each time judgement fell on Israel, entire generations were extinguished and only a small remnant was left. After years of warning, God’s judgement on the disobedient northern kingdom of Israel permanently destroyed its nationhood and extinguished its tribes. They were taken captive to the gentile nations, after which their identity was absorbed by the “peoples of the land” around them.

Meanwhile, the southern kingdom headed by the chosen tribe of Judah, went into exile and thereafter fell into various forms of subjection by gentile powers. Finally, in 70 AD Jerusalem itself faced a supreme judgement for their rejection of the Messiah.

Wracked by nationalist rebellion, three Jewish factions siezed control of Jerusalem. Rent by divisions, they coordinated their defence poorly and consequently the city was sacked by Roman armies. Judgement fell during Passover when the city was choked with maximum numbers of observant Jews. Josephus estimates that more than a million people were slain by the Romans. The elderly were killed. Tens of thousands enslaved, many of whom perished in the arenas for the amusement of their Roman captors. The destruction of the temple in Jerusalem sent shockwaves throughout the remaining Jews, and contributed to a psychology of lamentation and despairing traditions of abandonment.

The Jewish people themselves dispersed like seeds on the wind throughout the gentile world. To such an extent did this diaspora dissolve nationhood that as recently as the mid-1800’s only about 10,000 Jewish families resided in Jerusalem.

As terrible and awful this judgement upon Jerusalem might have been, the New Testament warns of an even worse judgement than this. It speaks of a global judgement on all people’s and nations that will be so terrible and dreadful that it will herald the end of the world. This will be the final judgement upon every human being who has ever lived, with none other than God himself rendering a final verdict from which there is no appeal. It is an inescapable appointment for mankind – for both the dead and the living – since God has the power to raise the dead. The legions of self-satisfied sinners, cruel tyrants, evil slaveholders, urban celebrities, and hardened atheists who think by dying they have escaped accountability will discover that death is not the fortress they hoped it would be.

On that day, which the prophet Zechariah describes as a long day, the human race will be assembled and the whole history of the world will be read out and judged. Every secret will be made public; every wrong will be righted. On that day “stripes” (to use Jesus’ language) will be justly apportioned. Every wicked blow will be paid back thousand-fold. Every torturer will himself be tortured. Evil leaders will be subjugated in hell suffering the misery they meted out to others.

Men will be assigned places in hell or gifted places in heaven. Every good Christian deed will receive its eternal treasure. Every evil deed will receive its eternal censure. Men will be placed on pedestals of shame and glory, and there will be order.

God will be magnified over his creation. And for one time only before men are sent to their everlasting destinations, the whole human race will kneel before him – just as the human race should have from the beginning of time – and will acknowledge “that Jesus Christ is Lord, to the glory of God the Father”.

Yet, for all of this unmissable emphasis on judgement in God’s word, it is astonishing how absent it is from modern preaching, modern hymnody, and the concerns of modern theological publications. One may fairly see in this a sign of the times we live in, and the worrying direction in which many self-proclaimed Christians and churches are headed. Here we behold a form of religiosity but without power, which is to say, without obedience.

The lack of emphasis on biblical doctrines of judgement help nobody. Whereas the regular preaching of judgement tends to create believers who:

    1. Have a focus on self-purification (for all who have hope, purify themselves)
    2. Have a strong sense of spiritual urgency
    3. Are innoculated against downgraded versions of the faith
    4. Are missional and evangelical
    5. Provides a concrete reality during spiritual crises or struggles

I have had personal experience of the last item on this list. When I was at college many years ago, I had a crisis of faith which lasted for several years. It was a period of intense depression, and an unending search for truth. Most of my college years were not spent actively pursuing my studies – which seemed pointless in the absence of my faith – but reading voraciously anything that I thought would give me some insight or glimpse as to what was true.

I can never forget that crushing desire to find out what was true that I might believe it. It was like nothing else that I have experienced before or sin. And I see now from the vantage point of twenty years that this urgency was propelled by an underlying fear of missing it, of believing error, and thereby failing to reach the eternal mark.

Unconsciously, doctrines of judgement had so shaped my thinking that even when the bottom fell out of my faith, they quietly worked to produce urgency and activity to resolve burning questions. Apathy was a non-option. How can one be apathetic in the face of eternal accountability?

I remember having conversations with my fellow students on issues of faith. Most were extremely nominal Christians who had a lackadaisical religion. They attended church infrequently. The salvation of their own soul certainly had a low priority on their list. None of them believed in eternal judgement in a biblical sense. They either believed the secular fiction that all “good people” go to heaven, or they believed that if hell existed, it was reserved only for the really wicked people, like Hitler.

They did not share my feverish interest or desparation. I found it disheartening when I saw their eyes glaze over in boredom or embarrassment when the subject turned to God. I found it impossible to understand why their voices lifted with excitement at talk of parties and drinking. These latter motivated them far more than acceptance by God. I could not understand the flabbiness of what they professed to believe. 

On those rare occassions when there was a more orthodox expression of Christianity, it too seemed weak at the edges. It shied away from controversy or firm expressions of principle. It had the strength of wet lettuce and therefore the staying power of the same.

I came to develope a fear and revulsion for such religion because even in the midst of my personal purgatory of doubt, I knew that such weak, anemic “Christianity” bore no resemblance to the fiery, robust, confident faith preached by Christ or his Apostles.

Thus, the doctrines of judgement propelled me inexorably in the right direction, even when I did not understand why, and even when I lapsed into sin and worldliness. It was precisely because I lived in terror of being on the wrong side of the eternal Judge one day that I kept moving, searching, and knocking. Fear generated a desperation to find truth.

The doctrines of judgement are thus not only true – and therefore ought to be preached and meditated on frequently – but are also necessary. Yes, necessary, to produce a genuine Christian. The sort of Christian that Jesus desires.

The doctrines of judgement sanctifies through terror.

If this sentence is problematic for you, then you might need to consider that you have imbibed too deeply the lessons of our culture which is saturated with pop-psychology, positive-thinking and feel-goodism. It teaches us that no good arises from terror. We want to be terribly positive, which is to say, we want to feel good about ourselves. Yet, terror can be a far more powerful influencer for good, and God’s word never sinks into the sugarwater of positive thinking. Truth is always good, but it is not always pleasant, or kind to the ego.

It is by terror of God’s wrath that Christianity produces believers that become concurrently haters of sin and lovers of good. The doctrines of judgement illuminate the soul and cause us to realise how holy God is and how dreadful the wages of sin is.

Furthermore, only the doctrines of judgement equip a believer with the capacity to fully appreciate the love and grace of God, which like a bright star is most vividly seen when it stands against the blackness of the night. As a red silhoutte vanishes against a red background but leaps into existence when displayed against a black one, so it is that the love of God becomes most radiant and properly accessable when witnessed against the background of the terror of his justice.

A lively awareness of our terrible need and the expansion of our love for Christ invariably takes place in the blazing light of the truth of coming judgement. When this is missing, believers are quickly absorbed into temporal affairs, worldly concerns, and lacklustre dedication to living a holy life.

Easter Sermons: Banal, Saccharine, and Boring

atina

When St. Paul preached on this hill in Athens nearly 2,000 years ago, his “Easter sermon” turned the city upside down and became one of the most influential in the history of the world. Not much danger of that happening with the trite, cliched efforts of modern pastors, clerics, and theologians.

At Easter it has become customary to hear straining-to-be-meaningful sermons that aim either to emotionally energise a congregation, or otherwise attempt to apply the resurrection of Christ to contemporary political and social issues. Some preachers are unwitting comedians, as they offer hilarious examples of what happens when orthodoxy is derailed and an ersatz Christianity is transposed over the top. The result veers between contemptible and ridiculous.

This year did not disappoint. Dutifully, newspapers reported the sermons of a motley cast of popes, bishops, princes, pastors and priests whose pronouncements from pulpits around the world, when taken together, constitute a powerful emetic.

A small sample is sufficient to give a flavour of Easter in 2018:

Pope Francis used his Easter sermon to talk about refugees, immigrants and Syrians. Last year, he used his Easter Sunday sermon to talk about tragedy, misery, and disaster in the world with very little mention of the themes that the Apostolic writers were wont to associate with Christ’s death, burial and resurrection: themes like sin, repentance, forgiveness, and spiritual regeneration.

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Pope Francis offers to the crowd the glad tidings of Easter, with sermons featuring strong messages about geopolitics, including immigrants, Syrians and refugees.

To be fair to Prince Charles, he is not a preacher by vocation but if he is ever crowned king, he will receive the appellation “Defender of the Faith” and will become the head of the Church of England, which implies the need for a minimal theological awareness.

It is with great relief to all that Prince Charles demonstrated that he would not be out of place among the muddle-headed prelates of the Church of England as he delivered a patented woolly message on Good Friday reminding everyone about the great similarities between Islam and Christianity. So great are these similarities, that it is a matter of extreme befuddlement to the Prince as to why there is no peace between them.

The Prince reminded everyone that Mary is a shared figure in both Islam and Christianity, and having thus established this striking, cosy closeness between the faiths, appealed for everyone in the middle east to lay down their shoulder-held missile launchers, and to live at peace as friends. The Prince’s message is bound to make a big difference to the geopolitical situation, with many thousands of people heeding his words. For what militant in Syria does not hang, bat-like, from every word that proceeds from the His Highness’s mouth? Just like bishops of the Church of England, the Prince has acquired the habit of public hand-wringing, virtue-signalling, vacuous lamentation, and “calls” to masses of humanity to immediately cease their evil ways because their evil ways are simply not very nice.

This year, the Archbishop of Canterbury Justin Welby gave his sermon in the presence of an art installation made from hundreds of dangling articles of refugees’ clothing, transforming Canterbury Cathedral into something resembling a Mad Hatter’s laundry room. The Archbishop did make a heroic effort to sound like an Anglican clergyman who actually believes things in the New Testament, although his Easter sermon was richly interspersed with references to bombs and terrorism in Egypt, giving the impression that any mention of the resurrection was a somewhat irritating excursion from his real topic of interest, that being geopolitics in the Near East.

In Australia, the Anglican Archbishop Kay Goldsworthy was reported to have given a sermon imploring Anglicans “not to run away from challenges”. Following this sermon of dazzling substance, she was so swept up in the awe of the resurrection that she immediately addressed the major sporting scandal running the rounds in Australia, involving high profile cricket cheats. The Archbishop was most concerned that the cricketers should forgive themselves, which she opined was going to be one of their foremost challenges – the forgiveness of God not even rating a mention.

Perhaps one of the most preposterous articles was written by Robyn Whitaker, a theologian whose interests include “gender, sexuality and ethics”. One online profile states that she has expertise in feminism and gender equality.  Whitaker’s article asked readers to focus on the race of Jesus of Nazareth and to think about his skin colour.

Other clerics and would-be religious leaders decided that it was best to boil the texts of the scripture dry, and get down to the residue of a few basic principles. “Hope” is always a popular one, or sometimes “renewal“. Vague concepts like these are quite plastic. Even a borderline-competent public speaker can use a theme like that as a launching pad for a peppy talk to boost the morale of their listeners. The resultant sermon typically sounds like it could have been lifted from a life coaching manual.

Finally, there are those sermons that bear titles which imply that the meaning of Easter is opaque and dark. It is no longer clear in a world of modernity, colour and excitement. Titles like “Why Easter still matters” or “What should the resurrection mean to you?” arrogantly suggests that the resurrection of Christ is an impenetrable historical story, remote and alien to the listener.

This is just a small sample, mind you, of Easter sermons. The banality is endless, and it comes as a considerable relief to turn from these “clouds without water”, as St. Jude would describe them, to the fountains of living water from the scriptures. For in contrast to modern clerics, the New Testament begins from a very basic supposition.

The New Testament takes for granted that this supposition is clear to anyone.

It is quite simply this: something of tremendous consequence was accomplished when Jesus died on a crucifix outside of Jerusalem. This has shifted the invisible order of things, and this alteration of the spiritual reality in which humankind lives reached its apogee three days later when Christ rose from the dead, the true King of all the Earth.

Not one of the apostolic witnesses asks the question, “Why does the resurrection matter?“. Not one of them attempts to make the resurrection applicable to their hearer’s context. Not one tries to blend the resurrection story into a morality fable about slavery or the machinations of the Roman senate and their greedy imperial taxation schemes. Not one tries to boil it down to a string of saccharine, safe buzzwords – “it’s all about love, folks!”.

No, the inverse. The apostolic assumption is the resurrection, if truly believed by the reader, is significant in a way that will be obvious to anyone. It is quite clearly a testimony that requires no interpreter because the very fact that a man has risen from the dead is sufficient of itself to establish his primacy in the constellation of ideas and opinions. It justifies his claims; it underscores their merit; it overturns all competition; it empowers his gospel. A person who reads of the resurrection, who believes it, and who earnestly, deeply seeks for Christ in the silence and stillness, will find him.

The best kind of sermon in our times, therefore, is one that follows the apostolic example. It is the sort of sermon that invites people to believe and seek for Jesus himself. Not to seek for “hope” that Aunt Sally will get better, not to seek for “renewal” of our finances in 2018, neither to seek to mine the text for forgettable sentiments to spray upon contemporary political issues. But, rather to be made aware of the heaviness of our peril. Of our imminent approach to judgement and ruin. To be broken and contrite in our reflections upon ourselves.

And thus to seek for Jesus himself: the Lord of Life who welcomes properly penitent souls. The One who can transform a person’s inward life and give him a deep sense of the beauty of holiness; the ugliness of sin; a thirst for godliness; a hunger for God; and the unspeakable joy of tangible, deep communion with our Creator, Friend, and Redeemer.

How different Easter would be if clerics took their cues from St. Paul and preached the resurrection as the Apostle did. No mealy-mouthed sugary sweetness here. Rather St. Paul preaches the resurrection as a divine command to the human race; an urgent and non-negotiable summons to repent and believe. And he does so with the unstudied impetuosity of a man who knows of that which he speaks, is unswerving confident, and knows that he is conveying the authorised message of God to the world:

For as I walked around and looked carefully at your objects of worship, I even found an altar with this inscription: TO AN UNKNOWN GOD. So you are ignorant of the very thing you worship—and this is what I am going to proclaim to you…

In the past God overlooked such ignorance, but now he commands all people everywhere to repent. For he has set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed. He has given proof of this to everyone by raising him from the dead.