St Michael’s, 14th July, 2013
It’s been a remarkable week in the life of the church. On Sunday we had Daniel’s baptism and it was wonderful to have another child join the life of the church family. Then on Monday we had Ron’s funeral and it was great to have fellowship with folk who bore witness to his faithful ministry over so many years. And on Friday this church was packed for Bill’s funeral and it was clear just how many lives Bill had touched.
And through it all, this week we have seen St Michael’s at its very best: in the prayer that has been offered, in the support that has been given, in the hard work so many people have put in.
And now we come to today’s reading from Matthew’s gospel. I have to say, I thought long and hard whether to preach on this passage because at first glance it seems so unsuitable after the week we’ve had: the harvest at the end of the age, the fiery furnace, the weeping and gnashing of teeth.
But after reflection, I came to see that perhaps we need to understand better who this God is that we claim to worship. You see, the popular idea of God is that He is a vengeful deity who sits in splendid isolation, ready to zap us when we step out of line, that He’s there with some kind of divine checklist ready to punish the moment the we step out of line. It’s a view of God that is found even in many church circles today, a God who is primarily about wrath and punishment and sin. But if there’s one thing I want to get across is that this is not the Christian God. If you think this who God is, then you are mistaken, and you will misread this passage to your own harm.
So what do we know about our God? The first thing we know above all else is that He is Father, Son and Holy Spirit. Now at that point I know some tend to switch off. We tend to put the Trinity in the “too difficult” box as a doctrine we can’t really understand. But the idea of the Trinity conveys one simple point, that at the heart of God is an eternal relationship of love. We worship three persons who are in a relationship of love from before the beginning of time to after the end of this world. And our Christian life is about being called into this relationship and knowing the eternal love of God for ourselves.
That’s important to understand because several things flow from this:
Firstly, it explains what it means in Prov 6 when it talks about God hating certain things, such a haughty eyes, a lying tongue and hands that shed innocent blood.
Now I realise we don’t usually talk about God hating things. We like to think of God as a God of love and acceptance and peace. But if you think about it a little more, if you love something or someone particularly strongly, then you will hate anything or anyone that threatens that love. After you, if you are passionate about one football team, then you probably don’t feel that positively about your local rival. If you love your country, then you will feel strongly about those who seek to attack it. If you love your family, then you will do all you can to protect it from harm.
And why does God hate these things in particular? Because they are the exact opposite of all that Jesus is, and all that He expects us to be.
Jesus never had haughty eyes, that is, He never looked down on anyone. If you read any of the accounts of Jesus’ life you will see He had a heart for the poor, and the broken, a heart for women and for children. He brought good news to those who were suffering, and those who were worn out, and His generous invitation still stands today to all who will listen: Come to me, all you who are weary and burdened, and I will give you rest. (Matt 11:28)
What about a lying tongue? No, the whole point of why Jesus came to earth was to show us the truth about God and about ourselves. He actually called Himself the way, the truth and the life. And what’s so fascinating about the life of Jesus here on earth is the fact no-one could ever overturn His claims. After all, if I started to going round saying I was the truth, I am pretty sure you’d very quickly find something false in my life. Yet Jesus’ claims were backed by His actions every time, and He revealed the truth about God most fully by dying for us on a cross.
And Jesus never had hands that shed innocent blood. The leaders of other great religions did lead armies into battle, and even today some of their followers carry out savage acts in their name. But Jesus never took up arms, never wronged an innocent person, never shed blood. That doesn’t mean Jesus was gentle or mild or ineffective. He could when He chose still storms, drive out demons, feed 5000 people, raise the dead, and he still performs great miracles today. But His works of power are also works of love. He is the good shepherd who knows all of us by name, who cares for us, and never does us harm.
So if we are serious about following Jesus, these things listed in our reading from Proverbs will be hateful to us as well. Why? Because to love Jesus means to love like Jesus: not to look down on people, not to tell lies, not to do innocent people wrong. It’s part of what it means to accept Jesus as Lord and Saviour of our lives.
Secondly, this relationship of love explains what it means in Matt 13 when it talks about the wicked. Because, you see, the real wickedness comes not so much from what we do, as from the basic fact of rejecting God’s love.
Imagine for a moment you gave me an expensive watch. Imagine how you would react if, for example, I jumped up and down on the watch and broke it. You would be hurt because the watch had been broken. But the greater hurt would come from the fact I had rejected your love and generosity.
That’s why Jesus talks about the wicked being cut off forever from God’s love. If in this life we hear the good news of Jesus Christ and decide to reject it, if time after time we turn our back on God’s offer of eternal life, then there will come a point when we will stand before the throne of God and God will reject us.
And the fire is picture of the pain they will feel at that point. It is a way of describing the shame and guilt and anguish people will experience when they realise too late they have cut themselves off from God’s kingdom. That’s why I never want anyone to leave this church, saying, “It might be good news, but it’s not for me”. May none of us ever, ever be tempted to have this attitude.
So, thirdly, who are the righteous?
Well let’s be clear – they are not people who have earned their place in heaven. They are not people who are naturally good or religious. No, the righteous are people who have accepted God’s offer of love. Once we trust in Jesus, we are counted as right with God, not because of what we have done for God, but because of what Jesus has done for us. 2 Cor 5:21: God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.
Now I know that at this point people feel uncomfortable. How can I be righteous when there is so much sin, so much mess, so much guilt in my life? But that is to look at ourselves not at Jesus. The wonderful good news of the kingdom is that when we believe, God looks not at us but at the finished work which Jesus carried out on the cross for us. And though we still struggle in so many ways, we are still counted right before God. Isn’t that good news?
But this doesn’t mean we are free to live any way we please. No, the righteous are people who show God’s love by the way they lead their lives. They delight in doing God’s will because they are so thankful for what He has done. And so they obey God’s laws not because they are desperate to earn God’s favour but because they want to please Him in every way.
And finally the righteous are people who are part of God’s kingdom community – the church.
Now I believe this week in all the joy and sadness we have seen a glimpse of St Michael’s as God’s kingdom community. I believe it’s what God is calling us to be more and more. People who love Jesus and who love like Jesus. People who hate to be other than what God calls them to be. People who want to receive more and more of God’s love. People who look to Jesus, not to themselves.
So where next? Today we are having a barbecue. We will talk about many things. That is only right and proper, because we are brothers and sisters in Christ. But today as we chat and talk, dare to dream dreams, to share visions, to listen to what the Holy Spirit is saying to us. And in the weeks and months to come may we come back with many more powerful stories of Jesus at work in us and among us, so others too understand who this God is, this wonderful God of love who calls us into an eternal relationship of love with Him, Father, Son and Holy Spirit.