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More to the point, how will God know?

Pentecost 10 Proper 20 Yr C 2019

Heb. 11: 29-12.2; Ps.80 Lk 12:49-56

“I come to cast fire upon the earth,” Jesus says.

\In Jewish thought, fire is the symbol of judgment. So Jesus regards the coming of his kingdom as a time of judgment.[1]

Judgment is a scary thing.

We don’t like to think about it.

Old time preachers, on the other hand loved talking about it.

There is a story of one Scottish Presbyterian minister giving a hell-fire sermon who yelled at his congregation”…..and on that day there will be much weeping and gnashing of teeth!!!”

And an old wag, sitting at the back said, “What if ye hae na teeth?’

And the minister said, “Teeth will be issued!”

The conventional idea about Hell is of a lake of fire, into which sinners are cast. Or a place with furnaces where assistant devils poke sinners with forks pushing them into the flames, or something like that.

And the idea that if you commit a sin – any sin  – that’s where you will end up. 

And it never seemed fair to me.

Say for example a little girl is suffering in that lake of fire, and alongside her is Adolph Hitler. And Hitler looks at her and asks why she is there and she says ,”I stole a candy bar from the convenience store. Why are you here?” And he says,” I was responsible for the torture and deaths of millions of people.”

It doesn’t seem fair does it?

What  do you think would be a more equitable Hell?

In 1975 Raymond Moody published a book in which he told of interviews he had with numerous people who had survived a near death experience.  The book was titled Life After Life. I saw recently that is still available and can be ordered on line.

I heard about the book and looked for it in the local library. It wasn’t there but there was a sequel to it in which other stories of near death experiences were told, which had been sent to Dr. Moody by people who had read the first book.

It might have been that they had been afraid to tell anyone of their experience for fear of being ridiculed, and that  reading Life After Life freed them to finally tell their story.

One of those stories really stuck with me. It was from a man who had seemingly led a terrible life, in which he had hurt many people. It didn’t give details, but the man said that when he died –in some cases the heart stops during surgery – he met Jesus, and Jesus  showed him his life – something like seeing a video of your life – and he saw himself hurting people.

And as he watched, he felt the pain, the fear, the dread, that they had felt when he was  hurting them.  

And he was terrified!  

When he was brought back to life – maybe the doctors shocked his heart, I don’t know –  he remembered what had happened. And he said that he now spends his time trying to contact those he had hurt during his life, and asking their forgiveness.

He is terrified of going back to what might be his own personal Hell.

If you think about it, if that is what Hell is really like, then it is a much  more appropriate Hell  than the traditional idea of Hell.

Imagine that Hitler, Stalin, Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun – all the mass murderers of history have to endure what they caused  so many millions to suffer.

For eternity.

Jesus said, ‘I have a baptism to be baptised with, and how I am constrained until it is accomplished.”

He is talking about the cross, of course, and he is now journeying toward Jerusalem, and that cross.

And you know, I have thought about the cross and the agony of it, and also thought about the hundreds, maybe thousands of people the Romans hung on crosses, and have wondered at the agony they suffered.

What made Jesus’ death so much worse than theirs?

For one thing he had been humiliated, and then flogged terribly beforehand.

But more than that.

He died for our sins. That’s a phrase that we have heard so often that it has lost its meaning.

He suffered for our sins.

He suffered for our sins so that we wouldn’t have to suffer for then,

Your sins and mine, and the sins of everyone who has ever sinned.

Hitler, Stalin, Genghis Khan, Attila the Hun, and so on.

If Hell is a place where we suffer the hurt we have caused others, then those monsters are suffering all the pain and anguish they caused, and what pain and heartache they did cause in their brief time on earth.

Jesus bore all that pain and all the pain and suffering that all sinners would have to bear, on his back that terrible day.

That is what made Christ’s death so dreadful.

And for me, that is what calls us to faith.

The writer of Hebrews talks of the faith of historical figures such as Abraham, Moses, Isaac, Jacob, and that of the prophets, and martyrs, some of whom suffered awful treatment, even unto death, and who did not lose their faith.

And we are encouraged to hold onto our faith in the face of such adversity.

It was extremely difficult for those people to do so. As it is for us sometimes, although not so drastically as we hear about in that Hebrews excerpt.

My faith has been tested at times.

As I was preparing to go into seminary, I heard of the painful death of my favourite aunt.  She had been an exemplary person, a true Christian if ever there was one, and many people loved her and  during her illness, had prayed for her healing, to no avail.

And I couldn’t see how such a person could be allowed to suffer, and indeed, not be healed, in the face of her life, and the prayers that went up for her.

Where was the God she loved when she needed Him?

And I tell you, my faith was tested, at that.

A year later, I was in the UK and I met her husband, and I just had to ask about her. I told him how unfair it seemed  to me, and how it had affected me, and he said, “ Trev, you are right it was awful, but even as she was dying…….. she was praising Jesus.”

Praising Jesus as she died?

Her faith hadn’t been weakened. Mine had.

How could I question God when she, the one who was suffering, accepted and endured and never questioned?

So, for those faithful like my aunt, and others like her, what will it be like to meet their God?

I imagine a joyful meeting. Coming into their rightful reward.

But what about those of us who believe but haven’t been able to show such strength?  Such fortitude? Feel like we may have failed. Even though we have tried so hard.

Imagine a person like that standing before God and being asked what have they done in life to merit their reward, and  not being quite sure, and not knowing what to say, and Jesus stepping forward and saying, ‘That’s alright Father, this person is one of mine,”

That’s what I believe a follower, someone who lives for Christ, a faithful Christian, is able to  rely upon.

It is hard to be a faithful Christian. We are not persecuted as followers were in those days. Even so, some Christians in this world are being persecuted. Churches have been burned in Egypt, and Christians attacked.

For us in the West, being a Christian is not deadly.

But there are pressures.

Jesus said there would be division, even in a household. One or more members would be believers, and other family members not.

That happens today doesn’t it?

I had a family, a mother and three lovely daughters who attended a church I ministered to. The mother helped in Sunday School, and the daughters were part of Sunday School and took part in everything that was going on for children – – like the Christmas Pageant and so on.

It turned out the husband and father was a non-believer, and each Sunday when the mother was getting the girls ready for church, he would try and persuade them to stay home.

Eventually he succeeded and that family fell away.

Jesus warned about such divisions, and in fact experienced division within his own family.

You may remember when Jesus was preaching, and healing people, his family, mother and brothers came to see him, and bring him home.

They thought he was mad.

The lesson for us, and it is a hard one, is that we are called to put Christ, even before family.

Even before loved ones.

To put God first.

And people do.

In countries where Islam is the main religion, converts to Christianity have to hide it from family  and friends.

It raises the question for me: are we who have no need to hide our faith from others open about our faith?

Do we show the world we are followers of Jesus?

This question has been asked before: If it were illegal to be a Christian, would you be found guilty?

It used to be that if you wore a crucifix the chances were that you were a Christian, but nowadays many people wear crucifixes, some on necklaces, some in earrings, or even nose rings.

And those wearing them don’t even know or care about the meaning of the cross.

I heard a story once about a woman whose niece was being baptised and she wanted to buy a cross and chain.

She asked to see some crosses, and the assistant asked, “Do you want a plain cross, or one with the little man on it?

We can laugh. But people don’t know because not enough Christians are telling them.

A few years ago, a program called  Back to Church Sunday was introduced, when we were asked to invite someone to come to church with us.

How would you feel about that today?

Would you find it easy?

Would you look for a soft target, like an old aunt who hasn’t been able to make it to church for a while, or would  you choose a hard target, say a workmate, who has never shown a sign of being a Christian?

Or would  you stay away that Sunday?

I was visiting patients in the hospital in Guelph and at that time the hospital provided a list of patients with their religious denomination.

I was going from ward to ward, room to room, spending time with those patients who had identified as Anglicans.

I came to one room, and looked inside, and saw a a man lying on his bed, upside down – he was lying with his head at the bottom of the bed and his feet at the top.

His head was shaven. He had numerous tattoos. Didn’t look like my idea of an Anglican, so I figured I must have the wrong room.

I moved along to check the next room, then thought, Maybe that man is an Anglican.”

I went back, entered his room went up to his bed, and asked, “Are you an Anglican,” and he answered, ” I have been given six months to live. Jesus is all I have.”

Playing safe by asking an old aunt to come to church with us, won’t wash. Will it?

We have to have the courage to ask the unlikely, the ones who don’t seem to fit the pattern. But who have a real need.

As far as I know there is no Back to Church Sunday this year, but the same challenge is there. To ask someone, not on a special Sunday, but any Sunday to ask someone to come to church with us. 

It will require us to reveal who we are, however.

And if we hesitate to show who we are, then how will anyone know we follow Jesus?

More to the point, how will God know?

Amen.


[1] The Daily Study  Bible, William Barclay Revised edition, 1975.