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Sunday, February 22, 2009

The Last Judgment

The picture above is of the shrine built on the Island of Patmos, where St. John received the Revelation of Jesus Christ (now the last book of the New Testament). Patmos is located in the Aegean Sea, off the coast of what is now Turkey.

Epistle: I Corinthians 8:8-9:2
Gospel: Matthew 25:31-46

I have to confess: I take advantage of God's grace.

Some people might say I'm overly self-critical (and they would be right). I know that I'm a master at second-guessing myself and I spend an inordinate amount of time thinking that things might have been different if I'd only done 'this' instead of 'that'.

I take advantage of God's grace in the same way I take advantage of the fact that there are too few deputies on the county back roads: I drive faster than I should, hedging my bets that I won't get caught.

I take advantage of God's grace by overlooking aspects of my own life that I think God would over look, too. How bad can a short burst of temper be compared to all the abortions being committed in the world? So what if I swear under my breath; at least I don't have a meth lab in my basement. Why would God care that I waste material things? He most certainly cares more about the sweatshop women and children that make them.

Maybe you're in the same boat as I am. You and I wouldn't be alone. In our culture we have a tendency to wink at sin. We want to permit things to happen because we know that we want the same leniency given to us.

This general tendency in our lives makes it difficult for us to cope with one of the most certain tenets of the Christian faith: "He will come again with glory to judge both the living and the dead."

This is the last of the three-Sunday season before Lent (called the "Triodion") and it is called Sunday of the Last Judgment. The first two Sundays are shining examples of the grace of God: the account of the Pharisee and the Publican and the parable of the Prodigal Son. And now, seemingly out of nowhere, comes the narrative of the Last Judgment.

These three passages are actually a perfect match. People like me, who take advantage of God's grace, need a reminder that there comes a time when the rubber meets the road. God isn't some sort of divine enabler, permitting us to go on indefinitely in our self-destructive behaviors.

This is actually the message of the parables of the Pharisee and Publican and Prodigal Son, as well. The unspoken story line of the former is the fact that the Publican had come to a place in his life where he needed to repent. The parable compares his attitude with that of the self-righteous Pharisee, but the truth is that somehow, somewhere, he got to a place in his life where he begged the Lord: "God, have mercy upon me, a sinner" (Luke 18:13). Likewise, the Prodigal Son finds himself covered with the consequences of sin before he finally rehearsed his petition: "Father, I have sinned against heaven and against you. I am no longer worthy to be called your son" (Luke 15:21).

No one likes to be judged. No one wants to face the consequences of what we do (or don't do). Everyone would like to believe themselves to be their own moral and spiritual standard and, as such, there is no room for anyone else to judge us.

In this sense, we are exactly like the sheep or the goats in today's Gospel reading. There is very little difference in the general composition of sheep and goats. They may have marks or body structures that set them apart from each other, but essentially they are exactly the same as every other sheep or goat.

They eat. They bleat. They herd. They breed. They give milk.
They taste good when roasted with some savory herbs.

Sheep and goats can't judge one another's actions because they feel no moral or spiritual obligation for one another. In fact, sheep are so self-consumed that they will run from a predator as a herd until one is caught, then watch as the predator consumes the caught animal. No ovine relief effort is mounted. No special offerings collected for the orphaned lambs. No awards for volunteer sheep hours served. As animals, they have no will to choose their own way or God's way.

The context for the Last Judgment is aptly put among sheep and goats. First, we see that the sheep and goats have no idea of when the judgment will come. Second, we see that they have little understanding of the reasons for judgment. And third, they are not judging one another; this is left to the Shepherd.

A quick reminder: The account of the Sheep and Goats is the end of a private session the Lord conducts with His Disciples that begins in Matthew 24:3, in response to a question from them. "What will be the sign of your coming and of the end of the age?" Christ is clear through the rest of Chapter 24 than no one will know when the judgment comes, only that it will come.

When we know judgment is coming, we prepare. I have worked in the health care field long enough to know that when a state survey is expected, there is a tendency to 'straighten up and fly right'. Even at Timbercrest, where I work, and where we have deficiency-free surveys consistently, there is a mild anxiety that settles in, knowing that we'll be inspected at at any moment. Records are re-read to be sure they're in order. T's are crossed and i's are dotted, just to be sure we're ready.

In the public schools, knowing that ISTEP testing is coming, the unfortunate trend has been to 'teach to the test'. But who can blame them? When we know that 'judgment' is coming, we get ready for it.

The Lord has higher expectations of us. We are not told when the judgment will come because His expectation is that we should be ready for it at any time. We are told to love our enemies and pray for those who persecute us, not to wait until we know He's coming, then do it. We are told to love our neighbors as we love ourselves, not to wait until we meet them in the line on judgment day.

Judgment may come to us in two ways. The first, as the Gospel tells us, is at the Last Judgment, a day and time unknown in the future, when all of humanity is judged by God. This final judgment is what St. John the Apostle witnessed in his Revelation of Jesus Christ. This day has been anticipated by Christians from the first century to today. It is the day we anticipate in hymns like this one:

When the trumpet of the Lord shall sound,
And time shall be no more,
And the morning breaks eternal bright and fair;
When the saved of earth shall gather
Over on the other shore,
And the roll is called up yonder, I'll be there!

The second means of judgment somes to us at Death. As St. Paul tells us in Hebrews, "Just as man is destined to die once and after that to face the judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people; and He will appear a second time, not to bear sin, but to bring salvation to those who are waiting for Him" (Heb. 9:27, 28).

This 'destiny' for death (or, as the King James Version puts it, our "appointment" with death), is something we simply can't put off. Try as we might, death awaits each of us, and an account will be given before God of what we've done with our days, who we've become in the course of our years.

The time of arrival at our destination is only known to God, only to be determined by Him. This is a significant part of the reason that abortion, murder, suicide, and other man-made ways of taking another's life are wrong. If we take matters into our own hands in creating death for another, we assume a role that belongs uniquely and sovereignly to God.

What would you do to change your walk with Christ if you knew He was coming tonight? Why wait until judgment? Make the changes now, and live prepared to meet Him.

A second aspect about the Last Judgment is that the sheep and goats have little understanding of the reasons for judgment. After the Shepherd has pulled His sheep to His right and has blessed them for their lives, they still ask, "When did we do these things?" Likewise, after the goats on His left are condemned to eternal punishment, they ask the same thing, "When didn't we do these things?"

One of the nicknames that I have hoped to try and shake some day is "Instant-judgment Daniels." I often jump to conclusions about people based on their behavior or their outer appearance or their apparent lack of common sense or their inability to agree with me. I have criteria for judging people that is usually petty and insensitive.

God's judgment is based on compassion, love, grace and care. In Matt. 25:34-36, we read that God cares for the hungry, the homeless, the naked, the sick, and the imprisoned. God doesn't ask us to analyze or rationalize how people got hungry, or homeless, or naked, or sick or in prison. He simply cares that we care.

I believe the reason for this is that short-sighted human judgment comes when we begin to worry about how people get to where they are in life.
"She'd have enough food if she didn't waste her money on cigarettes." Perhaps cigarettes are her coping mechanism for a lifetime of abuse and her emotions trump her stomach.
"If he'd quit gambling he'd have enough to pay his rent." Maybe desperate life circumstances drove him to gamble in the first place. His plant closed. He was robbed. His family fell apart.
"They deserve to be in there for what they did." In truth, don't we all deserve punishment for the things we've done wrong?

God asks us to leave the affairs of the lives of others to Him. It is up to us to demonstrate His love and compassion to people, regardless of their circumstances.

Like the sheep and the goats, we may not understand this rationale about God's judgment, until we realize that we are subject to it as well. Are you (and I) willing to be subject to the judgment of others? Shouldn't we be more willing, more hopeful, in leaving our lives in the hands of God's goodness and compassion.

Finally, it's important to note that the sheep and goats aren't judging one another. That is left to the Shepherd. As I mentioned earlier, sheep and goats (and other animals) are remarkably self-absorbed. Even the most altruistic of animals - our pets - have to be trained to be so. And, given the chance, they'll fend for themselves every time.

I heard a speaker about 22 years ago talking about Christians in their role as servants. He said something I've never forgotten: "When we are busy serving our fellow man, we don't have time to judge him."

To me, this is one of the kernels of Christian faith. Of all the descriptive metaphors used of the Lord's disciples, not one of them is as a judge of anything. We are branches of the vine, servants (faithful and unfaithful), stones in His temple, etc. But we are never in a place of judgment.

Sheep in a meadow would only be able to judge other sheep in their same meadow because they have not been in any other meadow. Their perepective of the lives of other sheep is myopic, skewed only to how the other sheep in the meadow have treated them. Who got to the good clover first? Who stood where in the snow and rain? Who has what number on their ear tag?

It takes a shepherd to keep the fences mended, the wolf at bay, the hay stocked and stacked. It takes a shepherd to be aware of the conditions outside the meadow and to prepare his flock for them. It takes a shepherd to tend sheep that are ill or metastasized or orphaned or hungry, because won't - and can't - do it for each other.

Likewise, Jesus Christ in His place as Judge at the Last Day is the One Whose perspective sees beyond our own life's 'meadow'. He understands us and why other sheep may get the good clover before us. He sees when we're left standing outside the sheep pen in the rain and he knows how or why it happened. He sees 'wolves' that we are completely unaware of because we are so pre-occupied with our own concerns.

As we prepare to keep a meaningful and holy Lent, keep in mind God's Judgment. However you observe Lent - with fasting or abstinence, with added devotion or discipline - remember that your Shepherd is Jesus Christ and He has great compassion and care for you.

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