Sermon for Pentecost 11 2019

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

Our reading this morning from the Epistle to the Hebrews seems at first to be a bit frightening. God is described as a consuming fire and darkness and gloom and a tempest. We are told that the earth will be shaken, and much will be destroyed before the Kingdom of God is established on earth.

There is a great deal in scripture about last things, what theologians call eschatology. In this church we don’t spend much time talking about that stuff, perhaps because so many fundamentalist Christians spend so much time talking about particular time-lines or theories, but I think we’re missing an opportunity here. The end of this world is a largely hopeful thing in Scripture, and too much focus on the nasty bits can distract us from the ultimate truth of the matter. The coming of Christ’s Kingdom is not something to be feared. Rather, we are promised a new heaven and a new earth in which justice and peace flourish and sin and death can no longer visit us. Though, to simply skip the nasty bits of scripture isn’t helpful or particularly honest if we claim to take scripture seriousy.

So, I want us to look at the destruction mentioned in this morning’s epistle, and I think we’ll see they are not as the terrifying acts of a vengeful God, but the loving acts of one who wants the best for us. Granted, the imagery in this morning’s Epistle isn’t warm and fuzzy. The ultimate power of the divine is awesome in the proper sense of that word- capable of eliciting awe and even fear. But even this aspect of God is about God’s love for us, not God’s wrath divorced from his love.

In the final analysis, the consuming fire of God is about distinguishing what is temporary and what endures. It helps us think about where we place our hope, what we invest in to put it in terms we might appreciate these days. Over the last few months, our Gospel readings have warned us against placing our hope in things that are passing away – namely, wealth and comfort and earthly power – and investing our time and treasure and energy into those things which will endure into eternity – namely, love, and mercy and the fruits of the Spirit.

Remember that in the reading from Hebrews, God does not destroy everything. Here again the word of the Lord:

This phrase, “Yet once more,” indicates the removal of what is shaken, as of what has been made, in order that what cannot be shaken may remain.

Love, and mercy and the fruits of the Spirit. Faith, hope, and charity. This is what we can be assured will remain, because they are the results of God working through us.

It is, I think, dangerous to point to one bit of the Gospels as the center of Jesus’ teaching, but we all tend to do it. A lot of people will point to John 3:16 or the Summary of the Law in Mark 12. They’re both good candidates, but I would humbly suggest a third candidate, from the 25th chapter of Matthew, in Jesus’ explanation of the final judgment, which I shall quote in full, as I believe it to be what it’s all about for Christians who desire the Kingdom:

When the Son of man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will place the sheep at his right hand, but the goats at the left. Then the King will say to those at his right hand, `Come, O blessed of my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundation of the world; for I was hungry and you gave me food, I was thirsty and you gave me drink, I was a stranger and you welcomed me, I was naked and you clothed me, I was sick and you visited me, I was in prison and you came to me.’  Then the righteous will answer him, `Lord, when did we see thee hungry and feed thee, or thirsty and give thee drink? And when did we see thee a stranger and welcome thee, or naked and clothe thee? And when did we see thee sick or in prison and visit thee?’ And the King will answer them, `Truly, I say to you, as you did it to one of the least of these my brethren, you did it to me.’ 

This is what endures. This is what cannot be shaken and will remain to the ages of ages. This is the narrow gate of of Matthew’s Gospel, the line and plummet of the prophet Isaiah. “Therefore let us be grateful for receiving a kingdom that cannot be shaken,” a kingdom based on love and service, “and thus let us offer to God acceptable worship.”

+In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.