Monday, December 06, 2010

Believe in Emmanuel, Not Judgment

Sermon preached at the Church of St. Luke & St. Simon Cyrene on the Second Sunday of Advent, December 5, 2010: Matthew 3:1-12

It is easy to forget, or simply not be aware of, the circumstances of the communities out of which our Gospels were written. One of the reasons each Gospel is different is because they were written in and for different contexts.

We don’t know for certain any of these contexts, but we have many clues and we do our best to reconstruct them. It is important that we do this and pay attention to it because it helps us greatly with interpretation. A basic principle of bible interpretation is that we can’t understand what the writers are saying if we don’t understand something of why they were saying it and to whom.

Why, for instance, is John the Baptist so judgmental? Why the threat of “unquenchable fire?” This an important question as we read Matthew’s Gospel because this threat of eternal fire is uttered ten times, two by John and eight by Jesus. In contrast, Jesus uses the image only twice in Mark’s Gospel; John uses it twice in Luke’s Gospel (Jesus doesn’t use it at all), and Jesus uses it once in John’s Gospel. Paul, interestingly enough, never uses the image. Among other things, Matthew’s Gospel is the Gospel of judgment.

Most scholars believe that Matthew’s Gospel was written for a primarily Jewish Christian community. Some believe this community was in Antioch, others somewhere in Galilee; precisely where doesn’t much matter. So the context is the Roman-occupied Middle East (as we would call it today), and a Christian movement still primarily composed of Jews. The time Matthew was written is also important. It was undoubtedly written after the Roman destruction of the Temple in Jerusalem, which occurred in 70 c.e.

Why is all this important? Well, the Middle East—and Judaism in particular—at this time was awash with apocalyptic thinking. That means many people believed there was a great battle raging all around them between the forces of good and the forces of evil. Ever since the return of Israel from exile in Babylon several centuries earlier, a series of powerful nations had ruled the territory with varying levels of oppression. This was ripe ground for apocalyptic thinking.

The notion that a Messiah would come to lead the forces of good to victory was accepted by most people, believed fervently by many. The first and foremost job of this Messiah would be to judge the wicked and rid the world of them so that the righteous could live in peace.

John the Baptist appears to have been one of many apocalyptic preachers around the time of Jesus. Clearly in his warning to the people who came to him, John is preparing them for the judgment to come. The day of reckoning is coming. Change your lives before it’s too late.

This movement, by the way, did not especially trust the religious authorities in Jerusalem or the adherents of the sects of Judaism at the time called Pharisees and Sadducees. For the most part they were seen as collaborators and people who refused to believe that God was about to do a new thing. Hence John’s harsh words for them in this morning’s Gospel reading.

It appears that Jesus was attracted to this movement, at least as it was led by John, and he certainly submitted to John’s baptism. As his ministry begins, it is reported that at first he mimics John. His message is, “Repent, for the kingdom of God is near” (Matthew 4:17).

But the message begins to change. Jesus only uses the word “repent” one more time in Matthew’s Gospel. Instead Jesus begins to talk about forgiveness. He uses a form of the word “forgive” 12 times. When his disciples ask him to teach them to pray, he teaches them to pray to forgive others as they have been forgiven (Matthew 6:12).

This was not part of the vocabulary of John the Baptist and other apocalyptic thinkers, and next week we will hear about the imprisoned John the Baptist sending a delegation to Jesus to ask him if he really is the One they have been waiting for, or should they keep waiting. Jesus wasn’t being the kind of Messiah that John expected.

Nevertheless, as Matthew writes his Gospel, the theme of judgment is never far away and it is on Jesus’ lips many times. Jesus’ ministry before his last days in Jerusalem will end in Matthew’s Gospel with the great story of the sheep and the goats, a clear judgment scene sending some to eternal life and some to eternal punishment. This judgment perhaps doesn’t bother us very much because it is justice-based, but nevertheless it is a judgment and I’m honest enough to know that I live life sometimes as a sheep and sometimes as a goat. And I know you well enough to know that you do too.

So what are we to think of this judgment talk? We do not live, by and large, in a context that promotes apocalyptic thinking, although it is alive and well in part of American Christianity. Most of us, however, imagine that people who think like that are a little soft in the head.

I confess that I do not entirely know how to talk about judgment, which some of you may think is a very bad thing for a priest. My instincts are that God’s love triumphs over God’s judgment, but I cannot dismiss God’s judgment altogether. There is a lot of grey in life, but there is good and evil too, and all of us need to be able to spot it, especially in ourselves.

I do know that under stress I tend to be judgmental. I think that’s true for most of us. If we think back to the aftermath of September 11, 2001, apocalyptic language, dividing the world into good and evil, for us and against, was quite common, even from the lips of our President. So we ought to be able to understand Matthew’s community and cut it a little slack as we read this Gospel.

The image many of us have of judgment is that we will individually stand before God at our pre-ordained moment and someone, perhaps God himself, will read each and every sin we have ever committed, and then that will be weighed against the good we have done and we will either go to heaven or go to hell.

Somehow I do not think that is how it works, and, truth to tell, there is nothing particularly biblical about that image. Ultimately, we do not know how it works. We’re told that day will come. All we can know, and this means everything, is that we do not believe in the unquenchable fire. We believe in Jesus, and Jesus has promised us to be with us to the end, and I take that to mean at the end as well.

God is with us. That is really what Matthew’s Gospel is about. It’s right there in bookends. The Gospel begins with the story of Joseph’s dream, in which he is told that this child to be born will be “Emmanuel,” which means “God is with us.” And at the very end of the Gospel, Jesus says “I am with you always, to the end of the age.”

The world around Matthew led him to keep the ultimate judgment close to the story of Jesus. But Matthew did not want his people to believe in judgment. He wanted them to believe in Emmanuel.

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