St. Augustine of Canterbury Anglican Church
+ Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for the 4th Sunday in Advent – December 23, 2018
“John answered them, saying, I baptize with water: but there standeth one among you, whom ye know not; he it is, who coming after me is preferred before me, whose shoe's latchet I am not worthy to unloose.”
IN THE ADVENT SEASONAL COLLECT, we ask God for grace to cast away our works that come from darkness, and to dress us in armour made from light. We ask this in order to prepare us for that last day of earth’s existence when Christ returns in glory to judge the living and dead, so that we may rise immortal and live with Him in that glory forever. We believe Jesus lived. We even believe that He died and rose again. And that He ascended to the right Hand of His Father in heaven. That’s all smooth sailing. What is still unseen by us, and what is hardest to imagine, let alone to believe, is to actually be conscious witnesses of the greater acts of God Incarnate soon to come. For what is yet to happen is immensely, infinitely more stunning than what has gone before. Jesus walked on water and stilled a storm. Jesus, in your sight and mine, will touch His foot on the Mount of Olives and split it apart, bringing with Him all of heaven’s army and in the zeal and the wrath of God, destroy every enemy of His. All that has gone before is only the prelude to the Day of the Lord.
I think we keep our eyes fixed beyond this for our own comfort. The idea of Jesus riding a warhorse and bearing a gigantic sword, ending lives and sending millions of souls to hell may be repugnant to us. We want our hamburger delivered to us in a plastic wrapper, or pre-cooked, not to watch the entire process from cattle feed lot to butcher to market. How should we want to see the judgment of mankind? But it’s an undeniable part of our religion. It is how the end of the book is good, the only way it can be good. There must come a division of mankind—the sheep and the goats, the wise and the foolish virgins.
So, how do we fare, if a day cometh when you and I stand before the judgment seat and must give an account of our lives? I hope it makes you squirm, just a little, to ask that. It is supposed to create just a moment’s discomfort. Why? Because, if asked where you will spend your eternity, and you answer, “Heaven, I hope,” I should come to you and ask you, “How do you think you qualify?”
Are you worthy of heaven? Am I? A judgment means weighing out facts and actions, looking at cases and finding guilt or innocence. Are we innocent? What’s the crime of which we stand accused? We know the Ten Commandments. We know the Summary of the Law. Have I lied? I’d be a liar to say I wasn’t one. Do I love God with all my heart and soul and mind? I fairly must say I’d like to, but I’ve failed that test as well. Am I in real trouble? What makes me worthy to be called a good and faithful servant, as I hope to be? I’m afraid, as Isaiah said, that “we are all like an unclean thing, And all our righteousnesses are like filthy rags; We all fade as a leaf, And our iniquities, like the wind, Have taken us away.” Isaiah 64:6
Whittaker Chambers was an American communist who spied for the Soviet Union against us. Then he converted to Christianity and renounced his former life, coming completely clean and testifying against Alger Hiss, destroying a spy ring. He began writing Christian books and in one he says, “I do not know any way to explain why God's grace touches a man who seems unworthy of it.” Spy turns saint. And he hopes for heaven.
A thief hangs on the left side of Jesus, both men nailed to timber crosses, both sentenced to death. But the thief turns to Jesus and asks to be remembered when Christ comes to His Father’s kingdom. He isn’t baptized. He is guilty of theft and is facing death under the human justice of the day. He hasn’t cited the creed or received communion. But it’s his judgment day and with no argument against his fate, no excuse for his sins, which are many, he simply honors Christ. And his new-found God gently assures him, out of His own pain, “Surely, you will be with me today in Paradise.”
Who is good and who is bad? By what measure may we judge a person worthy? We live today in a moment where black and white judgment falls on red and blue personalities, where not words or actions alone, but whole persons are cast as entirely good or completely evil by the press, by celebrity voices, by culture, by youth, by the elderly. I seem to remember days when we were more egalitarian, more moderate in our judgments, believing everyone to have a voice and to be worthy of a chance to do well. We’ve nearly done away with capital punishment, and in its place, roasted alive anyone with a contrary point of view. Do we believe that heaven agrees with our politics? I wonder.
Putting you or me on a scale and by some elaborate psychodynamic instrument watch a needle swing past the midpoint with relief—is a myth that needs dispelling. We are not graded on a curve. We are not graded at all. If it’s worthiness that’s the goal, I’m afraid that ship sailed and we were not on it. The ark was for one family and a host of animals. And it was for another judgment day, not ours. So, are we looking for clemency, or mercy, or a better excuse than the next guy? Are we hoping to sneak in the door and blend in? We shall each stand naked in the sight of every creature and before the bench of God’s Son who will ask us a terrible question. He’s already given us a terrible requirement. Do you know what that was?
We can’t use excuses. Any explanation for why I didn’t love God or my neighbor enough can’t work because, if it’s really an excuse, then I have nothing to forgive. And if even 1% of my failure is not excusable, then I still have the problem. What do I need? I need forgiveness. Not blind mercy, not a blank check, not some legal fiction of God’s forgetfulness. I need Him to look right at my sins and say, “I forgive you. It’s done.” But how do I get that?
There are two very important requirements I know of, right off the bat. One is faith in Christ. That’s mighty important, so we’d better understand what that is. We don’t merely think He existed, or even that He lives today. We know that He came as God, our maker, our source of life, and that He took our nature and became human for us. He sacrificed every right He had and fell under our judgment and hostility, dying on the cross and, from the cross, He spoke forgiveness. Then this mighty hero rose from the grave and became our future, the Resurrection Himself.
That’s not all. I said ‘two requirements.’ We’re seeking forgiveness, not just a passport to the other world. How are we forgiven? Does faith make it so? Let’s not oversimplify. Jesus said more. He put us in the place of forgiving others. You see, we are not mere subjects of a king. He is making us kings and queens ourselves. He is not the only priest, our high priest and prophet. He makes us priests, ones who offer sacrifices that God receives and respects.
We all know the words. We say them often enough. “…and forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us.” And if we don’t see the point of that, He explains right after teaching us the prayer, “For if you forgive men their trespasses, your heavenly Father will also forgive you: But if you forgive not men their trespasses, neither will your Father forgive your trespasses.” Matthew 6:14-15 So, if I harbor in my heart or mind a wrong that was done against me, a real, bad and intentional evil committed against my life, or against someone I love, and I don’t let it go, am I doomed for hell? Well, I suppose every sin may be forgiven. The real test is Christ and He is very forgiving. Let’s not judge God. But let’s try to understand.
The scales of justice are absolute. Every sin weighs enough to make anyone guilty of sin and therefore subject to death and damnation. The smallest flaw is sufficient, for perfection is the only thing that can enter a perfect heaven. The first sin, I believe, was not Eve’s plucking that fruit and eating it. The first sin, as I see it, was Adam’s failing to say anything to her or the serpent. He sat there and did nothing. Nothing was enough to cause the fall of everyone. One lost chance, one apparent minor failure: it broke the string. It was less than worthy.
So, what hope have we? We hope for our unworthiness to be forgiven. There is powerful forgiveness in our Saviour. That’s why we call Him Saviour. He carried the sins of the entire world on His shoulders as He suffered on Calvary, and under the weight of all our sins, He said, “Father, forgive them.” It isn’t any longer about our guilt or the measure of our crimes and misdemeanors. The entire universe turned upside down and now it’s all about forgiveness. Not excuses. They are useless. They are worse than that, they are a lie. They are seeking justification when the king is offering you a pardon.
Imagine yourself before the king of the world. He is offering you a royal pardon for anything and everything you’ve ever done wrong. You are staggered at the thought, because you came here planning your defense. “I wasn’t there. I did it for a good cause. I came for some other reason, but they forced the situation. He did it to me first. You don’t know how I’ve suffered from her ceaseless criticisms. I had to do it!” Now, He offers forgiveness. You have to choose. Do I want to be forgiven, and lose my self-respect? Lose the chance to vindicate myself and show Him why I was right and they were, all of them, wrong? Can I come under that heavy burden of accepting His pardon?
Or do I know that I am unworthy? Unworthy and wanting, just damaged goods, just another life on the scrapheap of history, waiting to be cast into darkness, where I belong? And I am among others who, likewise, are unworthy. Do I get a pardon, and they still deserve jettisoning into the night? Can I do that? Or do I let them into my new universe? It’s a new day, and a new deal. It’s a plea bargain and I am offered mercy. The bargain is that I allow others to have access to that clemency. I allow that even the worst of them might come to faith and forgiveness, beginning with my heart and my prayers saying, “Father, forgive them, for like me, they don’t know what they’ve done.”
The Day of the Lord will be terrible, and wonderful, and cosmic and kind. Kind beyond all our desires, our hopes, our fears. God’s peace passes all our understanding. His peace is that He knows all and still loves us. He still wants us. We can let down our guard and just be forgiven. He won the right to say that to us, and we only have to accept our unworthy status, and be made worthy in His blood.
A blessed Advent to you, for just one more day. The Lord loves you. He forgives you. And He wants you. Say it: I’m not worthy. And I accept your wonderful forgiveness.