This evening is the first of a three-part Advent sermon series we have entitled “Ero Cras,” which is a Latin acrostic translated “Tomorrow, I [that is, Jesus Christ] will be there [that is, there for you].”[i] Following the liturgy on these three Tuesday evenings we invite all of you in the congregation to join us for a soup supper, and with opportunity to ask questions of the evening’s preacher. These next two Tuesdays in Advent, the preacher’s focus will be “Hope” and then, “Desire and Longing.” This evening my focus is “Judgment and Salvation.”If you were sick, and you went to see a doctor, there’s something you would expect, and something you would not expect. You would not expect to be balled out. You would not expect your physician to launch into a tirade, something like: “Sick. Sick. Sick. That’s all I see is sick people. From the moment I open my door, there’s a parade of sick people. It’s so tedious. It’s absolutely relentless. So your head hurts; you’ve got a tummy ache; your foot is swollen; you can’t sleep? Poor, poor pathetic you. There you go blathering on about all your little problems. Don’t you think I’ve got problems, too? Do you ask me whether my head hurts? Whether my back ever aches? No, of course not. And it’s your own fault. It’s not entirely your fault, but plenty blame comes your way. You ought to be ashamed of yourself. You need to get your act in order. Get a life. You get yourself well and then you can come see me…” You would not expect that kind of response from your physician.
What you would expect, and what you do need, are three things. For one, you need a diagnosis. A diagnosis is a judgment. A diagnosis is a physician’s judgment based on what you report and what the physician sees and hears and feels in his or her examination of you, plus what your physician knows from his or her training and experience: this is what is wrong with you, in their judgment. And then you would want your physician to help you become well, because you can’t do it by yourself. You would want your physician to prescribe some treatment that will enable your healing. In their judgment, this remedy will help restore you. And you would also have every hope – given that you are sick and therefore quite vulnerable, perhaps even fearful – that your physician would treat you in a kind and merciful way.
Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ, comes to us as the Great Physician. We hear Jesus saying, “Those who are well have no need of a physician, but those who are sick.”[ii] From the very outset of Jesus’ public ministry, his primary work is healing the body, mind, and soul of the people whom he meets along the way.[iii] He has come to save us (which is to rescue us), to salve us (which is to heal us) and to salvage us (which is to recover what is otherwise lost or dead). To save and to salve and to salvage, words which are related etymologically in both English and Greek. To save and salve and salvage us is Jesus’ mission. That’s quite literally what the title “Messiah” means. Messiah, a Hebrew word meaning “the Anointed One.” The title “Christ,” the Greek synonym meaning “the Anointed One.” Jesus, the Messiah, the Christ, comes to us as the Anointed One. Anointing is about healing and restoration. Anointing is also about authority; by the act of anointing, a would-be king is made a king. Jesus, our healer and sovereign: this is his identity, and this is his work. Jesus puts a face to God’s judgment, and it is a judgment of love. It is not a judgment of ridicule, or rejection, or hopelessness, or condemnation, but rather, a judgment of love. Without Jesus’ intervention into our world and into our lives, we are lost, hopeless, estranged, dis-eased, without one plea. Jesus stands by his judgment of us, and he rises to our assistance.
If we had only the Old Testament, the Hebrew scriptures, we would ultimately appear in the court of judgment as in a criminal case, where the charge is against us because of how we have gone astray. The very best we could hope for is an acquittal. However, in the light and love of Jesus, this is not a criminal case but rather a civil case. We have been wronged by the forces of evil. Even if we have colluded with these forces of evil, we have every assurance of a resounding triumph and great reward being made to us in this heavenly tribunal.[iv] You’re going to win this case big time. Jesus is already planning the victory party for you; he’s already preparing a place for you to dwell eternally in his own neighborhood.[v] You are a child of God, and Jesus loves children, especially prodigal children.
Jesus gives us a new icon for God’s judgment, and it is a judgment of love, and this love knows no bounds. Jesus’ judgment of love is not time bound. By that I mean what is past for us is always present to Jesus. Which is why we say in the Apostles’ Creed (in the traditional language) that Jesus “was crucified, dead, and buried [and] he descended into hell…”[vi] Into hell. Why to hell? To rescue lost souls. To save those who are lost in hell. If you were to ask me if I literally believe in a hell, I would say, yes, most certainly. I’ve already been there any number of times. And the reason I’m not in a living hell now is because I have been rescued by Jesus’ healing light and life and love. Some people die, not knowing of God’s love for them. That is why we rehearse in the Apostles’ Creed Jesus’ descending into hell to ultimately rescue, redeem, restore every last, lost human being. There are no recesses in all of creation – past, present, or future – that will escape Jesus’ judgment of love.
Here in the Monastery Chapel, on Holy Saturday, our custom is to read aloud a fourth-century homily entitled “Jesus Descends into Hell.” Listen here to Jesus speaking to those in hell: “…I now, by my own authority, command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. …I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated.”[vii] We rise with Jesus. Everyone.
Jesus’ judgment of love is really present in the past. Jesus’ judgment of love is also really present in the future: Ero Cras – tomorrow I will be there for you. The theological term for Jesus’ real presence in the future is “prevenient grace.” Grace means God’s favor, assistance, generosity, love, even if unrequited. Prevenient means “occurring in advance.” Prevenient grace is front-loaded grace, God’s grace, always ahead of us. “Prevenient grace” has a lot more to say about God than it does about us. There is nothing we can do or not do that will change Jesus’ love for us, now and forever. So we read in the First Letter of John: “My little children, I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin. But if anyone does sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous;and he is the atoning sacrifice for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.”[viii]
Jesus is our advocate. An advocate is the role of a legal spokesperson in the heavenly courts. Whatever it is that needs to be made right between all of humanity gone far astray from God in whose image we were created, Jesus covers. Whatever bridge must be built back to the God whom Jesus callas abba, papa, Jesus spans the gulf. Whatever price must be paid, whatever hell must be visited, whatever time it takes, whatever relentless love it requires, Jesus is there for us. Whatever needs to be said on our behalf, Jesus says the words on our behalf. The founder of our community, Richard Meux Benson, says that Jesus so identifies himself with us, his advocacy on our behalf is so intimate and integral that when we appear before the God whom Jesus calls abba, papa, what the papa hears is not our voice but Jesus’ voice speaking through us.[ix] As the Father – as the abba, the papa – has loved Jesus, so Jesus loves us.[x]
Jesus has created a pathway to heaven, a way that begins in our lifetime here on earth. He tells to follow him. That’s not a threat; that’s an invitation.[xi] There’s no reason to live like hell, in this life or the next. It’s heaven all the way. We either get the picture, and follow Jesus or we don’t. Most of us, certainly I, are a bit of a mix. We may stumble an amount, now and again losing our way. No matter. Jesus has come to seek and to save the lost, and to love us back to life.[xii] That’s a judgment call Jesus makes. In his judgment, we are worth it. You are worth it, and so is everyone else. Everyone is going to be our neighbor, sooner or later. Everyone
“Grant, O Lord, that each day before we enter the little death of sleep, we may undergo the little judgment of the past day, so that every wrong deed may be forgiven and every unholy thought set right. Let nothing go down into the depths of our being which has not been forgiven and sanctified. Then we shall be ready for our final birth into eternity and look forward with love and hope to standing before [you], who are both judge and savior, holy judge and loving savior.[xiii]
[i] Our series’ title, Ero Cras, comes from a Latin acrostic of the first letters of the ancient “O Antiphons” used with the Magnificat for seven days prior to Christmas: Emmanuel, Rex, Oriens, Clavis, Radix, Adonai, Sapientia.
[ii] Mark 2:17; Luke 5:31.
[iii] Luke 4:16-21 remembers Jesus’ beginning his public ministry with the reading of a scroll, the words of the prophet Isaiah (ch. 61): “16When [Jesus] came to Nazareth, where he had been brought up, he went to the synagogue on the sabbath day, as was his custom. He stood up to read, 17and the scroll of the prophet Isaiah was given to him. He unrolled the scroll and found the place where it was written: 18‘The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free,19 to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favor.’ 20And he rolled up the scroll, gave it back to the attendant, and sat down. The eyes of all in the synagogue were fixed on him. 21Then he began to say to them, ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’”
[iv] I am drawing on a “judgment” analogy made by C. S. Lewis in his Reflections on the Psalms. (New York: Harcourt, Brace and Co., 1958); pp. 9-19.
[v] John 14:1-7.
[vi] “The Apostles’ Creed” in Morning Prayer – Rite I, The Book of Common Prayer, pp. 21-22.
[vii] A fourth-century homily for Holy Saturday – “Jesus Descends into Hell”:
“Something strange is happening—there is a great silence on earth today, a great silence and stillness. The whole earth keeps silence because the King is asleep. The earth trembled and is still because God has fallen asleep in the flesh and he has raised up all who have slept ever since the world began. God has died in the flesh and hell trembles with fear.
He has gone to search for our first parent, as for a lost sheep. Greatly desiring to visit those who live in darkness and in the shadow of death, he has gone to free from sorrow the captives Adam and Eve, he who is both God and the son of Eve. The Lord approached them bearing the cross, the weapon that had won him the victory. At the sight of him, Adam, the first man he had created, struck his breast in terror and cried out to everyone: “My Lord be with you all.” Christ answered him: “And with your spirit.” He took him by the hand and raised him up, saying: “Awake, O sleeper, and rise from the dead, and Christ will give you light.”
I am your God, who for your sake have become your son. Out of love for you and for your descendants I now, by my own authority, command all who are held in bondage to come forth, all who are in darkness to be enlightened, all who are sleeping to arise. I order you, O sleeper, to awake. I did not create you to be held a prisoner in hell. Rise from the dead, for I am the life of the dead. Rise up, work of my hands, you who were created in my image. Rise, let us leave this place, for you are in me and I am in you; together we form only one person and we cannot be separated.
For your sake I, your God, became your son; I, the Lord, took the form of a slave; I, whose home is above the heavens, descended to the earth and beneath the earth. For your sake, for the sake of man, I became like a man without help, free among the dead. For the sake of you, who left a garden, I was betrayed to the Jews in a garden, and I was crucified in a garden.
See on my face the spittle I received in order to restore to you the life I once breathed to you. See there the marks of the blows I received in order to refashion your warped nature in my image. On my back see the marks of the scourging I endured to remove the burden of sin that weighs upon your back. See my hands, nailed firmly to a tree, for you who once wickedly stretched out your hand to a tree.
I slept on the cross and a sword pierced my side for you who slept in paradise and brought forth Eve from your side. My side has healed the pain in yours. My sleep will rouse you from your sleep in hell. The sword that pierced me has sheathed the sword that was turned against you.
Rise, let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God. The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.”
[viii] 1 John 2:1-2.
[ix] Richard Meux Benson in The Final Passover ii, part 2, (London: Longmans, 1895); p. 307.
[x] John 15:9; John 17:22-23.
[xi] Marcus Borg in The Heart of Christianity; Re-Discovering a Life of Faith (San Francisco: HarperSanFrancisco, 2003) writes that “unconditional grace is not about the afterlife, but the basis for our relationship with God in this life. Is the basis for our life with God law or grace, requirements and rewards, or relationship and transformation? Grace affirms the latter. …Here’s the path: follow it. Both involve imperatives, but one is a threat, the other an invitation.” pp 77-78
[xii] Luke 19:10.
[xiii] The prayer, quoted from Donald Nicholl in The Testing of Hearts; A Pilgrim’s Journal (London: Marshall Morgan and Scott Publications Ltd., 1989); p. 62.
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