At this time of the year before Advent begins, the readings always focus on the end of the world and the second coming of Christ. We do this because it was one of the things that Jesus taught. Jesus taught that he would come again, and that when He does come it will be for a time of judgement. All people will be judged. Each week we say in the creed, ‘He will come again to judge the living and the dead’.
It can be tempting to discard what we don’t understand, especially if it sounds a little silly. The idea of Jesus appearing in glory and coming on the clouds to judge the world may seem hard to swallow. However, it would be a great mistake on our part if we began to just take the parts of Jesus’ teaching that seem to make sense and leave the other ones. Perhaps a better approach is to say we accept all his teachings, but we don’t understand many of them. ‘I don’t understand, but I believe.’ That’s what faith is.
If the Lord is to come to judge the living and the dead, it implies two things. First, that there must be a heaven and a hell. Otherwise there would be no point in judging us if it were going to make no difference. Heaven is the total happiness that being in the presence of God will bring. This is something that we can not understand because we have no experience of it yet, but this will be the most complete happiness we could ever know and this is what God has planned for us; that is what He wants for us and God will make that happen unless we consciously and deliberately reject God. Then there is the total loss of God for those who reject him, and this is hell, the loss of everything that can bring happiness. Jesus has taught us that this is real, otherwise it would make no sense that we have free will, the power to accept or reject God.
The second thing that the Lord’s coming implies is that we must make an account of our lives to God. We will be held accountable for our actions. I often think that when we hear about so many of these tribunals which cost millions and show the wholesale corruption that goes on, it can be very frustrating because the people who get away with the most never seem to have to pay, either because they are powerful enough, or because of the legal system, they get off the hook. It’s wrong and it happens every day; but if a young person steals something from the local supermarket, you can be sure he or she will be brought to court and they’ll pay for it with a fine or with jail time. However, even the rich and powerful must remember that their power and wealth won’t be with them when they die. They too will have to make an account of themselves to God and nothing is hidden from God. I find this consoling, not because I wish evil on anyone, but because at least I know that in the end there will be justice.
Is this a reason for us to be afraid? Of course not, unless we are deliberately trying to fool God. If we try to live as the Lord teaches us and make even the smallest effort, then we have nothing to fear. If we just get on with the day to day tasks that we are presented with and try to be honest before God, then we have nothing to worry about. The fact is that we are all sinners, we all fall short of the mark and none of us ever get it exactly right, but God isn’t put off by this. The Lord sees the heart. God knows when we are doing our best and trying to live as best we can. He knows all the pressures that we’re under. He knows how difficult it is to try and survive in the world. The Lord looks at each of our hearts and judges us by what is in our heart. So there is no reason for us to be afraid if we make even the smallest effort.
It is also important to remember that God is infinitely merciful and mercy is something which is not deserved. God’s justice and mercy go together. Think of all the times that we see people in the paper convicted of some terrible crime, and we say, ‘I hope he gets life,’ or ‘I hope they kill him…’ It’s just as well for our sake that God is more merciful with us than we are with each other, or none of us would stand a chance.
Another reason why we can never judge someone else is because we don’t know what’s in their heart. We don’t know what has influenced another person’s actions, or what pressures they are under. That’s why Jesus teaches us, ‘Do not judge and you will not be judged’. Only God can judge, and only God will judge perfectly justly. We can judge the outward actions of a person, but we cannot judge the heart.
There is a lovely story of a young man who was in Napoleon’s army. He deserted because he was tired of war and afraid, but he was caught. The punishment for desertion was death and so he was to be executed; but his mother met with Napoleon and pleaded on her son’s behalf. She explained that this man was her only son and all that she had in the world. She asked Napoleon to show him some mercy, but Napoleon replied, ‘He doesn’t deserve mercy.’ The woman said to him, ‘If he deserved it, it wouldn’t be mercy.’ This is what we also try and remember about God. Mercy is not deserved. It is given out of love and compassion. You can see this from the extraordinary compassion that Jesus showed to the various people he met during his life on earth. Even the ones whose lives were a total mess, he showed such respect and love. God is infinitely merciful and so if we make any effort at all, we have nothing to be afraid of.
Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead, and it is something that we can rejoice in when it happens, because we belong to him, we are his children.