Five Advent Reflections

The Following are “Five Advent Reflections”  I have prepared. If these interest you I have prepared them also in PDF format which you can get by clicking here: The Season of Advent

1. Advent is Witnessed by Creation  – Autumn and early winter are times of great seasonal change. The leaves turn brilliant colors then fade and fall. The shadows lengthen as the days grow shorter and colder. The warmth of summer and vacations seem distant memories and we are reminded once again that the things of this world last but a moment and pass away. Even so, we look forward as well. Christmas can be a wonderful time of year. Likewise, the winter ahead has delights. Few can deny the mesmerizing beauty of falling snow and the child-like excitement a winter storm can cause. Advent draws us spiritually into this season of change, of longing and of expectation. As the days grow shorter and the darkness increases we light candles on our Advent wreathes and remember that Jesus is the true light of the world, the light that shines in the darkness. These lit candles also symbolize our on-going commitment to come out of darkness into God’s own marvelous light. (cf 1 Peter 2:9). A Gospel Song says:  Walk in the light, beautiful light, come where the dew-drops of mercy shine bright.

2. Longing for Salvation – Advent also draws us back to our Old Testament roots. Israel was taught by God through the prophets to expect a Messiah from God who would set them free from sin and injustice. Across many centuries there arose a longing and a yearning for this messiah. Sin and injustice had taken a terrible toll and so the cry from Israel went up:

O that thou wouldst rend the heavens and come down, that the mountains might quake at thy presence–as when fire kindles brushwood and the fire causes water to boil…We have all become like one who is unclean, and all our righteous deeds are like a polluted garment. We all fade like a leaf, and our iniquities, like the wind, take us away. There is no one that calls upon thy name, that bestirs himself to take hold of thee; for thou hast hid thy face from us, and hast delivered us into the hand of our iniquities. Yet, O LORD, thou art our Father; we are the clay, and thou art our potter; we are all the work of thy hand. Be not exceedingly angry, O LORD, and remember not iniquity for ever. Behold, consider, we are all thy people. (Is 64:1-7)

In Advent we recall these cries of ancient Israel and make them our own. Surely Christ has already come yet we know that sin and injustice still have their terrible effects in our lives and in our communities. We very much need Jesus to be our Savior and to daily set us free. Advent is a time to acknowledge our need for the saving work of God and to long for the glorious freedom of the children of God. We know that God has already begun this saving work in us, now we long for him to bring it to completion. We also await the full manifestation of his glory and this brings us to the second important meaning of Advent. .

3. Waiting  for His Second Coming – Advent is also a time to prepare for the second coming of the Lord. We say in the Creed, He will come again in glory to judge the living and the dead. This truth flows directly from Scripture which teaches clearly two things on which we must reflect. First, He will come again in glory. Second we cannot know the day or the hour that he will return. In fact, though some signs will precede his coming, the emphasis of Scripture falls upon the suddenness of the event:

  1. He will appear like lightning (Mt 24:27),
  2. with the suddenness of the pangs of child birth (1 Th. 5:3)
  3. in the twinkling of an eye and the sound of a trumpet (1 Cor 15:52).
  4. It will take place when we least expect (Mt 24:44),
  5. Just when everyone is saying, “There is peace and security!” (1 Th. 5:3).

Since this is to be the case we must live lives of readiness for that day. Advent is a time when we especially reflect of the necessity of our readiness. Here too an Old Gospel Song sasy, Ready!? Are you ready? For the coming of the Lord? Likewise, a spiritual counsels, Keep your lamps trimmed and burning. The time is drawing nigh!

4. The Fire Next Time! – Some of the images of the last day, images of judgement and destruction, can seem very frightening indeed. Consider for example this passage from the Second Letter of Peter:

But the day of the Lord will come like a thief, and then the heavens will pass away with a loud noise, and the elements will be dissolved with fire, and the earth and the works that are upon it will be burned up. Since all these things are thus to be dissolved, what sort of persons ought you to be in lives of holiness and godliness, waiting for and hastening the coming of the day of God, because of which the heavens will be kindled and dissolved, and the elements will melt with fire! But according to his promise we wait for new heavens and a new earth in which righteousness dwells. Therefore, beloved, since you wait for these, be zealous to be found by him without spot or blemish, and at peace (2 Pt. 3:10-14).

Some of the imagery used here reminds us of the even more fearsome images of the Book of Revelation! But notice the complete message of this passage and others like it. The heavens and the earth as we know it will pass away but we who are ready look forward with joy to a “new heavens and a new earth” where the justice of God will reside in all its fullness. An African-American Spiritual summarized the teachings of the Second Letter of Peter by these classic lines, God gave Noah the rainbow sign, No more water, the fire next time. Here too, our first reaction to such phrases might be fear. But in the tradition of the spirituals, this fire was a fire of justice and truth that destroyed the power of injustice and oppression. Another spiritual expresses this, God’s gonna set this world on fire, one of these days Alleluia! [and] I’m gonna sit at the welcome table one of these days Alleluia! For the slaves, the Day of God’s visitation could only be a day of jubilee, a day of vindication and deliverance. And so it will be for us if we are ready. But what does it mean to be ready? To be ready is be living faithfully, holding to God’s unchanging hand in the obedience of faith and trust. To be ready is to be living a holy life and a life of repentance. If we do this we have not only have nothing to fear about the Last Day, we eagerly anticipate it and cry out, “Amen, Come Lord Jesus!” (Rev 22:20).

5. Remember, Repent, Rehearse – All these reflections help to place Advent in proper perspective for us. We are called to remember, repent and rehearse. We remember that Christ has already come and that he has called us to the obedience of faith and promised he will return in glory. We repent of whatever hinders our readiness for that day. And we rehearse for his second coming in glory by anticipating its demands and celebrating the glory that comes to those whom he finds watchful and ready. In a sense every Mass is a dress rehearsal for the glory of the kingdom. At every mass the following prayer is said, Deliver us Lord from every evil and grant us peace in our day. In your mercy, keep us free from sin and protect us from all anxiety, as we wait in joyful hope for the coming of our savior, Jesus Christ. This beautiful prayer recalls that it is entirely God’s work that we be ready for his glorious return. Only he can deliver us, free us from our sin and remove anxiety about that day. Only he can give us joy and make us holy. We have but to yield to his saving work.

And this brings us back to where we started, longing and yearning for our savior. To yearn for him is to know how much we need him. To long for him is to constantly seek his face and call upon his name.  Therefore cry out with the Church, “Come Lord Jesus!” For it is written, The Spirit and the Bride say, “Come.” And let him who hears say, “Come.” And let him who is thirsty come, let him who desires take the water of life without price… He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming soon.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! (Rev 22:17, 20)

Sober but Serene Themes of Judgment in the Spirituals

I’ve often been impressed by the ability of old African-American spirituals to treat serious subjects in a clear, memorable, and almost joyful way. This is true even of weighty matters like sin and judgment. During early November we are focused on the four last things (death, judgment, Heaven, and hell) and November is also Black Catholic History Month. So, this seems like a good time to look at some of the creative lines from different spirituals that articulate these topics.

It can be very helpful to the preacher, teacher, and parent in recovering an ethos of coming judgment, but in a way that is almost playfully bright while at the same time deeply soulful.

In a certain sense, the spirituals are unimpeachable, even by hypersensitive post-moderns who seek to shame preachers for announcing sterner biblical themes. Most of the spirituals were written by slaves, who creatively worked biblical themes into these songs that helped accompany both their work and their worship.

The spirituals were written in the cauldron of great suffering. If any people might be excused from thinking that the Lord would exempt them from judgment day, it was surely the enslaved in the deep South. If any people might be excused from crying out for vengeance, it was they. Yet the spirituals are almost entirely devoid of condemning language; enslaved blacks sang in ways that looked also to their own sins and the need to be prepared. If they were prepared, God, who knew their trouble, would help them steal away to Jesus. They did not see themselves as exempt from the need to be ready.

If they, who worked hard in the cotton fields and endured the horrors of slavery, thought these texts applied to them, how much more do they apply to us, who recline on our couches and speak of our freedom to do as we please?

Here are some lines from a few of the many spirituals that speak to judgment and the last things:

  • I would not be a sinner, I’ll tell you the reason why. I’m afraid my Lord might call my name and I wouldn’t be ready to die.
  • Some go to Church for to sing and shout, before six months they’s all turned out!
  • Everybody talkin’ ’bout heaven ain’t a goin’ there, Oh my Lord!
  • Where shall I be when the first trumpet sounds? Oh where shall I be when it sounds so loud, when it sounds so loud as to wake up the dead? Oh where shall I be when it sounds? How will it be with my poor soul, Oh where shall I be?
  • Better watch my brother how you walk on the cross! Your foot might slip and your soul get lost!
  • God gave Noah the rainbow sign, no more water but the fire next time!
  • Old Satan wears a hypocrite’s shoe, If you don’t watch he’ll slip it on you!
  • Noah, Noah let me come in!
    The doors are fastened and the windows pinned! fastened an’ de winders pinned
    Noah said, “Ya lost your track
    Can’t plow straight! you keep a-lookin’ back!
  • Knock at the window knock at the door
    Callin’ brother Noah
    Can’t you take more?
    No said Noah cause you’re full of sin!
    God has the key you can’t get in!
  • Well I went to the rock to hide my face
    The rock cried out, no hiding place
    There’s no hiding place down here
    Oh the rock cried I’m burnin’ too!
    I wanna go to heaven just as much as you!
  • Oh sinner man better repent!
    Oh you’d better repent
    for God’s gonna call you to judgment
    There’s no hiding place down there!
  • No signal for another train
    To follow in this line
    Oh sinner you’re forever lost
    When once you’re left behind.
    She’s nearing now the station
    Oh, sinner don’t be vain
    But come and get your ticket
    Be ready for that train!
  • Sinner please don’t let this harvest pass
    And die and lose your soul at last.
  • My Lord, what a morning
    When the stars begin to fall

    You’ll hear the trumpet sound, to wake the nations underground
    Looking to my God’s right hand,
    When the stars begin to fall
    You’ll hear the sinner moan,
    When the stars begin to fall

    You’ll hear the Christian shout,
    Oh, when the stars begin to fall!

Most of these songs are deeply scriptural and make serious appeals to the human soul, but they do so in a way that is creative. They get you tapping your foot and invite you to a joyful consideration of the need to repent before it’s too late. Others are more soulful, even mournful, in their pentatonic scale.

Given all the reluctance to discuss the four last things (death, judgment, Heaven, and Hell), songs like these may help to reopen the door to necessary conversations between preacher and congregation, parents and children. They are a valuable resource.

I’d like to conclude with a creative spiritual about the last judgment. Note that it is rich in biblical references. It is joyful—a real toe-tapper—and makes a serious point along with a wish.

In That Great Getting’ Up Mornin’ Fare You Well

I’m gonna tell ya ’bout da comin’ of da judgment
Dere’s a better day a comin’,
Fare thee well, fare thee well!

Chorus:
In dat great gettin’ up mornin’,
Fare thee well, fare thee well
In dat great gettin’ up mornin’,
Fare thee well, fare thee well

Oh preacher fold yo’ bible,
For dat last souls converted,
Fare thee well, fare thee well

Blow yo’ trumpet Gabriel,
Lord, how loud shall I blow it?
Blow it right and calm and easy,

Do not alarm all my people,
Tell dem all come to da judgment,
Fare thee well, fare thee well!

Do you see dem coffins burstin’,
do you see dem folks is risin’
Do you see dat fork of lightnin’,
Do you hear dat rumblin’ thunder?
Fare thee well, fare thee well!

Do you see dem stars a fallin’,
Do you see da world on fire?
Fare thee well, fare thee well

Do you see dem Saints is risin’,
Fare thee well, fare thee well
See ’em marchin’ home for heaven,
Fare thee well, fare thee well

Oh! Fare thee well poor sinners, fare thee well, fare thee well
Fare thee well poor sinners, fare thee well, fare thee well!

Do the Math! Learning the Mathematics of the Kingdom is important for Salvation

091213As a kind of follow-up from yesterday’s Gospel about the workers in the vineyard, we do we do well to examine. a kind of “mathematics of the Kingdom of God.” As noted yesterday, be very, very careful before you ask God to be fair. If God were fair, were all in big trouble. What we need most from God now is that he be merciful. And, having experienced God’s mercy he calls us to be merciful. Mercy is a very important aspect of the mathematics of the Kingdom of God.

In effect the Lord says to us, “Pay attention! You are going to be judged by the same standard by which you treat and judge others. So do the math, and realize that you were storing up for yourselves a kind of standard by which I will judge you.”

The key principle and text in this “math” comes in Luke’s Gospel wherein the Lord says the measure with which you measure will in return be measured out to you (Luke 6:38). But this statement comes at the end of a long string of statements were in the Lord summons us to be generous, forgiving, merciful, patient, and reluctant to condemn others.

In effect, the Lord says “Do the math, and realize it if you are merciful you’ll be judged with mercy. But if you are harsh and critical you will be judged with a harsh and critical standard. If you have refused to forgive, you will not be forgiven.

Like it or not, this is the mathematics of the Kingdom of God that, while it does not mean we earn salvation, but it does mean that we have a lot of influence over the standard by which we will be judged.

So, if you are going to need mercy and grace on the day of judgment, (and we all are) it is good to do the math of the Kingdom, and store up mercy and grace for that day.

We will all, one day, answer to God. And that day, as Scripture repeatedly teaches, it is a day about which we should be sober. Sadly, there are many who give little thought to this truth, and some who outright scoff at it.

So, again, we can influence the manner in which God will judge us, the standard he will use! Now here, we speak of the manner of God’s judgment, that is Namely, whether he will judge us strictly, and or severely, or with lenience, and great mercy. On the day of our judgment, God will judge our deeds with pure justice. But part of that Justice is how we have treated others.

Let’s consider a few scripture passages wherein we are taught that we can have some influence over the manner in which God will judge us. Lets look at four related areas that will have influence:

I. Whether we show mercy –

Jesus says, Blessed are the merciful, for they shall obtain mercy (Matthew 5:7). James says something similar, and develops a bit when he says Always speak and act as those were going to be judged under the law of freedom, because judgment without mercy will be shown to anyone who has not been merciful. So mercy triumphs over judgment! (James 2:12 – 13). And thus we are taught that by observing mercy, and patience, in our relations with one another, we will influence the manner in which we are judged.

It is a fact that, sometimes in life, it will be required of us, especially if we are parents, or in leadership roles, that we will need to punish, and/or assign consequences for those who transgress moral laws, or legal limits. Hence, texts like these do not mean we should never correct with punitive measures. Such a way of living is unwise, and often confirms people in bad behaviors. But even when corrective or punitive measures are needed, it makes sense that we should seek to be lenient where possible, and use lesser measures before firmer ones are employed.

It is also clear from these biblical texts, that it is highly foolish to go through life with severity toward others, with a lack of compassion, or a harsh unyielding attitude. We are all going to need a lot of grace and mercy at our judgment. Therefore, how misguided, how foolish it is for us to be harsh and unmerciful toward others. For indeed, these text tell us the merciful are blessed, and warn that the unmerciful will be shown no mercy. Can you or I really expect, that we will make it on the day of judgment, without boatloads of Mercy?

Now therefore is the time for us to seek to invoke the promise of the Lord, Blessed are the merciful for they shall obtain mercy.

II. Whether we have been strict or lenient

In a related text, and as noted above, the Lord Jesus says, The measure that you measure to others, will be measured back to you (Mark 4:24). Here again, if we hope for, and need a merciful judgment, if we want a merciful measure or standard to be used, the Lord makes it clear that he will use the measure or standard that we have used for others. Have we been strict? He will be strict. Have we been merciful? He will be merciful, and so forth. Be very careful before demanding that sinners and others who transgress receive the strongest penalties. There may be a time for penalties, but it is not always true that the most severe punishments be used.

In John 8 the Pharisees wanted to invoke the most severe penalty for a woman caught in adultery (stoning to death). Jesus reasons with them that before they demand he throw the book at her, they might want to recall there are a few things about them that are also written in the book. One by one they drift away, seemingly considering the foolishness of their demands for the most severe penalty. Somehow they realize that the measure they want to measure to her, will be measured back to them.

III. Whether we are generous to the poor

Luke, relates this text more specifically to our generosity: Give and it will be given to you, good measure, pressed down, shaken together, and running over, will be poured into your lap. For the measure that you measure to others will be measured back to you (Luke 6:38). And this leads us to a second area which the Scriptures teach us that we can influence the day of our judgment.

Jesus, after rebuking the Scribes Pharisees for their severity, and their extreme legalism, says to them, who obsessed about cleaning the outside of the dish, You fools, did not the one who made the outside of the cup make the inside also? But if you give what is inside the cup as alms to the poor, everything will be made clean for you (Luke 11:40 – 41). It is a daring text, in the light of the theology of Grace, and almost implies that we could somehow “purchase” forgiveness. But of course, it is the Lord himself who says it, and he does not say we can somehow purchase forgiveness. But surely, he does teach that generosity to the poor will in fact influence the day of our judgment.

Later in Luke’s Gospel, Jesus develops the thought saying, I tell you, use your worldly wealth to gain friends for yourselves, so that when it is gone, you will be welcomed into trouble dwellings (Lk 16:9). It is a complicated text, but Jesus seems to be saying that our generosity to the poor, will surely gain for us advantages at the day of our judgment. Indeed, blessing the poor gives us powerful intercessors, for the Lord hears the cries of the poor. And on the day of our death, and our judgment, the picture that is painted here is of those very poor welcoming us into eternal dwellings.

Scripture elsewhere warns, If a man shuts his ears to the cry of the poor, he too will cry out and not be heard (Proverbs 21:13). So once again, it would seem that we can have some influence over the manner, measure or standard that will be used by God at our judgment. To the merciful, mercy will be shown. The generous too will experience that their cries are heard, for they heard the cries of the poor. And the Lord more than implies that those who have been generous to the poor will have powerful advocates praying and interceding for them on the day of judgment. Indeed, a number of the Fathers of the Church remind us that, in this life, the poor need us, but in the life to come, we will need them.

IV. Whether we have been forgiving –

A final area to explore in terms of how we might have influence over the manner of our judgment is the matter of forgiveness. Just after giving us the “Our Father,” the Lord Jesus says the following, For if you forgive others when they sin against you, your heavenly Father will also forgive you. But if you do not forgive others their sins, your Father will not forgive your sins (Matthew 6:14 – 15).

Later in Matthew, Jesus tells a terrifying parable of a man who had huge debt, a debt that was forgiven him. But when he refused to forgive his brother a much smaller debt, the king grew angry and threw him into debtors prison. Jesus concludes the parable by saying, This is how my heavenly Father will treat each of you, unless you forgive your brother from your heart (Matthew 18:35).

So yes, it would seem that we can have some influence over the manner in which God will judge us, over the standard he will use. And while it is true, God will judge will judge us by our deeds (cf Romans 2:6), yet the manner in which God judges us, whether with strictness or leniency, does seem to be a matter over which we have influence.

So, do the math and consider well the mathematics of the Kingdom of God!  It is a plain fact that we are all going to need lots of grace and mercy, for we will all have much to answer for. All the more reason for us to follow the teachings of the Lord, in his Scripture, and be sure that on the day of our judgment, mercy, and the grace of leniency will prevail. Do we want mercy? Then show mercy. Do we want a gentle standard? Then we must measure out gentleness. Do we want forgiveness? Then we must offer forgiveness. Recruit some good intercessors for the day of judgment, by giving to the poor. They will be the most powerful intercessors for us as we leave this life and go to judgment.

So,  God has shown us how we can store up a treasure of mercy, waiting for us in heaven, at the judgment seat of Christ. Some good lessons here to heed.

Here’s a funny video that illustrates that the measure we measure to others will be measured back to us:

 

Jesus Does Not Forbid Correcting the Sinner

Many of the psalms and proverbs of ancient Israel are in the form of poetry. In ancient Jewish poetry, however, the rhyme is not in the sound; it is in the thought. Consider a couple of examples from the psalms and note how each couplet consists of a thought in the first line followed by the same idea stated in a slightly different way in the line that follows:

Why do the nations rage
and the peoples plot in vain?

The kings of the earth take their stand
and the rulers gather together,

against the LORD
and against His Anointed One:

“Let us break their chains
and cast away their cords.”

The One enthroned in heaven laughs;
the Lord taunts them
(Psalm 2:1-3).

 

Oh, give thanks to the LORD, for he is good,
for his steadfast love endures forever!

Who can utter the mighty deeds of the LORD,
or declare all his praise?

Blessed are they who observe justice,
who do righteousness at all times
! (Psalm 106:1-3)

Recognizing that the second part of each couplet fleshes out  the concept presented in the first part, we learn several things from Psalm 106: the goodness of the Lord is manifested in His steadfast and enduring love, reciting the mighty deeds of the Lord is a way of praising Him even if insufficiently, and observing justice means always doing what is right.

If we apply this same insight in studying the Gospel for today’s Mass (Monday of the Second Week of Lent), we can better understand Jesus’ meaning:

Stop judging and you will not be judged.
Stop condemning and you will not be condemned 
(Luke 6:37).

Considering these verses as a pair helps us avoid a common misunderstanding. Many people today try to shame Christians who criticize or “judge” the behavior of public sinners. For example, if we state that fornication or homosexual acts are morally wrong, we often hear something like this: “You’re judging me! You’re not being a very good Christian because Jesus says not to judge.” This is a misinterpretation of Jesus’ message. Jesus does not forbid all judgments (that would be absurd); rather, he forbids the judgment of condemnation. We can see this in the couplet from Luke above: the second part fleshes out the first part. Jesus is warning us against the judgment of condemnation.

What does it mean to condemn? Most literally and etymologically, it means to consign someone to Hell (something that is not within our power to do). It comes from the Latin con (with) and damnare (to damn; harm; pronounce as unfit, reprehensible, or deserving of severest censure.) The Greek word καταδικάζω (katadikazo) used in this passage has a similar meaning. The prefix “kata” intensifies dikazo (judge) making that judgment severe.

Thus, the Lord is warning us against pronouncing unnecessarily severe punishment or condemnation. People need time to repent. Correction or rebuke, which are sometimes necessary, should be designed to assist a person in reflecting and repenting, not to crush or humiliate him.

Later in this same passage Jesus further warns, For the measure you measure to others will be measured back to you(Luke 6:38). If you are needlessly severe with others, God will use this standard to evaluate and punish you. Because we’re all going to need grace and mercy from God, we do well to show mercy to others. As James says,  Judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy (James 2:13).  (I have written more on this matter in a previous post: Can We Influence How God Will Judge Us?.)

Thus, the Lord does not forbid us to judge between good and bad behavior. We are expected to make such judgments and to distinguish between right and wrong. Further, He does not forbid us to correct one another. In fact, Scripture consistently counsels that we correct the sinner. (I have written in more detail on that in this post: Correcting the Sinner Is an Essential Work of Charity.)

Attempting to shame Christians into remaining silent rather than correcting others is a misunderstanding of Jesus’ message in these and similar passages. Taking a text out of context is a pretext of sorts. In this case the reason behind it is to attempt to silence criticism of immoral behavior. Also, notice that when someone rebukes you for correcting or “judging,” he is doing precisely the same thing to you! In calling you out, the person is violating his own rule. Recognize this hypocrisy and do not be fooled by this misinterpretation of Jesus’ words.

Multitudes in the Valley of Decision! A Meditation on the Dramatic Battle in Which We Live

092114A grave deficiency of modern times is the loss of the sense that our lives are caught up in a tremendous, epic battle. Yet here we are living in the midst of a great drama—in the greatest story ever told.

Behind the scenes is a deadly enemy, one of whom many rarely speak: Satan. Yet, he is active and involved, manipulating both the world and the flesh (our sinful nature). We are on the front lines of a fierce spiritual war, a war that is to blame for most of the casualties you see around you. Yes, fellow Christians, there is a dragon, a roaring lion—Satan—who seeks to devour our souls.

Ah! But there is also a Son, a Savior, who is born to us and whom we call Wonderful Counselor, Mighty God, Everlasting Father, and Prince of Peace (cf Is 9:6). He shall reign forever. His hand is outstretched, first on the cross, but now outstretched to you to save you and to draw you up out of the raging waters, to deliver you from the kingdom of darkness into the kingdom of light!

Will you take hold of His hand, or not? This is the decision—your decision—is the great drama of your life and of every life; it is your chapter in the greatest story ever told.

Yes, the battle rages all around us, and we are swept up in it! It’s happening in our world, our culture, our families, and in our hearts. The sequence hymn from Easter says dramatically of it, Mors et vita duello; Conflixere Mirando (death and life at battle in a stupendous conflict).

The Book of Joel vividly describes the great drama. It is not merely an eschatological battle but a battle that is already around us in the decision we must make, in the war we must wage (with God’s grace) against the evil that is in and around us. It is a vivid and dramatic war, and we must choose sides. Our decision will one day be revealed in the great judgment that is coming on this world.

Prepare war, stir up the mighty men! Let all the men of war draw near, let them come up. Beat your plowshares into swords, and your pruning hooks into spears; let the weak say, ‘I am a warrior.’ Hasten and come, all you nations round about, gather yourselves there. Bring down thy warriors, O LORD. Let the nations bestir themselves, and come up to the valley of Jehoshaphat; for there I will sit to judge all the nations round about. Put in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe. Go in, tread, for the wine press is full. The vats overflow, for their wickedness is great.  Multitudes! Multitudes, in the valley of decision! For the day of the LORD is near in the valley of decision (Joel 3:9-14).

Text after text in the Bible describes the awesome drama and the great decision we must make, a decision on which hinges our very destiny. Here are just a few:

    • I have set before you life and death, the blessing and the curse. Choose life, then, that you and your descendants may live, by loving the LORD, your God, obeying his voice, and holding fast to him. For that will mean life for you (Deut 30:19-20).
    • Simeon blessed them and said to Mary his mother, “Behold, this child is set for the fall and rising of many in Israel, and for a sign that is spoken against  (and a sword will pierce through your own heart also), that thoughts out of many hearts may be revealed” (Lk 2:34-36).
    • Jesus said to the unbelieving Jews, “You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world. I have told you that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I AM” (John 8:23-24).
    • Watch and pray that you may not enter into temptation (Matt 26:41).
    • And he said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to the whole creation. He who believes and is baptized will be saved; but he who does not believe will be condemned” (Mk 16:15).
    • For we are not contending against flesh and blood, but against the principalities, against the powers, against the world rulers of this present darkness, against the spiritual hosts of wickedness in the heavenly places. Therefore take the whole armor of God, that you may be able to withstand in the evil day, and having done all, to stand (Eph 6:12-14).
    • I am astonished that you are so quickly deserting him who called you in the grace of Christ and are turning to a different gospel— not that there is another gospel, but there are some who trouble you and want to pervert the gospel of Christ. But even if we, or an angel from heaven, should preach to you a gospel contrary to that which we preached to you, let him be accursed! (Gal 1:4)
    • Be sober, be watchful. Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking someone to devour. Resist him, firm in your faith (1 Peter 1:8).
    • A great sign appeared in the heavens, a woman clothed with the sun, with the moon under her feet, and on her head a crown of twelve stars; she was with child and she cried out in her pangs of birth, in anguish for delivery. And another portent appeared in heavens; behold, a great red dragon, with seven heads and ten horns, and seven diadems upon his heads. His tail swept down a third of the stars of heaven, and cast them to the earth. And the dragon stood before the woman who was about to bear a child, that he might devour her child when she brought it forth; she brought forth a male child, one who is to rule all the nations with a rod of iron, but her child was caught up to God and to his throne … And the great dragon was thrown down, that ancient serpent, who is called the Devil and Satan, the deceiver of the whole world—he was thrown down to the earth … Rejoice then, O heaven and you that dwell therein! But woe to you, O earth and sea, for the devil has come down to you in great wrath, because he knows that his time is short!” And when the dragon saw that he had been thrown down to the earth, he pursued the woman who had borne the male child … The dragon was angry with the woman, and went off to make war on the rest of her offspring, on those who keep the commandments of God and bear testimony to Jesus (Rev 12, selected verses).
    • “Lo, I am coming like a thief! Blessed is he who is awake, keeping his garments that he may not go naked and be seen exposed!” And they assembled them at the place which is called in Hebrew Armageddon (Rev 16:15-16).

So here we are in the Valley of Decision (in Hebrew, the Valley of Armageddon). Here is the drama of our life! Multitudes in the Valley of Decision! All of us have a decision to make, an army to join, a direction to choose! Tertium non datur (No third way is given). There are only two armies on the field of battle; there are no demilitarized zones, no sidelines. Choose an army! What will it be, light or darkness, grace or sin, Jesus or Beelzebub?

Yes, here is the immense drama in the greatest story ever told; it is our drama and our story.

Yet this drama is rarely discussed today. In the very times in which the contrast between the two ways has never been clearer or starker, there is near silence. If anything, our times are marked by boredom and a lack of awareness of the battle that is raging around us.  We have “spiritual ADHD”: endlessly fidgeting but never focusing on what matters. There is also a kind of “spiritual myopia,” in which the two armies are lost in the blur of perceived (but not real) pluralism.

Put plainly, if you don’t think that this drama is real and that a choice between the two sides is required, if you think that the biblical texts cited above are histrionic and hysterical, you have been deceived. You have been lulled to sleep by the spirit of this age.  You’ve been deceived by Satan, as was Eve long ago when he said to her, “You surely will not die.”

All of us must wake up to the battle raging around us, to the great drama in our life, a drama that is unfolding before our eyes. If you insist on sleeping through the drama or ignoring the summons to wake up, beware! For Scripture says of such dreamers that there will come upon them a strong delusion, to make them believe what is false, so that all may be condemned who did not believe the truth but had pleasure in unrighteousness (2 Thess 2:11-13).

Awaken to the drama! Choose the Lord! Be a soldier in His army! Only Jesus can save us from this “present evil age.” His grace and mercy are there for us in abundance, but His respect for our freedom means that our choices matter; they build in one direction or the other. This is the drama of our life, and it is also our dignity. Scripture pronounces a great blessing on those who choose the Lord:

Grace to you and peace from God the Father and our Lord Jesus Christ, who gave himself for our sins to deliver us from this present evil age, according to the will of our God and Father; to whom be the glory for ever and ever. Amen  (Gal 1:1-2).

Sober and Serious about Salvation—Homily Notes for the 21st Sunday of the Year

In the readings this Sunday, the Lord describes a danger: our tendency to make light of judgment and not be sober that one day we must account for our actions. In the first reading (from Isaiah), the Lord sets forth His desire to save us, but we must understand that our will, our assent, is essential to our salvation. In the second reading (from the Letter to the Hebrews), God sets forth a plan whereby, having accepting Jesus, we can make a daily walk with Him in a kind of delivering discipline. Let’s take a detailed look at the readings, hear their urgent warnings, and soberly lay hold of the solutions offered.

I. The Danger that is Described“Lord, will only a few people be saved?” He answered them, “Strive to enter through the narrow gate, for many, I tell you, will attempt to enter but will not be strong enough” (Lk 13:22-30).

There is a similar text in Matthew’s Gospel, in which the Lord says, Enter by the narrow gate; for the gate is wide and the way is easy, that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard, that leads to life, and those who find it are few (Mat 7:13-14).

The Gospel is a call to sobriety and away from an unbiblical way of thinking (that is antithetical to the long testimony of sacred tradition). Many people today assume a kind of universalism that presumes that most, if not the vast majority, will go to Heaven. However, as we have reviewed many times on this blog before, that is not what Scripture says. In fact, it says quite the opposite.

While no percentages given, no exact numbers, we ought not to interpret the text such that Jesus’ words “many” and “few” come to mean nothing or even their opposites. Jesus is teaching us a sober truth: given the tendency of the human heart toward hardness, stubbornness, and obtuseness, many are on a path that rejects His offer of a saving relationship, His offer of the Kingdom and its values.

Although many today consider the teaching on judgment and the existence of eternal Hell untenable, this is largely due to the tendency to refashion God and the faith according to modern preferences rather than to cling to what is true and has been revealed.

In doing so, they reduce God to an affirmer, an enricher, a facilitator, or merely one who takes care of us. (These are all accurate descriptions, but they only partially describe Him.) Absent from these representations is the true essence of God as absolutely holy, just, pure, and undefiled; and as the one who must ultimately purify His faithful, with their consent, to reflect His utter purity and glory. Those who attempt to “refashion” God into something or someone more palatable are the ones to whom He says, “I do not know where you are from.”

Those who set aside Hell also attempt to refashion human freedom, which God has given us as our dignity so that we can freely love Him and what He values in a covenantal relationship, rather than serving Him as slaves. I have written more on this topic here: Hell Has to Be.

For now, let it be said that the reality of Hell is taught clearly and consistently in Scripture. It is taught to us in love as an urgent warning about the seriousness of our choices, which build to a final decision. No one loves you more than does Jesus Christ, yet no one spoke of judgment and Hell more than He did.

Some today also object to any “fear-based” argument related to the faith. This is not a reasonable posture to adopt when dealing with human beings, because each of us responds to different types of appeals. While an appeal to fear may not be rooted in the highest goals, it remains an important approach rooted in well-ordered self-love.

Jesus certainly saw fit to appeal to the fear of punishment, loss, and Hell. In fact, one could argue that this was His primary approach and that one would struggle to find many texts in which Jesus appealed more to perfect contrition and a purely holy fear rooted in love alone. In dozens of passages and parables, Jesus warns of punishment and exclusion from the Kingdom for unrepented sin and for the refusal to be ready. Here are several examples:

        • Enter through the narrow gate. For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction, and many enter through it. But small is the gate and narrow the road that leads to life, and only a few find it (Matt 7:13-14).
        • The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth (Mat 13:41-42).
        • Therefore, keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping. What I say to you, I say to everyone: “Watch!” (Mk 13:35-37)
        • And take heed to yourselves, lest at any time your hearts be overcharged with carousing, and drunkenness, and cares of this life, and so that day come on you unawares. For as a snare shall it come on all them that dwell on the face of the whole earth. Watch you therefore, and pray always, that you may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of man (Luke 21:34-36).
        • But about that day or hour no one knows …. For in the days before the flood, people were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, up to the day Noah entered the ark; and they knew nothing about what would happen until the flood came and took them all away. … Therefore, keep watch, because you do not know on what day your Lord will come. But understand this: If the owner of the house had known at what time of night the thief was coming, he would have kept watch and would not have let his house be broken into. So you also must be ready, because the Son of Man will come at an hour when you do not expect him (Matt 24:36-39; 42-44).
        • The lord of that servant shall come in a day when he looks not for him, and in an hour that he is not aware of, and shall cut him asunder, and appoint him his portion with the hypocrites: there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth (Matt 24:51).
        • Then the bridegroom arrived. The virgins who were ready went in with him to the wedding banquet. And the door was shut. Later the others also came. “Lord, Lord,” they said, “open the door for us!” But he replied, “Truly I tell you, I don’t know you.” Therefore, keep watch, because you do not know the day or the hour (Matt 25:10-13).
        • Then he will say to those on his left, “Depart from me, you who are cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. For I was hungry, and you gave me nothing to eat …” Then they will go away to eternal punishment, but the righteous to eternal life (Matt 24:41-42, 46).
        • Whoever looks on a woman to lust after her has committed adultery with her already in his heart. And if your right eye causes you to sin, pluck it out, and cast it from you: for it is profitable for you that one of your members should perish, and not that your whole body should be cast into hell (Matt 5:28-29).
        • Again, anyone who says to a brother or sister, “Raca,” is answerable to the court. And anyone who says, “You fool!” will be in danger of the fire of hell (Matt 5:22).
        • And if your foot offend you, cut it off: it is better for you to enter into life halt or maimed, than having two feet to be cast into hell, into the fire that never shall be quenched: Where their worm dies not, and the fire is not quenched (Mk 9:45-46).
        • Friend, how came you in here not having a wedding garment? And he was speechless. Then said the king to the servants, Bind him hand and foot, and take him away, and cast him into outer darkness, there shall be weeping and gnashing of teeth. For many are called, but few are chosen (Matt 22:12-14).
        • Then said Jesus again to them, “I go my way, and you shall seek me, but you shall die in your sins: where I go, you cannot come. … I have told you that you will die in your sins; if you do not believe that I am he, you will indeed die in your sins” (John 8:21, 24).
        • So by their fruits you shall know them. Not every one that said to me, “Lord, Lord,” shall enter into the kingdom of heaven; but he that does the will of my Father which is in heaven. Many will say to me in that day, “Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in your name? And in your name have cast out devils? And in your name done many wonderful works?” Then I will tell them plainly, “I never knew you. Away from me, you evildoers” (Matt 7:20-23).
        • He said to them, “Go into all the world and preach the gospel to all creation. Whoever believes and is baptized will be saved, but whoever does not believe will be condemned” (Mark 16:15-16).
        • He who rejects Me and does not receive My sayings, has one who judges him; the word I spoke is what will judge him at the last day (John 12:48).
        • Blessed are those who wash their robes, that they may have the right to the tree of life and may go through the gates into the city. Outside are the dogs, those who practice magic arts, the sexually immoral, the murderers, the idolaters and everyone who loves and practices falsehood. “I, Jesus, have sent my angel to give you this testimony for the churches. I am the Root and the Offspring of David, and the bright Morning Star” (Rev 22:14-16).

The goal in all these appeals, fear-based or not, is not to make us scared per se, but to encourage us to be sober, to develop a sense of urgency in following the call of God, and to summon others to saving faith. “Sinner, please don’t let this harvest pass and die and lose your soul at last.”

The text says that salvation is not attained by everyone, that some are not “strong enough,” that many are on a road that does not lead to glory. We are urged to be awake, sober, and urgent in securing salvation for everyone we meet.

Many today think of Hell as a place only for the extremely wicked (e.g., serial murderers, genocidal maniacs), but Scripture teaches that there are many other paths that lead away from Heaven (and toward Hell): lack of forgiveness, preoccupation with cares of the world, and sexual sins such as fornication, homosexual acts, and adultery. Wealth also creates difficulties that make it hard to enter the kingdom. Some people cannot and will not endure persecution, trials, or setbacks related to the faith and instead choose to deny Christ before others.

The fact of the matter is, many people just aren’t all that interested in Heaven; they reject many of its values such as forgiveness, chastity, and generosity. They aren’t strong in their desire. They aren’t “strong enough” to make the journey.

II. The Divine Desire The first reading (from Isaiah) assures us that God wants to save us all. If there is resistance to Heaven and being in relationship with God forever, it comes us, not God. I come to gather nations of every language; they shall come and see my glory. … that have never heard of my fame or seen my glory; and they shall proclaim my glory among the nations. … Some of these I will take as priests and Levites, says the LORD (Is 66:18-21).

Other texts in Scripture also speak of God’s desire to save us all and of His extending the offer of saving love to all:

        • “As surely as I live,” says the LORD, “I take no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but rather that they turn from their ways and live. Turn! Turn from your evil ways! Why will you die, O house of Israel?” (Ez 33:11)
        • God our Savior … wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth. … And for this purpose, I was appointed a herald and an apostle—I am telling the truth, I am not lying—and a true and faithful teacher of the Gentiles (1 Tim 2:3-7).
        • The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance. But the day of the Lord will come like a thief. The heavens will disappear with a roar; the elements will be destroyed by fire, and the earth and everything done in it will be laid bare (2 Peter 3:9-10).
        • Seek the LORD while He may be found; Call upon Him while He is near. Let the wicked forsake his way and the unrighteous man his thoughts; And let him return to the LORD, And He will have compassion on him, And to our God, For He will abundantly pardon (Isaiah 55:6-7).

God is not our adversary in salvation; He is our only way. He wants to save us, but He respects our choice.

III. The Discipline that Delivers – If, then, we are stubborn and stiff-necked (and we are), and yet God still wants to save us, how is this to be accomplished? The first step, of course, is to accept the Lord’s offer of His Son Jesus, who alone can save us. We do this through faith and baptism as well as through the daily renewal of our yes, by God’s grace.

The second reading (from Hebrews) also spells out for us a way in which God, by His grace, works to draw us deeper into His saving love and path:

My son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord or lose heart when reproved by him; for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges. Endure your trials as “discipline”; God treats you as sons. For what “son” is there whom his father does not discipline? At the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it (Heb 12:5-7).

In this passage is a kind of “five-point plan” for remaining in God’s saving love:

(1)  Respect God’s RegimenMy son, do not disdain the discipline of the Lord … The Greek word translated here as disdain is ὀλιγώρει (oligorei), which means more literally to care too little for something or to fail to accord it proper respect. The word translated as discipline is παιδείας (paideias), which refers to the training and education of children so as to bring them to proper maturity. Hence, the text is telling us that God’s discipline for us is not punitive per se but is developmental and necessary for us; we ought not to make light of our need for this sort of training and discipline. While we may like to think of ourselves as “mature” in the face of God and His wisdom, we are really little children in great need of growing up into the fullness of Christ.

(2)  Reconsider When Reproved… or lose heart when reproved by him. Here, too, analysis of the Greek text is helpful. The word translated here as reproved is ἐλεγχόμενος (elenchomenos), which more fully means to be convinced with compelling evidence that one is wrong or to be compelled to make a correction in one’s thinking. Although we may bristle or feel discouraged when corrected, we ought to remember that God is all-wise, and we must remain open to being convicted by the truth He brings to us. The truth may at first challenge us, but it ultimately sets us free.

(3)  Remember His Regard… for whom the Lord loves, he disciplines; he scourges every son he acknowledges. … God treats you as sons. For what “son” is there whom his father does not discipline? God does not discipline us for His own sake, to show power or to demonstrate who is in charge. He disciplines us because He loves us and wants to save us. He is our Father, not our taskmaster. We are His children. We ought to remember the regard, the love, He has for us and be mindful that He does not punish for the sake of His ego, but for the sake of us, His sons and daughters.

(4)  Remain Resolved Endure your trials as “discipline.” Our flesh wants to rebel and our fragile ego bristles easily, but we must endure; we must be resolved; we must persevere and remain on the path God sets out for us.

(5)  Receive the RewardAt the time, all discipline seems a cause not for joy but for pain, yet later it brings the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who are trained by it.

This Sunday we have a sober teaching from the Lord, who describes a danger about which we must be sober. And while the readings also describe His divine desire to save us, there is also a need for a discipline that delivers us.

We ought to be sober about what the Lord teaches. There are too many people today who are not sober about the fact that many are going to be lost. Because of this, they often do not attend to their own souls let alone the souls of others.

If your children or grandchildren are away from the Church, not praying, not receiving the sacraments, awash in sinful habits, locked in serious and unrepented mortal sin, do not take this lightly. The Lord warns and warns and warns. Do not brush it off or take refuge in false, unbiblical notions that presume nearly universal salvation.

The Lord demands from us a sober and biblical zeal for souls, rooted in the comprehension that we humans tend to stray and that we mysteriously do not seem to want what God offers. Being sober helps us to be urgent, and urgency makes us evangelical enough to go to those we love and say to them, “Sinner don’t let this harvest pass and die and lose your soul at last!”

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Sober and Serious about Salvation—Homily Notes for the 21st Sunday of the Year

“Just a Little While Longer…” – A Meditation on the Brevity and Urgency of Life

There is a passage in John 16 that is unusual for its repetition. This past Sunday it was the assigned Gospel in the Extraordinary Form of the Roman Rite. The expression “in a little while” is repeated seven times in the brief passage. Its repetition is almost to the point of being annoying, such that the reader is tempted to say, “All right, already. I get it!” Obviously, John, Jesus, and the Holy Spirit want to drill this point into us.

Let’s look at the whole passage:

Jesus went on to say, “In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me.” At this, some of his disciples said to one another, “What does he mean by saying, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me,’ and ‘Because I am going to the Father’?” They kept asking, “What does he mean by ‘a little while’? We don’t understand what he is saying.” Jesus saw that they wanted to ask him about this, so he said to them, “Are you asking one another what I meant when I said, ‘In a little while you will see me no more, and then after a little while you will see me’? Very truly I tell you, you will weep and mourn while the world rejoices. You will grieve, but your grief will turn to joy. A woman giving birth to a child has pain because her time has come; but when her baby is born she forgets the anguish because of her joy that a child is born into the world. So, with you: Now is your time of grief, but I will see you again and you will rejoice, and no one will take away your joy (John 16:16-22).

Do you get it? A little while! This text is a perfect illustration of the old expression repetitio mater studiorum (repetition is the mother of studies). We’re supposed to lay hold of this because it clearly was significant to the Lord.

The Greek word translated here as “a little while” is even more evocative of brevity. It is μικρὸν (mikron) which, at least in its English connotation, speaks of something very little.

Contextually, the Lord seems to be referring to the brief time between His death and His resurrection. Indeed, that time was brief. He was trying to prepare His disciples (in the hope?) that they might not lose faith and would be able to endure His passion. However, it seems that these and other words promising His resurrection “in a little while” (on the third day) had no real impact on them. All but John fled in fear, and all of them were astonished and incredulous at the resurrection when it first broke in to their reality.

In a more extended and pastoral context, the words of Jesus are also intended for us. He wants us to grasp that “in a little while” we will see Him.

This is a very important perspective for us to gain: life is short! This truth is both consoling and challenging.

It is consoling because whatever pain we are going through, we are going through it; if we are faithful, it is not our destination. Whatever the current difficulties, they will be over “in a little while.” An old African-American spiritual says, “Hold on just a little longer, everything’s gonna be all right.” Another says, “Trouble don’t last always.” As most of us who are a bit older know, life passes quickly—so very quickly. Whatever our troubles, they will be over in a little while. If we have been faithful, eternity dawns with far great glories than the trouble we have endured for just “a little while.”

We ought to expect that life here will be a little uncomfortable. We live in a paradise lost. We live in a fallen world, governed by a fallen angel, and we have fallen natures. We who are baptized now live in this world as strangers and aliens. We’re just passing through a world with strange customs and a strange language. We’re living out of a suitcase and have all the discomforts of travel. In a little while, though, we get to go home—if we but hold on to God’s unchanging hand.

Scripture speaks often of this aspect.

    • In all this you greatly rejoice, though now for a little while you may have had to suffer grief in all kinds of trials. These have come so that the proven genuineness of your faith—of greater worth than gold, which perishes even though refined by fire—may result in praise, glory and honor when Jesus Christ is revealed (1 Peter 1:6-7).
    • Therefore, we do not lose heart. Though outwardly we are wasting away, yet inwardly we are being renewed day by day. For our light and momentary troubles are achieving for us an eternal glory that far outweighs them all. So, we fix our eyes not on what is seen, but on what is unseen, since what is seen is temporary, but what is unseen is eternal (2 Cor 4:16-18).

We ought to be consoled by this perspective that whatever difficulties we’re currently going through will be over in a little while if we stay faithful. Meanwhile it is producing and storing up glory for you.

It is also challenging to consider the “little while” of this life. Simply put, you are going to die, and you don’t get to say when. You are not promised even the next beat of your heart. Tomorrow is not promised, so you’d better choose the Lord today. Do not delay your conversion to the Lord.

Life passes so very swiftly. I’ve been a priest for nearly 30 years now. Wow, how did that happen? I feel like I just got out of high school! Scripture says,

    • Our life is over like a sigh. Our span is seventy years, or eighty for those who are strong. And most of these are emptiness and pain. They pass swiftly, and we are gone (Ps 90:9-11).
    • But as for man, he is like the grass, of the flower of the field. The wind blows, and he is gone and his place never sees him again (Ps 103:15-16).
    • Remember your Creator—before the silver cord is severed, and the golden bowl is broken; before the pitcher is shattered at the spring, and the wheel broken at the well, and the dust returns to the ground it came from, and the spirit returns to God who gave it (Eccles 12: finis).

Yes, life passes quickly. For most of us, the memory of our existence will linger but a generation here on earth.

Here comes the challenge: Life is short—prepare for judgment. Scripture says,

    • It is appointed unto men once to die, and after this the judgment (Heb 9:27).
    • For we must all appear before the judgment seat of Christ, so that each of us may receive what is due us for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad (2 Cor 5:10).
    • Nothing in all creation is hidden from God’s sight. Everything is uncovered and laid bare before the eyes of him to whom we must give account (Heb 4:13).

Jesus also warns,

    • Be on guard! Be alert! You do not know when that time will come. It’s like a man going away: He leaves his house and puts his servants in charge, each with their assigned task, and tells the one at the door to keep watch. “Therefore, keep watch because you do not know when the owner of the house will come back—whether in the evening, or at midnight, or when the rooster crows, or at dawn. If he comes suddenly, do not let him find you sleeping! What I say to you, I say to everyone: ‘Watch!’” (Mark 13:33-37)
    • I am coming SOON; hold fast what you have, so that no one may seize your crown…. Behold, I am coming SOON, bringing my recompense, to repay everyone for what he has done (Rev 3:11; 22:12).

Yes, life is short, and in a little while we must report to the judgment seat of Christ for a very honest conversation. Prepare confidently, with faith but not presumption—which is a denial of the faith. The Lord has said that we must be sober, awake, and ready. In just a little while the moment will come. You will die, and you don’t get to say when. Get ready.

There it is, perspective. The consolation is that the troubles of this life pass in “a little while.” The challenge is to be ready, for in just a little while our time here is up and the question is called.

In a little while!

He who testifies to these things says, “Surely I am coming SOON.” Amen. Come, Lord Jesus! (Rev 22:20)

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: “Just a Little While Longer…” – A Meditation on the Brevity and Urgency of Life

Sooner or Later Judgment Must Come – A Homily for the Third Sunday of Lent

There’s an old Johnny Cash song (“God’s Gonna Cut You Down”) that is rooted in today’s Gospel:

You can run on for a long time … Sooner or later God’ll cut you down … Go tell that long tongue liar, Go and tell that midnight rider, Tell the rambler, the gambler, the backbiter, Tell ’em that God’s gonna cut ’em down.

These verses go directly to the end point (judgment), but there is more to the story. First, there is mercy offered, then patience, and finally judgment.

Many today either dismiss judgment entirely or believe that judgment will result in instant entrance to glory.

Today’s Gospel contains a necessary balance. It speaks of God’s patience and care now but also of the day of reckoning, of judgment. On that day, He will adjudicate our “case”; the decision will be final; there will be no turning back.

Let’s look at this Gospel in two main parts:

The Proclamation of the Problem

The Gospel opens with these lines:

Some people told Jesus about the Galileans whose blood Pilate had mingled with the blood of their sacrifices. Jesus said to them in reply, “Do you think that because these Galileans suffered in this way they were greater sinners than all other Galileans? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did! Or those eighteen people who were killed when the tower at Siloam fell on them—do you think they were more guilty than everyone else who lived in Jerusalem? By no means! But I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!”

What Jesus is saying is that is easy to focus on the sins of others, failing to discern our own need for repentance and mercy. Before God we are all beggars; all of us have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God (cf Romans 3:23). Every one of us is in need of boatloads of grace and mercy. While we may rightly distinguish that there is a difference here on earth between the sanctity of a Mother Theresa and the wretchedness of a Hitler, before God we all fall far short.

Sin surely affects the lives of others and we are not asked to be blind to that. It is important to learn from the example of others, both good and bad; the point is to learn. We miss the point if all we do when we see someone suffer the effects of sin is to say, “My, my, God don’t like ugly!” What about the ugly in us? What about our own sin?

To our all-too-eager question “What about them, Lord?” Jesus replies, “What about you? Work on your own issues and leave their final fate to me. Punishment doesn’t just come to others; if you don’t watch out it will come to you as well.” Just to make sure we get it, the Lord adds, “I tell you, if you do not repent, you will all perish as they did!”

In effect, the Lord tells us to get serious about our sin and what it can do to us. The most serious problem in life is not the fact that we die or the manner of our death. The most serious problem we face is not Pilate or any political misfortune; it is not falling towers or any physical threat. It is not financial setback, or suffering, or losing our job, or losing our possessions. The most serious problem we face is our own sin.

We don’t tend to think like this. Instead, we minimize the maximum and maximize the minimum. We get all worked up about lesser things while ignoring greater ones. We are forever worrying about passing things like health and money but paying little attention to the things of eternity and to getting ready to meet God. Let our physical health be threatened and we are instantly on our knees begging God for deliverance, but let our sins pile up and sinful drives be eating at our very soul and we take little notice. We don’t seem to care about being delivered from things that are far more serious than mere cancer.

The Lord says, If your right hand causes you to sin cut it off and throw it away. It is better to lose one of your members than to have your whole body cast into hell (Matt 5:30). Pay attention, the Lord is saying that it is worse to sin than to lose your right hand!

If I were to lose my right hand, I think I would lament it for the rest of my life. The very thought of it gives me stabbing grief. Why don’t we think of our sin this way? Do you see how obtuse we are, how distorted our priorities?

One day the Lord looked at a paralyzed man and decided to cure his most serious problem. He said, “Your sins are forgiven.” Could the man’s sins have been more serious than his paralysis? Yes!

Thus, the Lord warns us that we ought to be more serious about our sins lest we perish, not merely losing our earthly life but our eternal life. The fact that the solution to our problem required the death of the Son of God indicates that we are in far worse shape than we think. Without our repentance and the magnificent mercy of God, something far worse than having a tower fall on us or our enemies kill us might happen. Elsewhere in Scripture the Lord says, I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after the killing of the body, has power to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him (Lk 12:4-5). The Lord is not counseling a cringing and avoidant fear but rather a respectful fear such that we are serious about judgment and understand that the result on that day will be eternal, unlike the passing quality of any earthly encounter.

Having portrayed the problem and underscored its seriousness, the Lord then reminds us that He is willing to help us, with His grace and mercy, to get ready. He sets forth a process in which we must cooperate, for judgment will surely come.

The Portrayal of the Process

The Lord tells a parable that sets forth the process in which we are currently engaged: a process of patience and mercy that leads to the finality of judgment. Note the following three steps:

1. ASSESSMENT There was once a person who had a fig tree planted in his orchard and when he came in search of fruit on it and found none said to the gardener, “For three years now I have come in search of fruit on this tree and have found none. So cut it down. Why should it exhaust the soil?”

Faith is a fruit-bearing tree. It is to bear the fruits of love, justice, and the keeping of the commandments. The Lord looks for these fruits and often, through our conscience and by His Word, assesses whether they are present.

Many claim to have faith, to be fruitful in what the Lord seeks, but it is He, as owner of the field, who sets the terms. We are not the judge in our own case. It is the Lord’s ongoing work to assess our progress and fruitfulness. He determines whether the necessary fruits are present.

Today, many people claim the right to assess their own status. They make bold proclamations that God would not “dare” to find them to be lacking in anything substantial. In presumption, many declare themselves to be safe, fruitful, and righteous.

This is not for us to say, however. In the parable it is the owner, the Lord, who makes the assessment; and note that in this parable He proposes that something significant is lacking.

Yet some interlocutor, here called the gardener but let’s call her the Church, asks for mercy and time. As we shall see, such mercy and time is granted, along with necessary supplies (grace) to help accomplish what is sought: the fruit of faith.

2. ASSISTANCE The text goes on to describe the prayers and requests of the gardener (in this case, Mother Church): Sir leave it for this year also. I shall cultivate the ground around it and fertilize it. It may bear fruit in the future.

The Lord, the owner of the garden, not only grants the request but will also be the one to supply the necessary help to draw forth the fruits patiently awaited.

Indeed, the Lord sends us help and graces in so many ways:.

      • He speaks in our conscience.
      • He has written His law in our heart.
      • He gave us the law.
      • He sent us prophets.
      • He punishes our wrongdoings in order to bring us to repentance.

* Before I was afflicted, I strayed. But now I have kept your word (Ps 119:67).
* But God disciplines us for our good, that we may share his holiness. For the moment all discipline seems painful rather than pleasant; later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it (Heb 12:10).

      • He sent us His Son, who established the Church and gave us grace and the sacraments.
      • He gave us grace and the sacraments.
      • It was he who gave some to be apostles, some to be prophets, some to be evangelists, and some to be pastors and teachers, to prepare God’s people for works of service, so that the body of Christ may be built up until we all reach unity in the faith and in the knowledge of the Son of God and become mature, attaining to the whole measure of the fullness of Christ. [That we be] no longer be infants, tossed back and forth by the waves, and blown here and there by every wind of teaching and by the cunning and craftiness of men in their deceitful scheming. Instead, speaking the truth in love, in all things grow up into him who is the Head, that is, Christ (Eph 4: 11-17).

Do you see how much God has done for us? He has graced us in every way. He has entrusted to the Church, in answer to her pleas, every necessary grace to bear fruit. Now He patiently waits. He looks to return again to seek the fruits that are necessary for those who claim to have saving faith, fruits that are necessary to be able to endure the day of His coming, fruits that are necessary for us to have the holiness without which no one will see the Lord (Heb 12:14). Indeed, we cannot see or endure His presence without the fruit of holiness by His grace, for as Scripture says, Who may ascend the mountain of the Lord? Or Who may stand in his holy place? Only he who has clean hands and a pure heart (Ps 24:3-4). Only God can accomplish this, but He who made us without us will not save us without us. Thus, we must, by His grace, renounce our sin and accept His grace.

3. ACCEPTANCE – The parable ends very simply with this line: If not you can cut it down.

I’ve chosen the word “acceptance” carefully. Judgment is not so much God’s decision as it His acceptance of our decision to bear fruit or to refuse to do so; to accept or refuse His offer of the fruits of faith such as chastity, mercy, forgiveness, reconciliation, love of the poor, and appreciation of the truth.

On the day of judgment God accepts our final choice. It is not so much the passing of a sentence as it is the final recognition of the absolute choice that we have made. At this point it is no longer possible for us to change; what we are remains forever fixed.

As we get older it is harder and harder to change. We are like concrete that sets over time; like pottery, which begins moist and malleable, but whose shape is fixed when subjected to the fire.

Thus, the Lord teaches us to be serious about sin and about judgment. For now, there is mercy and every grace available to us, but there will come a day when our decision will be accepted and forever fixed.

The Gospel today teaches beautifully of God’s patience but also of our need for mercy. It warns us that the decision we make by the way we live our life will finally be accepted. Yes, there is a day of judgment closing in on each of us.

Pointing out how often we sang “Kumbaya, My Lord” will not suffice.

In today’s second reading, St. Paul warns us against presumption and trying to serve as judge in our own case:

Our ancestors were all under the cloud and all passed through the sea, and all of them were baptized into Moses in the cloud and in the sea. All ate the same spiritual food, and all drank the same spiritual drink, for they drank from a spiritual rock that followed them, and the rock was the Christ. Yet God was not pleased with most of them, for they were struck down in the desert. These things happened as examples for us, so that we might not desire evil things, as they did. Do not grumble as some of them did, and suffered death by the destroyer. These things happened to them as an example, and they have been written down as a warning to us, upon whom the end of the ages has come. Therefore, whoever thinks he is standing secure should take care not to fall (1 Cor 10:1:ff).

For now, there is mercy, but there will come a day of ratification, of judgment; a day when the question will be asked and the final answer supplied, not so much by God as by us.

Your flesh says, “No worries,” but the Lord says, “Repent!”

Here are more of the lyrics from the Johnny Cash song “God’s Gonna Cut You Down”:

You can run on for a long time
Run on for a long time
Run on for a long time
Sooner or later God’ll cut you down
Sooner or later God’ll cut you down

Well, you may throw your rock and hide your hand
and hide your hand
Workin’ in the dark against your fellow man
But as sure as God made black and white
What’s down in the dark will be brought to the light.

You can run on for a long time
Run on for a long time
Run on for a long time
Sooner or later God’ll cut you down
Sooner or later God’ll cut you down

Go tell that long tongue liar
Go and tell that midnight rider
Tell the rambler, the gambler, the backbiter
Tell ‘em that God’s gonna cut you down
Tell ‘em that God’s gonna cut you down
Tell ‘em that God’s gonna cut you down

Cross-posted at the Catholic Standard: Sooner or Later Judgment Must Come – A Homily for the Third Sunday of Lent