Sunday, 22 February 2015

Facing up to ultimate reality

... human beings are destined to die once, and after that face judgment... Hebrews 9:27

Have you ever - perhaps when attending a funeral - thought to yourself “One day the person in the coffin will be me”?

“Oh, that’s being really morbid!” you might protest. But no: it’s simply being realistic. It’s facing facts; death is only a matter of time for all of us. (I leave aside the final generation of human beings - the ones who will still be here when Jesus returns.)

I’ve put dots at the beginning and end of the quotation from Hebrews to show that this very blunt statement is snatched out of a longer sentence. Death and judgment is not mainly what the writer is talking about, and he introduces it here almost as an aside, something he just takes for granted. Which, when you think about it, makes the statement all the more striking.

In a world where many of us, especially in the western world, try to banish thoughts of death from our minds altogether - a kind of corporate denial - a verse like this should make us sit up. What can we draw from it?

First, we only live once and we only die once. The journey we make from the cradle to the grave is all we are given - there is no dummy-run and there can be no turning back of the clock. So we need to live it thoughtfully and seriously. How many people, I wonder, get to the end of their lives with a long list of “if onlys” in their minds. The things they didn’t do but should have... the things they did do but shouldn’t have...

Second, ideas about reincarnation, as found mainly in Hinduism and Buddhism, are ruled out. Christians believe in resurrection, not reincarnation. And this also means, incidentally, that the kind of shallow talk that people trot out - you know, “all religions are basically the same”, that sort of thing - needs to be challenged. It sounds very tolerant and enlightened; but sorry, it just isn’t true.

Third, death is not the end. Just as reincarnation is ruled out, so also is the idea that we simply fade away into nothing. The New Testament offers us plenty of clues about what we might expect after death, but immediate oblivion or annihilation isn’t one of them. (The possibility of subsequent annihilation is another matter, and one which Christians differ on.)

No, the one certain event the writer picks out for mention here is judgment, which is a pretty serious prospect. It means that these earthly lives we live are known by God, and a time will come when they will undergo his scrutiny. 

So, how should we understand divine judgment?

Some years ago I was the victim of a criminal assault. Fortunately I wasn’t too badly hurt, but it ended up in court and the person who attacked me was punished. He escaped a custodial sentence, but was required to pay me compensation.

At one point it looked as if he was trying to avoid payment, but the legal people made sure that didn’t happen. And what stuck in my mind was something one of them said to me: “He’s got to learn that actions have consequences”. 

That, in very simple terms, is what divine judgement comes down to. The things we do and say matter, they have consequences. Wrong deeds - the plain Bible word is “sins” - cause hurt and pain to others and ourselves and destroy what is good and beautiful. And what kind of God would God be if he simply turned a blind eye as if they were of no importance?

I freely admit that the thought of my very sinful life being scrutinised by a perfect and holy God makes me feel pretty uncomfortable. Nobody knows better than me that I have nothing to be remotely proud of. Just the opposite.

But it’s when we think like that that we need the bit outside the dots, the bit I didn’t quote. Let me give the full sentence: “Just as human beings are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, so Christ was sacrificed once to take away the sins of many people...

If the idea of judgment seems a bit grim - as indeed it should - this now is the good news! The reason Jesus shed his blood and died on the cross was to deal with all our sins once and for all. So while the thought of judgment is certainly not a comfortable one, it isn’t one we need to fear.

As the apostle Peter beautifully put it, “He himself carried our sins in his body on the tree” (1 Peter 2:24).

Isn’t that something to rejoice about?

Lord God, thank you for sending your son Jesus to deal with all my sins, and to take away the sting of death and the fear of judgment. Help me to respond to your love with true gratitude and Christlike living. Amen.

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