Harvest(ing) Judgment

Harvest(ing) Judgment

Texts: Job 23:1-9, 16-17; Hebrews 4:12-16; Mark 10:17-31

A Sermon by the Ven. Dr. Timothy Connor

St. George’s Anglican Church, London

19th Sunday after Pentecost (11 October 2009)

    This summer will go down in our household as the summer of the tomato blight. It started off well enough: those seeds which had been so judiciously selected from the catalogues had been started early and the seedlings appeared to be flourishing. Once they had been planted outside they grew steadily, putting out flowers and forming succulent fruit. But somewhere in that process of growth, dark spots started to appear on the tomatoes. They became hard and discoloured the flesh around them. And then, fairly suddenly, they rotted. Not all of them and not completely – so in harvesting them I had to look them over carefully. Some were so far gone that they were tossed into the compost without a second thought. But others looked really good, except for a spot or two, and I had to think it over. Could they be harvested and used or should they too find their way on to the backyard refuse heap? In the midst of the harvest I found myself involved in an act of judgment.

    How interesting, then, to be singing some of the old harvest hymns at Chelsey Park last Thursday and to be brought up short by this very theme of judgment. I was shocked really, as I was singing along, because for me Harvest Thanksgiving and the National Day of Thanksgiving are occasions of such warmth and sentimentality and even nostalgia. I love Harvest Thanksgiving and we Anglicans do it better than just about anybody else with the beautiful decoration of the church, the celebration of the Eucharist, and those wonderful hymns of harvest home. So there I am singing along with the folk at Chelsey Park those great words of ‘Come, Ye Thankful People, Come’ and we come to verse three:

    For the Lord our God shall come, and shall take his harvest home; from his field shall in that day all offences purge away; give his angels charge at last in the fire the weeds to cast; but the fruitful ears to store in his garner evermore.

    So there it is – harvest and judgment all wrapped up in one and the same act of God. And this is the theme that comes before us powerfully in the biblical readings for this morning.

    In the first reading we listen to Job voice his bitter complaint against God. Job had been through a very tough time: a series of devastating reversals of fortune, the death of his beloved family members, loss upon loss. He still had a few friends, though, and they tried to console Job by suggesting that there had to be a reason for the suffering he was undergoing. They suggested that the reason was Job himself, and that if he just looked closely enough at himself he would discover why God was punishing him so. But Job couldn’t accept that. He believed that if only he could sit down face to face with God and make a case for himself, that God would see that Job was really righteous and relent and heal his suffering. Job says of his God that He would give heed to Job and that He could be reasoned with and that Job would be acquitted forever by his judge.

    The trouble is that Job can’t seem to find this God. God has hidden himself from Job. He won’t appear to set things right. And this is truly terrifying to Job. He is confident in a God who is a righteous judge. But this righteous judge will not appear. This leaves Job languishing away, despite his groaning, under what he calls ‘the heavy hand of God’.

    Now, I hasten to admit that I am really intrigued by Job’s state of mind. He wants to be judged; he is confident that his judge will acquit him; he is terrified because the judge refuses to appear. Would I be right in suggesting that Job is as unlike us as we could possibly imagine? We don’t want to be judged; we are fairly sure that the judge will condemn us; we are relieved that, so far at least, the judge has not appeared. Yet we do share one thing with Job. For him and for us it is true that nothing can finally be put right until and unless the judge appears. So Job languishes, but we are relieved. The judge has not appeared.

    But there is one problem – for us Christians especially, if not for Job. According to the New Testament readings this morning the judge has in fact appeared already. The Letter to the Hebrews refers us to one called the Word of God, one who as such is living and active and is able to judge the thoughts and intentions of the heart. We can’t hide from this judge; indeed no creature can, the text says. Before him we are all naked, laid bare to the eyes of the one to whom we must render an account. The context here is very important. The writer is reminding Christians of a time when the people of God were on the way to the land of promise, but rebelled against God because, we are told, their hearts were hard. They were on their way to a land of rest, but the blight set in – hardness of heart, rebellion – and they missed out because they did not believe God. They refused to trust him any further. The offer of God’s rest still stands to the faithful, to those prepared simply to trust God. But it comes accompanied by an age-old warning both to hear God’s voice and not to harden our hearts. And to the warning is added an exhortation: “Let us make every effort to enter that rest, so that no one may fall through such disobedience as theirs.” That is, the disobedience of those who first refused to hear God’s voice and trust his promises because their hearts were hard.

    At this point the judge enters in the form of the living, active word of God. And this word is sharp, sharper than any two-edged sword. It pierces. It divides. It cuts deep. It lays bare the blight, the hard spots, the deep rottenness. This word of God cuts right down to the marrow of the bone. Nothing can hide from it. Nothing is spared from it. In the face of this I have to say that I lack Job’s confidence. I am pretty sure that I do not want to appear before him. I find this more than a little terrifying because I’ve got the blight, the hard spots, a touch of rottenness here and there. Am I destined, then, for the compost heap?

    Let me say, also, that my spirits do not lift when I hear the gospel for today. I am not as good as the young man who came to Jesus and asked how he might inherit eternal life. I can say that because I know for sure that I haven’t kept the commandments from my youth up. I am just as wedded to my possessions as he was and I am afraid that they present just as big a barrier to entering the kingdom of God as his riches and possessions were for him. I mean, I want to be comfortably well off, right? And so, to be perfectly transparent, I am not basically inclined to think eagerly and with anticipation about any kingdom of God in which I might have to give this up. I am as challenged by Jesus’ response to this young man as the disciples were. If the rich young man isn’t a good candidate for the kingdom, how could I ever hope to be? Jesus says that with God this too is possible. But wouldn’t I have to appear before him, much like the rich young man appeared before Jesus? And if so, would I have grounds to be confident in his response? Would I turn away, shocked and grieving at the cost of following Jesus? Ah, the word of God, living and active, piercing, cutting, dividing, laying bare the thoughts and intentions of the heart. Yes, this same Jesus who beckons to a rich young man to come follow him, knowing that in one place, one place at least, his heart is hard and he cannot enter into God’s rest.

    So the judge has appeared already. He has appeared as Jesus of Nazareth, the Messiah, the Son of God. He summons, he invites into the kingdom, but he also judges the thoughts and intentions of the heart. His judgment is true – he sees what is really there – but chances are we still find it shocking and we turn away sad and grieving when we hear his words.

    So, “then who can be saved?” That’s what I want to know. Who enters God’s rest at the last? Who inherits eternal life?

    The writer of the Letter to the Hebrews answers by means of an exhortation: “Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need.” Well, if ever there is a time of need, I’d say this is it – standing before the judge who lays bare the thoughts and intentions of our hearts, knowing we haven’t kept the commandments, realizing we are more tightly wedded to our stuff than to the coming kingdom of God. Yes, this qualifies as a time of need; in fact it looks like a dire emergency. So the apostolic advice is to draw near to the throne of grace with boldness. But how can the place of judgment be a throne of grace? And how can I who am guilty approach with boldness? The answer lies in the One who sits on that throne. You see, the judge is also the priest, the great High Priest, and he is ours. ‘We have a high priest’, says our text. He has passed through the heavens. He is Jesus, the Son of God. What’s more, he is entirely sympathetic with our weaknesses. He has been tested in every way as we have been tested and yet he remains without sin. With such a one we can find mercy and grace, says our text. I think that this means that as High Priest he appears in the heavenly place for us, as one on our side, representing us before the altar of God. He offers himself in his perfect holiness as one who has lived our life and who did not turn his ear away from hearing the voice of God, who did not harden his heart in the time of temptation but was ever faithful. He sees us as we are – blight, hard spots, rottenness. He sees us in our time of need. So he comes to us with mercy and grace and forgiveness and healing.

    So what do we do? Two things: 1) hold fast to our confession: do not harden our hearts but trust in the one who promises to bring us to that final rest of God; 2) approach with boldness – approach the throne of grace where mercy flows and grace is always free. Approach the table where the High Priest gives himself to us with his own hand. Approach without terror. Approach, empty-handed but without shame. Approach with thankful hearts. But by all means, approach! Amen.

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