"God Is Our Judge And Jury"

Sermon Delivered By Reverend Richard E. Stetler – July 24, 2011

Centenary United Methodist Church

Matthew 13:31-33, 44-52; Romans 8:31-39



    Historically, Christians have always had a problem discussing the issue of Divine Justice.   Believers, however, have never been in short supply of opinions on this subject.  What is interesting is that there are a number of Scriptures on both sides of the Heaven and Hell issue that supply adequate ammunition for hours of heated debate on this topic. 


    The question that places Christians at such a cross road is this one:  “What will God do with people who have never attended a church, who did not care what Jesus taught and who never developed a spiritual orientation toward life?”  There is a quote that may epitomize this materialistic lifestyle to some extent, “Whoever dies with the most toys wins!”


    According to the Gospels writers, even Jesus had trouble communicating a consistent answer.  On one hand Jesus used the parable of the prodigal son.  He instructed his followers to forgive seventy times seven and indicated that God’s love is equally distributed among those who are good and those who are evil.  (Matthew 5:45)


    On the other hand there numerous references attributed to Jesus where he taught just the opposite.  For example, Jesus likened the Kingdom of God to fishermen dragging in a net filled with fish.  They separate the good ones into a bucket and the worthless ones they throw away. Jesus concluded, “It will be like this at the end of the age:  the angels will go out and gather up the evil people from among the good and will throw them into the fiery furnace where they will cry and gnash their teeth.”  (Matthew 13:49)


    There are a number of Christians who have decided that the wrath of God will adequately give their just desserts to people that have “arrogantly flaunted their power, wealth and influence as though they never have to answer to anyone higher than themselves.”  It is not surprising that this belief has outcropped in the attitudes of many Christians.


    For example, in the first church I served we had a problem with a Sunday school teacher. She had been reared in a very conservative Christian background and her religious beliefs about the devil, hell and eternal damnation were part of her lesson plans for the 6 and 7 years olds she was teaching. Our Director of Christian Education began receiving calls from parents whose children were having nightmares. 


    These second and third graders were bringing home stories of what would happen to them if they did not remain a steadfast follower of Jesus Christ.  Not only would such abandonment mean their spiritual death but they would wander throughout all eternity alone and without love.


    Anyone visiting her classroom would have found the visual origins of the student’s nightmares.  There were very graphic pictures depicting Satan with horns, a tail and holding a pitch fork.  Flames were leaping at the bodies of tortured souls who spent their lives in spiritual ignorance.  The walls of her classroom were covered with this art work.  To this day I have no idea where she found this material.  It certainly did not come from United Methodist publishers.


    It became very apparent that we had to terminate her services because she was teaching more about fear, death and destruction than about the love of God. These impressionable children had become terrified of God.


    Another example was furnished by my brother-in-law who worked for a tool and die company where the owner of the business played fire and brimstone sermons throughout each day over the speaker system.  When he entered the front door of the business, there was a rack filled with religious tracts.  Each tract carefully outlined what would happen to sinners if they did not repent.  Again, the art work on the cover of these tri-fold tracts left little to the imagination.   


    The last example happened in my last church.   A student was attending the University of Maryland and had become involved with a Christian fellowship group that was being led by a chaplain that taught this variety of salvation theology. She had become terrorized by his thoughts and she sat in my office in tears.  She disclosed that prayer cells on campus were praying for her salvation.  Because she would not subscribe to their beliefs, they told her she was running away from the Lord and with each step she was hardening her heart.


    Perhaps a number of us have experienced such beliefs among our friends and family.  We know how persuasive they can be.  There is no question that the power of fear can be a fierce motivator. Fear can make us doubt the quality of our faith and lifestyles.  Like in any religious belief system, there are individuals that are attracted to ideas, concepts and Scriptures that inspire definitions of salvation that paint a very dark portrait of God and eternity. 


    One of the most addictive qualities of life is fear.  It becomes the glue that keeps children faithful to the dictates of abusive parents or prevents women from leaving physically abusive husbands.  Such fear and dark images of God are what keep some people fiercely loyal to the dogma and the indoctrination coming from their church’s leadership.  


     Beliefs can liberate us to enjoy our inner and outer world as we trust God for the outcome of all things.  Beliefs can also chase smiles from our faces by seducing us to live in terror of not being able to please God with our attitudes, thoughts and actions.


    Among the many marvelous, inspiring passages that the Apostle Paul wrote, the one that Selina read for us today has to be one of the best.  These words to the Christians living in Rome were composed nine years before Paul was put to death.  His letter was circulating among Jesus’ followers before any of the Gospels were written.  If there is ever a passage that can put to rest our fears about the wrath of God, it is this one:


    I am certain that nothing can separate us from God’s love:  neither death nor life, neither angels or other heavenly rulers or powers, neither the present or future, neither the world above or the world below – there is nothing in all creation that has the power to separate us from the love of God which was shown to us through the life of Christ Jesus our Lord. (Romans 8:37f)


    If we have fears that somehow we will never measure up to the potential God placed in us, we would be absolutely correct.  However, no matter what we did, or are doing at the present, nothing will ever separate us from God’s love.   Such a separation cannot happen. 


    I know what many of us have been taught but God would not allow us to be born, as inexperienced and as uninitiated as we are in dealing with all the challenges in the material world, and leave up to us something as critically important as our eternal destiny.  Love would not do that!  Assigning such a responsibility to such distracted individuals would be insane.  Some of us get lost just driving around our island.  


    Such an experience would be like allowing a teenager to sit at the controls of a jet aircraft, wishing her good luck and saying, “See what you can do!  Oh, by the way, if you do not proceed through the check list of pre-flight protocols in the proper sequence you will never become airborne.”  Or, having the responsibility for securing our own spiritual destiny would be like loving parents allowing their children to play in a large backyard that used to be a mine field during some earlier war.  


    With all this being said, we still have a problem.  What should we think about people who completely reject everything that Jesus taught?  Why would God continue to love those who do not have a spiritual thought in mind?  Why would God give them the same love as those of us who have remained faithful disciples of Jesus Christ?  Good questions.  The answer is:  This is what love does.  Nothing can prevent love from being freely expressed to others.  This is true for God and it is also true for each of us.  This is exactly what Jesus did from the cross. 


    During Paul’s ministry, the rabbis believed that the angels were grudgingly hostile toward humankind and resented God for creating men and women. The angels did not want to share God with any other beings. 


    There was a legend in circulation during Paul’s day that when God was on Mt. Sinai, a number of angels did everything they could to prevent Moses from climbing to the summit to be with God. They would have succeeded had God not intervened. God wanted to provide guidance for these primitive, nomadic people by giving Moses certain Laws that would define behavioral boundaries that would reflect the potential God placed within them.  The angels were threatened by these Laws because they would heighten the awareness of these lesser beings.  Humanity could become like them while remaining in physical form.


    Paul’s words to the Christians in Rome said that not even jealous, envious angels had the power to separate anyone from God’s love.  If this was Paul’s understanding, what happens to those who drift through life totally ignorant of the much larger picture?


    There was a time when the son of a pastor became an outstanding athlete.  He idolized his high school coach so much that the two became very close friends.  To this young boy’s eyes, the coach was “cool, handsome and confident.”  The coach, however, was not a good role model when he was off the football field.


    He had a foul mouth and introduced the young man to alcohol and tobacco products. Through the months that followed, the student became increasingly rebellious toward his teachers and his mom and dad. The coach had such an influence over the young man that it was as though all the training he received from his home and church had never happened. Both of his parents were heart-sick and distraught about what to do. 


    One night the pastor came home from a late meeting and sat in the darkness of his living room.   He prayed for a considerable time trying to understand what God would have him do to rescue the boy from the coach’s influence.  He finally decided to have one more heart to heart talk with his son before going to the authorities of the school.


    He opened his son’s bedroom door and as his eyes were adjusting to the darkness, the odor from his son’s overindulgence came billowing from the room.  To his surprise, his wife was kneeling beside his bed, stroking his hair while kissing his face.  With tears streaming down her face, she looked up at her husband and said, “He won’t let me love him when he’s awake.”


    Again, this is what love does!  Each of us must live with who we are becoming.  God’s love, however, continues to surround each of us in spite of our mistakes and in spite of our use of poor judgment because for God, love is a one-way street.  Authentic love cannot be earned with our goodness.  It cannot be earned with our faithfulness.  Likewise, love will not go away because we are unable to recognize its presence.  Love just is. 


    We are the ones that place conditions on our loving.  We are the ones that require love to be a two way street.  People who miss the mark will always reap exactly what they have sown.  Some Christians would call this Hell.  However, such a state is only a holding pattern that delays the evolution of our spirits.  Clearly, delay is one of our many choices.


    Our earth experience is only one classroom where growth is possible.  Remember the words of Jesus, “In my Father’s house are many rooms.”  Because God is the judge and jury of everything in the created order, God’s love flows freely to all life forms in spite of their level of awareness. 


    Nothing can ever separate us from the love of God.  When we live with this understanding as a keystone to our faith, our love casts out fear and this awareness opens our vision to countless opportunities to live full and fruitful lives that otherwise we would have never discovered. 


    When it comes to our sizing up the quality of other people’s lives, we make the best decision by remembering that such a task belongs only to our Creator.  After all, God alone is our judge and jury.  No individual or group has the authority or the invitation to show up in that court room.