Holy Week Sermons 2017: Through the Week with Saint Matthew – No. 3
‘Watch out that no one deceives you’ Matthew 24:4
‘Watch’, says Jesus. If we are Christians, we listen to that warning.
For centuries, the church preached hellfire and damnation. The medieval church used to use terrifying judgment scenes to frighten people into church attendance, into outward expressions of belief, even if there was no inward faith. Not believing, or not believing in a precisely right way, meant that you would burn forever in hellfire. The medieval pictures of the Last Day, the Dies Irae, the Day of Wrath, the great judgment day, would have frightened uneducated, unsophisticated peasant populations. Some of the greatest artists of former centuries, foremost among them being Hieronymus Bosch, painted great canvases with the Last Judgment depicted in lurid detail. Until our own times, in Ireland, the Roman Catholic religious orders and Protestant evangelists warned of impending doom.
What undermined much of what was preached was people reading the Bible for themselves. It was apparent that the prophets of the End were so selective in the verses they chose, that their claims could not be taken seriously. If you read only the passages that suit you, then you can claim almost anything. But it was more than just the eccentric use of Bible verses that was a problem; Christianity was presented in such a way that Jesus disappeared completely. There was no sense of the man from Nazareth.
Jesus warns his listeners gathered there in Jerusalem, “Watch out that no one deceives you.” But, down through the centuries, the words that followed in Saint Matthew Chapter 24 have been seized upon by those who are convinced they know the future. They ignore Jesus completely. He warns against such speculations later in that same chapter, in Saint Matthew Chapter 24 Verse 36, he declares, “But about that day or hour no one knows, not even the angels in heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father.”
“Watch.” Watch that we are not misled by those who claim to know what even Jesus said he did not know. But watch also that we do not go to the other extreme.
Recoiling from the extremes of religious fundamentalism, there is always the danger of swinging to the other extreme; to abandon all belief, to discount anything in the Gospel story that smacks of the supernatural, to say anything that is inexplicable didn’t happen because it doesn’t fit with our knowledge of the world. “Watch out that no one deceives you,” applies as much to those who would dismiss everything as to those who would claim to believe everything. On the other extreme from the fundamentalists are liberal groups whose definition of what it means to be a “Christian” is so vague as to be meaningless. “Watch”says Jesus. Look at his claims and look at the liberal claims and they are not compatible.
Discount the divinity of Jesus, as happens in much of liberal theology, and what are you left with? A deluded teacher who told some nice stories? Certainly not much more. Why not be honest and describe oneself as an atheist, or an agnostic, rather than claiming to be Christian while rubbishing everything taught through the centuries?
“Watch out that no one deceives you”, says Jesus to his followers. Those followers are not the Jewish zealots, the fundamentalists who believed that God would conform to their ideas; but nor are they a group of liberals who say it doesn’t matter what one believes. They are drawn from the ranks of ordinary people, the religious and the irreligious.
“Watch out that no one deceives you”, and we need to guard against a right-wing who seize upon particular Bible texts and ignore others, and a left-wing that throws everything aside.
Ultimately, our faith rests not upon any theological tradition, but upon Jesus himself and what we learn from him.
As in the parables, Jesus uses Jewish ideas and stories to make his point. Jesus wasn’t the only person telling stories like this; he warns against “false messiahs”, the wandering preachers threatening people with impending doom and disaster. There was no shortage of terrifying words to prompt fear and trembling in the hearts of listeners.
Jesus uses the language he does in Saint Matthew Chapter 24, he conjures up these pictures in people’s minds, not to frighten people, but to tell them about God. His concern is not terror or fear, but justice.
If we believe in justice, then, I think, we have to believe in judgment; we have to believe in the need to watch. If God is to be a God who means anything, then he must be a God who keeps his word. Time and time again throughout the Bible he promises justice for his people; but how shall there be justice, if there is no judgment?
Revelation Chapter 20 Verse 12 says, “And I saw the dead, great and small, standing before the throne, and books were opened. Another book was opened, which is the book of life. The dead were judged according to what they had done as recorded in the books.”
“The dead were judged according to what they had done.” Perhaps Heaven is reached not through being born in the right place, or the right community; not through being able to recite the right words; not through being able to claim a particular experience; but through seeking to follow Jesus in struggling for a better world; through listening to Jesus in trying to love one’s neighbour as oneself; through trying to keep Jesus’ commandments because, at the end, he is the only one who is there for us
“Watch”, say Jesus. There must be judgment. If at the end a child murdered with a machete, and the child’s killer, both receive the same reward, then what meaning or purpose is there in Scripture or in the whole of God’s dealings with his people? Why would we try to lead good and faithful lives if our actions have no consequence?
“Watch out that no one deceives you.” Jesus promises there is meaning in life, that our lives have consequences. Jesus promises that there will be Last Day, not in order that we might be terrified, but so that we might believe that God is a God of justice.
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