July 23, 2017

Big Questions Sermon Series: Last Judgment

St. John’s Lutheran Church

Melrose Park, PA


This summer, I’m preaching a series of sermons based on big questions about Christianity, faith, and life submitted by you, the people of St. John’s. The previous two sermons responded to questions about hell and about what happens after we die. Today, we’re talking about the Last Judgment, or Judgment Day. In American Christian culture, Judgment Day sounds like a threat: Jesus is coming back — will you be ready? We worry about being judged and sent to hell. So it makes sense to ask: what is the Last Judgment, and how do we understand it as Lutheran Christians in the year 2017?

We’ll start by exploring the idea of the Last Judgment in the Bible. Our journey begins in the Hebrew Bible, our Old Testament, with a concept called the day of the Lord. The day of the Lord appears primarily in the prophetic parts of the Hebrew Bible — in books like Joel, Amos, and Isaiah. Because it’s part of the prophetic writings, the Day of the Lord is not intended to be literal, but it is dramatic and makes a strong statement.

In the Hebrew Bible, the day of the Lord is, in a word, terrifying. It comes with trumpets, darkened skies, earthquakes, and fires — just like an invading army. It is usually accompanied by a call to communal repentance and prayer. You might recognize the words we usually read on Ash Wednesday from the prophet Joel:

Blow the trumpet in Zion;

   sound the alarm on my holy mountain!

Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble,

   for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near—

a day of darkness and gloom,

   a day of clouds and thick darkness!

Yet even now, says the Lord,

   return to me with all your heart,

with fasting, with weeping, and with mourning;

   rend your hearts and not your clothing.

Return to the Lord, your God,

   for he is gracious and merciful,

slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love,

   and relents from punishing.

(Joel 2:1-2, 12-13)

For the Hebrew Bible prophets, the day of the Lord is a chance for Israel to remember its sins and to repent. It might seem terrifying, but God’s love and compassion is at its heart. More than fasting, more than public prayer, God desires Israel to practice justice, compassion, and humility. To people in the Babylonian exile, for example, the day of the Lord extends the promise that their exile will end.

The earliest followers of Jesus were primarily Jewish, and the authors of the New Testament were no exception. The day of the Lord in Jewish scriptures made its way into New Testament writings with a bit of a transformation. Acts, 1 Thessalonians, and the gospels — especially Matthew — reimagine the “day of the Lord” as a time of ultimate judgment and the return of Jesus. Today’s gospel reading is part of this tradition.

The Day of the Lord has parallels in apocalyptic literature, a small but important genre in the Bible. Apocalyptic literature is a kind of prophetic writing that imagines a far-off future in which justice finally arrives after a cosmic struggle. It was popular among post-exile Jews dealing with foreign invasions and with early Christians surviving persecution. Apocalyptic literature tends to develop wherever communities suffer: when people do not see justice arriving anytime soon, they dream of a future in which God restores the balance of good and evil. Examples of apocalyptic literature in the Bible include chapters 7 through 12 of Daniel, in which the prophet Daniel sees strange beasts, speaks with the archangel Michael, and receives a promise that those whose names are in God’s “book of life” will be delivered; the Revelation of John, which is an extended vision of the end of the world concluding with a new heaven and a new earth; and scenes of the Last Judgment in the Gospels.

Apocalyptic literature is highly symbolic. Often, it was unsafe for its authors to write literally, so they used strange animals, regions, armies, numbers, and beasts to stand in for their oppressors. As a result, we cannot use apocalyptic literature like Revelation as a roadmap to the end of the world or the Last Judgment. But we continue to read the apocalyptic literature of the Bible because its message is hope: God loves the oppressed and cares about their suffering, and because God cares deeply, “the moral arc of the universe bends toward justice.”

The gospels — especially Matthew — give us a little extra insight into the Last Judgment, when God judges the living and the dead and restores the moral balance of the universe. Think of the weeds and wheat in today’s gospel, or Jesus talking about sheep and goats. It’s easy to take these images at face value: we like to think that Jesus sorting sheep from goats is all about deciding who goes to heaven and who goes to hell. But the imagery of sorting one kind from another usually appears in the context of Jesus’ teachings about caring for our neighbors and the strangers all around us. “Just as you did something for your neighbor, you did it for me,” Jesus reminds us. The question at the Last Judgment, then, is not about whether you are good or bad. It is this: do you participate in building God’s reign by caring for others in Jesus’ name, or do you work against it?

Christian interpretation of the Last Judgment has evolved significantly. The earliest Christians took Jesus’ words simply and literally. In his teachings about the Last Judgment and in his words at his ascension, Jesus promised to return, so the first Christian communities assumed that Jesus would be back soon: maybe in a few years, maybe in a matter of months or weeks. You can hear the urgency of Jesus’ return in Paul’s letters to the Christians in Rome, in Corinth, and in Ephesus. Paul stresses the importance of living in accordance with Christ’s teachings because he believes that Christ himself will be back very soon.

As we know, the Second Coming didn’t happen immediately. Still, whenever people faced crisis in late antiquity and in the Middle Ages — invading armies, changing culture, disease, death — Christians returned to the apocalyptic literature of the Bible, looking for a way to make sense of the world around them. They correlated their experiences to events in Revelation and in Daniel and projected the imminent return of Christ. In the Middle Ages in Europe, the Last Judgment became a prominent part of church architecture: scenes of Christ sitting in judgment were often sculpted over the entrances to churches and cathedrals, facing west to the metaphoric end of time. Worshipers were reminded of the urgency of Judgment Day whenever they entered and left their churches.

Luther also believed that Jesus’ return was imminent. The Muslim Ottoman Turks were threatening central Europe. Corruption was rife in the church. Luther felt his reforms were deeply urgent not just because ordinary people were suffering from theological, economic, and social abuses perpetrated by the church, but also because Jesus was coming back soon, and this was the last chance for the church to live rightly.

In every time and place, humans have believed that surely we are living at the end of days. Today, for example, we look at the global refugee crisis, world hunger, terrorism, nuclear threats from North Korea and Iran, political and social strife in our own country, and the crisis of global warming, and we think that the apocalypse is upon us, too. And yet the world hasn’t ended. So what do we do?

Christians have separated into two general camps regarding their interpretation of the Last Judgment. Millennialists believe that the return of Jesus is weeks, months, or a few years away. Fundamentalist Baptists, Church of God, Church of Christ, and Jehovah’s Witnesses are some contemporary millennialist denominations. Some of them issue predictions for the date of the Rapture (for which there is virtually no biblical evidence, for the record). On the other hand, the majority of Catholics, Orthodox, mainline Protestants, and many evangelical Protestants are not millennialists. Instead, we interpret the Last Judgment as something long-range and metaphoric. In the Bible, Jesus teaches that the kingdom of heaven is at hand, and thus, we understand that God’s reign of justice and peace is always breaking into the world. Christ is always dying and rising; God is always judging and redeeming us. The Last Judgment is God’s promise that all creation will be restored to wholeness.

The Last Judgment is deep in our scripture and in our liturgy. In our creeds, we say that Jesus will come again to judge the living and the dead, and that his kingdom will have no end. “Thy kingdom come,” we pray in the Lord’s Prayer. “Christ has died, Christ has risen, Christ will come again,” we sing in the midst of the communion prayer. Historically, the church has used the Last Judgment as a weapon and a threat of punishment for sinful behavior, but this is a misinterpretation. Instead, we sing and pray of the Last Judgment today because it is a source of hope for us as Christians. The Last Judgment is about the promise of a future in which peace and justice are restored — and the promise that that future is already coming true. Everywhere we catch a surprising glimpse of God’s kingdom, we perceive a little bit of the unending radiance of the new heaven and new earth that God promises after the Last Judgment, when all God’s people will be welcomed into God’s loving presence.

This morning, we are singing three hymns from the “end time” section of our hymnal. (I love that there’s an “end time” section.) As you sing, pay attention to the ways that the hymn writers embrace the hope and promise of the Last Judgment rather than dwelling on its threat or terror. Our hymn of the day has particular importance. “My Lord, what a morning” is an African American spiritual from the nineteenth century. There is a reason that the Last Judgment is a prominent theme in African American hymnody: from the time of slavery to the present, African Americans have looked to the promise of Christ’s return as a source of hope beyond the suffering and discrimination they have faced in everyday life. It is only one example of the way that lived human experience shapes theology into something deep, rich, and relevant.

Let us sing this testimony of hope, and then let us get down to work: thy kingdom come, thy will be done, on earth as it is in heaven.