John the Baptist at Uluru
In those days John the Baptist appeared in the wilderness of Judea, proclaiming, 2‘Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.’ 3This is the one of whom the prophet Isaiah spoke when he said,
‘The voice of one crying out in the wilderness:
“Prepare the way of the Lord,
make his paths straight.” ’
4Now John wore clothing of camel’s hair with a leather belt around his waist, and his food was locusts and wild honey. 5Then the people of Jerusalem and all Judea were going out to him, and all the region along the Jordan, 6and they were baptized by him in the river Jordan, confessing their sins.
7 But when he saw many Pharisees and Sadducees coming for baptism, he said to them, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? 8Bear fruit worthy of repentance. 9Do not presume to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our ancestor”; for I tell you, God is able from these stones to raise up children to Abraham. 10Even now the axe is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.
11 ‘I baptize you with water for repentance, but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me; I am not worthy to carry his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire. 12His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’
The people around him saw Jesus' life as a sign that God was acting for good, and that God loved the world dearly. But...
John the Baptist thought that this God of love would burn people. The axe was at the root of the trees. The one coming after him would burn the chaff with unquenchable fire. At the end of Matthew's Gospel Matthew has Jesus telling a story where he says 41Then he will say to those at his left hand, “You that are accursed, depart from me into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels; 42for I was hungry and you gave me no food, I was thirsty and you gave me nothing to drink, 43I was a stranger and you did not welcome me, naked and you did not give me clothing, sick and in prison and you did not visit me.” (Matthew 25:41-43)
I cannot make these words sit together with the idea of a God who is love. I'm not the only Christian who says Matthew's vision of God at this point is short-sighted. Like all of us, Matthew has met God, but does not have the whole truth. He did not see the full implications of his conviction that God burns those who do not bear fruit.
So hear me: You will not be burned for all eternity. Even though there are churches who wish to consign you to hell, you will not burn. Perhaps the early church father Origen said it best. (The conviction that everyone will be saved is not new.) Someone asked Origen when the world will end. He said God would not bring the world to an end until the Devil himself had repented; then all would be complete.
God will not abandon you, or those you love, or even those you hate. God gives us Life.
Of course that leaves me with another problem: if Matthew is wrong about God at this point, why would I listen to anything Matthew says? What use are any of these passages where he offends our hard won insights about the nature of God, and of love, and of being human and forgiving?
Does this text say anything to us, or should we just skip it and go on to Communion?
Perhaps we can think of Matthew's dilemma by imagining thinking about God as being something like walking around Uluru. On the ground that mighty rock is just too big to take in. There is always a new view; the sun is different; it rains; we see things from another angle; perhaps a Pitjantjatjara guide takes us to a secret place and tells us stories which change our understanding; the view from Mt Woodroffe 150 miles away takes our breath away...
If we cannot get a full vision of Uluru— one rock— how much less can we understand the whole of God?
So with one eye-watering vision we see God will not reject us! It is almost impossible to comprehend, let alone accept, that God could love us like this— this much— and give us Life.
But from another angle— another vision— looking from another direction— we understand and see that living the wrong way and not bearing fruit harms us so seriously that it is deadly. This was Matthew's point of view.
But the issue is not whether God is big enough to handle our insults— our behaviour where we do not measure up in our response to the love of God. The issue is what our failing to live well does to other people God loves... and to ourselves.
Let's say I meet someone I don't like. Maybe they are less than pleasant; rude and grumpy, perhaps. Or maybe they really are a bad person!
We had the Prophet Mary invade the church office one morning; a weird and quite frightening person. I sense something of her illness and pain, but there is also a danger about her as well. She left us on edge for hours. I was on a short fuse that day, in no mood for receiving long harangues, and called the police. I suspect the pair who came had already run her out of other churches and businesses that morning. The officer who spoke to her was even more abrupt than I had been.
And yet she is God's child. If we find the language that Jesus died for us helpful, then he died for her, too. A colleague in the Synod office sat with her in her pain for ages, gentle, patient, not rejecting. He did far better than I!
When I reject someone, even someone far worse than Mary; if I consign them to hell, what am I saying about someone God loves? Even though when Christ came to me hungry and I gave him no food, and was thirsty but I gave him nothing to drink, or a was a stranger, weird and sick and in a prison place like Mary, but I did not love her, God will not reject me. But surely I must make the heart of God bleed when I reject those who are loved by God.
If I make the heart of God bleed, what am I doing to myself?!
Living well is not about keeping God happy. Living well is not even about enabling God's Way on earth— not at first. God will always find a way around us. Even if we could be worse than the Devil himself, and it is we who are the last people into heaven, God will not be stopped!
Living well is about us. In the strangest of ways, God invites us to be selfish! God invites us to a life that is fulfilling, and good, and gives us everything we need. God invites us to a life that means not only are we fulfilled in heaven— if I can use that image— but that the years on the way are truly worth it. That is God's gift.
But it is nothing about having more things, more money, or more security. A full life, a fulfilled life, comes from living God's way, from loving our neighbour, from treating each person we meet as though they were Christ himself come among us—
in a way...
We look with pity at the person drinking themself to death, and feel pain and sorrow for the young person driven to cut themselves because of the harm done to them. But when we vote for more money for ourselves by rejecting refugees,
and when we buy one more Christmas present with too many calories and leave a person begging unnoticed on the foot path,
and when we condemn those who are different,
and have no patience with them,
or perhaps even hope they burn in hell...
we are lighting the fire under ourselves
and doing ourselves as much damage as if we took to our arms with a Stanley knife
or bought another bottle of meths,
perhaps more damage, in fact.
So don't listen to those who tell you God may send you to hell.
But listen to the Gospel and the way God calls us to live, or we'll be found chopping ourselves out at the roots and heaping ourselves upon the fire. God will put even that fire out, but wouldn't we rather enjoy life in all its fullness?
Direct Biblical quotations in this page are taken from The New Revised Standard Version Bible, copyright 1989, Division of Christian Education of the National Council of the Churches of Christ in the United States of America. Used by permission. All rights reserved. Please note that references to Wikipedia and other websites are intended to provide extra information for folk who don't have easy access to commentaries or a library. Wikipedia is never more than an introductory tool, and certainly not the last word in matters biblical!