Posted by: mikebackup | December 15, 2012

A Christmas challenge

Reading – Luke 3:7-18

New International Version – UK (NIVUK)

7 John said to the crowds coming out to be baptised by him, ‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath? 8 Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.” For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. 9 The axe has been laid to the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.’

10 ‘What should we do then?’ the crowd asked.

11 John answered, ‘Anyone who has two shirts should share with the one who has none, and anyone who has food should do the same.’

12 Even tax collectors came to be baptised. ‘Teacher,’ they asked, ‘what should we do?’

13 ‘Don’t collect any more than you are required to,’ he told them.

14 Then some soldiers asked him, ‘And what should we do?’

He replied, ‘Don’t extort money and don’t accuse people falsely – be content with your pay.’

15 The people were waiting expectantly and were all wondering in their hearts if John might possibly be the Messiah. 16 John answered them all, ‘I baptise you with[a] water. But one who is more powerful than I will come, the straps of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptise you with[b] the Holy Spirit and fire. 17 His winnowing fork is in his hand to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his barn, but he will burn up the chaff with unquenchable fire.’ 18 And with many other words John exhorted the people and proclaimed the good news to them.

I find these verses a real challenge and I’d like to hook the challenge on what John says at the start.

Produce fruit in keeping with repentance. And do not begin to say to yourselves, “We have Abraham as our father.” For I tell you that out of these stones God can raise up children for Abraham. The axe has been laid to the root of the trees, and every tree that does not produce good fruit will be cut down and thrown into the fire.’

Produce fruit in keeping with repentance or you will face a severe judgement. Straight away this challenges anyone that thinks ‘I go to church and believe in God so I’m alright’. It doesn’t appear to work like that. Many shudder and shy away from the idea of God’s Judgement but the Bible doesn’t. Let me be clear here, I’m not about to preach hellfire and damnation. We need to forget those pagan originated images of an eternal torment in a fiery hell and the idea of an angry wrathful God. God has given us this life to get to know him, to understand and be alongside the divine nature in him and in each of us. The promise of an existence after our time here is a great hope, but it’s not without the entrance exam called life first.

Another image to get out of our minds is the childlike image of heaven, fluffy clouds and things going on forever.

Here’s three Biblical visions of heaven:

1. A renewed creation

God will ‘create new heavens and a new earth’ and there will be a ‘new Jerusalem’. Isaiah proclaims it (Is 65: 17-25), Peter reminds the believers about it (2 Pet 3: 13), John describes his vision of it (Rev 21: 1). They are places where God’s blessing is unhindered: the past is forgotten, there are no middlemen and workers get their full reward, premature deaths are unheard of and people are always happy.

2 Eden reclaimed

Jesus said to the criminal crucified next to him, “Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise” (Lk 23: 43); Paul describes some kind of experience where he was ‘caught up to paradise’ (2 Cor 12: 4); and in the prophetic letter to the Church in Ephesus there was a promise that “To the one who is victorious, I will give the right to eat from the tree of life, which is in the paradise of God” (Rev 2: 7). The word ‘paradise’ derives from a Persian term describing a park or pleasure garden, and was used by the Jews to describe the Garden of Eden. This place is one of unexplainable wonders and the sweetness of life after trials and suffering are overcome.

3. Unexpected riches and reserved rooms

Many times Jesus taught ‘the kingdom of heaven is like…’. All these similes – a mustard seed, yeast, hidden treasure, fine pearls, a catch of fish, a merciful king, banquet invitations for nobodies, equal pay for workers – speak of unexpected good coming from seemingly unlikely situations. Another image is of endless safe hospitality: “My Father’s house has many rooms; if that were not so, would I have told you that I am going there to prepare a place for you?” (John 14: 2) The dollops of grace we experience now are part of the heavenly kingdom[1].

These are beautiful rich images of us participating in the ongoing life of the divine, there’s a big BUT though.

All of these visions of heaven require each inhabitant to be producing good fruit, good fruit that will have been seen clearly in their lives and done out of choice. There is very strong Biblical support that you’re not going to heaven unless you’re very firmly alongside Jesus in all you do. That’s tough to hear, but it is fair. Heaven is no place for the monsters of this world, but neither is it for those who are ungenerous with their gifts or money, who talk about people behind their backs, who just can’t be bothered to be a blessing to others. That behaviour doesn’t match the very fair and loving entry requirements for an ongoing life with the divine. I’m not saying these things from an ‘I’m alright Jack’ perspective either. I know on many occasions in the past week alone I don’t want me to go to heaven – I’d spoil it.

What then for those people that don’t make the grade? Well as the scripture and my opening reflection alluded to this is most definitely more than saying a prayer and saying you believe in Jesus, this is all about the heart, how closely we mirror the divine. That of course is best done with a living faith in Christ but it doesn’t mean those of other faiths or of no faith do not get recognised.

For those hearts that are not good, some believe, (though not as many anymore) that there is a place of conscious torment after death. Others believe we will have further opportunities to get closer to God after we die, others believe in oblivion, the end of life in much the same way an Atheist believes. Either way you’re not going to heaven anytime soon.

The interesting one there is the middle one. Roman Catholicism believes in this and calls it purgatory. Writers like Rob Bell also argue this case, because a God of love wants us all no matter how long it takes. Many argue against this saying the scriptural support is limited at best. However an observation I make is that by putting my faith in Christ I am under God’s grace and forgiveness which is most definitely supported in the Bible. But that doesn’t mean I’m ready for heaven yet, my heart needs to move closer to the divine love and God will allow me to continue that journey even if I physically die before that’s complete.
We can reflect and speculate all we like but ultimately I’m quite scared of all those possibilities and so should you be. I’d like to get to heaven straight away.

If I want that to happen I’ve got to clean up my act. If you want that to happen you’ve got to clean up your act.

We do get real encouragement as we make progress. Our world is messed up because of bad evil choices, start to undo those bad choices and all of a sudden you catch a glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven in the here and now like a shaft of sunlight on a cloudy day. We’re called to make it on earth as it is in heaven because we can experience heaven, the true closeness of God now and make it happen for others. It is the trail of light we can then follow until we are bathed in the divine glory.

What then for us now, how do we go forward? Let me offer this Celtic Christian reflection:

What is crooked shall be made straight. Luke 3: 5

We talk about crooks or perverts as bent people; but the truth is that all of us are bent in some way, and not one of us can move into a state of bliss, into our ultimate fulfilment in God, unless every crooked thing is straightened out. We can prepare the way for the Lord by putting straight what is crooked. Crooked things include tax evasion, gossip, dishonest use of money, abuse, wilful failure to communicate, manipulative techniques, false fronts.

What things then are good? Those which have remained whole and uncorrupted as they were created, which God, according to the apostle, ‘has prepared that we should walk in, the good works in which we are created in Christ Jesus’. These are: goodness, integrity, devotion, fairness, truth, mercy, caring, peace, spiritual joy, with the fruit of the Spirit; all these with their fruits are good. The opposites of these are the evil things: malice, irreverence, discrimination, lying, greed, hatred, discord, bitterness, with all the many fruits they bear. For the fruits of both good and evil are innumerable.

True discernment is the inseparable companion of Christian humility and opens the way to perfection to the true soldier of Christ.

If we all weigh our actions in the just balance of true discernment we shall not be hi-jacked into crooked ways. If we walk by the divine light we “shall not go astray either to the right or to the left” but we shall always keep on the straight way, chanting with the conquering Psalmist “O my God light up my darkness, for through you I shall be delivered from temptation”.

The Rule of Columbanus[2]

Prayer

Lord Spirit, show me the things that are crooked in my life
Lord Judge, spare me from things that could be crooked in my life
Lord Christ, straighten out the things that are crooked in my life
O my God, light up my darkness and deliver me this day from temptation

 


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