26 - The Last Judgment, February 27, 2011

I Corinthians 8:8 – 9:2

Matthew 25:31-36

By His victory on the Cross, Christ destroyed death by His death, and to those in the tombs He has given life. Sin is death. Those who walk in sin are dead in their trespasses. Those who unite themselves to sin, unite themselves to death. They become the death that was destroyed by the death of Christ, and so they will be destroyed in that death that was destroyed by the death of Christ. This is the warning of today’s Gospel

The word was created in goodness, the goodness of God. It was not created in good and evil, yet it now exists in good and evil. It was created in light,[1] not in darkness, yet it now exists in darkness.

Man was made in the image and likeness of God. He was not made in the image of irrational beasts, yet he has become like the irrational beasts. He is governed not by the Spirit of God but by the lusts, the passions of the flesh like the irrational beasts. He was made to rule the earth, but he has become a slave to the natural forces of the earth and of his own biology. He exists in good and evil, not in goodness. He exists in darkness, in ignorance and forgetfulness of God, not in light, in the knowledge and communion of God. The destruction of the world and the end of man is therefore inevitable, because man and the world exist against the principle of their nature. He walks in the ways of sin, not in the ways of holiness; and so he has come to exist in death, not in the eternal life of God. He lives in the fear of death, not in the fear of God. His end is not union with God but the separation of his soul from his body.

The scientific and philosophical wisdom of the world tells us that our death and the end of the world are natural and inevitable. There’s nothing to get worked up over. It’s all just part of a natural cycle.

But the Good Shepherd tells us otherwise. Our inevitable end and the destruction of the world are unnatural. We die because we are dead in sin; and we are dead in sin because we are separated from God; and this is not natural to us; for we were made in the image of God, and in that image, we were meant by nature to become partakers of God. This morning, the Church faces us with the utmost sternness and warns us: when we die, we don’t just quietly slip away into oblivion to be no more. When we die and when the world ends, we will face the God who created us in His image; and we will have to answer to Him for what we have done with His image. This judgment, the Church warns us this morning, is as terrible as it is eternal: “Behold, there comes the day of the Lord almighty, and who shall endure the fear of His presence? For it is a day of wrath. The furnace shall burn, and the Judge shall sit and give to each the due return for his works. Moses was filled with fear and trembling when he saw Thee from behind. The prophet, Daniel, was afraid of the hour of trial. What shall I feel, unhappy that I am, when I come to that terrible day. As I ponder the fearful day of Thy judgment and ineffable glory, I am altogether full of fear. My mind is wounded, my body has grown feeble, my spirit is sick, my speech has lost its power, my life is dead, the end is at the door. What will you do, my miserable soul, when the Judge comes to examine your deeds? O Lord, trembling in terror I cry, deliver me from my wretchedness.”[2]

Coming to Church this morning, we have come to stand before the Judge as at the Last Judgment. Jesus Christ is the Judge, and the Icon of Christ the Judge is before us, on the iconostasis over my left shoulder as I am speaking to you. While the world goes its merry way, you retreated to come into the Church this morning and you stepped into the Last Day. We can’t see it now because we are too worldly and because the time for us to see it has not yet come; but here in the Church, you stand in the terrible glory with which the Judge will be clothed at the Final Judgment. While the world stands before the mirror primping and preening, you have come to stand before the Icon of the divine Judge, I pray, with bowed neck and soul in the fear of God. Here, on this Sunday, as we prepare for Great Lent, having heard the parables of the Publican and the Pharisee, and of the Prodigal Son on the last two Sundays, we are made to stand and to ponder that fearful day of the Last Judgment when we have come to the end of our life, and the end of the world. “God is the Judge, and nothing can help you there, my soul; no zeal, no skill, no glory, no friendship, but only the strength that you gain from your works.”[3] In this fearful vision, I think the Church is giving to us the specific work of laying aside all excuse and all claims to righteousness and to pray from our heart that we may hear the voice of the Judge while it is still Today,[4] and that in His mercy, he would grant to us Today from this hour and from this moment the spirit of repentance, that He would soften our hearts and teach us His precepts, illumine our mind and our heart that we may understand His statutes, that He would heal us and save us and deliver us from sin and death that we may walk the rest of our days in the way of His commandments.

Contemplating what I should preach this morning, I saw that this morning’s Gospel parable of the Last Judgment follows immediately upon the parable of the talents. That parable recounts the terrible end of the lazy servant who buried the talent he was given by the King in the ground, and did nothing with it. He is cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. It is the same sentence given to the goats at the Last Judgment: “Depart from me, you cursed, into the eternal fire prepared for the devil and his angels. I never knew you.”[5] The talent, then, appears to be the image of God in which we were made. It is our true nature, our true self, the way we were meant to be in our creation by God. I think what distinguishes the sheep from the goats is not that the sheep are righteous and the goats are sinners; for even we who hope we are sheep have gone astray, we have each one turned to our own way.[6] What distinguishes the sheep from the goats, it seems to me, is whether or not they work to uncover the talent, the image of God in them, and to make it increase so that they become by the grace of God like Christ and so “attain to the measure of the stature of the fullness of Christ.”[7]

This work of uncovering the talent of the image of God within us is the work of taking up our cross. Christ gives us this cross in the ascetic discipline of the Lenten fast and in His holy commandments. These are described in the Lenten Triodion as “the flower of abstinence that grows from the tree of the Cross and as the fruit of His holy commandments.”[8] I take the “holy commandments” specifically as the Savior’s commandment to repent and to take up our cross to follow Him. He gave us that commandment again in yesterday’s Gospel, where He again is speaking to us of the end of the world: “There shall be signs in the sun, and in the moon, and in the stars; and upon the earth distress of nations, with perplexity, the sea and the waves roaring. Men’s hearts will fail them for fear and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth; for the powers of heaven shall be shaken. And then shall they see the Son of Man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. Take heed to yourselves, lest at any time your hearts are weighed down by indulgence, with drunkenness and the cares of life, so that that day comes upon you unawares. Watch, therefore, and pray always, that you may be accounted worthy to escape all these things that shall come to pass, and to stand before the Son of Man.”[9] The ascetic work of the Lenten fast is how we “take heed to ourselves and watch” as Christ commands us, so that we are not weighed down by indulgence, by the scorn of those who are at ease, the contempt of the proud. Through the Lenten fast, we put to death the deeds of the body; we begin to live no longer according to the flesh but according to the Spirit of God.[10] That means that we are choosing to die to the world and to live in the likeness of Christ’s death on the cross. We are choosing to turn around, to repent and step out of the death that is destroyed by Christ’s death, and to step as into the waters of the baptismal font into the death of Christ that destroys death, the death that is the root and the fruit of sin that we who were dead in sin might be made alive in Christ’s Holy Resurrection.

In the fear of God, then, in a mind sobered by the fearful vision of the terrible Judgment on the Last Day, but also in the vision of the joy of Pascha that is set before us, let us be resolved to take up the fast and to practice Christ’s commandments in the hope that we will be raised in Christ’s Holy Resurrection, created anew not from the dust of the ground but from the death of Christ and made alive in the Spirit of Christ, living and moving and having our being in God, in goodness, in light and in life in the Image of God, Jesus Christ, in whom we were made and through whom we have fellowship, communion, with the Father and the Holy Spirit as children and partakers of God. Amen.

[1] Gn 1:

[2] Lenten Triodion, pp. 162-163

[3] Ibid., p. 158

[4] Heb 4:7

[5] Compare Mt 23:41 and Mt 7:23.

[6] Isa 53:6

[7] Eph 4:13

[8] Lenten Triodion, p. 230

[9] Luke 21:25-36.

[10] Rom 8:13