Sunday 13 December 2009

Repentance & Hellfire

An address given on Sunday 13th December 2009, Advent 3, at Templederry and Puckane Roman Catholic Church, which Fr John Slattery and his parish have been kind enough to invite us to use while Killodiernan is being re-roofed.

‘You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come? Bear fruits worthy of repentance.’
John the Baptist had quite a way with words, didn’t he, as Luke records them in today’s New Testament reading (Luke 3:7-18). Luke has just told us that John travelled around the Jordan region as a wandering preacher ‘proclaiming a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sins’. He was what we would call today a ‘hellfire preacher’. It seems he not so much ‘proclaimed the good news to the people’, as sought to terrify the crowds who followed him into repentance.

The Jewish crowd perhaps felt that as God’s chosen people they were safe from God’s judgement – for hadn’t Zephaniah in our Old Testament reading declared (Zeph 3:14-20), like other prophets before and after him, ‘The Lord has taken away the judgements against you’? But for John it was their own fruits worthy of repentance that mattered, not their genealogy, not their descent from the patriarch Abraham.

‘Even now’, John goes on, ‘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’.

It’s strong stuff, isn’t it – ‘Repent and do good or you will be judged and sentenced to the fires of hell’, seems to be John’s message.

It’s not a popular message these days, but it is an important one I think. Let’s try to tease it out a bit more

First, there is repentance.
Jesus preached repentance too, of course - Matthew summarised his teaching in these familiar words, ‘Repent, for the Kingdom of heaven has come near’ (Matt 3:2).

Now, in modern English the word repentance carries at least a suggestion of penance, almost of punishment, of a stern authority saying, ‘I’ll make you sorry!’ But the Greek word μετάνοια – metanoia, translated as ‘repentance’ in the NT, didn’t carry this baggage; it simply meant ‘change of mind’.

People 2000 years ago were very much like us, a mixture of good and bad. They loved their families, their home places and their synagogues - but they also feathered their own nests when they could, exploited other people, and did what they knew they shouldn’t to get what they wanted. Both John and Jesus challenged them to change their whole attitude, to live their lives not by the standard of their own advantage, but by God’s standard of what is right.

And surely when they responded to the challenge they felt a sense of liberation, not punishment. Like all of us they had consciences, they knew the difference between right and wrong, they felt guilt for the bad things they did, and when they experienced this change of attitude the psychological burden of guilt was lifted. God responds with forgiveness when we repent.

Second, there are the ‘fruits worthy of repentance’.
That warm feeling of forgiveness, of being freed from guilt, is meaningless, of course, unless we actually change our behaviour, unless we really do live up to God’s standard. This is what John means when he insists that we must ‘bear fruits worthy of repentance’. It is what Jesus meant when he told the woman taken in adultery, whom he had saved from stoning, 'Go your way, and from now on do not sin again' (John 8:3-11)

The crowds following John ask him what they should do. I think his answers are very significant. He tells them, ‘Whoever has two coats must share with anyone who has none; and whoever has food must do likewise’. He does not tell them to spend more time in the Synagogue; he tells them to practice living in the world by God’s standard of loving their neighbour as themselves. The well-off must support the less fortunate among us. We should take John’s words to heart, I think.

Many poor people are struggling in this recession. Organisations like St Vincent de Paul and Protestant Aid seek to help them, but they need support from the rest of us to do so. If you can afford it - only of you can afford it, why not give them an extra Christmas present this year? Perhaps equivalent to what you would spend on a member of your family?

And then there's Budget 2010. Perhaps Brian Lenihan should reflect on John's words. Social welfare and the overseas aid budgets have been cut, while taxes on the better off have been left untouched. Are these ‘fruits worthy of repentance’?

And lastly, there is the fire.
John answers the people who were speculating whether he, John, was the Messiah in these words: ‘I baptize you with water; but one who is more powerful than I is coming; I am not worthy to untie the thong of his sandals. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.’ As Christians we believe he is speaking of Jesus. ‘His winnowing-fork is in his hand’, he continues, ‘to clear his threshing-floor and to gather the wheat into his granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.’

The image is of Jesus, the Messiah, like a farmer threshing his corn, separating the full grains - which he saves, from the useless chaff - which he throws on the fire. John uses it to illustrate the consequences of not ‘bearing fruits worthy of repentance’. I find it a terrifying picture of judgement, because we all know how often we fail to live up to God’s standards: are we grain to be saved or are we chaff to be burned?

Matthew tells us (Matt 13:24-30, 36-43) that Jesus also used the image of fire, in his Parable of the Weeds, sometimes called the Parable of the Tares. Here, if you remember, the farmer sows good seed, but his enemy sows weeds in the same field. The farmer orders they be left to grow together, because pulling the weeds might uproot the good seed. But at harvest time, the farmer has the weeds separated out and burned in the fire, as he saves the good grain.

I suggest we need to take this metaphor of judgement fire seriously. Our actions do have consequences – it does matter whether we bear ‘fruits worthy of repentance’, or not. God will know it if we don’t - and we will too, deep inside ourselves, because our God-given conscience will tell us so. Our loving God allows us all the time we could need to produce good grain, but he does not force us to. If in the end we do not, it is we who will have consigned our own souls to the metaphorical fires of hell. God does not wish it, but God can only look on in sadness at our human wilfulness.

Let’s finish with a prayer:
Loving Father,

who through John the Baptist called us
to bear fruits worthy of repentance,
show us what we must do to live up to your standards,
so that our souls may not suffer in the fires of hell;
in the name of our saviour Jesus Christ we pray. Amen