“Where never is heard a discouraging word, and the skies are not cloudy all…Sunday.” Such is the current reality in many Christian pulpits. In misguided love preachers wash from their sermons any reference to God’s wrath, his judgment on sin behind that wrath, or that wrath becoming an eternal experience for the unbeliever in hell. Talk of God’s wrath and judgment and of hell is left unspoken – or flatly denied – as if all that were outmoded church-of-the-middle-ages scare tactics. To use current parlance, such talk is a microagression to be shunned.
Lost in this is the typical pew-sitter’s ability to make heads or tales of statements like this from Hebrews: “It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God” (Hebrews 10:31). (“Dreadful? Really? Why would that be?”) Moses becomes a quaint relic of a bygone era when he declares in Sunday’s psalm: “You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your presence. You turn mortals back to dust. You sweep them away in the sleep of death”(Psalm 90:8, 3 as sung in Christian Worship). Imagine the confusion in many sanctuaries if worshippers were asked to sing verses 9 and 11: “All our days pass away under your wrath; we finish our years with a moan….Who knows the power of your anger? For your wrath is as great as the fear that is due you.”
But are our sanctuaries immune from such confusion? What can be said about your pulpit and mine? Could it be true that at times we do little more than toss overly predictable passing references to “hell” or “judgment” into our sermons? Do such words only make brief cameo appearances in our sermons (like some outward obeisance to a Lutheran rubric) rather than being thoughtfully developed from text and context in ways that are pivotal to proclaiming coherent gospel? If we do not know from what we have been rescued – and how near the danger remains (1 Corinthians 10:12) for simul justus et peccator believing mortals in a sinful world – what is the beauty of or ongoing need for God’s grace in Jesus? Antinomianism always breaks out into antigospelism, and the current age is antinomian to its core.
Which is why it is so important to listen to Jesus in next Sunday’s gospel (John 5:19-30). There Jesus speaks in dead earnest about how important it is that the dead hear his voice now to their salvation lest when stepping out of their graves they hear his voice only to their condemnation.
What’s the textual evidence of Jesus’ dead earnestness? John frequently quotes Jesus’ double amens. It’s John’s inspired way of giving us Jesus’ own bolding and highlighting. But there are only five discourses where such double amens appear three (or more) times. Sunday’s gospel is one of them. With that triple repetition Jesus makes it very evident how earnestly he longs for his words to be heard.
Consider what was going on in John 5. Unbelieving Jews already have found Jesus’ words blasphemous. Jesus in turn reaches out in dead earnest to let them know that, if they were looking for something blasphemous, they hadn’t heard anything yet! Were his hearers offended that Jesus seemed to equate himself with the Father? Well, they were not mistaken. Jesus intentionally underlines two evidences of that very equality with great solemnity. To Jesus as the God/man, the Father had given two more-amazing-than-physical-healing privileges. To Jesus as the incarnate Son of Man was given the ability by his powerful Word to bring spiritually dead sinners to spiritual life. And, to the Son of Man was given all authority to judge. On the Last Day, Jesus’ voice will summon all the physical dead from their graves and usher them before him for judgment. On that last day of earth’s history all those who have passed from death to life already in this present age by hearing and believing the Son of Man’s life giving words – a reality to which their lives will provide plentiful evidence – will rise to live! While those who remained dead in unbelief and the wickedness of heart in this present age – evidenced also by their lives – will rise to be condemned.
That explains Jesus’ threefold-double-amen-earnestness! Either the dead will live now by the Son of Man’s saving Word, or they will forever be condemned by his Word. On that Judgment Day, it will be a dreadful thing for the doubly-dead to fall into the hands of the Son of Man even though those hands will have been marked by nails also for them.
That was precisely the doubly-deadly trajectory for many of those listening to Jesus on that day in John 5. It is on that very same path that most of the dead in our world are still running in arrogance and/or ignorance: rejecting the life-giving words of the Son of Man and thus speeding toward the Day of his death-sealing words of condemnation.
And yes, it is on that very same path that my own dead-from-birth-nature would just as easily run if left to himself. This warning of judgment is not beneath me to hear as a child of God so long as I carry about with me the dead-weight of my sinful nature. In fact, when you preach that to me – as I trust you have also preached it to yourself – Jesus’ powerful words hand me through you a precisely-fitted weapon designed for the daily clubbing to death of my old self whose ears refuse to hear the Son of Man’s Word.
Yes, God forbid that this is ever your greatest joy to preach or your final message to your own heart or mine. But God equally forbid that this is seldom in the message you aim at your own heart and mine!
Yes, if you love me, you will most of all delight to tell me that the powerful words of the Son of Man have already enabled me to pass from death to life so that I will not come under judgment! Yes, you will above all tell me that the eternal kingdom of God that has broken into my life continues to come to me in Word and sacrament whenever my dear Jesus speaks his forgiving love to my soul. Yes, you will rush to tell me that ears who have learned to hear his voice now have nothing to fear when that same voice calls us out of our graves on the Last Day.
But it will also remain true until that Day dawns, that if you love your hearers, you will also speak of the facet of God’s judgment that is unique to each text in its context. That is neither a 21st century microagression nor a return of Dark Ages morality play scare tactics. That is instead the dead earnest voice of my Savior. It is the dead earnest voice of every shepherd after God’s own heart who loves his own soul and the souls of his hearers. If you love your hearers, you speak of his judgment!