It's the End of the World and I Feel Fine - Last Judgment

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John 5:19–30 Jesus gave them this answer: “Very truly I tell you, the Son can do nothing by himself; he can do only what he sees his Father doing, because whatever the Father does the Son also does. 20 For the Father loves the Son and shows him all he does. Yes, and he will show him even greater works than these, so that you will be amazed. 21 For just as the Father raises the dead and gives them life, even so the Son gives life to whom he is pleased to give it. 22 Moreover, the Father judges no one, but has entrusted all judgment to the Son, 23 that all may honor the Son just as they honor the Father. Whoever does not honor the Son does not honor the Father, who sent him. Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life. 25 Very truly I tell you, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live. 26 For as the Father has life in himself, so he has granted the Son also to have life in himself. 27 And he has given him authority to judge because he is the Son of Man. 28 “Do not be amazed at this, for a time is coming when all who are in their graves will hear his voice 29 and come out—those who have done what is good will rise to live, and those who have done what is evil will rise to be condemned. 30 By myself I can do nothing; I judge only as I hear, and my judgment is just, for I seek not to please myself but him who sent me.

As the snow came down with “dizzying intensity and speed,” she drove up the harrowing mountain pass in Montana. Just a city girl who had naively moved to the mountains, she gripped the steering wheel of her small car and prayed. She prayed, “Don’t let me slide into another car, or off the mountainside,” and promised, “God, I will no longer be crabby or impatient or late on my deadlines. Just help me get home.” That same city girl many snow storms, thunderstorms, and years later finally got it. I mean she really got it. She wrote, “Over time, living in Montana has pounded into my consciousness the notion that no matter how we fight it, whether with technology, our wills, or sheer denial, we are natural beings subject to forces greater than ourselves. Sometimes the natural world takes your power, as it does in February, when every fiber of your being wants to hibernate. Sometimes it bestows you with power you never could possess, as it does during the peak of summer, when you don’t need much sleep and you feel like you’re riding along with all the motions of the universe.”

It’s that reality that Jesus wants to wake us up to. That there is a force way above us. That there is a voice and a call and a creative power that is used on our souls to determine our eternal destination; where we’re headed at the Last Judgment. It’s striking really. Not for a second does Jesus place eternity into our hands. Not even for a second. That’s why in this Scripture about Last Judgment there’s no one on some bullhorn on some ancient street corner hollering at us to get our act together. Or some ancient van driving around tattooed with the phrase, “Hell is hot. Choose Jesus.” There isn’t even a sweaty preaching Jesus who with face all red and forehead capillaries about to burst screaming at the evildoers around him, “Change your ways.” Nowhere to be seen here is a Jesus who thought it was his job to preach judgment so forcefully and so thoroughly that all the sinners around him would cry, “Mercy,” and suddenly begin to climb their way out of hell. The only Jesus here is a Jesus who as a force far above nature calmly, seriously, and powerfully confronts the issue of the Last Judgment.

In fact, that’s what this whole chapter of John 5 is about. The chapter could even be entitled Jesus: The Force Above Nature. Because Jesus came and healed what nature never could – a man who had been an invalid for 38 years. And then the people around Jesus react according to their nature. They get mad wanting to put all that power and all that grace into a box. They are so adamant about this that they even launch an investigation into what they deem to be an, “illegal Sabbath healing.” Jesus’ response to them? He basically says, “This is what I do. I am a force above all nature giving grace and power.” He said, “My Father is always at work to this very day, and I too am working.” (v. 17) Jesus wasn’t going to be contained. Jesus wasn’t going to be stopped. He was going to work for us and in us. And that’s how Jesus sets up his teaching on the Last Judgment. He speaks truths to us about himself.

And why? When it comes to Last Judgment, it’s much easier to believe truths about ourselves than truths about Jesus. That’s what Michelangelo shows us. Not the teenage mutant ninja turtle. The artist. In perhaps what was his life’s greatest work and what is the centerpiece of the Sistine Chapel in Rome, he painted himself right into a work called the Last Judgment. He had to. After four years of painting that scene, he began to believe something about himself and his relation to it. All he could believe about it were truths about himself. You know where he painted himself in his masterpiece? He painted his self-portrait on a piece of flayed skin dangling precariously over the fires of hell.

The truth is that that kind of despair about Last Judgment isn’t uncommon. As people who take God and his law seriously, we’ve all felt that. Sometimes the despair can be so thick and the guilt so heavy that counterintuitively it drives us not away from sin, but right to it. We figure, “I’m already toast. I might as well keep on keeping on with it.” So that guy who knows its wrong to play house with that woman just keeps on doing it. And the pew sitter who likes to hoard his cash keeps on hoarding it. And the people who have stopped coming to church just stay away. Because we know that even our life’s greatest works – our Sistine Chapel frescoes whatever they maybe – aren’t enough. In fact, if we look at them closely we can see they’re horribly marred. We can look at our decades of child rearing or our careers accomplishments and do our spiritual calculations and realize that none of it passes muster. That we’re dangling precariously. That flames now licking will then consume not only our life’s best works, but also our very souls. That then the angry Christ will finally have his day. So universal and gripping is that feeling to all us that of all the probably hundreds of figures in Michelangelo’s Last Judgment visitors remember really only one – one figure so memorable that he’s also the only figure that has also gained a nickname. The damned man.

If there’s any part of you that spiritually gets that – any at all – then you’re also going to get why Jesus is so insistent with us here. Why he speaks almost like he’s making an oath. Why he talks like he’s almost swearing. Why he moves us so forcefully and fiercely away from anything that has to do with us when it comes to Last Judgment. “Very truly I tell you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life.” (v. 24) This is no Jesus with a bullhorn yelling about sin or some red-faced, sweaty Jesus preaching so furiously that the capillaries in his forehead are about to burst. Search all you want, but you’re never going to find a Jesus here who says anything like, “Yeah, you should probably be a bit worried. The flames are starting to lick at you.” In fact, did you catch it? The only talk of judgment here had a not before it. All you have here is a Christ. You have a Christ who is saying to you, “Not for a second do I want you worried about Last Judgment. Not even for a second.” We’re supposed to trust him. We’re supposed to believe him that the only kind of judging that we’re headed for is not judging. We’re supposed to trust him that we’ve already arrived. That the eternal direction setting has already been done and it’s been done by him. That we’ve crossed over from death to life.

And that faith? That confidence? That trust that that’s how it really is? Jesus takes full responsibility for creating it. Full. Jesus is insistent about that. How insistent? 26 times in John Jesus says, “Very truly I tell you,” but never perfectly back to back. Except here. Except now when he immediately says, “Very truly I tell you, a time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live.” (v. 25) Did you catch why Jesus takes takes full responsibility for the creation of our faith? Because it’s apparently not something we can create on our own. I mean it was bad. Jesus doesn’t even credit us here with tiniest amount of spiritual life. Not even a spark. Did you catch that? Jesus says that without the power of his voice in our lives we’re one of the dead. And so Jesus works for us. And Jesus works in us. When it comes to making sure we survive the Last Judgment Jesus is just not going to allow a single thing to possibly go wrong. He’s says, “I’m just going to own the whole deal. I’m going to give you what you can’t give yourself: life. I’m going give you nothing less than a resurrection from the spiritual dead.”

And there’s only one force with that level of resurrection, nature-transcending power. There’s only one force that can command so completely and so powerfully that it puts life where there wasn’t any before. You know what that force is? “The voice of the Son of God.” (v. 25) The voice of the Son of God. And apparently Jesus wants us to be very clear on this point. He just can’t stop talking about it. He says, “Whoever hears my word…” (v. 24) And, “The dead will hear the voice of the Son of God…” (v. 25) And, “All who are in their graves will hear his voice and come out.” (v. 28) And honestly it’s not hard to understand why Jesus wants to be so clear about this. Jesus’ voice has some serious fire power. Jesus’ voice is the same voice that called out into nothingness and first made mass. Jesus’ voice is same voice that set the sun in the sky and commanded the moon into orbit. Jesus’ voice is the same voice that spoke to that 38-year invalid and gifted healing his body. That’s the voice that we’re to bank on. That’s the voice we are to trust can take the dead spiritual material in our souls and infuse it with faith. That’s the voice we are to believe can take the dead kindling of our hearts and set it ablaze with Spirit-filled life and Spirit-filled living.

Even here. And even now. Even in you. Do you realize that’s the whole point of preaching? To call out with the resurrection-level power of Jesus’ voice? Even right here. Even right now. Even inside you. “A time is coming and has now come when the dead will hear the voice of the Son of God and those who hear will live.” (v. 25) Do you see it? Do you see what Jesus is saying he’s up to right here and right now and in you? Jesus isn’t referring to some future apart from this one. Jesus isn’t talking about a now that’s different than – well –  now. And Jesus isn’t talking about some nameless, faceless, hypothetical future hearer other than you. Jesus is promising you that the time is now and the place is here and the soul he’s resurrecting is yours. So you can believe that you are alive. So you stop thinking that your soul is suspended precariously above the fires of hell and its flames are already threatening to lick your feet. So you stop thinking that the Last Judgment and its outcome is dependent upon your life and its works. So you start believing that your future is entirely secure. That, in fact, it’s already arrived. That you’ve crossed over from death to life. That for you judgment has been entirely and completely suspended.

Because in point of historic fact it has been. That’s what Jesus’ cross is all about. There decades of haphazard parenting stuck and there not so Spirit-filled careers went to quite literally die. There the illicit sex and the harmful thoughts and the unloving words went and faced the Judge. There the flames of hell didn’t just menacingly flicker below. There they actually condemned and consumed. Because there the ultimate damned man hung: Jesus. Do you see what that means? There justice was had for everything. On the cross judgment was rendered for all, but especially for you. So that you don’t dangle precariously. So that you wouldn’t have to worry about the Last Judgment. So that you wouldn’t have to give up on this life thinking, “I’m toast. I might as well keep on keeping on with whatever sin I’m involved in.” So that you can live and bust out of it and claim the cleanest and the holiest and the greatest life’s work called the life and times of Jesus Christ – a life’s work so glowing and so great that it makes Michelangelo’s Sistine Chapel frescoes look like a building full of rubbish. That’s what’s yours by the faith that Jesus himself set ablaze in you.

That’s what Jesus does and that’s who he is. He’s a force far above nature – one who takes gospel truths and makes them come alive in you with resurrection-level power. It reminds me of that lady I told you about who moved to Montana. You know how she closed her article? She wrote, “We believe we are run by our thoughts and anxieties, our urges and our choices, but come to a place like Montana and you will be reminded that the moon is running you. The sun is running you. The light or lack of light is running you.” Jesus’ voice is like that, but better. It’s a force that comes into our lives with power so great and a force so creative that the fire of faith begins to burn and spiritual resurrection just booms. And that’s why it shouldn’t surprise us. Not even for a minute. Not even for a second. It shouldn’t surprise us that when the Last Judgment finally arrives Jesus will speak one more time and from our graves we’ll walk out to the eternal life we’ve already here started living. Amen.

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