Monday, December 2, 2013

Turn Or Burn

John the Baptist appeared, preaching in the desert of Judea
and saying, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven is at hand!”
It was of him that the prophet Isaiah had spoken when he said:
A voice of one crying out in the desert,
Prepare the way of the Lord,
make straight his paths.

John wore clothing made of camel’s hair
and had a leather belt around his waist.
His food was locusts and wild honey.
At that time Jerusalem, all Judea,
and the whole region around the Jordan
were going out to him
and were being baptized by him in the Jordan River
as they acknowledged their sins.
John the Baptist preaches a typical protestant call to conversion. Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand. It  worked too. People were coming from miles around and and getting baptized. People say this is not a very Catholic thing to do. Nonsense. The church has a long tradition of powerful preachers. Many of them are saints.

Catholic preaching is known for being wimpy. It was not always that way. We need to recover the ability to call people to conversion. It is an important part of the spiritual life. So often Catholics get into a protestant fellowship and they are absolutely blown away because they have never heard someone boldly challenge them to repent. The problem is not the protestants. Any Catholic who goes to mass should hear that challenge once in a while. If he hears it for the first time in a protestant church he is going to feel, quite correctly, that the Catholic church should be doing this and they just are not.

There is a bit of it. Much of it done by former protestants. Not typically at mass but at conferences and parish missions you might get that. That is good. But who goes there? Everyone needs conversion but those that might benefit the most from such preaching are not typically at the events where that preaching occurs. So we have some work to do.

At our parish we do Alpha. That is a place were people hear some strong preaching and it has been life changing for many. So it can be done. We need to get the right message to the right people. We need to be bold but we also need to be smart. It does not have to happen every mass during the homily. It does have to happen sometime in some way. The message is to important not to be spoken very plainly and in a way that demands an immediate response.
When he saw many of the Pharisees and Sadducees
coming to his baptism, he said to them, “You brood of vipers!
Who warned you to flee from the coming wrath?
Produce good fruit as evidence of your repentance.
And do not presume to say to yourselves,
‘We have Abraham as our father.’
For I tell you,
God can raise up children to Abraham from these stones.
Even now the ax lies at the root of the trees.
Therefore every tree that does not bear good fruit
will be cut down and thrown into the fire.
I am baptizing you with water, for repentance,
but the one who is coming after me is mightier than I.
I am not worthy to carry his sandals.
He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.
His winnowing fan is in his hand.
He will clear his threshing floor
and gather his wheat into his barn,
but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”
This sort of reminds me of John 15. That is where Jesus says, "I am the vine and you are the branches." He mentions there that anyone who does not bear fruit will be cut off and thrown into the fire. Despite the similarity, the differences are more important. The focus of what Jesus says is positive. The image of the vine and the branches and the command to abide in Him is very comforting and lets us know we can do great things in the Christian life. He does not omit John's warning about hellfire but it is no longer the focus. The focus is the positive change grace makes in our life. Avoiding eternal damnation is just tacked on.

That is quite instructive. What role should the fear of hell play in our lives? It depends where you are. 1 John 4:18 says, "Perfect love casts out fear." That is great if we are near a place of perfect love for God. We will be totally motivated by the idea of Jesus being the vine and we are the branches and His love and grace will surge through us and produce good fruit.

What if we are not there? What if we are just coming to a place where we are starting to see our sin as a problem and considering coming to God? Then what? Then the fear of hell is going to be a much stronger motivator. The desire to be close to God isn't there yet so it is not likely to motivate us at all. We typically understand that our sin is bad before we really get the idea that a relationship with God might be good. We can believe we are on the road to judgement and that is enough to make us want to repent. We just need someone who is not afraid to say it.

Even those of us who do desire a relationship with God out of love and not out of fear. We should not assume we are always going to be in that space. There may be days when we just don't care if we have damaged our relationship with God. On those days the only thing that might bring us back to repentance is a fear of hell. We should not assume we are above that. We should not assume anyone is. God will accept our fear motivated confession and lead us to a place of love. He does not demand we get to a place of love first and then we can repent. We would all be in a lot of trouble if He did.

So let us never assume that of the people we talk to. If someone is committing mortal sin we should not think it impolite or insulting to bring up the reality of hell. It's not your doctrine. Not liking the idea of hell probably makes you a better witness. We are not just to communicate God's word but also God's heart. God's heart is that He hates hell and wants everyone to be saved. Yet it is there for those who simply don't want to be delivered from their sin. 

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