S. Advent 2.19 “Two Ways” Matt. 3:1-12

    The December issue of First Things has an excellent article by Michael McClymond called “The Opiate of the Theologians”. Prof. McClymond argues that universalism—the notion that God has to save everyone in order to be a God we could call “Good”—used to be an obviously heretical and unbiblical teaching that put those who entertained it (like Origen, Eckhardt, et. al.) beyond the boundaries of the Church; but now, in these latter days, it has become mainstream orthodoxy, everywhere, and is gaining confidence and momentum.

    In the last 50 years, the idea that God can or even must save all sentient beings, that hell either doesn’t exist or must be empty, has moved from a secret thought theologians like Maritain, Barth, and von Balthasar would float tentatively to something people like David Bentley Hart, John Milbank, and Rob Bell insist is the only truly Christian perspective(!) such that those who think that few are saved and many are lost (as Jesus says in the Gospels, quite plainly) are “moral imbeciles” and monsters who simply are not grasping the love of Christ…

    It’s a swift change. A Lutheran theologian of the 19th century well observed that error progresses in the church in three stages: 1) It demands tolerance as a minority position, 2) it demands equal time, 3) it demands it alone rule. To go from zero to somewhere between late stage 2 and early stage 3 in a few decades is astonishing. Universalism has captured the div schools and seminaries and is filtering rapidly into the pulpits and pews.

    You can see it in how uncomfortable even “conservatives” are in talking about hell and judgment anymore. To be “Judgmental” is fast becoming the unforgivable sin. To express eagerness for the Final Judgment, the Zombie Apocalypse as a taking out of the trash that will be a joy to see draws severe looks. Ask me how I know this…!

    Prof. McClymond notes one of the major motifs in the Scriptures is that of the “Two Ways”. The separation between believers and unbelievers, the righteous and unrighteous, the godly and the pagan is not something a capricious God will arbitrarily impose on a previously united humanity at the end of time just because He can. It is something that sin, Satan, and fallen humanity imposed from the day Eve ate the apple. But say that, and people will start to squirm and scowl at you. To suggest a significant swath of humanity is facing eternity in a lake of fire with flesh eating worms while a smaller portion (the Remnant) is looking forward to eternity in Paradise with Christ our Lord isn’t a popular teaching, anymore…

    But it’s clearly the teaching of Scriptures! From Cain murdering Abel, we see the Two Ways diverge, like Frost’s two roads in a wood. Esau and Jacob. Israel and Egypt. David and Goliath. Northern and Southern Israel (and just in case you forgot, the Southerners are the good guys!). The Pharisees and the Apostles. Jesus and Satan. Believers and unbelievers. The Paradise Isaiah sees in our first reading is not the Natural State of humanity or the world. It comes only by the LORD striking the earth with the rod of judgment, killing the wicked with fire from His lips. Only after the fire and the sword, the conflict our Lord says in Matt. 10 He comes to bring, will there be peace for His people, cow and bear grazing, lion and lamb laying down together (and I can’t help but notice that Jesus is called both Lion of Judah and Lamb of God. Only in Him do the two dwell together harmoniously!).

    There are Two Ways, two paths that diverge in the wood of the world. Jesus tells us this plainly in Matt. 7:13: “Enter by the narrow gate. For the gate is wide and the way is easy that leads to destruction, and those who enter by it are many. For the gate is narrow and the way is hard that leads to life and those who find it are few.” Two Ways!

    And most everyone today hates that passage! Few passages are explained away or outright dismissed as often as that one, unless it’s Col 1:23 that says “the Gospel which you heard was preached to every creature under heaven.” (I think the widespread rejection of these two passages are not unconnected, but more on that some other time). We hear that “narrow” doesn’t really mean narrow or that “many” doesn’t really mean many—that a loving God surely will have to save everyone

    And that is nothing but sentimentality—which is the real basis of the religion of humanity or what Augustine called “The City of Man” which is ever opposed to the City of God. Walker Percy well said in his novel “The Thanatos Syndrome” that the Nazi doctors were the most sentimental souls and sentimentality as we see leads straight to the gas chambers. Shocking but true…

    Christianity is based on a much tougher and more athletic Word of God. There are Two Kingdoms: Christ’s and Satans; and they mingle and battle here on earth but in heaven there will be, as C.S. Lewis wrote in one of my favorite books: “The Great Divorce” between Heaven and Hell. Do you really want Hitler to be allowed to roam the halls of Heaven killing and terrorizing as he pleases? Do you really want child molesters, murderers, rapists to be left free to roam the streets of gold in heaven doing as they please? Do you really think a GOOD God would save such people? What kind of Father doesn’t defend (with deadly force!) His children from those bent on destroying them?

    At the end of his fine article, Prof. McClymond says: if you ask him why he thinks few are saved and many are condemned eternally he says: “well… not just because the Bible says so, quite plainly; not just because the Church has always taught this, but also simply because I have eyes to see! This is the world I live in! The righteous are persecuted, hated, hounded, killed by greedy and selfish people all the time. Most of all, Jesus was crucified. Perfect love and peace came to the world and look what the world did to Him! It does it today, still…”

    John comes preaching in our Gospel today a baptism of repentance, rethinking. He’s a divider not a uniter. When the Pharisees and Sadducees come to his baptism, he calls them out: “Brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Only those who bear the fruits of repentance will survive the fire and winnowing fan the Christ is bringing with Him.

    What are the fruits of repentance? Well, contrition, hatred of sin, love, joy, gentleness, self-control. Faith in Christ is the Tree that bears this fruit. Faith doesn’t picture a world where everyone is saved to do as we please! Universalists are oddly uninterested in God, Heaven. They only want the union of all humanity just as they are, unchanged. Christians look forward, instead, to our own enjoyment of Christ’s Presence and being changed into His Image. It’s only communion with God, one person at a time, that leads to His House, United….

    Whew! That’s a real fire and brimstone sermon I’ve preached there! Forgot how fun those were. But mine has a serious twist, note well…

    John doesn’t suggest that even the faithful escape the fire of Judgment note bene! John says we all will get baptized with the Holy Spirit and fire! But the faithful welcome this! Because the old Adam/Eve that lives in us needs to be burned up, drowned, engulfed. We have a lot of dying still to do with Jesus; a lot of our chaff needs burning before the wheat can be gathered into Christ’s barn…

    Two Roads diverge in the world; and this is the Way (though far less traveled by!): to suffer and die with Jesus by Word and Sacrament, through faith alone, now, in order to rise with Him in Glory at the Last, when, finally: Peace surpassing understanding will guard our hearts and minds in Christ Jesus. Amen.