2021-11-14 - Second Last Sunday of the Church Year - DELP Sunday - Pastorin Gertrud Tönsing

Sermon Genesis 12:1-4 ) [ Deutsche Predigt ] [ Abkündigungen404.8 KB ]


Dear congregation, dear DELP scouts!

50 years of the DELP scout group. That is a joyous occasion. It falls on a serious Sunday with not so easy texts. I could have left those all out and concentrated on the Jubilee. But I then decided to draw on a family service I did many years ago on the Watchword for the week. I have reworked the ideas and hope I can bring the two themes together.

We are in November. We already see Christmas decorations in the shops, the choir is practising for the Christkindlmarkt. Yesterday was the Advent sale in the German Seniors’ Residence. It is a stressed month, as so much still has to happen before the holidays. And of course it is exam time for students and pupils. My niece is writing her matric at the moment and is very glad that Mathematics is behind her now. The students have exams right into December this year. There is no escaping Examtime.

The watchword, which I want to base this sermon on comes from the second letter of Paul to the Corinthians, Chapter 5 verse 10: “We must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ.” Paul, the Apostle of Grace here writes about Judgement. At the end of our life is examtime. There we need to show what we have learnt and done with our life. Let us just let that stand for a moment. How do you feel, when you hear that? What are tests and exams like for you? Do you find it easy? Do you belong to the lucky ones that stay calm and have no nervous tension? Or do you get panic attacks, mental blocks so that you don’t show what you actually really know? In life we have to show what we can do. This is no different with the scouts. For every badge you have to show something what you have learnt or done. When you manage it then you can wear the next badge with pride. My children were with the scouts in Pietermaritzburg and my son participated in the PLTU camp, the training camp for patrol leaders. That was really tough. But if you have responsibility for others you need to be able to endure some stress. It is right that there are exams. I don’t want to go to a teacher or doctor who does not know what they are doing. In the Pietermaritzburg group there were several scouts who made it right up to the highest honour, the Springbok scouts. A brother and sister both made it, good friends of our children. Their mother, a biology lecturer at the University, tore her hair out, looked at the fat file her children had compiled and said: “This was more work than my masters!” Again an exam. Without exams the world does not function. Otherwise anyone can declare themselves to be an engineer and build bridges. If I got onto the bridge the scouts have build I have to be able to trust that they know their knots! Of course, in spite of exams, sometimes unqualified people get to make decisions – but we won’t talk about that now.

I was lucky in my life – I was one of those who had little problems with exams. But there were two which I remember with dread. The first was my driving test. The less said about it the better. I only passed it when I was already 23. The second was my First Theological Examination. This exam was different from all those before, where we sat alone in front of a paper and were writing. But this was an oral exam, in front of an examination panel. I remember it well. I knew my work, the examiners were nice people who wanted me to pass. There was Bishop Dieter Lilje and Pastor Horst Müller, Pastor Georg Scriba, Professor Klaus Nürnberger – people who wanted me to do my best and who asked fair questions. No problems there. But still I was as nervous as I had ever been before in an exam. My voice kept wanting to give in because my throat had just closed up.

I often remember this scene when I read about the “Judgement seat” even the “Judgement seat of Christ”. Yes, I know Christ loves me and is merciful. But if I really should stand before him and have to answer questions about how I lived my life – that would be hard. What have you done with the time and the talents I gave you? How did you use them? Would I confidently answer or would I quake in my shoes? I expect the latter.

“We must all appear before the judgement seat of Christ. That each one may receive what is due to them, for the things done while in the body, whether good or bad.”

Jesus loves me, I know it. But if he started asking, “why did you not serve me when I was hungry, thirsty or an outcast” I think my throat would get quite constricted again. Perhaps I will protest, talk about what I did do, react surprised because I thought I served God my whole life. But I think at that moment I will realize very clearly in how many ways I failed. In an exam all that counts is your answer to the question posed. Everything else you might know or have studied really hard is irrelevant if you cannot answer the question on the paper. Unfair, but such is life.

Do some of you remember the movie The never-ending story. The film did not really do the book justice, which is one of my alltime favourite books by Michael Ende, but many scenes were really well done. The young Indian warrior Atreyu has been sent on a quest to save the great empire of Fantasia from destruction. He has many adventures. On his way to the Southern Oracle he has to pass through two gates. The second is a large mirror where one is confronted with one’s true self. The gnome Engywuck explains dramatically in the movie: “Most people when confronted with their true selves run away screaming!”. This is what we are confronted with in front of the Judgement seat, our true self. This is not an easy exam, even if we can prepare ourselves our whole life. What have we been given and what did we do with this? Who passes the exam? Who fails? What happens with those who fail?

In Church history it happened again and again that people worked with fear for their own interest: Those who fail the exam land in hell, and hell is a terrible place, but we can help you to pass the exam- just give us enough money then you will get a free pass. Others say they want to proclaim Christ but do more to spread fear than to spread love. If you don’t repent and come to Christ you will go to hell. If you believe in Christ and you will be saved. Of course, to show you believe you have to join my church, my group. Then there are those who don’t take it seriously at all. An exam? Don’t worry. No one ever fails. A bit of cramming just before your death, that should be enough. Otherwise, relax and enjoy your life.

There are many questions about the end and what comes afterwards. Often we don’t think about it much until the texts come at the end of the church year, but these passages often leave us with more questions than answers. The biblical texts don’t give us a clear picture, and sometimes even contradict each other. For example is hell a fiery hot place, or a dark, cold place where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. Do we believe in a resurrection of the body at the end of time when Jesus comes again, which means we could be in the grave for thousands of years, or in an immortal soul which leaves the body at death and then leads a disembodied existence in heaven? I remember one day being asked by a congregant: “Why does Jesus say to the man crucified with him, ‘ Today you will be with me in paradise’ when Jesus was in the realm of the dead until the third day?” And when you page through the bible and add up all the reasons people are condemned to hell or excluded, you wonder who is left. If the test question were Luke 14 verse 26, I would fail and I assume most of you would too. Test question- what does Luke 14, verse 26 say? Don’t worry, I would not have known either: “ If anyone comes to me and does not hate his father and mother, his wife and children, his brothers and sisters – yes, even his own life – he cannot be my disciple”.

Hands up- who of you qualifies? I would not. I would of course object to the unfairness of this being a test question and immediately quote 20 other texts why I should not take this one too literally. But then I realize there are many other texts one also should not take literally. God’s reality is such that we cannot really grasp or understand it. All texts can only give hints, images, guesses, no clear directives as to what is ahead. As most students do, we want to know the exam questions or tasks in advance. “You must love your neighbour” - please specify, who is my neighbour. You must believe in Jesus Christ. What does this mean and how do I prove that I do? Is it enough if I am baptised and pay my membership dues? Is it enough to go to church three times a year or does it really have to be every Sunday? And if I sometimes have doubts, does that mean I fail the test?

Maybe there is no preset exam for everyone. Maybe God sets a personlized interview with each person because he created you and knows you better than you know yourself. Tell me about your relationship with so and so. Or I gave you a gift for Mathematics. You earned a lot of money with it. Why were you never willing to share a little of this gift with others, perhaps as the treasurer of a social project? Or there was a person who needed your help. You only complained and were disdainful, and never realised how blessed you were and that you could have made a difference. Or – I took a lot of trouble to call you, speak to you, show you my love. I sent you people to talk to you, but you always turned your back on me. Why did you not want to get to know your creator?

What will happen at the end of our life? We don’t know, and perhaps we are not supposed to know. The images in the Bible want to make us think, listen, be challenged, to realize, it is not irrelevant how we live our lives. But they are all images, human attempts to make sense of something we cannot grasp.

Someone once explained it this way. Imagine the following: Someone invents a machine with which a mother can speak to her unborn baby, and they develop a language the child can understand. What would the mother say? Of course, “I love you, and I cannot wait to see and get to know you.” But would the mother be able to explain to the child what life is like outside the womb? The unborn baby knows only the warm fluid and the cord that brings an endless supply of nourishment. It knows the mother’s heartbeat and can hear her voice, and perhaps hear her sing or some music. You can only explain the outside with known terms from the inside. What is air? What is milk? What is the mother- who is now only a collection of sounds? All attempts to prepare the unborn for life outside have to fail. The images you can use will in the end all contradict each other. Can one blame the baby if in the end it cannot believe that a mother exists?

We don’t know what is coming, just as a baby cannot know what awaits it after birth. But we know that there is a God who waits for us, who created us, who loves us and wants to save us. But we also knows he will call us to give account of our life. What have you done with the time you were given?

We can be sure, in front of that judgment seat, we will know how much we have failed. There will be some things we did well, but when we see our true selves in that mirror, we will know that is not how we were meant to be. We will get a fright about they mighty chasm that opens up between who we are and who we should be. Again and again we read in the bible about this moment of recognition, accompanied by fear and awe. “Go away from me Lord, I am a sinful person”. All I know, all I can do is not enough to pass the test. In the other image – the newborn has absolutely nothing to give when it is born. Anything the newborn tries and does, does not change the fact that it is completely helpless and dependent. It is a one-sided relationship.

And if we go back to the other image – how mighty is Christ on the judgement seat and how small and weak are we, when we stand for that exam. We are overwhelmed when we realize at the same time how small and weak we are and how mighty and how eternally loving God is. Between these two realities yawns this chasm that we cannot bridge ourselves. The image of the drawbridge over a gaping chasm is what the scouts set before us today. If the exam question was build a bridge to the other side of this deep gorge – we would all fail the test. Even Harro would, in spite of his skill, and also the Springbok scouts in spite of all their community service projects. The gap is too wide. However God builds the bridge from his side to ours and says to us: Don’t worry about the bridge. I will deal with the bridge. But while you are on this side, concern yourself with this side, care for your neighbour and care for the earth. It is not irrelevant how we live our life. It is not irrelevant what we say in that test. But we can know the punishment for our failures has already been paid. Christ is the judge who pronounces the judgement and then carries the punishment for the transgression. One could say, the cross is the bridge across the chasm, the mending of the rift between God and human. Again it is important to realize one should not take an image too literally. They are human images and we can use them to explain things, but they are not the real thing. Otherwise it could sound as if there was no relationship between God and humanity before the death of Christ. That of course is not true.

God does not expect of us to save the world. We do not even need to save ourselves. This is all God’s work. God has build the bridge to us. But he has given us two hands and an intelligent mind. With this we can do something for our neighbour and our world. We are responsible to do something on our side of the chasm. The way across is God’s responsibility.

We will not be able to avoid the final exam of our life, even if we know and love the examiner and he knows and loves us. We can prepare ourselves, to make sure one day we will not have to run screaming from our true selves. In the scout group of my children some managed the springbok level, others with lots of effort managed the first “pathfinder” level. But all were part of the same group, played games together, were friends. The question was not “Who is the best scout”? But are you making an effort to do what you are able to do well? I don’t think there is an abstrakt tick-box for everyone, and I don’t even think the test is only at the end of life. This is something God keeps asking us, even today. I have given you so much. What are you doing with it? With the scouts the troop leaders encouraged the different individuals: Come on, you can still get this badge. What progress are you making, what is holding you back? Some need a bit of nudging, some need a bit of support to be the best they can be. Whom can you support? Where do you need some support to become a more loving and more patient person? Where is there a bad habit you can still let go of, one which hurts other people? But at the end, what matters is not how many badges we have won, and what people say at our funeral. The only thing that matters is, what God says to us: You are my child. I have saved you, I have paid dearly for you and I lead you across the bridge to a place of eternal joy and eternal love, much more wonderful than we can ever imagine.

We do not need to build the bridge ourselves, but we can walk on it with joy. Christ is a judge who sets us free, and then celebrates our liberation with unspeakable joy.




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