Monday, April 11, 2011

Monday in Passion Week

Jonah 3:1-10 / John 7:32-39

God in His mercy made
The fixed pains of Hell.
That misery might be stayed,
God in His mercy made
Eternal bounds and bade
Its waves no further swell.
God in his mercy made
The fixed pains of Hell.

Is it ever too late in this life to turn our life around and return to God? Is there ever a point, before we taste of death, that we become truly and irrevocably fixed in our decision for or against the Lord? As we believe in the four last things — Death, Judgment, Hell, and Heaven — so we must also hold that the answer to these questions is indeed yes. Anyone who, after death, receives his judgment before the awful throne to be sent to everlasting flame, where there is darkness, and wailing and gnashing of teeth, only received such a sentence because of the man he had already become in this life. It was only because he had, in ways small and slow as easily as in a grand gesture of rebellion, actually committed himself wholly and absolutely against God, choosing finally and with his whole self some other good to be the source of his joy. Such a decision is folly, of course, but it can be made, and the sentence to Hell is nothing other than a divine confirmation of what we have made of ourselves, given only the mercy that through what C.S. Lewis called the fixed pains of Hell, the condemned might never make himself any worse.

Even so, it is also true, existentially of not absolutely, that no one who truly, sincerely, repentantly seeks the mercy of God will fail to find it. The plea of the the king of Nineveh for his people — Who can tell if God will turn and forgive; and will turn away from His fierce anger, and we shall not perish? — could only have been given voice if God's mercy, his prevenient grace, externally through the words of the prophet Jonah, internally through the softening of their hearts, had been given to them. Jesus, of course, makes much the same plea to his people: If any man thirst, let him come to Me and drink. He that believeth in Me, as Scripture saith, out of his belly shall flow rivers of living waters. There is no one seeking truly to end his thirst and not clinging to the poisonous draft of his own sin that will fail to find solace in the gift of the Spirit through the grace of Jesus Christ.

Why, then, can Jesus speak so definitively that the ministers of the rulers and the Pharisees of their inevitable failure in apprehending him? Yet a little while I am with you: and then I go to Him that sent Me. You shall seek Me, and shall not find Me: and where I am, thither you cannot come. Whatever may have been the eternal fate of these ministers, the Gospel does not tell us. What we do know is that there is a kind of seeking, sincere in its own way, which will never find what it wants. It is a seeking which has already made up its mind what cannot be found. It is the seeking that asks of the faith to prove itself to the canons of worldly wisdom, and then revels in the foregone conclusion that something supernatural is not worldly, so it must not be true. It is just this kind of folly, the folly that hears in Jesus' words not his glorious rising and ascension to the right hand of the Father, but a retreat to teach among the Gentiles and the Jews of the Diaspora. It is the folly of the modern critics of the faith, self-assured in their rightness and the truth of the reasons of the world.

Have even such as these any hope? If cruel and proud Nineveh could be transformed, we would be well advised to make no predictions whatsoever about the possibility of the conversion of even the most hardened of sinners. The question, in the end, is not what we might think of others' fates, but what we do in light of our own. Do we let our confidence in the Cross be transformed from sure and certain hope into vain and culpable presumption? Do we trade in the certainties of the gift of faith for a narrowness of sight that will not see the glorious truth God wills to make known to us? Do we become so accustomed to the sip we permitted ourselves of the waters of Jesus Christ, only to ignore the parched throat of our soul yearning for more, while we remain content not to return to drink, and drink to the full?

Grant to Thy people, we beseech Thee, O Lord, health of mind and body: that cleaving to good works, they may ever deserve to be defended by Thy protection.

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