Sunday, December 23, 2018

oh, hell?

Almighty, eternal, and merciful God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: we pray that as we meditate upon your Word you will lead us deeper into all truth that we may better know and do your will and grow in holiness day by day. Amen
Today is the final Sunday of Advent. This means that it the last of our series of sermons looking at what are called the four last things: death, judgement, heaven, and hell. And although it may seem somewhat grim to speak of such things this close to Christmas, this means that today we turn our attention to the topic of hell.

Perhaps it is necessary that we do so. At a function recently I met a person who over the first course decided they would like to discuss theological matters – an occupational hazard for a priest! So over the soup they told me: 'I don't believe in hell. Why would a merciful God create such a place or send anyone there?'

It is a question I have been asked before; and in an age when people's thinking have been more formed by the secular media and Hollywood's output on on television and cinema screens, perhaps not a surprising one. So let us consider it.

But before we consider why God would do such a thing, let us first consider whether or not he has. Does hell exist? And the answer to that is a very firm 'yes.' And we know this because Jesus taught us that it does. And that is why the Church has always taught that hell is real, a place for those who rebel against God.

There is another issue that is related to this. And it goes something like this: 'yes, hell exists; we cannot deny that it does, or else Christ would not have warned us against it. But it is empty! There is no one in it! For God loves his children so much that he sends no one there.' This is a suggestion that has been made by more than one theologian in modern times. And again it is an idea that is false. Not only is hell real but people do indeed go there. And we know this because Christ himself told us that they do. We need only look to the parable of Dives and Lazarus, where the rich man who neglected his poor neighbour in this life is in hell in the next; and also the prophecy/parable of the sheep and the goats where Jesus speaks of his own second coming and separating one from the other, welcoming the faithful into his kingdom, and the wicked going to eternal punishment.

So hell is not something that man for some perverse reason or other invented to frighten people; it was something that Christ taught us about and warned us against. Because of that it is something that we can not have any doubts about; and the Church, who was commanded by Jesus to teach all nations all that he had commanded them too, must also teach people of hell, now, and always, unto the end of the ages.

But knowing that it exists does not necessarily tell us why it exists. Perhaps to answer that, we should look at the matter from the opposite direction and instead ask the question that no one seems to ask: why heaven? The person who says they do not believe in hell are quite happy to believe in heaven. But what is heaven for? It is the place that God created us to be; but God forces nothing upon us. We have free-will. And just as our first parents through the misuse of their free-will lost the paradise that was Eden, so too may we lose the paradise that is heaven if we misuse our free-will by being disobedient to God and sinning.

Heaven is the place for those who love God. And, as Christ tells us, those who love God are those who know and do his will. So how can those who commit serious sin, freely, knowingly, and deliberately, without any sorrow at what they do, be said to love God? More, if they will not trust in his mercy and ask his forgiveness, if they will not do as Christ asked and repent and believe in his good news, how can they be said to love God? The merciful God the person who told me they did not believe in hell spoke of will grant this mercy to all who ask; but he will not force it upon them. And neither will he force into to heaven to dwell in his presence for all eternity those who refuse to love him.

They have rejected God and so have rejected heaven. But God has created them with an immortal soul and he will not annihilate them. What then is to become of them if they will not enter into heaven? They must go somewhere; and that somewhere is hell. And they go there not because God is without mercy and condemns them in spite of their begging him for forgiveness; they go there because they will not repent and a merciful God respects their freely made decision to reject him. Hell is their choice.

Advent is the time when we remember that Christ came into the world to show us how we may best avoid making such a choice, so that all who listen to him may instead have eternal joy with him in heaven. I pray that all here will choose to listen to him.

To the Almighty and Eternal God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to him be all honour and glory, now and unto the ages of ages: Amen.

Friday, December 21, 2018

Prayer diary Saturday 21 December 2018

'With the spirit and power of Elijah he will go before him to … make ready a people prepared for the Lord.’ 
Luke 1. 17

Reflection
First came the prophets and then John the Baptist to prepare the world for the coming of Christ. Now that he has come we must all turn our hearts and live as those who know his grace and truth.

Prayer diary Friday 21 December 2018

His mother Mary had been engaged to Joseph, but before they lived together, she was found to be with child from the Holy Spirit. 
Matthew 1.18

Reflection
The evangelist here makes explicit that Christ had no human father. Mary, the spotless virgin, is with child by the Holy Spirit; and her Son is therefore the Son of God.

Thursday, December 20, 2018

Prayer diary Thursday 20 December 2018

' … and Jacob the father of Joseph the husband of Mary, of whom Jesus was born, who is called the Messiah.' 
Matthew 1.16

Reflection
Matthew's genealogy traces Christ's human ancestry, so that we may know he was truly man. But he makes it clear that Joseph was not his father in the flesh, so that we may know he was truly divine.

Wednesday, December 19, 2018

Man to Man

Here's a news flash for you all. Men and women are different. In an era when many like to pretend that they're not, that is important information. The physical differences are obvious; but the differences also exist deep in the core of their being. Anyone with a couple of adequate brain cells to rub together will have noticed, for example, that men and women deal with matters that effect their emotions differently. Women talk about things. Men not so much.

I don't know if I've mentioned this before, but I spent some of my younger years in the US Army. Happy days! Boys do love their toys and the army sure has a lot of shiny things that make loud noises to play with.

The army, of course, has lots of men in it. Men who, more than most, don't want to show weakness and certainly don't want to talk about their problems. They have them, naturally, like anybody else. Concerns about relationships, money, health, the future. They just don't want to talk about them all that much. It doesn't go with the tough guy image that comes with wearing a uniform and being ready to fight and die for your country.

One of the things I noticed about men while I was in the army was that they were more inclined to talk about things that were bothering them when they were working away on something. It was almost as if having their hands dealing with some physical task loosened their tongues and they didn't realise they were talking about their problems. That, or maybe the fact that they were doing some rough piece of work provided enough external proof that they were indeed tough which allowed them to talk about what was on their minds.

I'm not the only one to have noticed this. Someone came up with an elegant phrase to describe the phenomenon – men don't talk to each other, they talk alongside each other. And that's fine, most of the time. But what happens when men no longer have work to go to, jobs where they can work alongside other men and chat about the things that worry them almost without meaning to? What happens when they retire, get laid off, or take an injury and can no longer work?

Well, one thing they can do is get involved in the Men's Shed movement. It provides places where men can go to do a bit of carpentry or metal work. The work is good; but it's the company that's really important. Other men who can listen to their problems as they work, even as they listen to theirs.

I know there's a fine Men's Shed in Castlecomer. And I'm sure there are many others around the county. Track them down, either for yourself or for someone you know. Men are different, but difference is good. The result will be happier men. And if a few birdboxes get made or lawnmower engines fixed along the way, so much the better!

this article appears in this week's issue of the Kilkenny Reporter

Prayer diary Wednesday 19 December 2018

‘Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.' 
Luke 7. 22

Reflection:
Whenever you have doubts, reflect on the witness of the Gospels. They speak to us of the deeds of Christ; and through them we may know who he truly is.

Tuesday, December 18, 2018

Prayer diary Tuesday 18 December 2018

(A man asked his two sons to work in the vineyard). The first said “I will not”; but later he went ; the second said, “I go, sir”; but he did not go. 
Matthew 21. 28-30

Reflection
Some pay lip-service to the faith, but do not live by it. Others struggle and stumble but do their best to be obedient to God's will. It is they who will enter his Kingdom.

Monday, December 17, 2018

Prayer diary Monday 17 December 2018

'The chief priests and the elders ... said, ‘By what authority are you doing these things, and who gave you this authority?’ 
Matthew 21. 23

Reflection
Did the religious authorities really need to ask such question? The truth was before them if they did but look. But they did not care to. There are many like them today.

Sunday, December 16, 2018

only the fun people go to hell?

Almighty, eternal, and merciful God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit: we pray that as we meditate upon your Word you will lead us deeper into all truth that we may better know and do your will and grow in holiness day by day. Amen
Today is the third Sunday of Advent. During this season it is traditional to preach on the four last things: death, judgement, heaven, and hell. Today is also Guadate Sunday, the Sunday of rejoicing, when the penitential aspect of the season is lightened somewhat. It is therefore very appropriate that we look at that most joyful of topics, the place we were created to spend all eternity: heaven.

Samuel Clemens, better known as Mark Twain, the author of such classic novels as 'The Adventures of Tom Sawyer' and 'The Adventures of Huckleberry Finn', once remarked that he would chose heaven for the climate and hell for the company. Mr Clemens was, as you will be aware if you have ever read any of his works, a man of great wit. But his humour in this case betrays a profound theological ignorance. This is not surprising; he was, while not an atheist, someone who was highly critical of organised religion and who found the concept of divine revelation implausible. Perhaps this is what led him into his error.

The first place where he goes wrong is with the idea that heaven is full of boring people. Consider all the interesting characters that we know who are in heaven: Jesus Christ himself, and his mother the Blessed Virgin Mary, for example; St Peter and St Mary Magdalene, King David and his great-grandmother Ruth who stood among the alien corn; Moses and his sister Miriam who hid him in his basket among the rushes; St Patrick and St Brigid, those great saints of our own land; and St Francis of Assisi and his co-worker St Clare.

These are not dull people! And the Bible and the various lives of the saints that have been written down through the ages have thousand of more examples of those who are numbered among the company of heaven, all great heroes of the faith not one of whom can be considered boring or someone that would not make for a lively companion for a conversation that might last an hour a century or some other part of eternity.

And the second place he goes wrong, and more seriously I would suggest, is that his joke presumes that he knows who it is who goes to hell. Those he considers fun people, are in the light of his joke, surely damned. And this is not the case; for as Christ himself told us, who are we to judge? This is why the Church will teach how it is that a person may sin and as a result lose out on the eternal happiness of heaven; but never who. No matter how bad a person has been in the eyes of the world, the Church has never dared to say that that person is in hell.

Hell is real, or else Christ would not have told us of it; and people do go there, or else he would not have warned us against it. But as to who those people might be, we cannot say. It is not beyond hope that the person who seems in the eyes of the world to have lived a life of absolute depravity and reached the end of their life unrepentant of all their sins, caring not how their wickedness may have hurt others or offended God, may have in fact secretly had a change of heart, even if only at the last minute; that in their dying moments, with their last breath or last thought they cried out to God: 'Lord, have mercy on me, for I am a sinner' and been forgiven. 

I would not, of course, recommend leaving things to the last minute like that; nor would I recommend gambling with your eternal soul by leading a life of wickedness thinking that you will have time to repent at the last moment! I am merely saying that it is not impossible that such may happen; and therefore it is not possible for us to say who fails to achieve heaven. It is for God to judge and he is merciful.

And God wants his children to go to heaven. That is why he created us. Mark Twain might have found it funny to joke about how only the good but dull will end in the sunny climes of heaven; and those who like to have what the world calls a 'good time' will go to where things are a great deal warmer and far less pleasant; but for God it was no laughing matter. He took it so seriously that he sent his only Son into the world that all might be saved. Therefore, let us all, on this Guadate Sunday, rejoice in the hope we have of heaven through our Saviour, Jesus Christ!

To the Almighty and Eternal God, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, to him be all honour and glory, now and unto the ages of ages: Amen.

Saturday, December 15, 2018

Prayer diary Saturday 15 December 2018

'I tell you that Elijah has already come, and ... they did to him whatever they pleased. So also the Son of Man is about to suffer at their hands.’ 
Matthew 9. 37

Reflection
The joy of Christmas can sometimes cause us to think only of the babe in the manger. But we must never forget that the Christ-child came to suffer and die for our sins.

Friday, December 14, 2018

Prayer diary Friday 14 December 2018

John came neither eating nor drinking and they say, 'He has a demon'; the Son of Man came eating and drinking and they say, 'Look, a glutton and a drunkard' 
Matthew 11. 18,19

Reflection 
Those who love evil will hate the good no matter what they say or do. Therefore do not try to win their favour; instead, stay faithful to the will of God.

Burning questions

The images of the rioting taking place in France over the past few weeks were shocking. Hundreds were injured, and several were killed. This was accompanied by massive destruction of property, both public and private. I found the scenes of burning cars somewhat ironic. The major complaint of the protesters is the escalating cost of living; and yet every time a car is burned, some poor unfortunate, a blameless fellow citizen, finds themselves without transport in the morning, unable to go to work. And if they don't have the wherewithal to replace the vehicle quickly, perhaps they will soon find themselves out of a job altogether.

The protesters claim to be acting this way because the government is out of touch and doesn't listen to the ordinary people, particularly those living away from the big urban centres such as Paris. The violence, it should go without saying, is deplorable; but it isn't something we can afford to be too self-righteous about right now. We've had some public burning of our own recently, the hotel in Moville, Co Donegal, that is slated to become a direct provision centre in the near future and become home to about a hundred or so asylum seekers.

No one knows who did the arson or what their motives were; but, of course, words like 'bigotry' and 'racism' were quickly thrown about in the media. And for all I know that's exactly what lies behind it. But there's no harm in mentioning that there's more going on here than simple prejudice against outsiders. For example, a lot of locals were very annoyed at the way they found out about the plan – on social media, of all places, and after contracts had been signed between the Department of Justice and the hotel. They were presented with a done-deal, with no opportunity to air their concerns in advance.

And the concerns they raise are not unreasonable. Is a small coastal town really the place to put a hundred asylum seekers? Given its remote location, with fairly poor public transport links, what are these new residents supposed to do all day? Stay in their rooms? Walk the streets? Local schools are already at full capacity – where are any children who come supposed to be educated?

The concerns being raised by locals are not of 'not in my backyard' kind. They echo those raised by the Irish Refugee Council that the town is too remote to be suitable.

But there is a major difference about what happened in Donegal and France. The French protesters stated their cause and went out on the streets openly. The arson in Moville was done at night, anonymously, with no reason given. But in both places people feel they're not being listened to. And that can be dangerous. The fires in Donegal and France show that.

At least in Donegal nobody was killed or injured. Some better listening from now on is needed so that there isn't a next time when someone is.

this article appears in this week's issue of the Kilkenny Reporter

Saturday, December 1, 2018

prayer diary Saturday 1 December 2018

‘Be on guard so that your hearts are not weighed down with … the worries of this life and that day does not catch you unexpectedly.' 
Luke 21.34

Reflection
The temptations of this world are not limited to its pleasures. It is all too easy to be so distracted by the cares of daily living that you forget about both God and godly living. Take care: there is nothing of this life important enough to risk the next for.