Is The Naughty/Nice List Graded on a Curve?

Sermon Text – 12.01.2019
[Ecclesiastes 3:16-22 and Matthew 7:2-5]
          You better watch out. You better not cry. You better not pout, I’m telling you why Santa Claus is coming to town. Little did you know, that beyond being just an adorable children’s Christmas song, “Santa Claus is Coming to Town” is an extremely accurate, wildly creepy metaphor for God’s impending judgment. He sees you when you’re sleeping, he knows when you’re awake. He knows if you’ve been bad or good so be good for goodness sake. If you want more detail, go read Psalm 139 for inspiration. Growing up, one of my favorite comic strips was Calvin and Hobbes. Do you guys remember those? Little boy with his stuffed tiger getting into trouble. His antics would always get him into trouble all throughout the year, and then as Christmas approached, he became aware that he wasn’t going to get presents because he was naughty. And so reading this comic strip,  we would get to watch as his self-control was tested because he wanted to be good – so he could presents, but the temptation to throw snowballs at the little girl who lived next door was so strong. He’s making a list, he’s checking it twice, he’s going to find out who’s naughty and nice – Santa Claus is coming to town. Now tradition holds that if you are a good little girl or boy you get presents from Santa on Christmas. But if you’re naughty, then you get what? Lump of coal – which actually, is sort of an interesting parallel to the whole burning lake of fire bit, but we won’t go there. And so the question arises – is the naughty/nice list graded on a curve? What’s the standard Santa is using to judge Naughty and Nice? Is it make one mistake and you’re out? Is it pass/fail? Is it weighted? Just gotta do more good than bad? Can you make up for being naughty? What’s Santa’s forgiveness policy? And if I’m naughty from Christmas to New Years does that count for 2020? How does this whole fat guy in the red suit judging the children of the world thing really work? These are the questions. Now, obviously I’m joking around – but seriously, think about it – how do these stories end? Every single one, from Calvin and Hobbes to the Grinch stole Christmas. How much coal is really delivered on Christmas? And if we don’t REALLY believe in Santa’s judgment about something as silly as presents – what do we believe about God?

          Today is the start of a new sermon series – Advent Wisdom. For the rest of December, we are going to be exploring the book of Ecclesiastes, an old Testament Wisdom book, and what that shows us about this holiday season. It’s sort of an odd choice, but there’s a lot of cool stuff in that book. Today we are talking about judgment and more importantly accountability.


          So before we start, we sort of need to explain the book of Ecclesiastes. In the Old Testament there was this guy, King David – you’ve probably heard of him. David and Goliath, very famous guy. His son, the next king of Israel was King Solomon. Now at the beginning of King Solomon’s reign, God comes to him and says, “What do you want? Ask and I will give you anything.” This is like a Genie in the bottle offer. Anything you want – money, power, anything. And Solomon says, “all I want is to be wise.” So God blesses Solomon, and he becomes known as the wisest King in the history of Israel. And that wisdom led him to be one of the most successful kings in Israel’s history. He had more money, more wives, more power, than anyone. Back in that time, having lots of wives meant you were powerful, and respected. He had 300 wives, and 600 concubines. That’s 900 women, come to think of it – I don’t know how wise this guy really was. He built the temple and his palace and all this stuff – he was living the dream. He had everything and anything he could ever ask for. And then he got towards the end of his life, and even with all this great stuff – he started to feel empty. Everything the world had to offer just wasn’t enough. And so he wrote a book of wisdom that we call Ecclesiastes. It’s right after Psalms and Proverbs in your bibles. It’s sort of a sobering look at what really matters in life – which weirdly enough I thought might be perfect to help us remember what really matter in the holiday season.

         So we get started in verse 16 [read 16]. Basically, couple thousand years ago this King looked around and realized corruption is a thing. In his world, the system was broken. Now, I know this is hard to imagine – because our system in the modern world is so flawless. But just try to imagine a world where things are not fair. Where sometimes bad people get away with it, and sometimes good people get punished. Verse 17, [read it]. In due season, God will judge everyone. This is his hope for equality, his only chance for real justice. If the world is not going to be fair, or just – at least we know that in the end, God will hold us accountable. Now for the writer, this takes him to a really dark place – he starts going on about humans and how we’re no better than animals, and how we’re all just dust and we’re no better than the dust we come from. He does this a bunch of times throughout the book – gets all hopeless and whiny. But then we get to verse 22, where it says, [read 22]. Two things on that. Number one, for the teacher, there is an island of hope – to be happy in your work. If it’s all meaningless, and unfair, and there’s no justice because the world is corrupt – make sure you love what you do, find joy in this life. Which is not terrible advice, a little short-sighted, but not terrible. But then in the second half he says, “No one will bring us back from death to enjoy life after we die.” And that’s when we realize why he’s so hopeless – He doesn’t know about Jesus! He doesn’t know about God’s plan for redemption and heaven, and bringing heaven to earth. Raising us from the darkness to live in the light. And I think this parallels the non-religious people in our world. Where do you think they came up with YOLO? If you take away the picture God gave us of heaven and redemption – things get dark fast. You ever wonder why atheists can be so grumpy? There’s no hope in their life. I hate that there is corruption in the world, but I at least have the hope that someday God will set things straight. I trust God to bring justice. This is the value of judgment, the existence of justice. No wonder he’s so grumpy – the writer’s smart enough to realize and recognize the corruption and hypocrisy in our world, but he has no hope for a day when that darkness will be driven out of the world.
      So we move over to our second scripture lesson which is found in Matthew where it says, [read3-5]. Now I want us to be careful here. A lot of people know this passage, and a LOT of people misunderstand the message. Soooo many people interpret the point of this passage as, “Leave me alone, don’t judge me.” We all make mistakes, and so that disqualifies us from judging anyone else around us. This is how we understand it – if you make a mistake, then you’re not allowed to talk to me. This has led to a VERY hands off approach to community. You do your thing, and I’ll do my thing. You stay out of my business, and I’ll stay out of your business. You can’t judge me. Which has led to the belief that no one can judge me. Which has led to the belief that there is no such thing as real judgment. But is that what it really says? Let’s go back through it, and break it down.
        Verse 3, [read it]. Simply put – we all have problems. Your friend has a spec in his eye – that’s bad. You have a log in your eye – that is also bad. It would be better if he did not have a spec in his eye, it would be really good if you did not have a log in your eye. We all have problems, and they need to be solved. Verse 4, [read it]. First – we all have problems. Second, we cannot help someone else BEFORE you help yourself. Take care of yourself, before you help others. If you’ve ever travelled on an airplane, you’ve heard that thing about the masks – right? In case of an emergency, if the airplane cabin ever gets depressurized those bright orange masks drop down. They always tell you, put your mask on first, before you try to help your children. The temptation is to help the child first, and then worry about yourself. You think you’re being selfless – a good parent, by caring for your child first. So why do they say – take care of yourself first? Because without the mask, you might pass out before you can do both. Take care of yourself first, so that you can help others. You cannot help someone else with their problems, until you first take care of yourself. And last, verse 5, [read it]. Look carefully at what it says! It does not say you have a log in your eye, so walk away. Having problems does not disqualify you from helping other people. It says take care of yourself and then GO BACK and help your friend. Take care of yourself, so that you can see and then better help your friend. It does not take a high horse and blind eye to help other people. It takes self-awareness and humility. Please don’t use your problems as an excuse not to speak up if a friend is doing something wrong. Fix your problems, and then you can see better to speak up and help a friend.

The good news this morning is that God judges us. Now I know that doesn’t sound like good news – but it is. Good and bad, naughty and nice are not subjective truths that change every generation depending on what most people happen to think at the time. Modern media has shown us that you can normalize just about anything (even though it might be horrifying) if you just get enough momentum with the mob mentality. With the existence of God, we can believe in real justice. We can believe that there is a higher form of social order that is not rotten to the core with corruption. God judges us. Not people, not governments, not facebook or youtube – God judges us. Justice is real. Judgment is a very real thing. Sticking our heads in the sand doesn’t change the truth. We answer for our sins, our darkness – lumps of coal all around. The writer of Ecclesiastes says, “Everything is meaningless. The world is corrupt, so what’s the point? No one will bring us back from death to enjoy life after we die.”


But then there’s this story. I think I’ve heard it before. About a baby, born in the manger. About a God who loved his people. After watching them ruin and corrupt and destroy everything in their path – he decided to step into their world, show them a better way. To offer them forgiveness from their sins. The story of Jesus is not that judgment disappears. Justice is served, the punishment for our sins was death. Jesus comes and takes our punishment, that’s why he had to die – so that we can be washed clean. We didn’t earn it.  It’s not about earning God’s love, about being good enough – it’s about following Jesus. Jesus throws out the whole system of naughty and nice, the checklist – do enough good things and you get into heaven, that whole idea is gone. Is the naughty/nice list graded on a curve? No. It’s graded on the cross. Jesus takes the naughty and nice list away from Santa crumbles it into a ball and throw it away. He takes our punishment, our coal – the dust that we are, and crushes it into diamonds. Turns our broken life into something valuable. Then he opens his arms and says, “follow me.” That’s what it means to be a Christian. To follow Jesus. To live our lives the way God wants us to – not to earn anything, but to say thank you for the gift we already have – the baby in the manger. Jesus our Lord.     
When I was up in the UP, I asked the kids in the youth group. How many people, how many kids do you know that are not Christian? They hemmed and hawed for a while – 1? Maybe 2? They were thinking international student who are a different religion. Then I asked, “Okay, how many kids do you know that do not act like a Christian?” I’ll give you a hint – it was a bigger number. The problem is, we throw out accountability with the judgment bathwater. It is absolutely true – we should NOT judge one another. That’s not our job, we are not equipped to judge. But God is. God is the perfect judge, he is completely just. Leaving judgment to God is not the same thing as having no judgment at all. Our job is not judgment, our job is accountability. There are people in the world, who claim to be Christian. They know the Jesus story, but they do not live their life to serve him. There are brothers and sisters who have fallen off the path, and they need some help. Most of them know their own struggles. You can tell when you’ve got a spec in your eye, you can feel that. The application for today is that we must hold other Christians accountable. Accountability is different than judgment. There are three parts to this.


First, accountability is for Christians. You can’t expect non-Christians to act like Christians. If they don’t worship Jesus, they are not going to live their lives trying to serve him. You can’t hold non-Christians accountable, it always comes out like judgment – because you’re not on the same page. Non-Christians need witness, a savior, they need Jesus before you get to the accountable stuff. Second, accountability needs self-awareness. Remember the spec and log conversation. You start with yourself, then you can help those around you. I’m not saying ignore other people, I’m not saying “hands off.” I’m saying – check yourself first. If there’s something messed up in your life – you need to deal with that first. And while you’re dealing with that, chances are – you’ll learn a great way to help a friend. For example, the most effective drug counselors are those who have conquered their own addictions. The most effective financial people I’ve listened to are those who have made mistakes and come back. The best marriage counselors are those who have overcomes problems in their marriage. Know your weaknesses and surround yourself with people who will strengthen you. So first, accountability is for Christians – our brothers and sisters in Jesus. Non-Christians can’t hear accountability – all they hear is judgment. They need the love of God and the story of Jesus first. Second, start with self-awareness. Put your mask on first. Take the log out of your eye so you can see. Third and finally – accountability takes humility. If we have a brother or sister who is struggling with an issue – we need to be humble. People get defensive when they are challenged – they lash out. They say things they don’t mean, they hurt you. So we need to humble ourselves to be effective, so they can see that we care more about them than being right. Humility is one of the greatest forms of love. Accountability is not about blame or guilt or shame or attacking. Accountability is when we see someone who has fallen off the path – they are not following the God they promised to follow and so we want to help. We must humble ourselves to help, we have to stoop down to offer a hand and lift others up.

          You better watch out – for each other, because that’s our job as Christians, that’s what accountability is. You better not cry – unless they are tears of joy for the redeemed, a lost brother or sister who has been found. You better not pout – because it doesn’t help, try humility instead. I’m telling you why – Jesus Christ is coming to town. And so I’ll leave you with this. May you never judge one another. May you find peace in the gift of forgiveness, and may you always hold one another accountable with self-awareness, humility and love. Amen.

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