“Meeting the Lion”
November 23, 2008 - Christ the King Sunday
“Ooh!” said Susan… “I shall be quite nervous about meeting a lion.”
“That you will, dearie, and no mistake,” said Mrs. Beaver, “if there’s anyone who can appear before Aslan without their knees knocking, they’re either braver than most or just plain silly.”
In The Lion, the Witch and the Wardrobe, the conversation about the great lord of Narnia continues with Lucy asking, “Then he isn’t safe?” Mr. Beaver replies,
“Safe? Don’t you hear what Mrs. Beaver tells you? Who said anything about safe? ’Course he isn’t safe. But he’s good. He’s the King, I tell you.”
With those few words C. S. Lewis conveys a whole lot of good theology about the themes we celebrate on this Sunday of the church year, the kingship of Jesus Christ and the coming judgment of all people.
Unlike Mr. and Mrs. Beaver in regard to Aslan, we often allow ourselves to suppose that Jesus Christ is safe. We focus on His compassion toward us, trust completely in His unlimited grace, and picture Him beside us in friendship. Therefore, when we call to mind the event pictured in today’s Gospel text, we’re inclined to gloss over the scary parts or else believe they apply to someone else.
Dispensational theology, the view of Christ’s return that sold millions of novels in the Left Behind series, would like to say this judgment is not the final one. It’s merely a preliminary judging of Gentiles “left behind” in the Great Tribulation. Nothing Jesus says here suggests that possibility. Verse 32 says, “All the nations will be gathered before him.” The most straightforward way to understand it is to see everyone standing before Jesus, everyone who has ever lived, just as in Revelation chapter 20. Everyone is destined to meet and be judged by the Lion of the Tribe of Judah.
Verse 32 continues, saying that the “Son of Man,” which is what Jesus liked to call Himself, “will sit on His glorious throne,” and “ will separate the people one from another. The so-called parable of the sheep and goats goes by quickly in verses 32 and 33, little more than a brief metaphor for how people will be separated. It’s not that literal sheep are good and literal goats are bad. Goats were as valuable as sheep to ancient herdsmen. It’s merely a picture of the division that will be made between the blessed and the cursed.
The main thing is that each person will encounter Jesus, “the King” in verse 34. It will be a frightening moment, just as many of the encounters with Aslan in the Chronicles of Narnia are scary. No one in the stories is so good or so brave but that he or she does not tremble a bit face to face with the lion. Courageous Prince Caspian feels unfit to be a king as he stands before the lion king. Lazy, greedy Eustace who finds himself transformed into a dragon is still afraid when Aslan approaches him. Jill would almost rather die of thirst than approach the lion. Bree the brave, talking war horse is frightened out of his wits when he discovers that Aslan is a real lion.
“It is a dreadful thing to fall into the hands of the living God,” we read in Hebrews 10:31. We see the reality Lewis was picturing as people encounter Jesus in the Gospels. When Simon Peter witnesses a miracle catch of fish and meets Jesus, his first response is, “Depart from me, Lord, for I am a sinful man!” Speaking to Jesus, a Roman centurion said trembling words that became part of the Communion liturgy, “Lord, I am not worthy to receive you…” And of course, the first thing Jesus must do when He encounters those who see Him risen from the dead is to calm their fears with the word, “Peace.” It’s a wonderfully joyful and wonderfully fearful thing to meet Jesus Christ face to face. And so this Gospel picture of an ultimate and conclusive meeting with Jesus Christ on the Day of Judgment is filled with both the joy and the fear.
C. S. Lewis beautifully allegorized the Last Judgment in a scene at the end of The Last Battle. As Aslan the Lion stands before the Door of what appears to be merely a stable, all the people and creatures of Narnia rush toward him in a great line. Each one comes up and looks the Lion in the face. Some behold him with fear and hatred and are turned away to Aslan’s left, into the darkness of His shadow. Others look at the Lion with love and are turned to his right, through the Door, which is not any longer the entrance to a stable, but has become the Door into the recreated and renewed Narnia that is Aslan’s Kingdom.
What Scripture says in Matthew 25 goes beyond the mere separation of metaphorical sheep and goats, the good and the wicked, the blessed and the cursed. Verses 34 and 35 welcome the blessed into God’s kingdom on much the same basis by which Narnians are welcomed into Aslan’s kingdom. The test is love for Jesus. Yet Jesus in the Gospel fleshes out what it means to love Him: “I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.” Love for Jesus is not merely a belief or feeling. It takes the form of actual deeds, of actions of love.
This judgment on the basis of works of love catches both the righteous and the wicked off guard. In verses 37 and 38, the righteous are surprised that they have done such things for Jesus, while in verse 44 the wicked wonder when they failed to do something for Jesus. The answer most of us know so well is in verses 40 and 45. Whatever one did or failed to do for one of the least of those Jesus calls His brothers and sisters is an act of love one either did or failed to do for Jesus Himself.
I would argue that the Scriptural judgment scene we read this morning is even more fierce and daunting than what Lewis pictured in The Last Battle. We will answer not just for belief or attitude of love toward Jesus, but for every action that either did or did not fail to demonstrate that love toward Him. And that may frighten and worry us. It’s frightful because this whole scene is not exactly how we, especially in the evangelical world, usually tell the story to ourselves.
This judgment text appears to contradict our usual Protestant understanding that salvation comes by faith, rather than by works. We’ve heard and told each other constantly that all one must do to enter the Kingdom is to trust in Jesus, to accept His atoning death and resurrection as the perfect sacrifice for our sins. What we’ve done or haven’t done doesn’t really enter into the matter.
Lewis captures the fearfulness of the Last Judgment a bit in his choice to leave one of his original child characters out of The Last Battle. This part of the story was particularly poignant for our family because our oldest daughter’s name is Susan. As we read the Chronicles aloud to her when she was seven years old, we had a moment of parental agony. As the series concluded, we came to what we only then remembered. Her namesake in the stories, Susan Pevensie, was not present at the end and was described by her brother as “no longer a friend of Narnia.” It’s fairly easy as adults to say “It’s only a story,” but try telling that to a weeping little girl who identified with a character of the same name.
Our daughter’s tears for a character in a story are a clue to what is at stake in the real Judgment scene which we affirm as Christians when we say, “He will come again to judge the living and the dead.” The “eternal fire” mentioned by Jesus in verse 41 is a terrible possibility. In The Last Battle, those who go to Aslan’s left disappear into His shadow presumably never to seen again.
Jesus said plainly that what we do does matter and will figure into how we are judged. In the end, is it possible that even we who have believed in and trusted Jesus with all our hearts may land on the wrong side of the Lion? How could that be?
Let’s read Scripture carefully and thoroughly. Yes, both Jesus and Paul tell us of an amazing forgiveness for sin that makes our own “works of righteousness” unnecessary for our salvation. We are not saved by our works. Yet nowhere do we read that good works, especially the works of love, are unnecessary. In Ephesians 2, right after we read in verses 8 and 9 that we are saved by grace and not by works, we read in verse 10 that we are “created in Jesus Christ to do good works.” The judgment scene in Matthew 25 is Jesus saying the same thing. Those He saves by grace will do good works of love. It’s essential. Faith and acts of love cannot be separated.
The Narnian judgment scene is kind to our evangelical sensibilities, mostly leaving out a judgment of works. But it does appear in the characters of the girl Susan and Emeth, a foreigner to Narnia and worshiper of a false god. In Emeth, Lewis portrays the happy surprise experienced by those judged righteous in Jesus’ parable. Just as the righteous in verses 37 and 38 can’t see how they actually did anything for Jesus, Emeth is surprised when Aslan welcomes him into his kingdom. When Emeth wonders at that, the Lion says that all the good and kindness done by Emeth was in fact service for Aslan, though Emeth thought he was serving another god.
Yet Lewis then immediately dispels any pluralistic notion that one god is as good as another or that Emeth’s false god is the same as Aslan. Just as in Scripture, there is only one Lord, one way into the Kingdom. It is only that by doing of works of love and righteousness that someone may demonstrate, even to his own surprise, that they love and worship Jesus.
We’re treading dangerous ground here, but as I’ve tried to say, meeting the Lion is dangerous. Meeting Jesus and being judged by Him is dangerous. This parable was given to us as warning, as a call to constantly remember that we cannot simply claim allegiance to Jesus without also accepting His command to love and care for those in need. As Jesus says in other places, we will be asked to account for all our actions, both what we’ve done and what we’ve left undone.
I believe this parable, this text, may be the word to the Church for this time of economic upset. Some of us are struggling to make ends meet. Emma’s mother told me how the small trucking company she works for just laid off ten drivers because the pulp wood company that provided most of its business is going under. We try to save and buy less and the people in the stores lose their jobs. Medical care costs so much. Our church office now constantly gets calls for assistance with rent or utilities.
The thirsty, the hungry, the homeless stranger, those without clothes, those who are sick, those who are in prison will be with us in numbers most of us have never seen before and the rest have not seen in decades. If you and I are going to be ready for a Day of Judgment that is more than a story, we will want to remember this text. We will want to see Christ in the poor and needy around us, and demonstrate with our hands that we love Jesus in our hearts.
Then we will be able to look into the terrifying face of the Lion of the Tribe of Judah because we’ve already been looking at Him in other faces. Saving faith is a matter of loving Jesus. We will grow in that faith and learn to love Him more by taking hold of opportunities to love Him in every person we meet, especially those in need.
We want to be like the real man from whom Tolstoy created the character in the story I read to the children. Martin was a Roman officer in the fourth century, named after Mars, the god of war, as Michael Ward reminded us this weekend. As a pagan soldier he met a nearly naked beggar at the gate of the city where he was stationed in France. Martin took off his officer’s cloak, cut it in half and wrapped half around the poor man. That night he had a dream and saw Jesus wrapped in his own half cloak saying to the angels, “Here is Martin, the Roman soldier who is not baptized; he has clothed me.” Martin awoke a new man. He believed and was baptized. His saving faith began with an act of love. Ours continues through just such acts of love.
We don’t feed the hungry and visit the sick because it saves us. We do it because it’s a way we remember that we love Jesus. It’s a way not to forget. When someone asks about poor lost Susan in The Last Battle, the problem is that she’s simply forgotten. Eustace says, “…whenever you’ve tried to get her to come and talk about Narnia or do anything about Narnia, she says, ‘What wonderful memories you have! Fancy your still thinking about all those funny games we used to play when we were children.’” And Jill says, “Oh, Susan! She’s interested in nothing nowadays except nylons and lipstick and invitations.”
It’s partly by acts of love in Jesus’ name that we keep ourselves from forgetting Jesus, from forgetting our faith in the way Susan did. It’s easy to get distracted by the world, to think it’s all about cell phones and cars and mortgage payments and movies we would like to see, when the truth is that we will someday meet a Lion who won’t care a fig for any of that. But He will care about the clothes we shared and the hospitality we offered to strangers.
There is hope and reassurance in the midst of Jesus’ warning. The righteous will be surprised. Emeth in Narnia was surprised. Martin was surprised. Anyone who truly desires to be on the Lord’s right hand, who agonizes or even worries over this passage, wondering if you’ve done what’s needed, will be surprised, joyfully surprised. If you love Jesus, you really can’t help yourself. You will be kind. You will be generous. You will be loving. Even if you don’t realize it at the time.
So go in peace. Go in hope. Go in faith. And go in love, love for Jesus Christ the King. And in His love do whatever you can to love those around you. And may we meet then on His right hand, after we’ve met the Lion.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2008 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj