A sermon in a continuing series on the Apostles’ Creed.
Judgment. Well – that’s quite a sermon title isn’t it?
It almost makes you feel you’re back in the nineteenth century, when hell-fire and brimstone were the order of the day in sermons. That title makes me think of what may be one of the most famous sermons ever preached, by the great America theologian and philosopher Jonathan Edwards. It was entitled Sinners in the hands of an angry God.
When I was thinking about this sermon, and about that title, I was also reminded of a billboard that stands in a field outside the town where my parents live. As you come to a particularly treacherous turn in a country road, there stands the sign – Prepare to meet thy God. The choice of location makes you think that some congregation posted it there almost hoping that a driver would come to that curve a little too fast and would see the sign just as they skidded off the road.
As we spend some time thinking about judgment this morning, I’d actually like to begin by pointing out that judgment is a part of everyday life for us as a society and as individuals.
For example, we have a court system here in Canada that is built on the idea of judgment – it is a system of law and of justice that is built on the conviction that judgment is possible and necessary. So, a person is charged with some crime (perhaps with assault or theft), or a corporation is charged with a crime (perhaps with breaching environmental standards). Evidence of that crime is brought before the court during a trial. And having heard from witnesses, and having heard all the evidence, and having perhaps heard from the defendant, the court comes to a judgment. Whether it is judge or a jury who decides, a judgment is made.
Guilty! or Not-Guilty!
In the event that the judgment is ‘Guilty’, then comes another judgment called sentencing – a price must be paid. Of course, the sentence doesn’t really pay for what happened. Rather, the sentence is intended to represent how seriousness a violation took place.
Perhaps the sentence is a fine of $10,000.00
Perhaps 300 hours of community service.
Perhaps house arrest for two years.
Perhaps a ten year prison term.
Every day in our court systems, judgments are made. It’s true that mistakes are sometimes made, but who among us would suggest that we can do without the judgments of courts? Who would say we could do without judgment when there are violations of law. Without judgment, we might say, our society would be less than human.
Not only in our social life, however, but also in our individual lives, judgment is necessary, inevitable. Every day we all make judgments.
We make judgments about our own actions – “I shouldn’t have done that. That
was just wrong.”
We make judgments about our own motivations – “I didn’t actually mean it when
I said that.”
We make judgments about other peoples’ actions – “She shouldn’t have done
that. It really hurt him.”
We make judgments about world affairs – “That government action was unfair,
Judgment is a part of our life – our life together in society – our life as individuals. There is no escaping the reality of judgment. Judgment is a part of what makes us human.
We read in the Apostles’ Creed that Jesus Christ ascended into heaven, that he is seated at the right hand of God the Father Almighty; And, from there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
Well, this changes the discussion just a little bit doesn’t it? We’ve gone from talking about judgment in general to talking about judgment in the context of Christian faith. And all of a sudden, those who may have been nodding along in agreement with what has been said might be a little uncomfortable. Talking about judgment in general feels worlds apart from thinking about the judgment of God.
The truth is, as a minister, as a preacher, it’s not easy to broach the subject of God’s judgment. In modern western society there is probably no subject that will evoke a more negative response that talk of God’s judgment. Many of us, both inside the church and outside the church, want nothing to do with it. Leave that to the fundamentalists – you know the ones who put up that sign in the field.
But that’s kind of peculiar isn’t it? We live in a world where judgment happens all the time – judgment is necessary to life. Why should it be surprising or problematic to think about the God as judge? Yet the idea of judgment, especially in the context of the church, has become suspect. The idea of God’s judgment leaves a bad taste in our mouths.
Now in some ways we are justified in hesitating over talk of God’s judgment. There have been plenty of times in history when Christians (whether clergy or political leaders) were too quick to judge – many times when Christian individuals or leaders acted as if they were God in judging the motivations and lives of others. Sometimes an appeal to God’s judgment became an excuse for harsh and misplaced judgment against women and men.
There have also been moments when Christian leaders failed to remember that in many ways we can’t know what lies behind human every human actions. We don’t know everything that is ging on in peoples lives. When we look at someone, when we see their actions, when we observe the decisions they take, we only see a part of the picture. There is so much that we do not see, which might help explain their action.
We may be able to judge a particular action as hurtful;
we may be able to judge a particular decision as mistaken;
we may be able to judge a particular action as wrong.
But to stand in judgment on the person himself, or herself, is different. Too often in the past leaders in the church have failed to remember the complexity of people’s lives and failed to remember that they were in no position to make the judgments they made about the hearts and lives of people.
So in some respects it seems that our hesitancy about the language of judgment, of God’s judgment, is well placed.
But we come back to the words of the creed:
From there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
Notwithstanding our hesitations, the creed reminds us that judgment is as necessary to God’s identity as it is to human identity. Even though the church has at times made mistakes in exercising judgment, the creed and scriptures compel us to speak of God’s judgment. We cannot allow mistakes of the past to prevent us from trying to think rightly or faithfully about who God is.
As Christians, in fact, we confess that judgment belongs to God in a decisive and primary way. God is able to judge in a way that no human person is able to judge.
God created this world.
God created us for community.
God created us for love.
God created us in his own image.
As the one who creates, and who shows us what it means to live and love, God is in a position to judge what is right and good for the human – what is true to the human and what is not. As the author of life, God has a right to judge human lives.
But not only does God have the right to judge in virtue of his being the creator, the author of life. God is also able to judge because God knows our hearts. God knows what is in our hearts and in our minds – what may be hidden in the depths of our being, which we keep shielded from others. God is in a position to know our every motivation and intention in ways that we can barely know them ourselves. So again, God is able to judge.
Every judgment that we humans make is limited and must be tentative. In our every judgment, whether it is in the legal system or in our individual lives, there is a reminder that judgement rests finally with God. God is the primary and final judge – we are not.
We come back to the creed, and doing so we realize that we can’t talk only in general terms about God’s judgment. The creed says very specifically that it is Jesus who will come to judge the living and the dead. This is profoundly important. Jesus, the beloved son of the Father, who shares in the divine nature, who sees all things, comprehends all things, through whom all things were created, who lived the truly human life – he is the one who will judge the living and the dead.
As we think about the ultimate judgment of Jesus the anointed one, we do well to remember Good Friday and Easter, which lie just behind us. Jesus set his face to Jerusalem, and to the cross, in the confidence that his way of humble service would be vindicated, in the confidence that his suffering and death would mean redemption for God’s people.
Easter celebration is the celebration that Jesus’ way of humble service has indeed been vindicated. Easter celebration is the celebration that we have indeed been raised to new life with Christ. Easter is our celebration that God did not say ‘No’ to the human. Rather, God said ‘Yes’ to the human. According to the pattern of the suffering servant in Isaiah, Jesus was pierced for our transgressions, crushed for our iniquities – and by his wounds we are healed.
the one who will judge us, is the one who bore brunt of God’s No to sin;
the one who will judge us is the one in whom God makes peace with the world;
the one who will judge us is the one who bears in his hands and feet and side the signs of
our reconciliation with God and with one another.
Since it is this Jesus who comes to judge, the final judgment of God cannot be thought of as the angry vengeance of God against humans. This judgment is not that wrathful vengeance in which some Christians seem almost to delight. This judgment is not a reign of terror that seeks simply to condemn and destroy.
As the American-Croatian theologian Miroslav Volf puts it: “Jesus Christ did not come into the world in order to conquer evildoers through an act of violence, but to die for them in self-giving love and thereby reconcile them to God. The outstretched arms of the suffering body on the cross define the whole of Christ’s mission…
In Jesus Christ, on the cross, God opens wide his suffering arms and says Yes to us.
And God’s judgment in Christ must be understood in terms of that fundamental Yes of God to the human…
As we turn toward a conclusion now, perhaps a good way to clarify the final judgment of God is to speak in terms of Jesus’ identity as the light of the world. The Apostle John, especially, reminds us of Jesus’ identity as the light of the world. And John tells us that in the presence of him who is the Light of the World, everything is not true to the human is shown up for what it is. When Christ comes, the Light of the World will shine into every dark corner of our hearts and into every dark corner of our world. Who among us would deny that there are things about which we are ashamed, things in our lives and in our world that are contrary to our humanity, things within human existence that are contrary to the loving purposes God has for our lives and for the world. The light of Christ shines to expose darkness for what it is, wherever it is.
But we remember, this light of Christ will not shine so that
we will be left in shame,
or so that we will be finally condemned,
or so that we will bear eternally the weight of our wrong-headed lives.
Again: “Christ did not come into the world to conquer evildoers through an act of violence.” Christ came to make things all things new.
When the light of Jesus Christ shines finally and fully in our world, then the goodness, the truth, the justice, the righteousness of Christ will be there for all to see. And as that light shines we will be finally transformed according to image of our Lord.
Will it be a difficult experience for us as individuals and as a world to experience the Light of Christ in this way, to experience this judgment? I don’t know. But I suppose in some sense it might be difficult to face this judgment. I think we all know that the process of change and transformation in our lives and relationships is always hard work – it can even be painful. Indeed, that’s why the image of fire is used in relation to judgment, not because fire destroys, but because fire purifies.
So the final judgment of Christ might indeed be a painful process of purification. Yet it is a judgment we can face with head held high, as the Heidelberg Catechism puts it. For it is the loving Jesus Christ who comes to judge – he does not come to condemn or destroy, but in order to make us, and all things new. The judgment of God in Christ is not God’s No to us. Rather,
the judgment of God in Christ is an echo of God’s loving Yes.
the judgment of God in Christ is an echo of his loving declaration that he will not
be God without us.
The hymn writer Charles Wesley, in his beautiful hymn Love Divine, All Loves Excelling, points, wonderfully, to what lies just beyond the judgment of God in Christ. We conclude with his words to God:
Finish then thy new creation; pure and spotless let us be;
Let us see thy great salvation, perfectly restored in thee:
Changed from glory into glory, till in heaven we take our place,
Till we cast our crowns before thee, lost in wonder, love, and praise.