I am going to try doing something new and different in my sermons during this season of Advent. Each Sunday I will preach about a single word that is related to the readings for the day and illuminates a different aspect of the Advent season. The words are judgment, joy, singing, and salvation.
Today I want to look at the word “judgment.” Psalm 50 tells us that
Our God will come and will not keep silence; *
before him there is a consuming flame,
and round about him a raging storm.
He calls the heavens and the earth from above *
to witness the judgment of his people.
What do you think of when you hear the words “judge” or “judgment”? Don’t laugh but the first thing that comes to my mind is Judge Judy. We might do much worse than submit the ills of the world to the judgment of a smart, tough, Jewish woman from New York.
Israel often conceived of the relationship between God and the world as being like a legal proceeding. Israel’s prophets, in particular, frequently used the image of a legal proceeding to warn the people of Israel that they had strayed from God’s ways and must repent.
But Israel’s understanding of justice and judgment were very different from the way we understand these things. Wise as Judge Judy often is, God is not that kind of judge.
For Israel, justice and judgment were less about laws and rules than they were about right relationships. We conceive of judgment and justice in terms of a written code of laws, but for Israel they were about relationships.
In a sense, the U.S. Constitution helped create the American nation. It was written at the beginning of our history and has profoundly shaped that history. Israel’s laws, on the other hands, emerged out of Israel’s experience as a people. They learned by trial and error what it takes to be a people, a community, and their scriptures – our Old Testament – is a record of that experience. Its wisdom is the distilled experience of Israel over the centuries.
In Israel the judge was a man or woman who “sat in the gate”. That means that they literally sat at the entrance to the town, a place that made them accessible to anyone who had business to bring to the judge. The business that people brought to Israel’s judges was both similar to and different from the kind of business handled by judges in the American legal system. A judge of ancient Israel might be called upon to rule on the guilt or innocence of a thief or murderer. However, the method of Israel’s judges was entirely different from judges in our own time.
Israel’s judges were not guided by written law; they were guided by what was best for the community. Their function was to re-establish the equilibrium of the community,. A good example is the story of Solomon judging between two women who claimed the same baby. When two women came to Solomon, each claiming to be the mother of the same baby, Solomon didn’t consult a code of laws. Rather, he knew that the real mother would yield her claim rather than allow the baby to be harmed. So, when he proposed cutting the child in two and giving each woman half a baby, the real mother relinquished her claim.
The well-being of the community, its equilibrium was threatened by the two women who each claimed the same baby. Allowed to go unchecked, the crime of the woman who stole her neighbor’s baby threatened Israel’s very existence. It was a violation of at least three commandments: the prohibition of lying, stealing, and coveting.
Another way of looking at the difference between ancient Israel and the modern United States is to say that whereas the U.S. has a LEGAL system, Israel had a JUSTICE system. Justice is always more than conformity with a code of laws.
When Job wants to justify himself before God, he says, “delivered the poor who cried, and the fatherless who had none to help him. 13 The blessing of him who was about to perish came upon me, and I caused the widow's heart to sing for joy. 14 I put on righteousness, and it clothed me; my justice was like a robe and a turban. 15 I was eyes to the blind, and feet to the lame. 16 I was a father to the poor, and I searched out the cause of him whom I did not know.” Job does NOT say that he has followed the laws to the letter; rather, he says that he has fulfilled his function in the community by helping others.
Now, let’s go back to the idea of what the Bible means when it talks about God coming to judge the earth. God is the kind of judge who will sit in the gate, who will restore right relationships.
I believe that when most of us think of the Last Judgment, we think that God is keeping a list of everything we have done or left undone, and that God will go down that list checking things off: “Barry Vaughn, Barry Vaughn, let’s see.. oh, here you are… right between Ludwig van Beethoven and Queen Victoria. It says that when you were four you didn’t share your toys with Ronny Armstrong…hmmmm… not good… but here it says that when you were six, you let Beth Hallmark have one of your chocolate chip cookies… very good!!…” And presumably God will do this with everyone of us, even if it takes a couple of millennia.
Yale theologian Miroslav Volf has a very different idea of what Final Judgment means. He points out that heaven is not just about each of us alone with God for all eternity; rather, it is about all of us being together for eternity. For this to happen, some serious reconciliation has to take place. I have to be reconciled with those I have hurt, and what is more challenging, I also have to be reconciled with those who have hurt me and whom I do not want to forgive.
Theologian Karl Barth was once asked, “In heaven, will we see our loved ones?” And he replied, “Not only the loved ones!” That’s a sobering thought. God’s love is larger and more comprehensive than yours or mine. God’s love just might embrace and heaven might include even those people we despise and who despise us. Or as Professor Volf puts it, “If Cain and Abel are to meet again in the world to come, what will need to happen for Cain to avoid Abel’s look and for Abel not to want to get out of Cain’s way?” (Volf, The Christian Century, Nov. 10, 1999. slightly paraphrased.) Or to put it another way, what will have to happen for you to face the Cains and Abels in your life?
God is the kind of judge who reconciles and brings together the Cains and Abels of the world. The final judgment is not so much an inventory of all the things we have done and failed to do, as it is a final opportunity to get right with all the folks we wronged and who wronged us.
In 1963 Alabama’s bishop, Charles Carpenter, opposed Dr. Martin Luther King, Jr.’s demonstrations in Birmingham as “unwise” and in his Letter from a Birmingham Jail, Dr. King condemned Carpenter and other clergy for their racism. Yet, both were Christians. I have to wonder what they thought when they saw each other in heaven. When they approached the Judge at the gate of the heavenly city, did God say, “You have some hard work to do before you can enter into your heavenly reward.” And I have to believe that Dr. King and Bishop Carpenter are sitting side by side at the heavenly feast. Which begs the question, Who will be sitting next to me at the heavenly feast or next to you? If you are a Democrat, chances are it will be a Republican and if you are a Republican you may find yourself next to Bill Clinton.
“Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; 12 let the field exult, and everything in it! Then shall all the trees of the wood sing for joy 13 before the LORD, for he comes, for he comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with his truth.” (Ps 96)