Judgement: text of a sermon preached in St. Olave’s Church, Exeter on the Second Sunday of Advent, 2019.
Advent 2A: OT Isaiah 11.1-10; Ps. 72.1-7, 18, 19; NT Romans 15.4-13; Gospel Matt. 3.1-12
I still remember the morning of my ordination to the diaconate. Thirty of us had been in silent retreat over the weekend. Now we were released from silence. The bishop had pointed out, kindly but firmly, that the ordination service was very long, and however much some of the more pious among us might wish to fast, as far as he was concerned it was a matter of holy obedience that we eat breakfast. So there we all were, crowded into the refectory, chattering noisily and nervously over eggs and bacon and toast and marmalade and enormous mugs of tea or coffee.
The archdeacon in charge of us, who appeared to be enjoying his moment of glory, got to his feet and cleared his throat.
“There are,” he said, “just a few last things.”
The bishop looked up.
“Four, if I remember correctly,” he said, and returned to his egg.
He was, I suspected, beginning to get just a little fed up with the archdeacon.
The interesting thing was that even in those far-off days, when some of us like to think the church preached the faith and everything was simply divine, not everyone got the joke. Even then it was a long time since the church had been expected to spend the four Sundays of Advent preaching about death, judgment, heaven, and hell.
Be that as it may, I, as some of you may know, am an Oxford man. And that means virtually by definition that I’m a defender of lost causes. So as this is the Second Sunday in Advent, whatever may be going on elsewhere in the church or the world, I’m going to talk about judgment—God’s judgment.
I’m encouraged in this by the fact that Post Communion prayer that the church appoints for today explicitly points out that God who sent His Son “to redeem the world” will also “send him again to be our judge”, and also by the fact that the bible readings we’ve just heard were all, directly or indirectly, concerned with judgment. Isaiah of Jerusalem, centuries before the coming of Our Lord Jesus Christ, speaks of a coming King upon whom God’s Spirit shall rest, one who
shall not judge by what his eyes see,
or decide by what his ears hear;
but with righteousness he shall judge the poor,
and decide with equity for the meek of the earth. (Isa 11.3-4)
St Paul, whom we didn’t read in church this morning, but whose appointed passage you can see on the lesson sheets for today, also talks about the coming one, though he doesn’t in this passage actually use the word “judgment”.
One thing you may notice about them both is how upbeat they are. Paul finishes his little section with an exhortation to plain joy: “May the God of hope fill you with all joy and peace in believing, so that you may abound in hope by the power of the Holy Spirit!” (Rom. 15.13). Both prophet and apostle see the coming Day of the Lord as something to look forward to, not something to fear. In this respect, they are rather like Handel’s Messiah. Or perhaps more precisely I should say that Handel’s Messiah interprets the sort of thing they are saying very well. You’ll remember that the music of the Messiah does get rather sad and serious sometimes, for example when the texts are about Jesus’ passion and death. But when the texts are about God coming to reign over the world and judge the nations, it is always cheerful and exciting. “Oh thou that tellest good tidings to Zion, arise, shine, for thy light is come!” And so on. I will not embarrass myself by attempting to sing it, but I trust you get the point.
So why are the prophet and the apostle so cheerful?
In a word, because for them God’s judgment means that what is wrong with the world is going to be put right! And indeed, the first thing we must do if we are to understand the biblical idea of God as judge is to forget our pictures of an elderly man wearing an enormous wig sitting above us and pronouncing sentence. We must think instead of a deliverer coming to rescue us—like St George saving the princess from the dragon, or Robin Hood saving the poor people of Nottingham from the wicked sheriff, or the good sheriff in the old Western movies who rides into town and rids the citizens of the wicked cattle baron who’s trying to take over. That, of course, is what those who are called “judges” in the Book of Judges are like: Samson, Jephthah, and all the others. They are heroes who deliver Israel from her enemies. And that’s what our psalmist this morning was talking about when he prayed that a righteous king would
judge your people righteously,
and your poor with justice. (Ps. 72.2)
To put it another way, biblical “judgment” is basically not about condemning the guilty but about vindicating the helpless. It’s about the sort of thing we mean when we talk of “justice for the poor” or “justice for the unborn”—in other words, justice for those who are not in a position to defend or protect themselves. It’s about delivering the helpless from what oppresses them. That’s what we mean, or at any rate what we ought to mean, when we say – as, God willing, we will say in a few minutes—that we believe in Jesus Christ who will “come in glory to judge the living and the dead”.
And of course that is what we all want to happen.
Or is it?
It would be idle to pretend there is absolutely nothing in the prospect of God killing off all the dragons or bad cattle barons or wicked sheriffs that threatens us. On the contrary! There is, alas, a streak in all of us that’s quite attracted by the idea of being a successful dragon or cattle baron or wicked sheriff, at least for so long as we can get away with it—so long, perhaps, as we think God won’t notice. We all have in us streaks of pride, greed and vainglory.
So where will we be in that wonderful Last Judgment to which we might have so looked forward if we’d been better people?
A hard question—and part of the answer to it surely involves a passage from today’s Scripture readings that I haven’t so far mentioned: the gospel! “You brood of vipers!” roars John the Baptist. “Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?!” (Matt. 3.7). Let’s face it, no one’s going to give John the Baptist high marks for pastoral sensitivity. Some people for a time thought he might be the Messiah, and the rest of us poor sinners may well thank God that he wasn’t. But leaving all that aside, let’s focus on the one thing that the Baptist surely did get right: which is to say, he paid people the compliment of suggesting that God took their responses to God very seriously.
Or to put it another way, John the Baptist reminds us that God’s judgment means that we are going to have to face the truth not only about others, but also about ourselves. We’re going to have to admit that we have on the whole been extraordinarily unsatisfactory human beings. And admitting that, openly and publicly before angels and the archangels and the whole company of heaven, is not something we expect to enjoy. We’d prefer to hang on to our self-deceptions and our self-righteousness. Unfortunately, however, those things are lies, and since heaven can only accommodate truth (Rev. 22.15), they’ll have to go. It will be a question of having one or the other: Saint George or the dragon, Robin Hood or the wicked sheriff, the penny or the bun. We cannot forever go on as we do at present—trying to have both. We’re going to have to think again. And that—“thinking again”—is exactly what the words translated “repent” and “repentance” in our gospel reading mean.
On the other hand, if the saints are to be trusted, when the moment actually comes for such final self-abandonment to divine providence, perhaps it will not seem such a very big thing after all – not once we have allowed ourselves to look properly into the eyes of our saviour. For then we shall know that we have found what we were truly looking for all the time, even in our most dragon-ish moments, even in our times of greatest sinfulness and folly. We shall see that the One who judges us is also our truest lover and always has been. And in that moment the times when we wished to turn our back on God will seem like lovers’ quarrels – the quarrels and difficulties between true lovers that only lead in the end to their marrying.
And that, of course, is the other image that goes in the Bible with the last Judgment: a Wedding. In the Book of Revelation, the day when the world is judged is also the Church’s wedding day, the day when she becomes Christ’s bride: “And I saw the holy city, the new Jerusalem, coming down out of heaven from God, prepared as a bride adorned for her husband” (Rev. 21.2). A wedding is the consummation and goal of all that has gone before. The entire difficult, costly process of preparation, adjustment, and engagement leads up to it. And yet, as any married person will tell you, a wedding is not therefore an end. Indeed, it is essentially a beginning—the beginning of marriage, the beginning of a new life.
So it will be with us. We look for our Lord to come as judge and as bridegroom, so that life, our true life, with him and with each other, communio sanctorum,the communion of saints, may begin.
That is what will happen when our Lord comes to us in the Last Judgment.
Even so, come Lord Jesus.
And now let us confess our faith, as the church has taught us:
We believe in One God….