Sermon: Judgment Days

1 Dec 2013 – Dr. Irene Lawrence:
Here we are, at the beginning of another church year. Just for orientation, this will be the year of Lectionary A, the year we concentrate on the Gospel according to Matthew. While, as we heard a couple of weeks ago, “all Holy Scripture [is] written for our learning,” the church does not treat the lectionary as a class syllabus, starting at the beginning and going to the end. Instead, the lectionary jumps around according to what seems appropriate to the particular Sunday, and so, although we are beginning the cycle, we are plunged right in to Matthew 24, and immediately hear all about what we have come to call Judgment Day, or the Last Judgment, or, misleadingly, the “Second Coming.”

The theme of judgment is certainly valid; it is a traditional theme for Advent, and I will be attempting to expound on it. But I’d like to clear some ground first. Many of us have a picture of Christ’s judgment that is based partly on the picture given here and the preceding verses and in the corresponding passages of Mark and Luke—John doesn’t talk this way. And we are influenced by the many other similar passages in both the Old and the New Testaments. And perhaps even more than from the Bible, our images have been handed down to us by generations of writers and artists in the church.

Think of Michelangelo’s “Last Judgment” in the Sistine Chapel, or any of the similar pictures you can remember. They show Jesus as angry, maybe even enjoying his righteous anger as he sends the damned to hell. Or think of the hymn that was in the Requiem mass for many centuries: Dies irae, dies illa. It was even in our previous hymnal:

Day of wrath! O Day of mourning!
See fulfilled the prophet’s warning,
Heav’n and earth in ashes burning!

Not exactly something to look forward to. And scary—it sounds like very few squeak by. No wonder we sort of push it to the back of our thoughts; after all, we are told that no one knows exactly when this will happen (except that the day is near—whatever that means after two thousand years), so we’ll think about that tomorrow.

I’d like to suggest that this is not the only way we can think about judgment. In the first place, judgment is not always negative. We make positive judgments all the time. That was a great meal, a moving sermon, a heroic action, a well-phrased remark, a beautiful sunset, an inspiring example of teamwork. Why do we expect God to be any less generous?

My spiritual director quoted a priest friend of hers as saying that he thought God would tell him something like, “Thanks, Bob, for working so hard for me.” At first I thought that sounded a little arrogant, but then I thought of three separate friends of mine. They died at different times, but in each case the first thing I thought after I heard of each death, was “Well done, good and faithful servant. Enter into the joy of your Lord.” They weren’t perfect, but God surely appreciated them even more than I could.

I suppose that one reason we don’t hear much in church about positive judgments like these is that we don’t really have a problem with them. Well, maybe a problem being grateful or accepting enough. But generally we accept positive judgments without much of a fight.

But of course that’s not the whole story. There really is a place for negative judgments, and they’re the ones that are more problematic for us. In a nutshell, we have a tendency to resist them—we deny, make excuses, pass the buck, and generally get all tangled up in issues of blame, feelings of guilt, shame, and debates about ultimate responsibility.

At the risk of oversimplifying, I’d like to try to bypass all that. As you probably already know, the word “sin” in our translations of the New Testament usually renders the Greek word ἁμαρτία, which was originally a metaphor taken from archery, and literally means “missing the mark.” Originally, it didn’t have any religious baggage attached to it—you had your bow and arrow, you shot, and you missed. End of story.

But suppose you want to improve your archery. (I am resisting making a reference to Katniss Everdeen here, which is close to all I know about archery.) Somehow or other, you have to learn what you are doing wrong. And that is at the heart of the principle of judgment. In some cases, you can use self-judgment and spend a lot of time practicing with your bow and arrow until you discover what works and what doesn’t and become proficient. For most of us it works better to have a teacher to tell us what we’re doing wrong, who criticizes us, who—in the word of the day—judges us. By all means, a good teacher will tell us when we are doing something right, but if we are never corrected, we will keep missing the mark. If archery’s not your thing, think of your golf pro, or your voice teacher, or your writing coach, or your cooking instructor, or the best school teacher you had. And think of what happened when you resisted the instruction. The path to no longer “missing the mark” is to accept the judgment.

I’ve been giving examples from structured situations, but the surprise situations happen also, and probably more frequently. I’m in gridlocked traffic, and another driver, with a smile and a wave, lets me in front of him, and I realize that I have been concentrating on not letting any other driver take advantage of me. Or a young laborer, hired to do a small repair job but who otherwise I’m not paying much attention to, addresses me politely as “sister.” In both cases, someone’s actions or words give me the opportunity to question myself, to judge myself, and perhaps change something about myself. We have church-talk, a code for this process—judgment, repentance, and new life—judgment, recognition, and change—but the dynamic is universal, not restricted to some religious realm. We don’t change unless, at some level, we recognize that we need to.

I think we see this dynamic exceptionally clearly in the Gospel stories about Jesus. He seems to have seldom been judgmental—the cleansing of the temple might be an exception—but the people around him found themselves implicitly judged. For some, it was an unexpectedly positive judgment: sinners and outcasts were accepted, to the consternation of the righteous. Those very righteous found themselves judged negatively, to their astonishment, as indifferent or lacking in caring. Sometimes there’s a story about an explicit judgment: the “rich young man” who was confronted with the fact that he loved his money more than anything else. But more often, somehow, just by hanging around Jesus, people were confronted with truths about themselves, both welcome and unwelcome truths. Of course, people reacted differently. There are stories of people who accepted their judgments and stories about those who refused it. Peter and Judas, for example, make an illustrative pair—both betrayers, both eventually recognized their wrongdoing, one changed, one didn’t. Peter accepted the new life offered, and you don’t have to buy into any theory of the papacy to accept that he was of great assistance to the early church. Judas—well, you know what happened to him. By his suicide he rejected all life, old and new.

How powerful Jesus’s effect was on the people of his time is shown by the strength of the hatred he generated. If he were wishy-washy, he could have been ignored. But those in charge were so threatened by him, and so unwilling to make the changes his implicit judgment demanded, that they could only escape by destroying him. And so, they thought, they did.

The funny thing about all this is that it didn’t seem to stop after Jesus’s lifetime. The church was convinced that the resurrected Jesus continues to act as judge, just as he had before, offering new life through his judging presence. For example, both of our Creeds insist that Jesus will come again to judge everyone. Note that neither creed calls this a “second” coming, as if he vanished after his first coming, not to be seen again until the end of time. But if Jesus continues to act as our judge, as he did in his lifetime, how are we to understand that?

I think one answer lies in the process or dynamic I described at the beginning of this sermon. We meet Jesus as judge in our golf pro, our voice teacher, our writing coach, our cooking instructor, our teachers, the courteous driver, the unexpected brother—maybe even, God willing, in a preacher. I admit that this identification can be ambiguous, although I strongly suspect it was ambiguous in Jesus’s lifetime also, and not quite so black-and-white as the hindsight of the Gospel stories make it out to be. And, just as a concept, this should not be completely unfamiliar. We have been told on the best of authority that we meet Jesus when we meet anyone in need. In the same way, we are meeting Jesus when we encounter a true judgment. We can identify him by the new, changed life he offers.

There is a lot of precedent for Jesus coming in unexpected disguises. In the Gospel stories, the risen Christ is often not recognized immediately, even by those who know him best—Mary Magdalene sees a gardener, the two disciples walking to Emmaus see a fellow traveler, and the group of Jesus’s closest disciples out fishing see a beachcomber who rather officiously tells them they’re fishing on the wrong side of the boat. They accepted the criticism, and proceeded to catch fish. And even Paul, meeting Jesus on the road to Damascus—now there’s a judgment and conversion experience for you—has to ask, “Who are you?” So we are in good company if we’re sometimes a little blind. But though the disguise varies, the process doesn’t, and he who judges us loves us and is completely trustworthy.

So let us celebrate this Advent by welcoming the one who comes again–and again and again–in judgment to bring us new life, our Judge and Savior, Jesus Christ. Amen. Come, Lord Jesus.

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