Readings: Isaiah 2:1-5, Matthew 3:1-17
Last Sunday we spoke about the question of suffering and evil. We noted that while satisfactory answers might prove elusive, the presence of God amidst the pain and the promise of God that one day pain will end provide inspiration to act for justice in our own day. Today’s reading from Isaiah provides one of the most stirring images of the promised end in which strife, conflict, and cruelty will cease.
In the gospel, John the Baptist announces the arrival of God’s messiah, and the drawing near of the kingdom of God, which shall bring to an end the conflicts and violence, the injustice and inequality, the failings and fragility of earthly kingdoms.
So, how does this promised end come to be? How does God bring about the end of war, how does Christ bring the rectification and renewal of all things?
In Isaiah we heard:
God shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples.
In the Gospel, John says of Jesus:
His winnowing-fork is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing-floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.
Now at this point we might feel a little squeamish. Understandably, mind you, for so often divine judgment, the separation of wheat and chaff, is weaponised by Christians to drum up shame and guilt, making misery in hearts and homes. The invocation of divine judgment has too often served as a harbinger of human violence. Given this, we might be right to question how judgment brings about the peaceable kingdom.
So let me make a little case, for why the judgment of God is not a weapon, but a source of deep hope, and an act of great love.
The first thing to say is that God’s judgment is entirely beyond human control, and can never be uttered by a human voice. Indeed, God’s judgment is far more mysterious and unpredictable than most are confident to admit. Consider Jesus’s teaching about the sheep and the goats, who are judged by what they have (or have not) done for the least of these. Neither the righteous or the unrighteous understand why they are in that category, or when they were in the presence of the Lord. If we cannot know if we have served or neglected Christ, how can we know if others have, how can we stand in that place of Christ and say you to the right, you to the left?
Consider too, Jesus’ warning:
‘Not everyone who says to me, “Lord, Lord”, will enter the kingdom of heaven, but only one who does the will of my Father in heaven. On that day many will say to me, “Lord, Lord, did we not prophesy in your name, and cast out demons in your name, and do many deeds of power in your name?” Then I will declare to them, “I never knew you; go away from me, you evildoers.”
Or consider this exchange between the disciples and Jesus:
John said, ‘Master, we saw someone casting out demons in your name, and we tried to stop him, because he does not follow with us.’ But Jesus said to him, ‘Do not stop him; for whoever is not against you is for you.’
There is seemingly no way to predict or know for certain our own place, nor the place of others in the eyes of Christ. Final, divine judgment is God’s alone, it defies our comprehension and categories, unable to be conformed or predicted by human whims.
The second thing to say, is that we each stand before the judgment seat of God. The line of righteous and unrighteous runs not between ourselves and our neighbour, but right through us. Each of us have actions and attitudes befitting the peaceable kingdom of God (the wheat of kindness, mercy, joy, and love) and actions and attitudes that are marked by sin (the chaff of selfishness, apathy, cruelty, and fear). When judgment comes it is not so much an act of sorting out the people who have been mostly good from those who have been altogether bad, nor simply ticking off those in Christ compared to those outside of the covenant. No, the judgment of God is an act of God’s purifying fire which separates out and burns away those aspects of ourselves that are unchristlike. God’s love comes in judgement to deliver us from the impulses and habits that cause harm, that estrange us from one other, God, and ourselves. As those made from the clay of the earth, we return to the kiln so that God’s may refine us, healing the damage caused by sin, and forming us back into the divine image we were created to bear.
God’s judgment is not about working out who to gleefully punish, but how to bring to fruition the beauty and peace of the new creation. Judgment is required because there are evils in our world and in our hearts that are incompatible with peace and justice, and must be cut away to make possible something new, something more fitting for a banquet.
The universality of judgment goes hand in hand with the centrality of confession in the Christian faith. Confession is meant to abate easy categorisation of us and them, saint and sinner. It reminds us that there are aspects of our person that fall short of the glory of God – insecurities that cause us to lash out, habits that lead to self-centredness, traumas that repeat cycles, prejudices we hold (sometimes against our better intentions, sometimes without us even being aware). These too, need to be reformed or cut away by the love of God which comes toward us in judgment and mercy.
This doesn’t mean – in the current age – that every person is just as bad as the other, that a war criminal is to be spoken of in the same breath as someone who neglects to give to the poor; there is great wickedness in this world, perpetrators of tremendous harm who need to be confronted, removed from positions to do harm, held accountable for actions, and ideally reformed and restored to community. Whole social, political, and economic systems of injustice, inequality, and indignity need to be dismantled and reforged, and Christians are called to this work.
Instead, this admission of the ways in which we are all – in different ways – not ready to live within the peaceable kingdom reminds us of the work we need to be doing to pursue peace and compassion in our own lives. It urges us to resist the temptation to place people into simple compartments and believe that God must see the world in the same way we do. And it reminds us that the teaching, vengeance is mine, sayeth the Lord, is good news… for it reminds us that while all worldly judgments are temporary and flawed, God’s judgment is of a different order all together. God comes not in wrath, nor in fear, rather the judgment of God comes toward each of us in order to restore, redeem, and bring about something new. God’s judgment is about stopping evil so that good may flourish. It is the act which brings a new age where swords will be beaten into ploughshares, spears into pruning hooks, when nation shall no longer lift sword against nation. God’s perfect and loving judgment readies us live together, stripped of all that brought forth enmity, suffering, and strife. God’s judgment sanctifies us to live in the perfect presence of the beloved Son. In the meantime, having given up the right to final, divine judgment, we are freed to live together in a new way, freed to seek peace and justice in our own time, freed, as Paul says, to not be overcome by evil, but to overcome evil with good.
Image: Wassily Kandinsky, The Last Judgment (1912)
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