Readings: Psalm 98
What do you long for God to judge? What, when judged by God in righteousness and equity, will illicit from you a joyful noise and songs of praise? For whose judgment, do you anticipate, the wild waters themselves clap and sing?
The psalmist sings enthusiastically, calling not only the assembly, but all the earth and its waters to sing praises, play instruments, clap hands, even roar in glee for the Lord is coming to judge the earth, to judge the world with righteousness and the people with equity.
This psalm is not an aberration either. Scripture is dense with a yearning to see God’s judgment wrought upon those who oppress and exploit the vulnerable, who inflict violence upon the people, who scoff at the name and will of the Lord. The Prophets herald the voice of God, declaring judgment not only upon the foreign empires which would conspire to conquer Israel, but upon Israel itself for the way it has neglected the widow, orphan, and stranger. Nathaniel brings the word of the Lord’s judgment to David after he has abused Bathsheba and had Uriah murdered. It is Jonah’s warning of the coming judgment of God that leads all of Nineveh to repent in sackcloth and ash. Mary sings over the child growing in her womb, celebrating that soon the judgment of God will come through him and that the mighty will be cast down and rich sent away empty. Upon seeing the religious elite of his day come to the river where he was baptizing all of Israel, John the Baptist rails against them saying, “who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” Jesus too, whose exorcisms are themselves a foretaste of God’s judgment over evil, also speaks woe over all kinds of folks across the gospels – those who would put stumbling blocks before little ones, those who withhold mercy and forgiveness, those who do not produce the fruit of the kingdom, to the religious leaders who are like whitewashed tombs. There is a long, long list across the vast breadth of Scripture of that which is named as evil, as death-dealing, as oppositional to the will of God and destructive of God’s creation, and there is no shortage of pleas for God to meet these people and forces with righteous judgment.
I myself, to return to our opening question, have a long list of those I long to be confronted by the righteous judgment of God. Populated by abusers, warmongers, bullies, and the greedy. Those who have exploited the vulnerable, who have harmed the defenseless, who have been gleeful in the face of suffering, who have plundered the earth and its beauty. There are those in public positions of power who have used their influence to cultivate a culture of animosity and scarcity, and there are those who have never left their neighbourhood who have turned their homes into despotic little kingdoms. There are those who have enslaved, colonised, subjugated, and ensnared, and those who have enabled and excused and profited. There are faceless structures and individuals I know by name, and I bring them to God in prayer awaiting the righteous judgment that will reveal that despite the positions of privileges and power they enjoy in this life (a position that often allows them to allude earthly judgment) they will face the holy fire of God’s righteous judgment. A judgment that will reveal the way they have denied the creative word of God that declares all people image bearers, the ways they have denied the saving work of Christ who came so that all would have life and have it in abundance. A judgment that will overturn the way that things have been for far too long, where – to bring up the words of Mary again – the mighty will be cast off their thrones and the rich sent away empty. A judgment that levels prisons, turns swords to ploughshares, and sets the captives free.
Now, with all that established, I think it is important to say something about the judgment of God. And what it means to await this judgment upon a person, an institution, or a nation. To begin with let me say that judgment is not another word for obliteration, or even for punishment. The judgment of God is a revelatory event that strips away the lies of the world, that raises victims out of their subjugation, confronts violators with the full atrocity of their harm, and breaks apart hearts and systems that deal in exploitation. Having brought these acts and attitudes to the foreground, revealing them for what they are, God’s judgment is life! A refining fire that burns away that which is anathema to the nature of God and God’s good, redeemed creation. The judgment of God is not a sledgehammer crashing down leaving nothing, but the hammer of a sculptor removing that which cannot remain in the perfect presence of God’s love and justice – for this reason God’s judgment is an act of mercy (it is not without its sharp point – for to face the full revelation of the harms we have done will not be a comforting truth – but it is the act through which we are redeemed and made ready for our life in the household of God).
To put it another way, God’s judgment is restorative. God’s judgment is a good thing not only for those being harmed or exploited (for whom this judgment, like Israel in Egypt, is a mighty act of liberation), but it is also good news for the perpetrators of this harm and exploitation – it is through God’s judgment that we all get free! It is through God’s judgment that those who have sought to make themselves like a god through worldly power and riches are dethroned and called once again into the communion of creation. God’s judgment makes the path for restoration and reconciliation with our neighbours and with God.
Another key point is that judgment is God’s. While we might seek to discern, through scripture, prayer, and community what - in our neighbourhoods and world - is out of step with God’s kingdom, and from that discernment take actions to oppose and offer alternatives, we cannot ever allow ourselves to come to a fixed conclusion that what we take for justice is God’s justice, that our judgment are God’s judgments. It is not for us to decide who lives and dies, to take up arms in holy wars against those we believe to be threats to God. The Psalmist celebrates not that they have wrought judgment, but that God has arrived to bring judgment. We are not the final arbiters of God’s justice, and in fact we might be surprised both by how God judges, and who.
To this point, it is vital to remember the line from Peter’s epistle: it is time for judgment to begin with the household of God. The church is not exempt from God’s judgment, indeed it is not even periphery; it is first cab off the rank. Like the prophets warn Israel, the day of the Lord is not something that is terrifying only to those, ‘out there’, we who should know better will be confronted acutely by the revelatory sting of God’s righteous judgment.
Finally, just as judgment is not split along a line of world and church, so the line of righteousness and unrighteous is not an us/them. That line, righteous and unrighteous, runs right through each person. As Luther would say, each person is saint and sinner. This is not to flatten all sins, there are atrocities and evil that should not be lumped in with the mundane and daily falling short we all know so well. But it is to say that there are within our histories and attitudes, sin that must be dealt with, must be excised, if we are going to be able to live in the peaceable kingdom to come, if we are to live in the full presence of God. When God’s judgment arrives we do not get to sit in the audience and watch with glee as it is dolled out on our long laundry list, we too will face this righteous judgment and through it, we shall be delivered and perfected.
And so the good news today is that it is entirely fine, indeed good, for Christians to hate that which destroys life and violates our selves, our neighbours, our communities, and our world. We can and should speak words of judgment against these things, can and should work against their reign, and persist in prayer for God’s righteous judgment. For this judgment is not revenge or obliteration but restoration and redemption; liberation for both violators and victims – in this is the love of enemies. And at the same time, this judgment begins with the household of God, that we too are not pure victims, and that we too are in need of the refining judgment of God so that the things we do which we hate, the things we feel which we fear can face the holy fire of God’s judgment and be dragged from our very being… this is good news too, this too is our salvation.
And so, like the psalmist and the roaring seas we sing praises to God’s judgment, we pray and yearn for its fullness in God’s time, while in our time we get to work dismantling that which, in our selves, our churches, our neighbourhoods and nation that opposes God’s creative and redemptive justice!
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