The Great BUT

The Great BUT

The Holy Scriptures of the Christian Church—the Bible—contain a great many passages about judgment. A major theme is the righteousness of God and his judgment upon unrighteousness. A lot of people think that this theme of judgment is all in the Old Testament, not the New, which is a serious mistake leading to all kinds of problems in our understanding of our own Scripture. There’s a very significant amount of judgment in the New Testament, most of it, to tell the truth, in the teachings of Jesus himself. Try this, for example:

Woe to you, scribes and Pharisees, hypocrites!… You serpents, you brood of vipers, how are you to escape being sentenced to hell? (Matthew 19:29,33)

It’s easy for us to scoot out from underneath this, since we are not Pharisees, or hypocrites, are we? I heard a joke once about two men. One of them invites the other to attend worship at his church. The other man said he never went to church because it was full of hypocrites. That’s OK, said his friend, there’s always room for one more.

Most of us figure out ways to excuse ourselves from whatever it is that Jesus is condemning. Our friends are not broods of vipers. Judgment is for some other group Certainly it isn’t for the most prominent leaders of our community, those who exceed everyone else in righteousness—oops, that’s a description of the Pharisees. The most successful people are apparently going to be judged ahead of everyone else.

It’s remarkable how much Jesus refers to hell. Whether this is a literal concept of hell or not can be debated. The point is that Jesus the Messiah was dead serious about pronouncing the judgment of God upon idolaters—upon those who oriented their lives upon false gods and ignored the reality and righteousness of the God who is really God. In the Old Testament and in the New, one of the subjects to be taken most seriously is that of idolatry. Calvin famously said that the human mind was a perpetual factory of idols, which has been true from the days of the golden calf in Moses’ time up until our own time. And one of the idols of our own time is the idol we have made of a God who never judges anyone or anything. We have created a God who accepts everyone “just as they are” and never says anything against us, because that would be “judgmental.”

In our time, one of the worst things that can be said about anybody is that he or she is “judgmental.” It’s remarkable that this word, judgmental, is a relatively new word. It doesn’t appear in the authoritative Oxford Dictionary until the 20th century. Prior to that, judging something was considered a positive thing, meaning to discern its truth, or its value. The capacity to judge accurately was a form of exercising wisdom. I’m not sure how “judgmental” entered the language, but it must have been related to the contemporary attitude of “whatever works for you.” The god of “whatever works for you” is certainly one of the idols of our era.

At the same time, sniping at other people has never been more commonplace. We may be seeing the end of “political correctness,” which has been one of the favorite targets of criticism in the campaign just ended, but I remember political correctness very well from my first days in seminary in 1972, when the reading list for Systematic Theology 101 was bitterly attacked for not have any female theologians on it. There are several world-class female theologians now, but 40 years ago there were none, so the agitators really had no recourse. Still, the wrath that descended on the heads of the designers of the course was considerable. I got very caught up in this and narrowly escaped, by the grace of God working through some remarkable people, including one very brave faculty member, a Jewish woman who taught Hebrew. She was utterly disgusted by the idea that women students were supposed to read only works by feminists. I still remember her with fondness.

Well, in the final analysis, we’ve lost touch with the idea that an act of judgment may very well be an act of liberation. The problem we have with the idea of making judgments speaks largely to our insecurity.. When we feel judged by someone, it seems fearful to us, a threat to our existence even. I remember how much my mother hated the famous mosaic in the dome of the church in Daphne, in Greece. It was the typical image of Christ as Pantocrator, the judge of all things, but unlike some of the more benign images of the Pantocrator, this one is really ferocious. My mother was unnerved by it. I, on the other hand, loved it. More about that in a minute, but I knew the reason that my mother felt that way. I was very close to her and I knew that she suffered from feelings of personal unworthiness, therefore she experienced Jesus as Judge in a very negative way, as if he were coming after her personally.

At the close of the Te Deum, we sing, “We believe that thou shalt come to be our Judge.” Everything depends on what we know of Jesus Christ and his Second Coming in glory as ruler of all things. What sort of Judge will he be? When we look at images of Christ in majesty, what sort of ruler do we imagine him to be?

This is an Advent question. We’ve been speaking at some length during the past two days about the nature of the Advent season. Over the centuries, as the church’s liturgical calendar developed, the identity of Advent took on a particular shape which is not so well understood today. The season was not intended to be the run-up to Christmas. It was designed to be the season that looked forward, not to the birth of the Baby Jesus in Bethlehem, but to the Second Coming of Christ. Advent places the church properly, in between the times, the time of waiting through the night for the Bridegroom to come. The parable of the Wise and Foolish Bridesmaids is a quintessential Advent reading; the foolish young women who are supposed to greet the bridegroom when he arrives have allowed their lamps to run out of oil. This is an image of the church when she lets her lights burn low. The time of waiting is long; it is hard; it is extremely dispiriting much of the time; but the promise that the Lord will come sustains the church throughout the night. Keep the lower lights burning!

The coming of the Lord will be accompanied by the final judgment over all things—over the waste we have made of God’s creation by wars and greed and rapacity and cruelty and self-aggrandizement at the expense of the poor and needy whom God loves. How are we going to survive this judgment? Listen again to the prophecy of Isaiah:

15 For thus says the high and lofty one
who inhabits eternity, whose name is Holy…

I will not continually accuse…
nor will I always be angry…

Because of [the] wicked covetousness [of my people] I was angry;
I struck them…but they kept turning back to their own ways.

I have seen their ways, but I will heal them;
I will lead them and repay them with comfort… says the Lord,
and I will heal them.

Did you hear that “but”? The name of this sermon is “The Great BUT.” Here again is part of the reading from I Thessalonians:

….you yourselves know well that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. When people say, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them… But you are not in darkness, brothers and sisters, for that day to surprise you like a thief. 5 For you are all children of light, children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. (I Thessalonians 5:1-10)

We are all children of light! Does that mean that we are good people who have done good things and will therefore be rewarded as we deserve? We know better than that, don’t we? Even our righteous deeds, writes Isaiah (64:6), are like filthy rags. In my Episcopal church, we used to say, in the General confession , “We have left undone those things that we ought to have done, and we have done those things that we ought not to have done, and there is no health in us.” We stopped saying all that about forty years ago, along about the time that we decided that “judgmentalism” was the worst thing in the world. But it is still true that we have done what we should not, and that we have not done what we should, and that even our best efforts often turn to ashes. Isn’t that true? It surely is true of me, anyway. I’ve done things that I meant to be helpful, and they turned out to be exactly the opposite. It is only as God inhabits our efforts and turns them to his purposes (sometimes in a different direction than we intended!) that our deeds find their place in his great plan for each of us.

And so the joke on us is that quite often our worst failures turn out to be not so bad after all. The setbacks become lessons that build us up, the rebukes that we suffer turn out to be strengthening and correcting. It all depends on the context in which the rebuke occurs. When it occurs in the context of unconditional love, judgment has a redemptive effect:

Because of their wicked covetousness I was angry [says the Lord];

I struck them, I hid and was angry;

but they kept turning back to their own ways.

I have seen their ways, but I will heal them;

I will lead them and repay them with comfort…

Yesterday at our retreat gathering I mentioned something that I think is worth mentioning again. I was privileged to learn from two superb psychoanalysts who were very much in tune with each other. From them I learned this: “The negative moment is in the service of the positive moment.” In other words, there are times in the therapeutic relationship when the therapist must challenge the patient in a way that may seem confrontational, hostile, “judgmental.” But if the patient can receive this in the context of an ongoing and affirming therapeutic relationship, it will lead to a breakthrough, and the patient’s life may take a decisive turn for the better. A professor at Princeton Seminary, Charles Bartow, wrote something very similar. He wrote of “the God who is against us in order to be for us.”

I’d like to try putting it another way. The overall testimony of the Old and New Testaments is that God will save us from the judgment, but he will not save us without judgment. I’m sure many of you have the very famous saying of H. Richard Niebuhr about American Christianity: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” So let me say it again: God will save us from the judgment, but he will not save us without judgment. God being who he is, he cannot allow evil to exist for ever. Something has to be done about the human heart which constantly misleads and deceives. Something has to be done about the rule of Sin and Death in the world that God made, the world that God still loves in spite of everything. The secret of being a faithful follower of the Lord Jesus is that we know that he is the one who will judge the living and the dead, and that we will be saved from ourselves by the one who loves us to the last breath of his own life.

This is the place for the great BUT, from Isaiah 54:

For a brief moment I forsook you, but with great compassion I will gather you. In overflowing wrath for a moment I hid my face from you, but with everlasting love I will have compassion on you, says the Lord, your Redeemer.

So it is for our ultimate redemption that God will judge us. In the surpassing Advent passage that ends the Old Testament,

Behold, I send my messenger to prepare the way before me, and the Lord whom you seek will suddenly come to his temple; the messenger of the covenant in whom you delight, behold, he is coming, says the Lord of hosts. But who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears? For he is like a refiner’s fire and like fullers’ soap; he will sit as a refiner and purifier of silver, and he will purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, till they present right offerings to the Lord..

There, the BUT plays the opposite role. To those who think the coming of the Messiah will be a picnic, the prophet says absolutely not, because we are not worthy to stand before him when he appears. But we will undergo the refiner’s fire, and will emerge as new people, remade in his image and fit for his eternal company. We will enter into the wedding feast with him to rejoice for ever.

Only a very great and mighty Judge is able to do what is promised us in Jesus Christ. He has promised us that he will do away with Sin and Death for ever. The face of the frightening Pantocrator is turned against everything that reduces us, that imprisons us, that distorts us, that annihilates us. It is our redeemed self that he loves and promises to make whole in us, but not without judgment upon all that is crippling and destructive.

I wonder if you, like me, have grown weary of patterns in your own life. As I have grown older, I have recognized that there are certain impulses and tendencies in my personality that I have worked very hard to overcome, but they are still there, causing me—and others—no end of trouble. I am looking forward to passing through the refiner’s fire. I am so joyful to know that they will be judged and gone for ever. I hope that’s true for you too. We rejoice to know that it is the Lord himself who will come to be our Judge.

St Paul writes to us about this in one of the great passages appointed for Advent. Let us gladly hear his words:

So then…since we belong to the day, let us be sober, and put on the breastplate of faith and love, and for a helmet the hope of salvation. For God has not destined us for wrath, but to obtain salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us so that …we might live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build one another up, just as you are doing. (I Thessalonians 5)


Charles Bartow, God’s Human Speech, 99 and elsewhere.

H. Richard Niebuhr, The Kingdom of God in America.

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