The Dreaded “J” Word

Rev. Dr. Carter Lester Avatar

Have you heard the one about the three animals approaching St. Peter seated on his chair at the heavenly gate?  The first animal was a Rottweiler.  St. Peter asked her what she had done to be deserving of entering heaven and the Rottweiler replied: “I was an excellent guard dog for the family who owned me and on more than one occasion I chased would be burglars away.”  “Well done, St. Peter replied, “you may enter.”

When the second animal, a dachshund, approached, St. Peter asked him the same question.  “I was never much of a guard dog,” the dachshund replied, “but I was a good companion to my owner for five years after her husband died.”  “Well done,” St. Peter replied, “you may enter.”

The third animal was a Persian cat.  St. Peter asked him, “what have you done to deserve to enter heaven?”  The cat replied, “actually, you are sitting in my chair.”

God’s judgment – it has been the subject of many jokes through the years but in my experience of ministry through the years, for many people the idea of God’s judgment is no laughing matter.  Indeed, for many Christians, there is a certain dread about discussion of God’s judgment.

Sometimes the reasons are personal.  I think of a long-time church member who was very active in his church.  But when death approached, he was surprisingly fearful about coming before God’s judgment.  Perhaps the fact that he was very judgmental about other people colored his understanding about God.

And sometimes the reasons for not liking discussions of God’s judgment are theological and pastoral.  How can the harsh images of a judging God be reconciled with images of a loving and gracious God?

How about you – what images, what feelings come to mind when someone raises the topic of the judgment of God?

God’s judgment is a topic in Psalm 98, which we just heard.  Indeed, judgment is the climax of the psalm – and the tone of the psalmist’s reaction to God’s judgment may be vey surprising when we pay attention to it.

“O sing to the Lord a new song, for he has done marvelous things.”  Psalm 98 calls for a crescendo of music, first by lyre and then by trumpets, first by the Israelites, and then by all of the nations.  Even the sea, the floods, and the hills are to join in the jubilant chorus.  Why?  What is making the psalmist so joyful?  Here the psalmist doesn’t look back but instead looks ahead: because “the Lord is coming to judge the earth.”  This is how the jubilant psalm ends – celebrating God’s judgment.

How can this be?  How can God’s judgment be a reason for joy – and not the basis of a joke?

Note that there is no suggestion that the Israelites will escape God’s judgment.  Nor does the New Testament suggest that.  As Paul tells the Corinthians in 1 Corinthians 3, we are all subject to judgment, to God’s purifying fire. (3:15, 17).  In the words of the theologian Daniel Migliore, “Hence we must never assume, or act as if we assumed, that the sins of others will be exposed and condemned while only ours will be forgiven.  We shall all pass through the fire of God’s purifying love.”[i]

So, joy cannot come from escaping judgment, but only by facing God’s judgment?  How can this be?  Our problem with finding more dread than joy when we think of facing judgment is because we forget three things.

First, we forget who the judge is.  How do you picture God as judge?  A wrathful, terrifying, and angry God who has kept close count of our sins?  So that being called before God is like being called before a tyrant, or being called into the principal’s office, or a courtroom, or an IRS auditor’s cubicle?  If that is how we picture God as judge, it is no wonder that we will find no joy with judgment.

But as the theologian Shirley Guthrie writes, “the whole pictures changes as soon as we remember who the Judge will be.  Not a vengeful…judge, but Christ himself!  The one who will judge sinners is the very one who loved and gave his life for them.”[ii]  The One who, as we heard in John 15, first chooses us before we ever choose Him.  The One who tells us that we no longer are to be called his “servants,” but are to be called his “friends.”  Our judge is our friend, one who loves us.  The face of our judge is a face of love.

I remember a podcast I heard during the height of the pandemic when the first vaccines were arriving and every effort was being made by governments around the world to see that people got the vaccine – especially those over 65.  The specific topic of the podcast was the effort of the governments of England and Israel to reach out to people through religious leaders to counter rumors and false information about the vaccines so that those resisting the vaccines would get a shot.

A reporter from England talked about conversations that imams would have with their people.  One mam had a series of Zoom calls with members of his community, where he pointed out that the Quoran called for people to turn to others who had more wisdom on a matter, and that the best wisdom supported getting vaccines.

The reporter interviewed an imam who talked about a Zoom call with one family.  The adult son was adamant that no one in the family should get a vaccine, including his elderly mother.  The adult son was insistent throughout the long conversation with the imam.  But it turned out that later the vulnerable woman, as well as the rest of the family, did get the vaccination.  What changed the son’s mind?  It was the imam’s last question to the son: “How will you feel if you refuse to get your mom the vaccination and she dies from Covid?”  “I could never live with myself if that happened,” the man admitted.  At which point, the host of the podcast ended the segment with a chuckle and the comment, “Ah mom-guilt, it is cross-cultural!”

I don’t know about you, but worse than any harsh words or grounding and loss of privileges handed out by my mom – or my dad for that matter – was the pained and sad look in their faces when I had hurt them.  When I saw that look on the faces of my mom or dad, who had loved me so dearly and would do anything for me, I would want to do all that I could to change and make amends.

Our joy in judgment comes not because Jesus our judge will just dismiss our sins as if they don’t matter – our sins do matter because we hurt other people, or let them down, or we hurt ourselves.  The joy comes, instead, from recognizing that we are judged by one who loves us even more than our parents, and will not turn away from us any more than a mother will turn away from her erring child.  Because of that love, we always get more grace than we deserve.

The second thing we forget about God’s judgment is that we think that God’s judgment is pass-fail, as it is in the jokes about facing Peter at the gates of heaven.  Either you get to enter the gates of heaven – or you are banished forever.  Thumbs up – or thumbs down.

But that is not how the scriptures describe God’s judgment.  A common image for God’s judgment in the Bible is a “refiners fire,” when the impurities are removed by fire – burned off.  There is a purpose to God’s judgment, and it is not condemnation.  It is purification.  To decide what is good and worth preserving and what must go as we enter God’s realm.

Or to use a more modern image in case we are not active metallurgists, God’s judgment is not just a matter of tearing down, but restoring us, like a building.  God won’t just put up a fresh piece of drywall up after the leak or a fresh coat of paint on deteriorating wood.  God’s judgment takes us down to the studs, if necessary, because there is no place for sin in God’s realm.

Our prejudices and grudges, our resentments and envy, we don’t get to hold on to them in heaven.  They need to be burned off and stripped away.  We will be judged with a purifying judgment that seeks to transform us into the people we are meant to be.   All of us will be made whole, new, pure.  That kind of purifying judgment is a cause for joy.

The third thing we forget when it comes to judgment is that it is not just about us.  God’s judgment is about the whole world.

While comics will talk about individuals approaching St. Peter at the heavenly gates one by one, that is not the way the Bible talks about judgment.  “He is coming to judge the earth,” the psalmist sings.  “He will judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with equity.”  Judgment is communal – and earth-wide, not just for individuals one-by-one.

Such a viewpoint of judgment is not unique to the Psalms, nor to the Old Testament.  How does the book of Revelation describe the second coming of the Messiah when all is made right?  This way: “as a new heaven and a new earth.” (Rev. 21:1-2).  To quote the wise Presbyterian theologian Guthrie again, the judge of the Bible is “not primarily the one who rewards some and punishes the others; [the judge] is the One who creates order and restores what has been destroyed.”  Therefore, the first thought that should come to Christians when they thing about judgment “ought not anxious or vindictive speculation about who will be ‘in’ and ‘go up,’ and who will be ‘out’ and ‘go down.’  It ought to be the thankful and joyful thought that we may confidently look forward to the time when the will of the world’s Creator, Reconciler, Savior, and Renewer will prevail once and for all.” 

Rather than dreading such judgment, we should long for it with every fiber of our being.  For the time when the rich do not throw away food while others go hungry, but when and where all have enough.  For the time when children are not abused or neglected, and where a child’s opportunities are not limited by where he is born or what she looks like.  Where evil is rooted out, and tyrants no longer are taking hostages, burning villages, or killing and making refugees.  We look forward to the time when there are no more tears, no more pain.

How do we connect joy with judgment?   By remembering, as the psalmist does, the marvelous deeds God has done delivering us from powerful enemies in the past.  By remembering, as the gospel writer does, Jesus Christ, who came to fully and completely reveal God’s love for us, and gave us the commandment to love others so that “our joy might be complete.” Love is what remains after God’s purifying fire.   We remember the empty tomb and seek to demonstrateBy remembering the empty tomb and demonstrating that day when every stone that obstructs God’s glorious life will be removed.

With God, past is prologue to the future.  We have the conviction of faith and the assurance of hope that what God has begun in Jesus Christ will be completed in the coming of Jesus the Judge, who will make all things fair, good, and right, including even ourselves.

Let us close with these words from our Presbyterian Declaration of Faith:

“In Christ God gave us a glimpse of the new creation he has already begun and will surely finish… In our time we see only broken and scattered signs that the renewal of all things is under way. We do not yet see the end of cruelty and suffering in the world, the church, or our own lives. But we see Jesus as Lord.

As he stands at the center of our history, we are confident he will stand at its end. He will judge all people and nations. Evil will be condemned and rooted out of God’s good creation. There will be no more tears or pain. All things will be made new. The fellowship of human beings with God and each other will be perfected.”

Now that is a reason to break out the lyre and trumpet and for all of creation to join in joyful singing! 

Amen.  Amen.  Amen.

[i] Daniel Migliore, Faith Seeking Understanding: An Introduction to Christin Theology, 2d e. (Grand Rapids: William B. Eerdmans Publishing Co., 2004), 345.

[ii] Shirley Guthrie, Christian Doctrine, 2d ed. (Louisville: Westminster John Knox Press, 1994), 388.