Wednesday, December 10, 2008

Herewith the 2nd of four Advent addresses on the 4 Last Things. Today, judgement...

You will have heard the expression, ‘You can’t judge a book by it’s cover.’ This though is just not true! We do it all the time... We constantly make, judgements about people by the way they look, their clothes, their hairstyle, skin colour, age, sex and so on.

As Shakespeare’s Hamlet put it, "Aye, there’s the rub." It is the thought of judgment that strikes fear into the Christian soul. Who among us dares to stand face-to-face with God? Who among us dares to own the darkness that lurks within us? The very word judgment becomes, in our minds, condemnation.

That’s not the dictionary definition of the word. Webster speaks of authoritative opinion, a formal court decision, discernment and comparison.

More importantly, the people who shaped our faith centuries ago, the Jewish people who were Jesus’ own forebears, didn’t think of condemnation when they spoke of judgment. They didn’t see themselves as defendants in a criminal court. Rather, they saw themselves as plaintiffs in a civil action, seeking redress from God for their suffering. Go back and re-read the Book of Job or Daniel for the detail.

Like their Jewish ancestors, Christians await vindication. Speaking of the signs that announce his imminent return on the last day, Jesus told his followers to
"stand erect and raise your heads because your redemption is at hand" (Luke 21:28). We fear condemnation because we too easily focus on our own weaknesses and failures rather than on God’s goodness. In truth, were the scales of justice truly balanced, we would surely stand condemned. Nothing we do, nothing we are comes within light-years of God’s holiness. The bottom line is not that we must earn eternal life but, rather, that God has lovingly given it to us. "God proves his love for us in that while we were still sinners Christ died for us," Paul wrote (Romans 5:8). And Jesus prayed that his disciples and all future believers "may be with me where I am" (John 17:24).

St. Paul speaks of facing judgment with imagery that again recalls birth: "At present I know partially; then I shall know fully, as I am fully known" (1 Corinthians 13:12, emphasis added). We wear a lot of masks to keep from being known. Perhaps no one judges us more harshly than we judge ourselves. But every now and then someone catches us off guard by peeking behind our masks and loving us as we are—a surprise someone called the most magical: "God’s finger on one’s shoulder." Truly, no one knows us so well and yet loves us with such enduring passion as God does.

Centuries of Christian art reflect many changes in our understanding of Christ’s triumphant return and final judgement. That event was eagerly awaited by the first believers. Into the early Middle Ages, works of art suggest joy rather than terror. Typical is a carving on the tomb of a bishop buried in 608: The elect, wakening from death’s sleep, lift their arms to acclaim the returning Lord. Some 500 years later, another detail appears: the separation of the damned, the scene Jesus describes in Matthew 25:31-46. Their misery becomes more dominant and more horribly detailed as the centuries roll by.

The reasons for the change are too complex to explore here, but it seems apparent that Christianity took a rather gloomy turn after its first millennium ended without Jesus’ return on clouds of glory. The Dies Irae, a hymn describing the terrors of Judgment Day, became part of the funeral liturgy and remained until the post-Vatican II liturgical reform.

This morning’s Gospel reading reminds us that we must not, should not, can can not judge. In Jesus day, sheep and goats looked very alike, almost identical. The untrained eye could not tell them apart only the shepherd. Jesus the Good Shepherd who can discern the righteous from the unrighteous because he sees not the cover of the book, but the nakedness of the human heart with all it’s drives and motives exposed.

The theologian Mirolsav Wolf reminds us that not only are dependent on God to fulfill the longings of our hearts, as we are made in His image. Our need of God goes far deeper. Wolf reminds us that all that we have, all that we are is borrowed by us, given to us as a gift from God. Not even life itself is ours to do with what we wish. As God created human beings, He breathed into them the breath of life - the essence of life itself. We are all created equal in God’s sight, and are equally in need of the grace of God our heavenly father. God made us equally and loves us equally even in judgement.

Jesus judges us but does not condemn us, and neither should we. The story of Jesus’ encounter with the women caught in adultery remind us that it is all too human to condemn. On that day, Jesus reminded us that only the sinless can judge, God alone, and when he does he e looks at each of us in love and in judgement. On the scales of judgement God finds us guilty of falling short of His standards, His expectations through our sinfulness, but rather he balances out the judgement with the weight of love shown in the Cross of Christ.

We judge others by appearance as a means to make sense of our lives and our world, yet we are reminded that despite the superficial differences we define others by, God sees us as equal, made in His image through His love. It is through that same loving nature that God judges our motives and drives, challenging us not judge or condemn, rather to love and love and love just as He does.

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