Rethinking Judgment

“Faith is moving forward.”  “God has a plan for us.”  “Let’s go.”

Now, these words are from a drama.  They are not actually found in the scriptures.  The truth is, we wonder, but we don’t know exactly what Mary and Joseph talked about on that journey to Bethlehem.

But there had to be some anxiety…apprehension…maybe even fear.

Grace and peace to you from God our Creator, and from Jesus, the Son of God and the Savior for whom we wait!  Amen.

We do know that despite the emotions that Mary and Joseph must have experienced, they were obedient, and they followed.  Mary had already demonstrated her faithfulness, and her obedience to God on that day that the angel showed up to tell her that she would be the mother of the Savior.  So maybe it’s not such a stretch that they would follow instructions and make their way to Bethlehem for the census.  There, Jesus was born, and the prophesy made thousands of years earlier by Isaiah was fulfilled!

I have to admit, it’s a little bit strange that we have this Old Testament prophecy from Isaiah laid alongside the Gospel text from Matthew, where Jesus is somewhere around 30 years old.  But the reason is actually pretty simple.  Both Isaiah and John the Baptist point to Jesus.  Right at him.  They do it in remarkably different ways, but they both point the reader to Jesus, the Savior.

Isaiah is talking about the Jesus who restores hope and brings peace.  And Isaiah writes in beautiful, flowing poetry:

“The spirit of the Lord shall rest on him,
the spirit of wisdom and understanding
the spirit of counsel and might,
the spirit of knowledge and the fear of the Lord.”

But John, on the other hand, he too is pointing at Jesus, but it’s the Jesus who will bring judgment.  And there is nothing particularly poetic about what John says:

“You brood of vipers!”  (What a great line.  Next time you get an unwanted phone solicitation call, just yell “You brood of vipers” into the phone.  They will never call you back.)  Do not assume that just because you are Jewish, you are saved… Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”  Apparently, John got up on the wrong side of his cave that morning.

“Repentance.”  “Judgment.”  These are words that make the hairs on the back of our Lutheran necks stand up just a little bit.

But maybe, just maybe, instead of being threatened by words like “repentance,” or “judgment,” we need to work to better understand them.

We most often link the word “repent” with the word “apologize.”  We equate repentance with admitting that we’ve done something wrong, and that we need to ask forgiveness.  Let’s be honest, no one likes to apologize.  To apologize means to admit a mistake or a misdeed…it makes us vulnerable.  It causes anxiety, because what if the person we wronged doesn’t accept our apology?

But simply apologizing isn’t what John is talking about here.  Now, don’t get me wrong, apologizing to someone we’ve wronged is important, even as uncomfortable as it can be.  But John is talking not about apologies.  John is talking about change.

In the Old Testament, when they talk about repentance, they use the Hebrew word “Nacham.”  In the New Testament, it is the Greek word, “Metanoia.”  These words have very similar meanings.  Basically, they mean to “turn.”

To repent means simply to turn.  It is to change direction.

When John the Baptist says “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near,” he is saying turn.  Turn away from evil.  Turn away from what distracts you.  And even to his followers, John the Baptist is saying: turn away from me, for I am not the Savior, I am not Him.  He is the one.  And John points straight towards Jesus.

Repent means to turn our lives.

And the other of John’s words that troubles us is “Judgment.”

We never like being judged.  Because we equate “judgement” with “punishment.”  And why wouldn’t we?  We read things like “thrown in to the unquenchable fire,” and we get understandably nervous.

We have this image in our head of a set of escalators.  One going up, the other going down.  “Which one do you get to go on?”  You’re either playing a harp in the clouds, or you’re in the fire and flames in the basement.

But again, I think we misunderstand the word.  Judgment does not equate to punishment.  That is not a Biblical understanding.

We need to look at the meaning of the words.  And the word that John uses when he talks about judgment, actually means “truth-telling.”  Judgment is about telling the truth.  It is about honesty.  Judgment comes from God’s desire that the truth be told.

Judgment is about telling the truth to someone who has hurt you.  And it is about being told the truth when you’ve hurt someone else.  Because it is when the truth is told, that broken relationships can be restored; relationships with those around us.  Your relationship with God.

Robert Robinson was an Anglican priest who lived in the 18th century.  Not only was he a gifted pastor and preacher, he was also a highly gifted poet and hymn writer.

However, after many years serving as a pastor, his faith began to drift.  He left the ministry and moved to France, indulging himself in what he later described simply as the “sins of the flesh.”

One night he was riding in a carriage with a Parisian socialite who was a person of faith. She was reading some poetry, and at one point, she read one of the verses to Robinson.  She was interested in his opinion.  She asked him “what do you think of this verse?”: “Come thou Fount of every blessing, Tune my heart to sing thy grace, Streams of mercy never failing, Call for hymns of loudest praise.”

When she looked up from her reading she noticed Robinson was crying.

“What do I think of it?” he asked in a broken voice. “I wrote it. But now I’ve drifted away from God and I cannot find my way back.”

“But don’t you see” the woman said gently, “You wrote the way back.  It’s right here, in the third line of your poem: ‘Streams of mercy never ceasing.’ Those streams are flowing even here in Paris tonight.”

That night Robinson turned.  He turned his life.  And he recommitted himself to his God, and his faith.

There was judgment…truth telling…first by Robinson when he admitted his fall from faith, and then by the socialite, when she pointed him towards his own verse.  And there was repentance… Robinson turned back toward God.

So back to our original question:  What did Mary and Joseph talk about on their journey to Bethlehem?  We don’t know.  But we can speculate.  I’m guessing that in the midst of doubt and anxiety, they did some truth telling.  They talked of their fears, and they reminded each other of the promises the angel made to Mary, and of the prophesy of Isaiah that they were following.  And they turned…they turned away from their anxiety and they turned in trust to Bethlehem…the City of David.  And today we light the second Advent candle, the candle of faith, to remember how these two lived their faith, turned, and followed God into the unknown.

God calls us to hear the truth.  God calls us to tell the truth.  And God calls us to turn.  These calls aren’t intended to scare us, or to raise anxiety.  No, they are intended to free us.

  • We are free to speak the truth about our pain
  • We are free to speak the truth about injustice
  • We are free to speak the truth about our fear
  • We are free to speak the truth about our sin

We call this confession, and as the saying goes “Confession is good for the soul.”  Sometimes we confess these things to each other. But always, we can confess these things to God.  Because God will hear us.  And God reminds us that in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus, God judges us; God tells us the truth:  God tells us: you are loved.  You are worthy.  You are not alone.

And God calls us to repent…to turn.  To turn towards God.  And to turn away from those things that can be destructive to us.

This can be hard.  Really hard.  I know.  But God knows as well.  And God promises that we are never alone in the midst of it.

Now, these ideas of judgment and repentance, they are theological, heady, “out-there” kind of stuff.  I know.  Let me put this a different framework.

I want you to ask you a question:  What do you think God’s vision for your life is?  What do you think God wants you to be, and to do?  Here’s my request:  Sometime this afternoon, I’d like you to daydream…and to wonder about this vision.  I’m using the word “daydream” intentionally here, because I believe that God invites us to dream something beyond what we can presently see.

This, by the way, is the judgment…the truth telling.  It is to say “today, my life is like ‘A,’ but the truth is, God wants it to be like ‘B.’”

And then, I want you to choose one…just one…element of your life that you might like to repent…that is to change direction.  And I’d like you to use this season of Advent to put that into place.

Maybe it’s an unhealthy relationship that you want to repair.  Or maybe it’s the way you use your time.  Or perhaps it’s a practice or a habit that you’d like to start…or one that you feel like you need to end.

The author, Madeleine L’Engle wrote that “God did not wait till the world was ready…God did not wait for the perfect time.  God came when the need was deep and great.”

My friends, there is a deep need.  And during the season of Advent, a season of darkness, we are reminded that Christ comes to us as light, in the midst of our need.

Hear God’s judgment. Hear God’s truth and turn towards the cradle.  Faith is moving forward.  God has a plan for us.  Let’s go.

Thanks be to God!




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