It is the Lord who judges me.
[1 Corinthians 4:4]
In Advent we reflect upon the threefold coming of the Lord Jesus Christ – and His arrival brings judgement. Jesus’ coming in the past brought judgement, we are told that Jesus will judge us at the end of time, and Jesus judges us even now. Judgement is perhaps not something we like to think about, but this morning I want us to think about why this is not just a good thing, but the best possible thing.
Who is your judge now?
When we look at the news around the world, we can see that all people desire justice – the unrest we see, the violence we see, the critique of politicians, of celebrities, whether right or wrong, is always linked with a desire for justice. All human beings are “hard-wired” with a desire for justice. Those of you who are parents or remember your own childhood, probably have heard children responding at some point with “that’s not fair!”
Society can use different instruments to seek justice. We’ve been hearing a lot recently in the media about sexual misconduct, and we can be thankful that things hidden in darkness are being brought to light. Some people use social media to raise injustices when they don’t feel their voice is heard elsewhere. We also know of the incredible damage that can be done when judgements are made in the media or social media without the opportunity of the courts to examine the facts. But even the courts are not perfect in their judgement of cases. We give our governments responsibility for upholding justice, but it is never perfect – the laws can be too strict or too lenient, and even if the laws are good their enforcement might be lacking. And justice can be skewed if those in government are corrupt.
But I suspect for most of us, the judgement of our actions is more immediate – for good or for ill, our family and friends who judge our actions. Or maybe it is an adversary, a bully, an overcritical boss, who wrongly judges us.
But even closer to home, each one of us has an internal judge, a voice or voices within, calling us to account – for some, it is an unhelpful hyper-critical voice of condemnation, internalized from the past.
St Paul speaks today against the judgement he experienced from the congregation in Corinth [1 Corinthians 4:1-5]. He had established the church there and Apollos had been building on it – but party factions had caused divisions – some looking to Paul and some now looking to Apollos. He reminds them that the foundation is Christ and both he and Apollos are building on that foundation. And he takes comfort in the fact that in the end it will be Christ who will be the judge of his and Apollos’ ministries.
With me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. [1 Cor 4:3-4]
In the Gospel today [St Matthew 11:2-10] John the Baptist is in prison – he has been judged by the government of his time, the dictator Herod, who imprisoned him because John was warning him about the final judgement of God for his marrying his brother’s wife. And we know the foolishness of the injustice that finally led to his beheading. Herod thought it more just to keep his word and not disappoint his guests than to keep alive the man who was more than a prophet!
John is judged and condemned for doing what he believed God was calling him to do – we can imagine that in prison he was comforted knowing earthly governments can get it wrong, knowing that religious authorities can get it wrong, that in fact he was in a long line of prophets who had been condemned and destroyed by unjust authority. He would be glad of the judgement of God by which he would be finally vindicated.
He leads his own disciples to Jesus to confirm his understanding of Jesus as the Messiah – in fact John’s disciples see and hear what John had only heard – and they would return to John with the good news that the blind receive their sight and the lame walk, lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, and the dead are raised up, and the poor have good news preached to them. And blessed is the one who is not offended by me.”
Then Jesus actually pronounces his judgement of John to the crowds: I tell you, [John is] more than a prophet. This is he of whom it is written, “‘Behold, I send my messenger before your face, who will prepare your way before you.’
Jesus is saying that John is the man prophesied by the last Old Testament prophet Malachi to be the forerunner of the Christ. Notice Jesus tells the crowd only after the disciples of John left – John didn’t need to hear this, he knew it, he had described himself as the voice of one crying in the wilderness, make straight the way of the Lord. [Isaiah 40:3]
Why is it important that we have judgement?
When judging the moral actions of others, people often bring out the phrase, Judge not that you be not judged. [St Matthew 7:1] But this statement of Jesus is about final judgement – no one can see the final state of any person here on earth except God. And in today’s reading – Paul reminds us not to pronounce judgement before the time. But this is not to say we are not to judge the actions of others as right or wrong. Paul’s letter to the Corinthians is a judgement of the Corinthians in wrongly condemning him, and he spends a good part of his letter in condemning their immorality and revealing their spiritual immaturity. He does this because he loves them and would have repent.
It is important that we keep a discerning mind: we’re called to judge angels – ideals and principles in our societies that are unjust, we’re to call governments and our legal systems to account if they are unjust, we need to discern what is true and false in the media, we need to judge it, if we love someone we are to call that person to account when they transgress in love. We’re not to suspend our critical faculties.
We’re to keep an ear open to the critical voices around us – is the criticism true and out of love? And it is important that we have a voice within that calls us to account personally – but let’s be sure that it’s the Holy Spirit and not some hyper-critical destructive voice that we’ve internalized – that’s not the Holy Spirit. The Holy Spirit speaks gently, revealing things as we can bear them, or perhaps more strongly if we’re really obstinate!
The judgement of our actions by loved ones in this life, especially by the Holy Spirit, is a preparation, in readiness to meet God. As God speaks through the prophet Isaiah this morning [Isaiah 35:1-10],
And a highway shall be there, and it shall be called the Way of Holiness;
the unclean shall not pass over it.
It shall belong to those who walk on the Way;
even if they are fools, they shall not go astray.
No lion shall be there, nor shall any ravenous beast
…but the redeemed shall walk there.
Don’t we long for the clarity that God’s judgement brings to our hearts now, and with that, the possibility, through repentance and faith, of the restoration of innocence, of purity of heart, of newness of life leading to the vision of God?
Why are we glad that God is the ultimate judge?
John the Baptist could not rely on earthly justice, for the very holders of justice corrupted justice to hide their injustice, but we can be certain that he is glad that God is the final judge.
St Paul could not rely on the judgement of the church in Corinth or even at one point of his fellow apostle Peter, or of his own judgement of himself. And certainly he could not rely on the justice of the Jewish religious authorities, who had him arrested, or to the Imperial Emperor to whom he appealed, who later sentenced him to be beheaded. But we can be sure that he is glad that God is the final judge.
Why? Because God’s judgement and his justice is perfect. Paul says, God sees all things, brings to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. God sees the reasons behind our just actions even if others cannot see them. And also God sees the circumstances that each of us is struggling with when we sin, our complicated histories, the wounds, the misunderstandings, the ignorance, the weakness of our wills because of sin.
We are glad that God is the ultimate judge because Jesus shows us what the just judgement of God is like.
Jesus says himself in John’s gospel, God sent the Son into the world, not to condemn the world, but that the world might be saved through him. Jesus has come to turn our hearts in this life, that the just condemnation under which we stand will not be final.
Remember Jesus’ reaction to the woman caught in adultery? He calls her stone throwing accusers to account and, as they all left ashamed, he said her, Neither do I condemn you; go and sin no more. We love the justice of God because we know his right judgement is mingled with mercy, the opportunity to start again.
Remember how Jesus responded to those who were nailing him to the Cross – he prayed, Father forgive them, for they know not what they do. Their blindness does not exonerate them from their culpability. But in the very moment of agony Jesus desired their repentance, he doesn’t finally condemn them but shows the forbearance of God towards them and all of us for our injustice and how he longs for the opening of their minds and our minds to the truth and to true repentance.
Remember of how Jesus responded to the repentant thief on the Cross? I tell you, today you will be with me in paradise.
The judgement of God in Jesus Christ – is this not what we long for? Do you see why it is the best possible thing?
We now have opportunity to prepare ourselves for Jesus’ coming to our souls even this morning. Perhaps the Holy Spirit has revealed something this morning to each of us – a hidden thing of darkness, an impure purpose of the heart – not something we’ve already repented of and been forgiven for, but something new. Let us confess it as we hold before our eyes the presentation of Jesus’ once for all offering of himself in our place. And God says, through Isaiah,
The ransomed of the Lord shall return
and come to Zion with singing;
everlasting joy shall be upon their heads;
they shall obtain gladness and joy,
and sorrow and sighing shall flee away.