Just as there is no getting to Easter without going through Good Friday, there is no getting to Christmas without an encounter with John the Baptist. There is no getting to the babe that brings salvation without the judgment with which John seems to be so obsessed.
Increasingly I hear the cry for a judgment-free Christianity. We must let go of phrases like “the wrath of God,” or “the fear of the Lord.” They are only turn-offs and keep people out of our churches, so it is conjectured.
And surely most—perhaps all—of us cringed during John the Baptist’s final words this morning, “and the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.” Certainly it is not something we would put on a banner and hang outside the church to attract visitors.
As is often the case, we need to get clear about the Bible’s and the church’s use of terms. Just what is judgment and why do we still need it, if indeed we do?
I came across a quote that pertains to this question from one of Anglicanism’s finest theologians and preachers from the mid-20th century, Austin Farrer. He emphasizes that judgment, like death, is not the final word of Christianity. He says,
Advent brings Christmas, judgement runs into mercy. For the God who saves us and the God who judges us is one God. We are not, even, condemned by his severity and redeemed by his compassion; what judges us is what redeems us, the love of God.
In Christmas terms, Farrer says,
Love shares flesh and blood with us in this present world, that the eyes which look us through at last may find in us a better substance than our vanity.
When it has something to do with the Christian faith, judgment is simply one of the things that love does, any love, really, and does it as part of a process whose fulfillment is love itself.
There is a judgment that has nothing to do with Christian faith. It is
- Judgment that is motivated by anything but love, that
is, judgment that is motivated by prejudice or fear or hatred.
- Judgment that is pronounced as the last word on anyone
- Judgment that is solely the expression of power that one person or people has over another, often based on an illusion of some privilege we should have over someone different from ourselves.
God does not judge in any of those ways, although you will find instances in the Bible where God is certainly tempted to do so and a couple extraordinary places where he does so but then is said to “repent.”
These things are hard for us these days, because, although people by and large do not wish to be judged, even by God, they often retain the right to judge others and practice it rather freely. We are bombarded by urgent requests to make judgments that are not carefully considered and are often based on half-truths, if any truth at all.
It is a biblical value that we not rush to judgment about anything or anyone, without knowing the whole story, including our own motivation to judge. That is precisely what Jesus means by “judge not lest you be judged.” And what is amazing about this saying is that it is said in the midst of Matthew’s Gospel where judgment abounds. It is almost as if Matthew’s community cannot quite match its experience to Jesus’ radical teaching, but feels obligated to report it.
Truth to tell, we, the church, continue to struggle with it. We are called to be a people of moral seriousness, who pay close attention to the consequences of our actions, and are ever clearer as we grow to the ways we fall short of God’s dream for us. Yet we often get so caught up in this that we do, in fact, slip into judgmentalism and seem to profess a religion that is far less merciful than is the God supposedly at the heart of the matter.
Ultimately it is not so much talk of judgment and God that keeps away people, but the way the world sees us behaving with one another. “See how they judge one another,” is more likely to be the observation of the no-affiliated than “see how they love one another, and even more so, “see how they judge the stranger” rather than, as St. Paul says this morning, “see how they welcome the stranger.”
John’s call to repentance is not a call to each one of us simply to feel guilty about our sins, it is a call to accept a new way of being, a new way of being with one’s self, and, more importantly, a new way of being with one another. And this is not a call from a crazy man in an ancient desert wilderness. It is a call to Christians in every age, including our own to realize a simple truth.
They will know we are Christians by our love, or they won’t.
I suspect we are going to have plenty of opportunities to practice and express our clarity about just what, as a matter of faith, judgment is, and what it is not. And we will need to be brave about it, because right now the forces of judgmentalism are strong, and even believe they have a right to be in control and to exercise power. As Jesus said to us last week, “This will be an opportunity to testify, and the basic testimony will be this: