Therefore judge nothing before the time, until the Lord come, who both will bring to light the hidden things of darkness, and will make manifest the counsels of the hearts: and then shall every man have praise of God (1 Corinthians 4:5).
Hanging over the text of today’s two readings is the powerful Advent theme of inescapable, impending judgment. Christmas celebrates God becoming Man; Advent celebrates this resurrected God/Man’s return to judge the living and the dead. Do we welcome this judgment? Inevitably, our attitude towards the return of Earth’s rightful king is bound up with whether or not we welcome or fear judgment, whether or not we long for Almighty God to come and judge us and all the people who have ever lived. Both St. Paul and St. John the Baptizer long for this judgment because they trust the God who made heaven and earth to judge us with grace and truth. Do we? It is a common refrain of the American who has heard enough of the Bible to be semi-inoculated against its shocking good news to say something like, “Only God can judge me,” but, of course, the great irony of this juvenile cry is that these amateur theologians are unwittingly calling down upon themselves a judgment no bishop or king or priest could possibly convey. God already knows who you are better than any parent or spouse, better than any human judge or earthly prosecutor. God knows us even better than we know ourselves because God is not deceived by the lies we think we need to tell ourselves to get through the day. As the psalmist writes, “O Lord, thou hast searched me out, and known me. Thou knowest my down-sitting and mine up-rising; thou understandest my thoughts long before…Try me, O God, and seek the ground of my heart; prove me, and examine my thoughts” (Psalm 139:1,23). Amazingly, again and again, we see that the reborn child of God seeks out the judgment of the Almighty; thus, up-ending the example set by our first representatives before God (Adam and Eve) who hid from their Creator after committing the first sin; by seeking God’s judgment we separate ourselves from all our fellow countrymen who think their temporal right to privacy will hold up in the high court of the Holy God.
So, who stands to be judged by God? Well, all men of course, but how is that judgment described? Again we turn to the psalms, “God is a righteous Judge, strong, and patient; and God is provoked every day. If a man will not turn, [God] will whet his sword, he hath bent his bow, and made it ready. He hath prepared for him the instruments of death; he ordaineth his arrows against the persecutors” (Psalm 7:12-14). Here, we see the poetic image of a benevolent king ridding his good land of evil—cleansing our besieged creation of those who persecute the righteous with their selfishness and sin. This sounds pretty serious to me, and anyone who trusts in the good news and loving promises of God must also rejoice in the good news that evil will be judged and defeated. However, this message of judgement is terribly unpopular among the many, many churches which sell fake Christianity to their complacent congregations. We hear from the pulpits or stages of these snake-oil salesmen that we should ignore the Old Testament’s sober analysis of our sinfulness and the judgment it deserves; we should ignore all of those hard truths for the supposedly different God we meet in the New Testament. But, what then do we make of Jesus’ actual words: “Therefore I tell you, the kingdom of God will be taken away from [the wicked] and given to a people producing its fruits. And the one who falls on this stone will be broken to pieces; and when it falls on anyone, it will crush him” (St Matthew 21:43-44) or “The Son of Man will send his angels, and they will gather out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all law-breakers, and throw them into the fiery furnace. In that place there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth” (St. Matthew 13:41-42). Those ministers who mislead their congregations into remaking Jesus in their own image, remaking Him into a moral coward who respects our imaginary privacy and calls our evil good, those ministers will be judged by the God whose good name they have taken in vain.
It is just this judgment which St. Paul invokes in today’s epistle reading. He reminds the Corinthians that it is not their judgment or even his own which decides the value of his ministry, the value of his sacrifice of himself for God; no, it is only God who has the ability and authority to evaluate the “success” of his ministry. In fact, calling it “his ministry” is to import a modern, self-centered idea to the text. St. Paul tells us to think of God’s ministers as “servants of Christ and stewards of the mysteries of God.” The classical greek behind that word “servant” meant an under-rower. This unpleasant job should be familiar to anyone who’s ever read or seen Ben-Hur. These men pulled oars to the beat of a drum under the decks of the mighty battleships of the ancient world. Here, St. Paul invokes a beautiful and terrible description of the pastor’s life which has always made sense to me (perhaps because I’m a Navy man). An under-rower is below decks—in the darkness—heading toward a destination he’s heard of but not seen, set by the captain who never asks his advice, joined by other men who live and die for the next pull of the oar: their lives dictated by the beat of a drum they can’t ignore.
It is the minister’s job to pull that oar, not commandeer the rudder or stage a mutiny against the captain; it is to pull that bloody oar again and again until the ship finds safe harbor. The minister does this work because it is his duty to his Lord; he fails in this work when he lets fear cloud his judgment. Indeed, here is the hardest part of being a minister in Christ’s church: always fearing God more than one fears the congregation—fearing God’s judgment more than the judgment of the men and women who sit in the pews. For, indeed, who among us has not judged a clergyman before? I certainly have, using language like I was a some kind of snobby film critic, saying things like, “Boy, he was boring” or “I wish he had done this or that” or “I like this other pastor better” and on and on as if my preferences mattered at all, as if my judgment mattered at all if the man of God before me was faithfully executing his duties, pulling his oar while I sat on my duff waiting to be entertained or moved or excited. Do we go to a doctor and ask him to entertain us? No, we beg him to heal us, and if he uses watered down fake medicine, we die. We don’t thank a physician for taking it easy on our cancer: we say, “Do what must be done to save me,” and we mean it because we actually think we’re sick; we know it because our diseased bodies are screaming at us in a way we haven’t been taught to ignore, unlike the many ways we have been taught to ignore our screaming consciences and wounded souls. And so, what do so many ministers do? Without the support of their congregations they change with the times and become chaplains for whatever silly things people believe at any given moment. They become quacks telling their patients that God is love but leaving out the part about Him being a consuming fire. It’s the equivalent of telling the desperate to walk through a cemetery to cure their warts. It’s all lies and ash and death, but it’s what our fallen hearts want, and so very many preachers and politicians and advertising agencies are ready and willing to provide it.
Which brings us finally to St. John the Baptizer. What does the greatest man born of woman want? He wants the Day of the Lord; he wants judgment. Sitting in a prison cell because he dared to tell the truth, St. John doesn’t need a pep talk or a moving worship experience or a new toy; no, he needs supernatural action; he needs the God of heaven and earth, time and space to save him from both the chains of Rome and the chains of his own doubts and fears. He calls out to his cousin, “Come and save me; judge this land, judge me; bring your kingdom, break down these prison walls; free me from the enemy’s clutches.” And what does Jesus tell him, what does God tell him, he says, “…the blind receive their sight, and the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed and the deaf hear, the dead are raised up, and the poor have the gospel preached to them…blessed is he, who shall not be offended in me” (St. Matthew 11:4-6). Is that answer John wanted to hear? Is that the answer you want to hear? We should, for Jesus tells his cousin that the prophecies of Isaiah are coming true, but even more than that, Jesus reveals the very evidence of the Kingdom of God: the real power of the true God being displayed in the world He created—the healing of the consequences of a broken humanity (blindness, leprosy, death) all of these unnatural burdens of our enslaved race being lifted off the backs of real people as a real-life coming attraction for the new world God chose Isaiah to proclaim until his countrymen murdered him for telling the truth. When Jesus tells St. John all of this, John too is about to be murdered for telling the truth; he too is about to join the long list of men and women who revealed their faith and trust in God by dying in His name. Our solemn Advent prayer should be, “Please God, judge me too. Allow me the honor of dying to this fallen world in your name. Let me know your love by trusting only in you.” Because if this prayer is ours, if we defiantly include ourselves with Isaiah and St. John the Baptizer, St. Peter and St. Paul, if we place ourselves under the judgment of God rather than cowering in fear over the mad judgment of humanity or the cruel judgment of our own hearts, if we are united with the suffering, cross shaped witness of the church triumphant then we can rest assured in those blessed words of the prophet: “Be strong; fear not! Behold, your God will come with vengeance, with the recompense of God. He will come and save you” (Isaiah 35:4). Our Savior, our king, our judge is returning with vengeance: with a sword to wet with the blood of tyrants and rapists, murders and adulterers, liars and gossipers, the hateful and ungenerous. That judgment will be the victory of good over evil and the forever end of sin and death.
In this season of Advent, let us prepare for His return; let us fully devote ourselves to the Messiah who has earned the right to carry the sword of judgment by taking the judgment we deserved upon Him. Be strong; fear not; trust in God and nothing else, and He will deliver us.