By Anna Matthews
“He will come again in glory to judge both the quick and the dead,” we sing in the Creed. And then what? Do we forget about it for another week? Stave off thinking about judgment until it can no longer be avoided? Vow to amend our lives in the light of Christ’s coming as Savior and Judge? Pass uncomfortably over it until we reach the safer territory of the Holy Ghost, the Lord and giver of life?
Amid all the tinsel, the Christmas music, the seasonal jumpers and mulled wine, there is in Advent an insistent note of judgment that cuts through the schmaltz, that stills the jingling bells so we can hear with greater clarity the summons to repent.
Today we hear this summons on the lips of John the Baptist. In the gospel reading, this strange, wild figure of the wilderness, his body sculpted by austerity and his words fierce as the desert winds, proclaims repentance because of the coming of the Messiah. There is urgency in his proclamation: time is not infinite. Do not put off for tomorrow the repentance required today. Get your lives in order in the light of the judgment that is coming upon the world.
It’s a stark picture he paints of the coming Messiah: “Every tree that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.” A time of judgment is coming. So how will you fare? Will you be found to have lived a life that bears good fruit, or not? Where will the axe fall in your life? What might the coming judgement reveal about you?
If this makes you squirm a bit, you’re not alone. But notice that this is a message that draws the crowds to John. He’s not dismissed as a madman or a religious fanatic; they go out to hear his words and they respond. John’s message of the coming judgment is good news.
As it is in the words of the prophet Isaiah. To a people defeated and humiliated, without land or temple or king, he promises that with righteousness God shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth. Judgment is bound up with God’s justice. If we dismiss the one, we give up on the other. And because God’s attributes don’t compete with one another, his judgment is also an aspect of his love.
For God wants us to be his. This is why he created us; it’s why he sent his Son to die and rise again for us. God made us for relationship with him. This is what’s behind Israel’s call to be holy; it’s what prompts John’s call to repentance; it’s what we see preached, enacted, and lived in the ministry, death, and resurrection of Jesus. God wants to bring us to where he is.
But our sin keeps us from him. We are estranged from the relationship for which we are made. And one of the reasons we find talk of judgment uncomfortable, I think, is because deep down we know that there are parts of our lives that are broken or sinful or cut off, however much we might put on a good face in public. We are aware of the resentment we can’t or won’t let go of; the hurt that has been done to us or that we have done; the myriad ways both small and large that we are selfish and stubborn and proud. Judgment is hard because it asks us to be truthful, and to face up to all that.
But — and this is an important but — judgment flows from a God who loves us. This is not about us cowering before an exacting judge tracing his finger down the ledger of our lives, weighing in the balance whether our good deeds outweigh our bad. The one who is our judge is also our advocate.
And he has already pronounced sentence. God’s judgment comes upon the world in the person of Jesus Christ, and on the cross Jesus reveals God’s judgment, and it is a yes to all that he has made humanity to be. He will not leave us bound in sin and held captive by death. This judgment opens up the way to fullness of life with God, to sharing in his life with all those who have been joined to Christ.
To live in the light of this judgment is to live in response to an overflowing love that draws us ever more fully into the life of God. It is to live with the confidence that God has said yes to humanity in Jesus Christ, and that his judgment is against all that holds us back from this.
Judgment, then, is not panicking about whether our lives match up to the divine standard. They don’t, at least, not without the sacrifice of Christ and the grace of the Holy Spirit. Judgment is about seeing ourselves in the light of God’s love and goodness and holiness.
This light, which we prepare for this Advent season, is a light that shows up what remains in the shadows; what lies hidden; what remains unredeemed. But because it does this, this light is also an invitation into wholeness, into healing, into repentance and amendment of life. God loves us too much to leave us in our sin.
This is what we see over and over again in the way Jesus relates to people in the gospels. At no point does he just leave people in their sin, and tell them it doesn’t matter. He judges, but his judgment is not about writing people off but giving them life. So often we keep our sins hidden because we fear condemnation. In the company of Jesus, people discover that they can bear the truth, that it sets them free.
And this is why judgment is good news. It frees us to live for God; to discover our identity as his beloved children. Judgment is the promise that our identity lies not in the worst things we have done, or that have happened to us, but in the justice and love and holiness of God.
Sometimes the experience of God’s judgement will be a gentle cleansing, a careful and painstaking restoration of Christ’s image in us. Sometimes it will feel like those parts of our lives which are chaff are being consumed in the fire of his love. Always it will be a process of redemption: of God drawing us to him and making us his. For all of us need his judgement: we need freeing from those things that still ensnare us, or control us, or diminish us; we need healing of those bits of us that are broken; we need forgiving of those parts of us that are set against God.
So this is an invitation for the rest of Advent: to love the light, to let it in, and to find in Christ’s judgment how fiercely, and how kindly, God loves you.