Posts tagged judgement
Once again, we get some incredibly horrific imagery from John. Blood and death and birds eating flesh. These are hardly the things that most people think of when they think of reading the Bible. And yet, there they are – God’s wrath poured out on those who oppose him with the punishment being carried out by Jesus, in a great moment of revenge against those who tormented him while he walked the earth.
God is balancing the equation. All of the injustice that we see every day in our world is being stored up and stored up and eventually, God will make it right. It sounds terrifying and yet, in our gut, it’s kind of what we want to see happen. We want to see wrongs made right and wickedness punished. We just don’t want it to happen to us.
That’s the crux of it, isn’t it? When we read Revelation, we try to figure out which camp we are in. Will we be led astray by the beast? Are we “good enough” to avoid the wrath of God? The reality, of course, is that no, we aren’t good enough. However, we are covered.
We are covered by the blood that Jesus shed on our behalf. We are covered by the torment that he went through so that we wouldn’t have to go through it. We are covered by the fact that he already balanced the equation for us. He already made our wrongs right.
For those of us who put our faith in Jesus, this should be a great comfort. It should also be an enormous wake-up call. No matter how you slice it, if the scales of justice are going to be balanced, somebody has to pay. We have one who has offered to pay for all of it. Our job is to make others aware of that offer. It’s a good one. It’s an easy sell. We just have to go out and do it.
Remember yesterday when I said that I wasn’t sure if Paul would have ever made it to Rome had he not been sent there as a prisoner? Look at these words written to the Roman followers of Jesus at some date prior to Paul’s visit:
I pray that now at last by God’s will the way may be opened for me to come to you.
I long to see you so that I may impart to you some spiritual gift to make you strong— that is, that you and I may be mutually encouraged by each other’s faith. I do not want you to be unaware, brothers and sisters, that I planned many times to come to you (but have been prevented from doing so until now) in order that I might have a harvest among you, just as I have had among the other Gentiles. (Romans 1:10b-13)
When I read those words, I have to wonder about Paul’s appeal to Caesar that we read about in Acts. Knowing Paul’s desire to finally make it to Rome, is it possible that he saw in his trial the opportunity to finally meet the people of the Roman church and to preach to the Jews and Gentiles there? Is it possible that his appeal to Caesar was not just an effort to have himself freed (which, it was indicated, could have happened without his appeal) but was somewhat of a ruse to get the Roman government to unknowingly fund his mission?
Let’s face it, Paul was a sharp guy and I certainly wouldn’t put it past him to devise a clever plot like that to fulfill his desire to visit Rome. Whatever the case, it is obvious that Paul had a strong urge to see people in Rome come to know Jesus. He wrote this letter several years before his trip there. And in these opening paragraphs, he seeks to do what we will see him do in much of his writing. He seeks to level the playing field between Jews and Gentiles.
At that time, Jews thought of themselves as superior – dozens of generations of people being told that they were “God’s chosen ones” had worked to great affect. The Gentiles, then, were second-class citizens, especially in the Church. Paul would spend much of his time in ministry dispelling that notion.
Here, we see him begin to level that ground by reminding Roman Jews of their own sin. In fact, he tells them that because they operate under the law, their sin is sometimes more egregious than the Gentiles who do not operate under Jewish law. Moreover, he essentially tells them that they are getting in the way of the expansion of the Kingdom of God among the Gentiles:
…you, then, who teach others, do you not teach yourself? You who preach against stealing, do you steal? You who say that people should not commit adultery, do you commit adultery? You who abhor idols, do you rob temples? You who boast in the law, do you dishonor God by breaking the law? As it is written: “God’s name is blasphemed among the Gentiles because of you.” (Romans 2:21-24)
Ouch! Not a great way to make friends, Paul. Of course, Paul was way more concerned with making disciples of Jesus than he was with making friends and he understood that the Jews – even Jews who were following Jesus – would have to come down off their pedestals in order for more Gentiles to find Jesus.
The same is true for the Church today. Many of Paul’s accusations still ring true. I often say (and I probably heard someone else say it before me) that the Church is it’s own worst enemy. If not for Christians, more people might follow Jesus. Does that sound harsh? What if I word it as Paul did? God’s name is being blasphemed among the unchurched because of you. Is that better?
Here’s the reality: “All have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God” and we continue to sin and fall short daily. If we pretend that we don’t have those failures or if we pass judgement on others who have, perhaps, different failures than us, but failures nonetheless, then we do damage to ourselves, those people and to God’s church. And if we pass that judgement in the name of Jesus, as many Christians like to do, the we are blaspheming God’s name among the unchurched – an offense even more egregious than the ones being committed by the person we are judging.
Here we see Paul at his best – using his knowledge of Roman law, Jewish law, multiple languages, cultural differences and the profound favor and charisma he had been granted in order to change people’s minds or at least soften their positions. In fact, Paul seemed to have a way with just about everybody except the Jewish religious leaders.
It’s interesting to me how some of the most powerful men in the region – men like Felix – would listen to Paul. After all, these were men who had as much to lose as the religious leaders did. If Paul was right, they would have to completely change the way they governed. Just look at Felix’s reaction to Paul’s words:
As Paul talked about righteousness, self-control and the judgment to come, Felix was afraid and said, “That’s enough for now! You may leave. When I find it convenient, I will send for you.” (Acts 24:25)
He was afraid! Why was he afraid? Because if what Paul was saying – if there was a coming judgement for those who lacked righteousness and self-control, then Felix was in trouble. And Felix was hoping against hope that Paul was wrong, or, even more, that Paul was just blowing smoke.
The verses which follow reveal that Felix was hoping Paul would offer him a bribe. Not only would that have lined Felix’s pockets, but it would have also been an indicator that Paul was insincere – someone whose words didn’t really need to be taken seriously. If Paul gave him a bribe, then Felix would have considered himself off the hook.
But there was no bribe. There was no getting off the hook. For Felix, he would spend the rest of his days in office (and perhaps the rest of his life) haunted by Paul’s words, but too weak to change the way he worked. In fact, he was so weak that even in leaving office, he couldn’t stand up against the Jews. He left Paul in prison not because he thought he was guilty of anything, but because doing so would have angered a group of Jewish leaders.
Righteousness and self-control, it seems, are elusive traits in a politician.
The book of Micah is a really great piece of literature – of rhetoric. Yes, it’s the word of God, but it reads like a masterful speech. Just look at these lines:
Do not gloat over me, my enemy!
Though I have fallen, I will rise.
Though I sit in darkness,
the Lord will be my light. (Micah 7:8)
When I read those words, I just hear them in the voice of a great preacher like Martin Luther King, Jr. These are words of triumph in the midst of a pretty grim prophecy. Once again, the Bible proves to be a source of hope for God’s people.
This is part of the reason why it’s so important to read Scripture in context. Pull one verse out of Micah and you might end up with some weird theology. Like this:
Do not trust a neighbor;
put no confidence in a friend.
Even with the woman who lies in your embrace
guard the words of your lips. (Micah 6:5)
That, of course, is advice given to a very specific group of people for a very specific time. But when you read the entire book – the full prophecy of Micah – it is one which highlights just how bad things are now (with verses like the one above), just how bad they are going to be in the near future due to God’s punishment, but then just how incredible the distant future will be.
If you’re reading the Bible looking for hope, there is hope to be found…if you just keep reading.
It’s safe to say that Amos didn’t come as the bearer of good news for anybody. He starts off with a laundry list of nations, God’s charge against them and the punishment the would receive. And just about the time that the people of Israel were starting to say, “Yeah, punish those evil enemies of ours,” God unleashes on his “chosen” people.
In fact, the majority of Amos’ prophecy is centered around the sins of Israel. In a stinging rebuke of his people, God lets forth steaming rhetoric:
“I hate, I despise your religious festivals;
your assemblies are a stench to me.
Even though you bring me burnt offerings and grain offerings,
I will not accept them.
Though you bring choice fellowship offerings,
I will have no regard for them.
Away with the noise of your songs!
I will not listen to the music of your harps.
But let justice roll on like a river,
righteousness like a never-failing stream! (Amos 5:21-24)
All at once, God is dismissive of his people but embraces and champions justice and righteousness – the values that he has always stood for. He is basically saying, “Forget you. I’m going to do this my way…with or without your help.” God is not impressed by the religious ways of Israel.
It’s telling to me that God juxtaposes all of the religious acts of the people of Israel – the festivals, assemblies, offerings and songs – against their acts of disregard for the poor and oppressed:
For I know how many are your offenses
and how great your sins.
There are those who oppress the innocent and take bribes
and deprive the poor of justice in the courts. (Amos 5:12)
They say that actions speak louder than words. But, in this case, some actions speak louder than others. How we treat our fellow human beings is of much greater importance to God than how we observe religious feasts. God used ritual as a way for people to pass on his story and his plan from generation to generation. But somehow, those rituals got twisted and eventually, the ritual took precedent over God, who instituted the ritual in the first place.
The same happens today. We turn church programs into sacred cows. We argue over the color of the carpet. We complain if the communion trays aren’t prepared properly. God, meanwhile, is looking at how we treat the poor and innocent – day in and day out. That is his criteria for us. That is his perspective. And, quite frankly, that is his right.