We Believe in the God who Judges
"The sin which God considers the greatest sin of all, the one He condones or tolerates less than any other, is the sin of His people not acknowledging His Day of Judgment" (Klug, II, 368), so said Luther. Postmodern people don't acknowledge a Judgment Day. For them there is no universal standard to judge by and no one able to be the judge. "What's going to be the standard they mock, "Your Bible, the Koran, the Gita, or the Book of Mormon? And who's going to be the judge your Jesus or their Allah, Buddha, or Vishnu?"
Postmodern people don't believe in a divine judgment, and they live their lives accordingly. That doesn't mean they're necessarily openly wicked, base, or immoral. No they're likely to be happily married, productive citizens, lovers of country and the environment. They will probably be more civic-minded than you, and since they're so open minded they will be more easygoing then you. Hey gay marriage isn't their thing, but who are they to judge? They're personally Pro-Life but who are they to judge the Pro-Choice crowd? How narrow-minded, small hearted, and dumb I feel over against such largess, such magnanimity, such bonhomie.
Before I address that let me move on to a quote from C.F.W. Walther, the first president of our Synod. The year is 1849; there is a cholera epidemic in St. Louis. This bacterial infection of the small intestine is a nasty way to be sick and a horrible way to die. Here's how Walther began a sermon addressing the epidemic, "We greatly err, dear friends, if we think that we have encountered the judgments of God in our time because we happen to be living in such a time and in the midst of a godless and apostate generation" (Words of Grace, 161).
I can't tell you how many people I've heard espouse this error in the past few years. They're not postmodern people. They believe in the God who judges, and they see we are living in a godless and apostate generation. They see America embracing and defending the destruction of life and marriage. They see where worshipping at the altar of greed has gotten us, and they are certain they see divine judgment here and now. 9/11 was the lightening bolt that started the whole thing burning. And depending on their politics and how closely they follow news, war in Iraq, illegal immigration, the run up in gas prices, the failing of the economy or the last election are evidence that God is no longer shedding grace but judgment on America.
I want to caution you; the answer to feeling so small-minded, hardhearted, and uncharitable to your fellow man is not to revel in the fact that God judges. Remember Jonah outside the gates of Nineveh angry that God wasn't going to bring deserved judgment down upon it? Remember James and John wanting to call the fire of judgment down upon the Samaritans who rejected Jesus? Remember what Jesus was doing when He cataloged the reasons that Jerusalem deserved judgment ? Remember what Paul said in the face of his fellow Jews being judged for rejecting the Gospel?
The Lord called Jonah to repent of being angry that judgment wasn't going to fall on the Nineveh even though that city had done much harm to God's people. The Lord told fire-breathing James and John they were not of the same Spirit He was. The Lord cataloging the murderous rejection of His Gospel by Jerusalem is called "Jesus weeping over Jerusalem." And Paul says about the loss of his fellow Jews, "I could wish that I myself were accursed and cut off from Christ for the sake of my brothers." Paul doesn't delight in seeing sinners in the hands of an angry God getting what they deserve.
Here's a story Luther liked to tell that will change your perspective on judgment but not in the way you first think. Shortly before he died, a hermit stood sad and motionless for 3 days, with his eyes fixed on heaven. When he was asked why he was doing this, he replied that he was afraid of death. His pupils tried to comfort him by saying that he had no reason to be afraid of death, since he had lived a very holy life. He responded, "I have indeed lived a holy life and observed the Commandments of God, but the judgments of God are quite different from those of men'" (AE, 26, 149).
Ah hah! You first conclude. The judgments of God are different than that of men in this way: men don't think judgment can or will happen, but God thinks and does otherwise. No, the judgments of God are different than those of men in this way: God judged that one Man was guilty so that He might have mercy upon all men. God's judgment does indeed fall but first and foremost where does it? Paul, in Romans 3, says God "in His divine forbearance" had passed over former sins until God put forward Christ Jesus as an atoning sacrifice by His blood. That's what's going in our text.
First note that the highest Jewish court "was looking for evidence against Jesus so that they could put Him to death but they did not find any." I dare say that if not a human court surely the divine court could find evidence to put everyone of us to death and that eternally. But no evidence was found to put Jesus to death. This is going to continue into next week. There Pilate 6 times will declare Jesus "not guilty" and King Herod will agree. And the litany of innocence will be chanted right up till Jesus dies. From Pilate's wife, to the thief on the cross, to the centurion standing watch all are going to judge that Jesus is righteous. Jesus doesn't deserve what He's getting.
But what about the part we read tonight which said of the Jewish highest court, "They all condemned Him as worthy of death?" Gottcha! What did they judge Jesus guilty of? Of blasphemy for saying He was the Christ, the Son of the blessed One. But He wasn't guilty of blasphemy, was He? Jesus really is the Christ, the Son of the blessed One. So, they turned Jesus over to the Romans to kill Him for something He wasn't guilty of.
The judgments of God are very different from that of men. Although men judged Jesus innocent of anything worthy of death and could only find Him guilty in their unbelief, God judged Jesus worthy of death and this can only be found by you in faith.
Both things are important; the innocence of Jesus has to be established lest He be judged guilty for His own sins, own crimes. His innocence being established, we are to know He goes to the cross, He suffers and dies for the sins of others. Although you and I are guilty, God judges His only Son guilty. Although you and I merit the slapping, the spitting, and the beating, God judges His Son should get them all. Here is the judgment of God that is so very different from that of men. Men judge that the guilty should be punished and the innocent go free. Even postmodern people think there are some people who are guilty; only a few will maintain that the likes of Hitler or Bundy or Stalin aren't guilty. And all agree that it is the guilty that are to be punished.
But like the woman taken in adultery, we guilty people are let go. Jesus says, "Where are those who judge you? Neither do I judge you?" Jesus can do that because He bought and paid for our sins. He took our sin, took our guilt, took our punishment, and since we confess that judgment belongs to Jesus, when Jesus judges us not guilty, free of condemnation, we are.
What will we do with this largess, this magnanimity, this bonhomie that flows to us out of the wounds of Jesus? If, over against the postmodernist who wrongly deny divine judgment, we champion judgment, we relish it, we revel in it, we are in danger of being Judases not Peters. This is a constant danger to men and women like us: conservative. In legal terms we believe in the rule of law. In theological terms we believe in the Lutheran Confessions. In December a conservative, confessional, faithful person like us, and a pastor too, went the way of Judas not Peter. He took his own life.
How can this be? Didn't this man know and teach the grace of God in Christ? Didn't this pastor weekly forgive sins and communicate to people the Body and Blood of Jesus for the forgiveness of all their sins? Then how could he go the way of Judas? Because he judged the grace, forgiveness, and the Body and Blood of Jesus were for someone else, not him. No, to him belonged judgment. He believed in the God who judges and who more than him deserved judging?
This is a Biblical, confessional truth. With Paul we should conclude we are chief of sinners; with the tax collector in the Temple we should conclude that we alone are the sinner. With Elijah we must judge that we too are worthy of death. And all of hell, all of despair, and all our conscience will agree. But the judgments of God are very different from that of men, devils, despair and conscience.
God almighty judged Jesus worthy of your suffering and death, and Jesus endured it. Delight not in judging anyone not even yourself; delight that the judgments of God are first and foremost against His only beloved Son. Delight not that your Lord Jesus will return one day to judge the quick and the dead; delight that He came the first time to suffer your judgment, so you might not have to at His hand and certainly not at your own.
Have you noticed that in Luther's explanation to the 2nd Article he doesn't deal directly with the phrase "He will come to judge the quick and the dead?" And in the Large Catechism Luther only says this, "Finally, at the Last Day, He will completely divide and separate us from the wicked world, the devil, death, sin, and such."
Do you see? The emphasis is not on all those who sin with impunity or deny divine judgment finally getting their "come-upins." If you live gently with that spirit, you're in danger of being devoured by it. No the doctrine that Jesus will return to judge is one of hope; it confesses that though it is hard for us to separate ourselves from the devil, the world, and our sins, it is not hard for Jesus. We look forward to Judgment Day not because others will finally get what is coming to them but because in Jesus we will. Amen.
Rev. Paul R. Harris
Trinity Lutheran Church, Austin, Texas
Midweek III (20090311); 2nd Article, Passion Reading III