“Judgment Day!” Don’t these words sound ominous? Perhaps suggesting the end is near, they create in us the urge to get our affairs in order, just in case. If Hollywood is any guide, judgment can take many forms. You might remember that the 1938 Orson Welles radio broadcast of The War of the Worlds caused a nationwide panic as people pondered their fate in the face of a Martian attack. Maybe you remember the 1980s TV miniseries entitled The Day After, which may not have caused a panic, but did reinforce our fear of nuclear annihilation during the height of the Cold War. Then there are the movies and miniseries about earthquakes, volcanoes, asteroids, climate change, and even a Mayan calendar, all themes that are suggestive of divine judgment. And if that’s not enough, when a war breaks out or a major disaster hits, the TV preachers announce that this is a sign of divine judgment. Yes, a certain amount of anxiety over our impending doom seems to continually ripple through our world – whether the cause is of divine or human origin.
When it comes to the issue of divine judgment, there are plenty of biblical texts to ponder. There are texts that speak of divine wrath, judgment, punishment, atonement and more. For those of us who affirm the principle that God is love, this can be a bit disconcerting. Even if we affirm that God is also a just God, all of these texts that deal with wrath and judgment can be a bit overwhelming. So what should we make of these words about judgment and justice?
In our text this morning, which is drawn once again from the Sermon on the Mount, we hear two different, but related words. The first speaks to the importance of discernment. Even if we’re not supposed to take up the job of being a judge over others, we must discern between good and evil, light and darkness. The second word speaks to divine judgment. This is a task that we dare not take up, for we’re not equipped to handle the job. But, Jesus seems to believe that we need to be aware of the judgment of God, and the basis upon which God makes this judgment.
1. The Fruit and the Trees
Although it might not be appropriate for us to be judges – unless we are without sin – that doesn’t mean we should be naive about the world in which we live. There is a place for discernment in the Christian life. As they say, don’t believe everything you hear (or read in an email). For instance, if someone from Nigeria sends you an email asking for you to send a $100 check in exchange for a million dollars, you might want to be just a bit skeptical. And if you get an email from a bank – especially if it’s not your bank, asking for your personal ID, you might want to hit the delete button. And if someone sends you an email suggesting the President was born in Kenya or Indonesia, you would be wise to ignore it as well.
As Jesus reminds us, we live in a world where vicious wolves like to dress up as sheep. Therefore, as he says in another place – “be as wise as serpents and as innocent as doves” (Matt. 10:16). In other words, don’t let yourself be taken for a fool.
The good news is that we can discern the difference between sheep and wolves, false prophets and prophets of God. Jesus says – look at the fruit of their lives. After all, good trees don’t produce bad fruit. So, don’t expect to find grapes growing on thorn bushes and thistles that produce figs. These are weeds that are destined for the fires.
When it comes to discerning the good fruit from the bad, we might want to use the Beatitudes as a guide – think of the kinds of people who grieve, are humble, merciful, peacemakers, and more. We might also look to Paul’s description of the fruit of the flesh and the fruit of the Spirit. On one hand there’s the flesh or our selfish desire, which lead to hate, violence, immorality, jealousy and drunkenness. On the other there is the fruit of the Spirit: love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, and self-control. Against these signs of the kingdom, Paul says, there is no law (Gal. 5:16-26). If we attend to these qualities of life, then we’ll know the difference between light and darkness, good and evil.
2. Divine Judgment
Even if we’re called to be discerning but not judges, God does have the job of being the judge. Scripture has a lot to say about judgment, though as we learned last week, we can trust in the judgment of God because of God’s character. We start with the premise that God is love and that God is good.
As we consider this word from the Sermon on the Mount, we hear Jesus say that on that day – judgment day – not everyone who says “Lord, Lord” will enter the kingdom. It doesn’t matter whether you’re a prophet or a preacher or that you cast out demons in the name of Jesus – if you don’t obey the will of the Father, then on the day of judgment you’ll hear the words: “I never knew you: Go away from me you evil-doers.”
The basis of this judgment isn’t revealed in this passage, but we can turn to Matthew 25 to find out more about divine judgment. In that passage, we hear Jesus speak of God dividing sheep from goats based on how they treated the least of Jesus’s brothers and sisters. Did they feed the hungry, welcome the stranger, clothe the naked, or visit those who are sick and in prison? It’s on this basis that Jesus decides who enters the realm of God and who experiences punishment. We may not like this word, but it’s there for us to wrestle with.
When it comes to the matter of divine judgment, the Scriptures often focus on social structures and relationships. Even when the focus is on sexual immorality, it seems quite evident that the issue is one of exploitation of the other. Sometimes we dwell on the idea of punishment, but that’s not the point of divine judgment, which is focused first and foremost on reconciliation. Rather than focus on satisfying God’s honor, the focus is on setting things right, what some call restorative justice. Consider this word that Jeremiah gives to the son of Josiah:
He (Josiah) judged the cause of the poor and the needy; then it was well. Is not this to know me? Says the Lord. But in your eyes and heart are only your dishonest gain, for shedding innocent blood, and for practicing oppression and violence. (Jer. 22:16-17).
According to Jeremiah, King Josiah understood that his primary role as king was to protect the weak, the poor, and the marginalized, but the son of Josiah ruled through oppression and violence, something God would not bless.
If the ultimate purpose of divine judgment, is focused on setting things right and reconciliation, then our call as Disciples to be “a movement of wholeness in a fragmented world,” fits this calling very well. We may not be judges, but we can participate in God’s work of healing and reconciliation, an effort that extends beyond this world to the cosmos itself. As theologian Jürgen Moltman puts it, God is concerned about the “universal reconciliation of human beings and the bringing again of all things into the new eternal creation.” This is because, as Moltmann puts it: “otherwise, God would not be God.” [Jurgen Moltmann, The Sun of Righteousness Arise! (Fortress, 2010), p. 141] Since God is intent on reconciling all things to God’s self, we needn’t fear the day of judgment. Even if we don’t know how or when all of this will happen, we can live in the hope that God will reconcile all things to God’s self. But not only that, but we get to participate in this act of God by being Christ’s ambassadors of reconciliation. Our primary calling in life is to bear witness to the world in our words and deeds that God is present in our midst working out our salvation, which is what it means to be reconciled (2 Cor. 5).
None of this is easy. This path is full of twists and turns, which is why we’ll be tempted to either take the easy way or simply give up. If we wish to participate in this work of God in the world, then we must keep focused on Jesus. That’s because he knows the way and is willing to reveal it to us – that is if we’re willing to discern the will and purpose of God.
The biblical picture of judgment day might not be as dramatic as the typical Hollywood production, but it’s a reminder that God is committed to making things right. So, when judgment day does come, if we’re paying attention, then we can join with all of the creation in praising God, shouting out:
Say among the nations, ‘The Lord is king!
The world is firmly established; it shall never be moved.
He will judge the peoples with equity.’
Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice;
let the sea roar, and all that fills it;
let the field exult, and everything in it.
Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy
before the Lord; for he is coming,
for he is coming to judge the earth.
He will judge the world with righteousness,
and the peoples with his truth. (Psalm 96:1-13)