Sermon 03-09-14: “The Coming Judgment”

March 18, 2014

practically_perfect

There is something within us that demands that justice be done. We live in a world, however, in which justice can never be done fully or perfectly. And sometimes when we try to do justice ourselves, we make things worse.

The good news is that God promises that justice will be done—on Judgment Day. But if God judges the world, that means he judges us as well. Is that still good news? Yes! And this sermon explains why.

Sermon Text: James 2:8-13

The following is my original sermon manuscript with footnotes.

Some of you watch the PBS show Downton Abbey, about a family of aristocrats and their servants living in 1920s England. One of the story lines this past season revolved around one of the servants named Anna—a “ladies maid” who is one of the most kindhearted, sympathetic characters on the show. This season she was raped by another servant who was visiting the house. It’s difficult enough today for women to come forward and seek the justice of the courts when this happens today; it was much more difficult back then. So going to the police isn’t really an option.

At first, Anna tries to keep it a secret from her husband, Mr. Bates, because she was confident that if he found out, he would definitely take the law into his own hands and murder the man who did it. And then he would be imprisoned and hanged—and what good would that do for anyone? Eventually, Mr. Bates does find out most of the truth, except Anna lies and tells him that a stranger did it—someone she had never seen before who broke into the house. Again, if Mr. Bates knew who really did it, he would hunt him down and kill him.

So, one of the suspenseful elements of the story this season was watching Mr. Bates piece it together, solve the mystery, slowly and surely figure out the full truth about who did it. What’s he going to do?

Since in the past I’ve been accused by my own family of giving away the endings of movies in sermon illustrations, I won’t reveal what happens to either the rapist or Mr. Bates. What I will say is this: the writers wrote the story in such a way that they had even Christian pastors like me rooting for Mr. Bates, hoping that he would avenge this terrible crime against his wife, Anna. I don’t think I’m the only one who felt that way, either.

We want justice to be done in this world. It angers us to see people who perpetrate evil get off scot-free.

One of my favorite recent movies was Zero Dark Thirty, about the decade-long search for Osama bin Laden in the wake of 9/11. I happened to see the movie with a pastor, a Christian counselor, a Christian writer, and a theologian. I don’t think I’m not giving away the ending of that movie by saying that in the end, we got bin Laden! So we were exiting the theater—all of us people who make our livings being Christians—and my colleagues were saying things, “Oh, that was dark and ambiguous. I’m not sure what to make of that.” And I’m like, “Guys, what are you talking about? I was rooting for the U.S. to get bin Laden, and they got him. That’s a happy ending as far as I’m concerned!”

And they’re like, “Yes, but a couple of women in the house were shot by Navy SEALs when they went in to get bin Laden.” And I’m like, “Yes, but if you don’t want to be shot by Navy SEALs, here’s a piece of advice: Don’t hang out with a murdering terrorist mastermind like Osama bin Laden! There are consequences to being best friends with Osama bin Laden!”

There’s nothing wrong with wanting justice to be done. In fact there’s everything right with wanting justice to be done! The sad reality is that we live in a world in which justice will never be done perfectly or completely. And oftentimes justice isn’t done at all.

If justice is going to be done in our world—finally, completely, perfectly—then that means that there better be a Judge to carry it out, which means there had better be judgment. Fortunately, there is. In our traditional service every week, we say the Apostles’ Creed that Christ will come again “to judge the quick and the dead.” One pastor said that when he was a kid he thought that the “quick” referred to people who were trying to run away quickly from Christ’s judgment, but of course “quick” is just an old-fashioned word for living—Christ will judge the living and the dead.

Let’s face facts: Christianity runs into trouble in our popular culture over the idea of Final Judgment, the idea that God punishes the wicked, the idea that there will be a final accounting for our sins, and the idea that God will send some people to hell.

Indeed, just this past week, there was a bogus news story that went round social media that reported the Pope Francis had come out saying that the Church had been wrong for 2,000 years and that hell wasn’t literally true—that it was strictly a literary device, a figure of speech, that God wouldn’t really punish people in that way. I knew immediately that it was a hoax, but, oh my goodness… when I read the comments on Facebook, underneath links to the story, there was this collective sigh of relief: “Finally,” people were saying, “maybe Christians will stop being so judgmental.” One commenter said, “Now, maybe Christians will stop taking the Bible so literally. After all, the Old Testament teaches that it’s O.K. to kill 98 percent of the world’s population.” What? I’m like, “What Bible are you reading?” I had to refrain from commenting because “What’s the point?” I’m just another one of those “judgmental Christians.”

Ugh!

I think that when many secular people—and not a few Christians—say they don’t believe in a God who judges us or punishes sin, they don’t really know what they’re saying. One contemporary theologian named Miroslave Volf certainly agrees with me. He’s a professor at Yale now, but he lived through the atrocities of the civil war in the former Yugoslavia in the early ’90s. He says the idea that God doesn’t judge and punish sin could “only be birthed in the quiet of a suburban home.” He asks us to imagine telling people in a war zone that God doesn’t judge and punish sin. He writes: “Among your listeners are people whose cities and villages have been first plundered, then burned and leveled to the ground, whose daughters and sisters have been raped, whose fathers and brothers have had their throats slit.” He continues, “In a scorched land, soaked in the blood of the innocent, [the idea that God doesn’t judge and punish sin] will invariably die.”[1]

If we don’t think God judges us and punishes sin, he says, it’s only because we’ve lived comfortable and safe lives, mostly free from violence and suffering.

And I think that’s partly true, but I believe it overlooks perhaps the most important reason why we struggle to believe that God judges and punishes sin: Because if there’s a Judgment Day, that means that God judges us.

When we moved to the area, I wanted to join a gym, so I asked around. And I promise that at least two people in Hampton told me to join 24/7 Fitness down the street because you don’t feel like anyone’s judging you when you go to work out there. And I’m like, “I don’t want to be judged… I mean, I can only bench-press 250. I don’t want to be judged by people who can bench 300.” No, I’m kidding. But we don’t want to be judged!

Especially for our sins! And James makes clear in today’s scripture that we will be judged! And it doesn’t sound good for us! It sounds a little frightening, in fact!

Remember in last week’s scripture, James was talking about members of the church showing favoritism toward the wealthy who came to church dressed in fine clothes and sparkling jewelry. Ushers would give them the best seats in the house. Meanwhile if you were poor and shabbily dressed, you’d be asked to stand in the back or sit on the floor.

James warns his readers that by doing that, you’re breaking God’s law, the part of the law, in fact, that Jesus tells us is most important: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” By doing so, we’re convicted as transgressors, who, by failing to keep one part of the Law, have really failed to keep all of it. God’s Law is like your car windshield: if you break just one part of it, it’s not a little broken; the glass smith can’t come out and fix one part of it; the whole windshield is broken and needs to be replaced.

As I’ve been talking about, we’re going to be judged, James says. And his reference to judgment is the same Final Judgment that Jesus talks about in the parable of the Sheep and the Goats in Matthew 25, that Paul refers to in 1 Corinthians 3:12-15 and 2 Corinthians 5:10, that Peter mentions in 1 Peter 1:17.

And James says, “Judgment is without mercy to one who has shown no mercy.”

Why do you suppose James is talking about “mercy” here? Because, by mistreating these poor people, some of James’s readers had forgotten who they are: They were acting like the rich deserved to be treated extra special and the poor deserved to be mistreated. James is saying, in so many words, if you think you should be treated on the basis of what you deserve, you’re in trouble! It’s as if you’ve forgotten what the gospel of Jesus Christ is all about! You’ve forgotten the basis on which you were accepted by God, forgiven by God, redeemed by God! It wasn’t because you were somebody special or important. It wasn’t because you were highly esteemed by the world. It wasn’t because you had anything to show for yourself. It was because of God’s grace alone! It was because of God’s mercy alone! And nothing else! It’s a good thing that mercy triumphs over judgment, because otherwise you would be toast!

James wants to remind us how it is that you and I are saved. Because God himself came into the world in Jesus Christ and accepted for himself God’s judgement against our sin. He suffered the penalty of death and hell that our sins deserved. “God made him who had no sin to be sin for us, so that in him we might become the righteousness of God.”[2] It’s only on the basis of Christ’s righteousness, not our own, that we can be saved. It’s only by mercy, only by grace, that all of this is possible.

If we understand all this, then that ought to change the way we look at our fellow sinners, right? Someone said this about evangelism: “Evangelism is one beggar telling another beggar where to find bread.” When you get right down to it, we’re all just beggars—even those of us who have already said “yes” to God’s gift of salvation, we’re still sinners in continual need of God’s amazing grace. We have no room to feel superior to anyone else. Since God has shown us only mercy, how could we not be merciful to others?

James is warning us that if we fail to understand this—if we fail to be merciful toward others—then it’s possible that we’ve misunderstood how merciful God has been toward us, which is another way of saying that we’ve failed to understand the gospel of Jesus Christ entirely. And if we’ve failed to understand that, then, well… maybe we haven’t yet accepted God’s gift of saving grace; maybe we’re not truly Christians; maybe we should have reason to fear God’s judgment!

I don’t think that applies to most people James was writing to, and I don’t think it applies to most of us here today. For most of us, we don’t have to be afraid of God’s judgment. Our Lord doesn’t want us to be afraid. He wants us instead to be happy and joyful and confident of our salvation.

See, in James’s context, he was facing the problem of Christians in his church who had forgotten how merciful God had been toward them, and this was affecting the way they treated others. But brothers and sisters, there’s a different but related problem we face in our own context: We forget how merciful God has been toward us, and it affects the way we treat ourselves!

For example, I have counseled so many Christians over the years who worry about whether or not they’re saved. Sure, at one point—perhaps when they made a profession of faith, or during their confirmation or baptism—they knew God loved them and were saved. But that was a long time ago—a lot of water under the bridge since then. They’ve sinned a lot since then. And they feel guilty, they feel like garbage, and they worry: “How could the Lord really ever forgive me?”

And I say to them, “Well, how could the Lord forgive the thief on the cross, who was crucified next to him?” We call him a “thief,” but the truth is, he was likely an insurrectionist against Rome who had committed terrorism and murder—who had broken most of the Ten Commandments multiple times. Yet by acknowledging his sin and placing his faith in Jesus, our Lord says to him, “Truly, I say to you, today you will be with me in Paradise.” What did this man do to earn his salvation, to pay anyone back for the sins he had committed. He couldn’t do anything at all, except trust in Jesus. And that was enough! Jesus did the rest!

If you’re worried that you’ve lost your salvation because of what you’ve done, let me ask you: on what basis do you think you saved in the first place? It wasn’t because of anything you did! It was because of what Christ did for you! Trust in him!

James reminds us of Jesus’ Great Commandment: “Love your neighbor as yourself.” Let me share with you a startling realization that Donald Miller, author of Blue like Jazz, had about this verse. It happened when he was cleaning his toilet—of all things. An internal voice was telling him—as it had for years—what a loser he was, how worthless he was, that he was as disgusting as this bathroom that he was cleaning.

Speaking personally, I know very well that same voice. And I suspect many of you do, as well.

Anyway, as he was listening to that voice in his head tell him these things, this Bible verse popped into his head: “Love your neighbor as you love yourself.” He didn’t know what it meant at first. Then he realized something: it was God telling him that he would never talk to his neighbor the way he talked to himself—because the way he talked to himself wasn’t loving; it wasn’t gracious; it wasn’t merciful. “[S]omehow I had come to believe it was wrong to kick other people around but it was okay to do it to myself.”[3]

Brothers and sisters, if we believe what James is telling us in today’s scripture, if we believe in a God of mercy and grace, then it is no more right to mistreat ourselves than it is to mistreat others. So let’s please, by the power of the Holy Spirit, cut it out!

Jesus loves you—more than anyone else loves you; more than anyone could possibly love you. He died for you to prove that love. He died for you to ensure that you wouldn’t be lost eternally but would live with him eternally. Yes, you’re a sinner, by all means. But give him a chance. He wants to heal you of that sin; he wants you to be whole. And so he’s given us his very Spirit to work in our hearts to change us. Will you let him? Will you trust him?


[1] Miroslav Volf, Exclusion & Embrace (Nashville: Abingdon, 1996), 304.

[2] 2 Corinthians 5:21 NIV

[3] Donald Miller, Blue like Jazz (Nashville: Thomas Nelson, 2003), 229-231.

2 Responses to “Sermon 03-09-14: “The Coming Judgment””

  1. Tom Harkins Says:

    I agree that there has to be a judgment for the universe to be just. Therefore, since God is just, there will be a Judgment Day. I also agree that we must ourselves be willing to show mercy towards those who sin against us in this life if we expect to be shown mercy by God when he judges us. In other words, one of the things God will take into account when he judges you and me is whether we were merciful or not. And one reason for that is, we recognize God is showing us much more mercy than we could ever show somebody else. So, I am very largely in agreement.

    I also agree that we should be merciful to our own selves also. I think that is a good insight. My only caveat, if any (and I think you probably already agree with this, from earlier comments), is that we have to “temper” our “mercy” to ourselves with a recognition of the “horror” of our sins. Just as we may be “merciful” to the murderer of our children, we still recognize that he is a murderer. And we are a ___ (fill in the blank). We are forgiven as saints; but, we have done something that we need forgiveness for! (In fact, it is appropriate that this discussion involves James, because as I recall he later says to weep and howl for our sins.) So, the judgment that we will receive (“Be not deceived, God is not mocked, for whatsoever a man sows, that shall he also reap.”) is one that will go better for us if we both show mercy to others and repentance to God. And, the most blessed part, since our names are written in the Lamb’s Book of Life, is that our ultimate destination once Judgment is completed is Heaven. Heaven with more rewards or less rewards based on what I just said, but Heaven nevertheless.


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