4th Sunday in Lent — 26 March 2006
Trinity, Iowa City — 8:45 a.m.
RCL: [Num 21:4-9] Ps 107:1-3,17-22 Eph 2:1-10 John 3:14-21
And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.
There are certain classic forms for that important literary genre, the joke. For instance, there are the jokes that begin, “A guy walks into a bar…” Or sometimes it’s a panda that walks into the bar. Or maybe René Descartes.
Another classic form is the one that begins, “A man dies and goes to heaven, and St. Peter (or Jesus, or God) meets him at the pearly gates and says to him, ‘What have you done that entitles you to be admitted here?’” (Have I told you the one about the Baptist preacher and his wife, and the Lutheran pastor and his wife, and the Episcopal priest and his wife, who were all killed in an automobile accident together, and appeared at the pearly gates…?)
Well, anyway, this classic joke form depend upon a widely shared and commonly understood scenario of what our final judgment will be like. And in this scenario we appear before the divine tribunal, and our file is pulled and scrutinized, and all the wrong things we have done and right things we have failed to do are added up, and God says, “Hmmmm,” and depending on the tone of that “Hmmmm” we either get in or we don’t, we are either saved or damned. It’s a model rather like a human courtroom. Except that in a human courtroom we presumably have a defense attorney and can plead extenuating circumstances or something like that. But in our image of the last judgment — possibly influenced directly or indirectly by Michelangelo —we are guilty until proven innocent, the charges are inscrutable, and the sentence unappealable. It’s actually less like a court of law and more like an IRS audit.
Well, I don’t think the image of judgment in the Gospel is like that at all. St. John’s Gospel actually says quite a lot about judgment, and takes it very seriously, and so should we. I think it’s a real mistake to make a modernist sentimentalist assumption that God is a real weenie when it comes to judgment. But judgment is not the imposition upon us of a sentence by someone else (even by God) —where the issue might arise in our minds as to whether we were being dealt with fairly, where we might claim, “Yes, but, you don’t really understand!” On the contrary, judgment is the utterly clear, utterly transparent, utterly truthful disclosure and revelation of who we really are, what we have really made of ourselves. It really isn’t a matter of balancing our sins against what good we have done — in any case we are not saved by the good deeds we have done. What we have done matters, but it matters because what we do is what makes us who we are.
And so the Gospel today:
“For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life. Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him. Those who believe in him are not condemned; but those who do not believe are condemned already, because they have not believed in the name of the only Son of God. And this is the judgment, that the light has come into the world, and people loved darkness rather than light because their deeds were evil.”
This is the judgment: face to face with the source and ground of the being of all that is, and seeing that That One is by very nature totally self-giving Love, who indeed so loves us that he came among us as one of us and shared our condition to its bitterest dregs in order to raise us to his condition in its utter glory — face to face with That Love, have we become persons who go to be embraced by That Love, or have we become persons who withdraw into our own sorry selves? (This is what “believing in the name of the only Son of God” is about — not subscribing to doctrinal propositions about Jesus, however important those may be in their place, but turning to the embracing arms of the Divine Love.) In the presence of the Light of the World, do we rejoice in that Light’s illumination, or do we flee to hide in the shadows? This is the judgment.
An image of judgment that I find appealing, in the genre of the “a man dies and goes to heaven” joke form (yes, I suppose I’m in danger of being judgmental myself here, except that I really don’t claim to know the outcome to this scenario and I really do believe in the power of God’s grace): Fred Phelps dies and goes to heaven (you remember ol’ Fred; he’s the preacher from Topeka who organizes his family and congregation to picket the funerals of people who die of AIDS, among other things. They picketed us here at Trinity a couple of years ago). So Fred appears before the pearly gates, and Jesus comes out to meet him, together with young Matthew Shepard. And Jesus says, “Fred! Welcome, brother! Come on in!” And Fred has to decide whether to go in. Or maybe Fred has already decided whether to go in. But I hope he still has one last chance to change his mind.
We are already being judged, by who we are becoming. And who we are becoming is a function of what we do. So the Lenten call to repentance (indeed, the call to repentance in every season) is critically important: we really do need to look at ourselves, be honest about what we have done and what we are doing, and understand who we are becoming. In some respects, at least, we’re going to realize that “this isn’t who I want to be!” So we had better do something about that, and turn around (which is what “repent” means) and become people who “do what is true” and therefore who in the judgment will “come to the light.”
© 2006 William S. J. Moorhead