The Fork and The Fire

Week of Monday, December 10, 2001

Second Sunday in Advent (2001)

Lectionary Readings
Isaiah 11:1–10
Romans 15:4–13
Matthew 3:1–12
Psalm 72

When you read, write or preach your way through the Bible using assigned readings from a lectionary, you are in for some surprises. The verse divisions sometimes seem odd, and the four texts rarely cohere along a single theme. But there are advantages, too. If you stick with it, your Bible reading will be comprehensive instead of selective. You can't tip toe through the Bible by gravitating to favorite passages. Nor can you dodge unpleasant topics when the lectionary pencils them into the lineup.

If there is any theme in the Christian narrative repugnant to our modern culture, it is the idea of God's judgment. Even well-meaning believers avoid the topic. Sometimes this is for good reasons, but our reluctance is often an indicator of how much we have trivialized God and cut Him down to a manageable size. The Harvard theologian H. Richard Niebuhr argued that liberal Christianity had domesticated the divine in his unforgettable summary: “A God without wrath brought man without sin into a kingdom without judgment through the ministration of a Christ without a cross.” But evangelicals are just as responsible; just take a look at Christian magazines and their advertisements, watch a typical Christian television show, or pick up Donald McCullough's fine little book The Trivialization of God.

Three of the four lectionary readings this week speak of divine judgment. Isaiah 11:4 says that some day God will bring fairness and righteousness to the poor and afflicted by “slaying the wicked.” Psalm 72 describes people of violence and oppression who prey on children, the needy, and “him who has no helper.” God will rescue these people, says the Psalmist, bringing them vindication, deliverance and compassion. He will “crush (their) oppressor.” Then there is John the Baptist. Wandering in the desert, clad in animal skins, and eating insects, he was a lonely voice in the wilderness who preached repentance (Matthew 3:1–12). Then, when his preaching attracted the religiously righteous Pharisees and Sadducees, he castigated them as a bunch of snakes. His own baptism was nothing but water; following Jesus meant a baptism of fire, a winnowing at the hands of a Thresher who takes a pitchfork and separates his wheat for the barn and the leftover chaff for the fire.

The Christian cannot avoid speaking about judgment; but what can we say?

First, we should dismiss popular caricatures of a capricious, arbitrary, and even sadistic God. We know that God is good and no person will be treated unfairly. In Scripture God's judgments are entirely predictable and always preceded by warnings. Who could be surprised that a loving God will vindicate the helpless who has been crushed by a violent oppressor, or that He will judge those who “grind the face of the poor” (Isaiah 3:15)? Nor do we need to say more than the Scriptures by conjuring up lurid details of torture reminiscent of medieval days. When depicting judgment, the Biblical authors grope for metaphors to describe the indescribable. Judgment is burning fire or outer darkness, Gehenna (the Valley of Hinnom, southwest of Jerusalem), Sheol or Hades.

Thinking about God's judgment is also a sure cure for our tendency to trivialize Him. Writer and poet Annie Dillard puts it this way in her work Teaching a Stone to Talk:

Does anyone have the foggiest idea of what sort of power we so blithely invoke? Or, as I suspect, does no one believe a word of it? The churches are children playing on the floor with their chemistry sets, mixing up a batch of TNT to kill a Sunday morning. It is madness to wear ladies' straw hats and velvet hats to church; we should all be wearing crash helmets! Ushers should issue life preservers and signal flares; they should lash us to our pews! For the sleeping God may awake someday and take offense, or the waking God may draw us to where we can never return.
Similarly, CS Lewis reminded us with his character Aslan that God is good but He is not safe. Knowing His judgment, we live “in tranquility and trembling” (Dillard).

Oddly enough, divine judgment also serves us as a consolation. It reminds us that evil, injustice, violence and oppression will not go unrequited. Which is more difficult to swallow: a human history, so soaked with innocent blood, in which the scales of justice are never balanced and evil triumphs? Or a counter cultural notion of God, deeply rooted in both the Old and New Testament, that after one dies all wrongs will be righted?

At its best, future judgment reminds us of our own mortality, which in turn should spur us on to live differently today. George Harrison died last week at the age of 58. His body was placed in a cardboard coffin, cremated, then his ashes were spread in the Ganges. A longtime devotee of the Hare Krishna movement, I was struck by some wise words attributed to him:

When you have had all the experiences, met all the famous people, made some money, toured the world and got all the acclaim, you still think—is that it? Some people might be satisfied with that, but I wasn't.
To some people Harrison's lyrics came across as preachy (cf. “My Sweet Lord”). I rather think that he understood that living wisely in the present is predicated upon understanding our future eternity, including divine judgment.

Finally, a salutary reminder. Judgment belongs to God not to us. Recall how Jesus rebuked James and John who wanted to call down fire on the unbelieving Samaritans (Luke 9:51–55). No doubt He he feels the same about us when we take aim at our own pet list of “sinners.” Furthermore, divine judgment begins with God's people (1 Peter 4:16–18), so that when we think of judgment, we should think not of Hitler, Pol Pot or Idi Amin; we should look in the mirror and think about ourselves. But we should do so remembering that judgment is not God's last word. He takes no pleasure in the death of the wicked, for it is His supreme desire that we turn and live so that “mercy triumphs over justice” (Ezekiel 33:10–12; James 2:13).

The Journey with Jesus: Notes to Myself Copyright ©2001 by Dan Clendenin. All Rights Reserved.