Beloved, while you are waiting for these things, strive to be found by him at peace, without spot or blemish. 2 Peter 3:14
We began these Advent reflections last week as I wondered what it would be like to come to Christmas this year with a soul well-prepared to celebrate Jesus' birth, and I tried to point out how Christian tradition provides a different, seemingly indirect way of preparing by waiting through Advent. Though Advent's themes will come closer to Bethlehem as its days wind down, until those final days before Christmas, we are encouraged to consider themes quite different from those that normally come to mind with images of the nativity. If we go with the culture's calendar and consider ourselves to already be in the Christmas season rather than waiting for it, we probably won't give much thought during this time to the importance of topics like waiting, longing, Christ's return, resurrection, or new creation. If we have already mentally put the baby in the manger, we're certainly also unlikely to ponder today's topic, which the Advent scriptures point us toward repeatedly: judgment.
On the other hand, if we practice the patience of waiting through Advent and listen attentively to the scriptures through these weeks, the topic of judgment won't be far from our minds. We are warned to be on guard so that our hearts aren't weighed down with immorality or the worries of this life. We are reminded to live our lives as if we are workers caring for our master's things while he is away, always being mindful that he could return at any moment. If we notice any ways that our lives have become out of line, we're urged to heed John the Baptist's call to repent and prepare the way for our King's return, so that when he comes our lives would be like trees producing the kind of fruit expected of them.
Be ready. Keep awake. Stay alert. Live honorably. Salvation is near. Be blameless.
Yet I suspect that if most of us were to write the things we longingly wait for in life, God's judgment would appear on very few lists. One reason for that could be that we're legitimately unprepared for it, like the student who dreads taking a spelling test because they chose to watch a movie instead of study their words. If that's the case, you can do something about it, which is why we began last week by discussing practical ways that we can wait on God now.
For most of us, however, our lack of longing for God's judgment comes from a misunderstanding of it. With the subject being our lives rather than spelling words, we may all feel like that unprepared student, and the stakes here are higher than a grade on a spelling quiz. Since the scriptures insist that we will be judged and should therefore live readily for it, it matters immensely how we think about the one who will be judging us.
Here again, I think we've been overly influenced by popular images of the end times. They present us with a Clint Eastwood-esque picture of God's judgment: He's the sheriff who's been away for some time before riding back into town with infinitely loaded pistols firing from each hand, annihilating anyone who's caused any trouble in his absence (and scaring the wits out of anyone else who he sees fit to leave standing). It's pretty difficult to reconcile that image of God with the loving Father of Jesus, and–like the grandfather pointing to a mushroom cloud discussed on Monday–it's hard to sincerely think of that as the hope for which we wait during Advent.
Among the many biblical metaphors for our relationship with God, one of the most common is that of a loving Father with his children, and I think we can better understand God's judgment in that context. God is a loving parent who is resolutely working against the things that destroy his beloved children, and when Christ returns, that work––already achieved in Jesus' life, death, and resurrection––will be brought to final and full completion.
The scripture's insistence that there will be a judgment assures us that God is not like the overindulgent parent, described well by James Bryan Smith:
This god is like permissive parents who let their kids drink and do drugs and have sex without guilt. When we were young, we thought they were cool, but they weren't; they were lazy and did not really love their kids....These may be the kinds of parents you think you want when you are fifteen, but you really don't.
I don't want a god who says, "It's cool. Don't sweat it...." This god does not love me. Being soft on sin is not loving, because sin destroys. I want a God who hates anything that hurts me. Hate is a strong word, but a good one. Because the true God not only hates what destroys me (sin and alienation) but also has taken steps to destroy my destroyer, I love him.(1)
When Christ returns, as the Apostles' Creed states, "he will come to judge the living and the dead." This is great news, because it means that the victory over sin that he won on the cross–by taking the judgment against sin upon himself–will be completed. Everything that destroys us will finally and fully be dealt with––both the kinds of things that are outside of us which we lament in the news each day, and the ones that run right through our own hearts––everything will be made right when he comes as judge.
Of course part of that judgment will mean that those who refuse to allow God to be God will be granted their wish and finally be able to live free of him, with the kinds of consequences that we would expect whenever a proud child refuses the guidance of a knowledgable and loving parent. As C.S. Lewis has described so masterfully in The Great Divorce, no one is dragged to heaven or hell kicking and screaming. Rather, God will simply allow us to have that which we have chosen.
Along with God's people through the centuries, I have chosen to be his. There are parts of my world, and parts of me, that need to be set right. Therefore, trusting God as my loving Father, and knowing myself to be his beloved child, I eagerly await that day "when he shall come again in power and great triumph to judge the world, [when we will] without shame or fear rejoice to behold his appearing."(2)
Judgment is how God will finally deal with the sin that destroys us. Tomorrow we turn our attention to what will happen because God has dealt with our our other great destroyer, death: we will be resurrected.
A Prayer for the Day:
Lord God, almighty and everlasting Father, you have brought us in safety to this new day: Preserve us with your mighty power, that we may not fall into sin, nor be overcome by adversity; and in all we do, direct us to the fulfilling of your purpose; through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.*
A Prayer for the Week:
Merciful God, who sent your messengers the prophets to preach repentance and prepare the way for our salvation: Give us grace to heed their warnings and forsake our sins, that we may greet with joy the coming of Jesus Christ our Redeemer; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.*
Readings for the Week*:
*Prayers are from The Book of Common Prayer and readings are from the Revised Common Lectionary. (1) James Bryan Smith, The Good and Beautiful God: Falling in Love with the God Jesus Knows (Downers Grove, Ill: InterVarsity Press, 2009), 124-125. (2) "Preface to Advent" from The Book of Common Prayer.