St Stephenís

Advent 1 Year B

1st December 2002


Justice, or Judgement?


During the season of Advent the Church tells us to think about the Four Last Things Ė Judgement, Death, Hell and Heaven. Todayís subject is Judgement.

But first of all a word about the word Last in the phrase Last Things. In Christian language last always implies that something has been fulfilled or completed, as opposed to simply having come to a halt.

Think of a book, say a novel. On the last page you will often see the words THE END. It means that the author has finished his story. He will have rounded it off in such a way as to leave his readers with a sense of satisfaction is such a way that, even if everyone doesnít "live happily ever after" at least the story itself has progressed to a conclusion. Now imagine that the last fifty page of the book have been torn out. The end of that book will still be the final piece of paper; but everyone who reads it will feel cheated. "I want to know how it all ends up!" they complain.

So when we talk of Judgement as one of the Four Last Things weíre not just saying that itís something that happens at the end of the world, but something which is a vital to making everything that has gone before add up properly, in the here-and-now. Godís judgement is one part of what God means when he says "Behold I make all things new".

Itís not just a matter of God ending one story and starting all over again with an entirely different one, but of his deciding what, and who, is and is not suitable to be incorporated into his Heavenly City, the New Jerusalem "which comes down from Heaven prepared as a Bride adorned for her husband". So far from starting all over again, which would mean that everything that has happened so far, including all his work on this earth would have been a completely wasted, the Judgement of God brings everything that he has done so far to its perfect conclusion in Himself.

People often talk about Justice these days, but seldom about Judgement. Thatís because they have been encouraged to think of life only in terms of what they call their "Rights". They talk about "my rights" in the same way they talk about "my car" or "my house" or "my mobile" Ė something which belongs to me, but can never become an actual part of myself.

Godís judgement of us, on the other hand, really is part of us. When you and I judge a person to be nice or nasty, clever of stupid, honest or dishonest, we are saying something about him. So, too, when God judges you and me, he will not be considering how many cars, houses or mobile phones we own; he will be concerned with how far we have fallen short of the perfection for which he created us and designed us.

Now we can begin to see why people prefer to think about justice, rather than judgement. Itís a comfortable thought that justice gives us a right to the things weíd like to have, whether itís a rise in pay, or promotion or our neighbourís wife. What is far less comfortable is to consider what God designed us to be, and how far we have fallen, and continue to fall, short of it. "All have sinned and come short of the glory of God", says St Paul Ė and thatís what judgement is about.

If weíre always thinking about justice and rights and never about judgement then we inevitably end up trampling upon someone elseís rights. And what would be the justice in that? Remember that Gospel Parable of the Unmerciful Debtor which we heard two or three months back? When that servant who had been forgiven the repayment of his enormous debt to the king (who undoubtedly had the right to demand it) insisted upon getting his rights in the case of a fellow servant who owed him a comparatively trivial sum he got full judgement swiftly executed upon him. He was judged in the end not for his debt but for his lack of mercy and charity.

And yet which of us in the end, if weíre honest, doesnít long for Godís judgement and his approval? There is something about Godís judgement which sets the record straight between us and God. Who would want to put his faith in a God who said to us "Iím not really interested in what you are; Iím not interested in what youíve done; just come on in and have a good time ícos I really think youíre quite a nice sort of fellow?"

Such a God would be a living denial of everything he has revealed himself to be. Instead of being a God who is perfect and demands perfection of his creatures, he would be a God who has all our failings magnified a million times over. Weak-willed, wilfully blind to our shortcomings, our imaginary God would have been created in our own image.

So how are Godís judgement and justice to be reconciled? Well, the simple answer is "through the Cross of our Lord Jesus Christ". We believe that on Calvary, God incarnate paid the price of our debts to enable them to be forgiven us. But such forgiveness has to be accepted by us as well as offered by him: and unless we, in our turn, are willing to lay aside the justice which we believe is due to us from our fellow-men, there isnít the slightest chance that God in his turn will lay aside the debt we owe to him, let alone receive his approval. We must mean what we say every Sunday, "Forgive us our trespasses as we forgive those who trespass against us", because if we donít then there is nothing which stands between us and Godís awful judgement.

So next time you find yourself saying "I want my rights" just pause for a moment and think, "do I really want God to give me what I truly deserve?; or do I, on the contrary want his free gift of forgiveness by which gift alone we can be justified and made acceptable in his sight and reconciled with him?"

If thatís what we really want let us listen carefully to what Jesus said. "When you approach the altar of God with your offering", Jesus said, "if you remember something which estranges you from your brother, leave your gift where it is and first go and be reconciled with your brother about any rights real or imaginary which you have against each other; then and only then offer your gift to God at the altar"

If we follow that advice then we no longer need fear Godís judgement, since he is that selfsame God who "in Christ was reconciling the world to himself".

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