FACING THE JUDGMENT SEAT
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2 Corinthians 5: 6-10
If judgment day, or the judgment seat were an onion, we would have to peel back many layers to get to the parts the Bible describes. In literature, for example, people mix the biblical idea of hell with words in Dante’s Divine Comedy, particularly the part in the long chapter called The Inferno. It describes Dante’s journey through Hell, guided by Virgil, the ancient poet. And Hell, Dante says, is nine concentric circles of torment located in the Earth. It is the classic place of torment, and to be judged as being not fit for heaven would mean a long journey into that torment. That’s not the Bible; that’s Dante. When we turn to Fyodor Dostoevsky’s last novel The Brothers Karamozov, we find what has been called a “theological drama dealing with problems of faith, doubt, and reason in modernizing Russia.” In the middle of Book Five: Pro and Contra, we find the most famous part of the novel, known as The Grand Inquisitor, when Ivan narrates to brother Alyosha his poem about an encounter between a Roman Catholic Cardinal during the Spanish Inquisition and Jesus, who had been made to return to earth in this imagined tale. The Grand Inquisitor, who ordered Jesus’ arrest one night, visits him in prison. He questions if Jesus should have denied Satan in the wilderness of temptation, considering how he might have changed the world by accepting the bread, the fame, and the power from Satan. It’s a fascinating section of a book that has been read over and over. But it’s not the Bible. In classic film, a song normally sung as a warning is turned on its head as a joyful musical, sung by Judy Garland in the film “Summer Stock.” To a lilting melody, surrounded by tuxedoed men, with Bob Fosse-like choreography, she sings “Forget your troubles, come on get happy, you’d better chase all your cares away. Shout ‘Alleluia!’ come on, get happy, get ready for the judgment day! The sun is shining, come on get happy, the Lord is waiting to take your hand. Shout ‘Alleluia!’ come on get happy, we’re going to the promised land! We’re heading across the river, wash your sins away in the tide, it’s all so peaceful, on the other side!” Goodness! The words are Bible-like but the music was Hollywood! And then we get to some of the great spirituals about meeting God, or meeting Christ, spirituals like “In That Great Getting’ Up Mornin.’” Old hymns that have fallen out of use include music by George B. Holsinger and words by Laura E. Newell. This is the first verse of “Are You Ready for the Judgment?” “Are you ready for the judgment, it is coming by and by, when the trumpet sound shall call you to the bar of God on high, and the hour no mortal knoweth, e’en the angels may not know. Are you ready for the judgment? You shall reap what’er you sow.” Or how about the second verse of the hymn Kendra is playing for the offertory today? It was written by Thomas Kelly: “Heaven and earth that stood so long, showing forth His glory, now are, though they seemed so strong, like a finished story. Caused to cease by Him whose power gave them first a being; Lo! They perish from this hour, ‘Tis the Lord’s decreeing.” So clearly, we have layers of things to pull back, even beliefs from other writers that have gotten baked into our beliefs. Today we turn first to the book of Exodus, then to the gospels and finally we turn to Paul’s letters.
In Exodus, God instructed Moses to build an ark, not the kind in which Noah sailed, but instead the box that would hold that tablets of the 10 Commandments. The size was described in Exodus, and thanks to the carpentry skills of one of our own church members, a depiction of the ark is before you today. The golden lid was called the kapporet, which means “mercy seat,” and it is always adorned with two seraphim angels. Although there was plenty of judgment in the Old Testament—particularly if an anointed King did what was described as evil in the sight of the Lord—the overwhelming arc (arc, not ark) of God’s actions were carried out in steadfast love (depicted with the Hebrew word hesed,) and with mercy, as the prophet Micah described in chapter 6, verse 8: “What does the Lord require but to do justice, show mercy, and walk humbly with your God?” The arc of God’s action bends toward mercy, not toward damnation. There are a few frightful cases, like Lot’s wife turning around to see a city of sin being destroyed, and she was said to have been turned into a pillar of salt. So God is truthful, God is just, and God, I believe, has eyes that flash at the sound of lies. But for those who are truly seeking to live out God’s 10 Commandments, and for those who seek to follow Jesus as Savior, as healer, and as his Father’s emissary, we learn that Jesus, growing up learning Torah, would have clearly known about the mercy seat. Our Savior, as he judges as the King of kings in heaven, would have the heart of his Father, and his father’s teachings. But Jesus had at least one parable that described him sitting in the Judgment Seat. Look especially at Matthew 25: Jesus said, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, then he will sit on his glorious throne. Before him will be gathered all the nations, and he will separate them one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats. And he will place the sheep at his right hand and the goats on his left.” He ends with menacing words to those who fail to care for others: “They will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life.” This is sobering news indeed. It seems confusing that goats are put in the eternal punishment category since shepherds actually cared for them many times too. Goat’s milk is still desirable, and they take less care than sheep. In fact, goats are a primary gift to Heifer Project Families. But maybe the real difference is that sheep need a good shepherd, and the goats don’t. Paul’s understanding becomes clear as we compare another of his letters with this one. In 2 Corinthians 5 he wrote: “For all of us must appear before the judgement seat of Christ, so that each may receive recompense, (an accounting) for what has been done.” In his letter to the Romans in 14:10-12- “We will all stand before the judgment seat of God… Each of us will be accountable to God.” And Romans chapter 2 describes in detail how we are judged by our deeds: Verse 6: “For he will repay according to each one’s deeds: to those who by patiently doing good seek for glory and honor and immortality, he will give eternal life; while for those who are self-seeking and who obey not the truth but wickedness, there will be wrath and fury.” God still hopes the children of the world will care for others; and Jesus expects his disciples to meet others and tell them about Jesus. He has always been about others; about loving neighbors. That’s where Paul comes in with his words to the Corinthians. There is a day of decision. We as individual Christians, or through our church work, are called to remember Matthew 25: If people are hungry, we are called to give food; if they are thirsty, to give water as we are able; if they are strangers, to welcome them; if they need clothes, to lead them to clothes; if people are sick, to contact them (sometimes in person, sometimes over a phone or tablet.) And if someone is in prison, whether an actual prison or an emotional one, we seek to visit them. I once had a fraternity brother in prison in Germany. It was not practical due to distance and prison rules for me to visit him. But I wrote to him, and he wrote me back. That, I think, is the mercy part of Christ’s judgment: connecting with others. Jesus likely judges apathy quite harshly. But I imagine Jesus rewards those who are carrying out his work. Jesus may harshly judge those who ignore or flaunt the commandments. But I imagine Jesus rewards those building bridges to other people. I suspect it is easy for Jesus to determine which people are play-acting their Christianity. Jesus rewards those who are earnest and sincere in their heart. And it is easy to spot evil in the world; evil has no place in heaven. Jesus will be rewarding those whose lives offer redemptive and encouraging actions toward others. Paul was telling the Corinthians—many of whom were not thoroughly versed in Christ—to live differently, not the way other Gentiles lives. And how did Paul teach them to live when they had never actually met Christ? How should we live even though we have not physically met Christ?
Simply, Paul said, “We walk by faith, and not by sight.”
Everyone dies. And everyone will have a day of judgment. How do you think it will go for you?
Let us pray: Lord, we hope that our belief in you, and our actions in the world that we do for you, will make you pleased to welcome us into heaven when that time comes. Encourage us along the way and nudge us back onto the right path when we need it. Thank you; we trust you. Amen.
Jeffrey A Sumner June 13, 2021