Looking Forward to Judgment

Is 11.1-10/Mt. 3.1-12

In the Name of God: Creator, Redeemer and Sanctifier. Amen.

Orange is the New Black is a book about a woman’s prison in Connecticut. A Netflix series was later based on the book, which tells a true story of a thirty-something middle-class woman from an affluent New England family.

In 1998, the author, Piper Kerman was living a normal life when she suddenly was arrested. Charges had been brought against a West African drug lord and it turned out that, some years previously, Kerman had rather unwittingly carried drugs and laundered money for the man.

Despite having led an honest life since, she was sentenced to 15 months in a women’s prison in Connecticut. The book recounts her experiences there; the title refers to the orange suit that inmates must wear.

As you can imagine, Kerman didn’t have a happy time in prison. She was harassed, embarrassed, and uncomfortable.

Adding to her misery was consciousness of the sheer waste of money and lives in prison. Large amounts of tax dollars are spent to keep criminals confined, apart from society – only to return them back to their old lives in pretty much the same condition they were in when they went to prison.

This points to the perennial problem: what is the purpose of prison? Is it to make people suffer for their crimes, or prepare them for a productive life?

Criminologists have long debated whether society should lock people up to punish them or to reform them. The author of Orange is the New Black claims that our culture has gone so far in the direction of punishment that prisons now hardly bother to reform. Inmates who spend years and years of their lives in prison end up going back to the same crimes they committed before. Their years in prison merely paid the penalty for the court’s judgment against them.

As it happens, judgment is one of the themes of this season of Advent. The Scripture readings on the Sundays before Christmas often refer to John the Baptist, for example, and John often reminded his listeners of what he called, “the wrath to come.” (That would be “the wrath of God”.)

In today’s Second Lesson, he warns some religious leaders that they shouldn’t be so confident that they have the great virtues that they think they have. He says, “Even now the ax is lying at the root of the trees; every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit is cut down and thrown into the fire.”

The Baptist explains that the judgment to come will arrive with the Messiah. “I baptize you with water for repentance,” John says, “but one who is more powerful than I is coming after me. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and fire.”

The Messiah’s fire will punish those who don’t contribute to God’s Kingdom. The Messiah’s “winnowing fork”, says John, “is in his hand, and he will clear his threshing floor and will gather his wheat into the granary; but the chaff he will burn with unquenchable fire.”

The Messiah will bring the final, comprehensive judgment of God. Sinners won’t be able to escape this punishment, which will be swift and harsh: “every tree therefore that does not bear good fruit (will be) cut down and thrown into the fire.”

In other words, not a happy picture! To people outside the Church, judgment is one of the least attractive features of Christianity. If all the Messiah brings is punishment, then those unreligious folks won’t rush to embrace the Messiah’s cause.

But Christ doesn’t bring judgment because God enjoys punishing people. Judgment has a purpose.

We see that purpose in the First Lesson we heard today. There, the Prophet Isaiah gives his view of what will happen after the Messiah arrives and the world comes under his governance. At that time, Isaiah says, judgment will be administered: “he shall strike the earth with the rod of his mouth, and with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.”

But, after God has entered the human realm, the world will become a much better place. “The wolf shall live with the lamb,” Isaiah writes, “the cow and the bear shall graze, their young shall lie down together; and the lion shall eat straw like the ox.”

This passage reminds us that judgment has a purpose: to establish justice. God doesn’t evaluate our actions in order to make us miserable. God judges in order to establish a harmonious world–to make us feel at peace with others and with ourselves.

Notice that while people might complain about there being too much judgment in religion, they aren’t upset by judgment in other areas of life. They aren’t upset by events like the conviction of Bernard Madoff. That’s because the court verdict in Madoff’s case had a positive effect: it removed a scoundrel from Wall Street, and it made possible some restitution of money to people who had fallen for his deceptive investment schemes.

In other words, the court’s judgment led to justice. And this link of judgment with justice is also important for us as we apply God’s standards to our own lives.

But when we do this, it may be useful to think less about John the Baptist and unquenchable fire and more about Isaiah and the wolf lying down with the lamb.

Think of God’s judgment as bringing you to a peaceable kingdom. Think of it as reconciling you with the things you hate–maybe even reconciling you to yourself.

Of course, God’s judgment may only be complete in the next world. But that’s OK – it gives us a reason that I look forward to Heaven.

I expect that Heaven will include a period when we get rid of the things in ourselves that we need to lose. In my case, I expect that it will include a time of purgatory, to make me ready for the perfections of eternal life.

But even if life after death includes judgment, it won’t be like prison. It won’t be suffering and confinement and boredom.

Rather it will bring us freedom from injustice and discord, and bring the joys of God’s Kingdom.

And now unto God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Spirit be ascribed as is most justly due all might, majesty, power, dominion, and praise, now and forever. Amen.


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