Advent 2020 – December 11
December 10, 2020
A Good Word About Judgment
(Rev. Dr. Christopher Schelin is Dean of Students, Director of Contextual Education, Assistant Professor of Practical and Political Theologies at Starr King School for Ministry, Oakland, CA)
Habakkuk 3:2-6 (NRSV)
Lord, I have heard of your fame;
I stand in awe of your deeds, Lord.
Repeat them in our day,
in our time make them known;
in wrath remember mercy.
3 God came from Teman,
the Holy One from Mount Paran.
His glory covered the heavens
and his praise filled the earth.
4 His splendor was like the sunrise;
rays flashed from his hand,
where his power was hidden.
5 Plague went before him;
pestilence followed his steps.
6 He stood, and shook the earth;
he looked, and made the nations tremble.
The ancient mountains crumbled
and the age-old hills collapsed—
but he marches on forever.
Philippians 3:12-16 (NRSV)
12 Not that I have already obtained this or have already reached the goal; but I press on to make it my own, because Christ Jesus has made me his own. 13 Beloved, I do not consider that I have made it my own; but this one thing I do: forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what lies ahead, 14 I press on toward the goal for the prize of the heavenly call of God in Christ Jesus. 15 Let those of us then who are mature be of the same mind; and if you think differently about anything, this too God will reveal to you. 16 Only let us hold fast to what we have attained.
Today’s Old Testament reading comes from a stretch of scriptural “flyover country.” It is true that the Minor Prophets are not entirely unfamiliar to the average Christian. Everybody knows the story of Jonah, of course. Amos 5:24 and Micah 6:8 are touchstone verses for justice-centered believers. But I cannot recall whether I’ve ever heard a sermon based on, say, Nahum. And Habakkuk? Maybe one time.
From what he has written, we surmise that Habakkuk’s ministry took place around the end of the 7th century BCE. Habakkuk peers warily at the emerging Babylonian Empire that threatens to swallow up the tiny Kingdom of Judah. Equally troubled by violence and injustice at home, he cries out to the Rock of Israel for help: “How long, O LORD?” (1:2) The ensuing dialogue with the Almighty culminates in a prayer that takes the form of a visionary remembrance of the Exodus story. In our selected verses, Habakkuk portrays God striding forth from the rugged wilderness of Sinai to bring deliverance to the Hebrews. It is a dramatic – indeed, terrifying – image of divine power, for this liberating God shakes mountains into dust with every step. It is also quite jarring, especially in the middle of a deadly pandemic, to read about the biological weapons God wields: “Before him went pestilence, and plague followed close behind” (3:5). But for Habakkuk, this portrait of a fierce God brings solace. Long ago, Egypt the superpower met its match when the Sovereign One arrived to dispense judgment. Babylon is just the next small potato with pretensions of eternal glory.
In centuries past, well before the Sundays of Advent became associated with the themes of Peace, Hope, Joy, and Love, it was traditional for preachers to expound upon the “Four Last Things” that mark the consummation of the human drama: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. Heaven aside, this is a far less cheery approach to Advent than we may prefer. It certainly clashes more severely with the sentimentality and consumerism that mark the secular side of the holiday season. If our contemporary Advent practices had maintained continuity with that tradition, then this would be the week focused on the principle of divine judgment. In my service with the Long-Range Planning Committee and the Outreach Department, I’ve emphasized a renewed spirit of evangelism at Lakeshore, especially in engagement with the rising population of the “Nones.” As many of us are aware, the last thing they are interested in is judgmental religion. And so are we!
But we must remember that for Habakkuk, and for Christian faithfulness properly understood, the purpose of judgment is not to make people feel bad, or to stop them from having fun, or to feel superior about one’s moral rectitude in comparison to others. That, indeed, is judgmentalism. God’s judgment, however, is rendered not to restrict human flourishing, but to enable it. It speaks a word of rejection against the very things that Habakkuk lamented as he surveyed his society: violence, oppression, and ill-gotten wealth. When judgment – a matter of moral discernment and wisdom – is lacking, evils are too easily tolerated. How long must that be, O Lord?
A right understanding of God’s judgment, one that is free (although perhaps never entirely) from vain judgmentalism, is grounded in humility about our own limitations and struggles. Paul exemplifies that humility in today’s New Testament selection. I haven’t won the prize yet, he tells the Philippians. I must press on toward the resurrection. This race is ongoing. The good news is that God is not simply waiting at the finish line. God is the very marrow in our bones and the breath that fills our lungs. We can run and not grow weary. Nevertheless, God is not simply carrying us. The race calls for disciplined effort on our part. It is our task to cooperate with God in bringing judgment to bear upon our thoughts and actions, that we might be agents of flourishing instead of destruction.
One of the great practices in the Christian tradition for introspective judgment is the Prayer of Examen developed by St. Ignatius of Loyola, founder of the Jesuit order. It works best as a daily practice, usually at the close of the evening. You invite the Holy Spirit to accompany the recollection of the day’s events. The prayer begins with an attitude of gratitude as you identify the joys that you experienced. Then you identify the emotions you felt and the ways that you have fallen short. One feature of the day arises as an item for focused prayer. You then look ahead to tomorrow and pray for guidance. With its conclusion, the Prayer of Examen is ultimately forward-looking. The judgment that is made upon thought, word, and deed is a gracious experience of renewal.
Maybe judgment is a cheery topic, after all. When God shatters the earth, God opens our ears and calls us heavenward in Christ Jesus.
You can learn more about the Prayer of Examen at:
LABC Zoom Gatherings
A Time For Prayer- 10:00 a.m. Saturday
Virtual Tour of Bethlehem – 11:30 a.m. Saturday (contact Pastor Allison for information)
LABC Worship – 10:00 a.m. Sunday
Adult Bible Study Class – 11:45 a.m Sunday
Blue Christmas Service – 2:00 p.m. Sunday
LABC Youth Group – 7:00 p.m. Monday
No Soup, But Study – 6:00 p.m. Tuesday
LABC Church Council Meeting – 7:00 p.m. Tuesday