Sermon from Lent V: Judgment? Really?

Judgment? Really?
Lent V; March 21, 2021
Romans 2:1-16

Judgment? Really? Yes, really. Now, it would be interesting to use this as an opportunity to give you some hellfire and brimstone, to put on a parody of a revival preacher’s voice and warn you all to shape up because otherwise Hell is waiting for you. Some of you would find that entertaining, others would simply tune out, and a couple might say that it was about time. I could not do that very well as myself, but I could play a character; after all, I haven’t done any acting in some time and I miss it.

But that would not be true to the Scripture. To be true to Scripture, we should certainly take seriously the words I finished with, that “God, through Jesus Christ, will judge the secret thoughts of all.” But likewise, to take it seriously, we need context.

Here’s a story to set the stage. Buck, who lived in a small town in the Midwest, was feeling the need for a connection with God and decided to join a church. After spending some time visiting, he joined the Presbyterian Church in his town. It was a small, sturdy church with good leadership by the elders and a pastor who was personable and enthusiastic. But there was also June, something of a busybody, who always seemed to know what everyone was doing and what they ought to be doing.

One Sunday after worship June sidled up to Buck and said to him, “I’m so glad you’ve joined our church. But I feel I need to warn you: it’s important to give the right appearances. You know how people talk and we don’t want people to think that we’re sinners and hypocrites. I saw your truck parked outside the bar on Friday evening and, well, I wouldn’t want people to think the wrong things by where they see your truck parked.” Buck looked at her for a moment, said he appreciated her concern, and went on his way.

On Tuesday evening, Buck drove his truck to June’s house and parked it in front of her house. He walked home, leaving his truck parked in front of her house all night.

Those of you who are doing the Year of the Bible with us read Romans chapter one yesterday. It describes all sorts of horrors that the unnamed “they” do, all because they reject the one true God. Paul builds up almost to a frenzy with the terrible things “they” do. But then he lowers the boom with the beginning of what we read to you: therefore you have no business judging anyone else, because you’re guilty of something in that list!

It is generally the case that those who think of ourselves as righteous easily condemn those who are not righteous. If we don’t suffer from sexual temptations, we judge those who do, ignoring that we steal office supplies or cheat on our income taxes or violate speed limits. If we don’t struggle with drugs, we feel superior to those who do, ignoring our own struggle with alcohol or compulsive overeating. And frankly whether you think of any of these things as sinful or not is irrelevant; what matters is that you and I quickly judge the baggage of others while ignoring our own. And Paul warns that whatever your problem is, God knows it and the day of accounting for it will come.

This is not the only place where Paul writes about the judgment of God, and his purpose is twofold. One purpose is the one I’m focusing on here: God is your judge, God is the judge of that person over there: and so you are not. Judgment Day is coming for us, sooner or later, and God is not going to accept a plea of “Yeah, but what about?” We heard it after January 6. People tried to excuse the violent attack on the Capitol and the death threats against members of Congress by saying, “But what about the violence last summer?” Really? It’s okay to excuse the evil I approve of by pointing at the evil I disapprove of? No, it is not okay. You don’t get to overlook your own wrongdoing by focusing on someone else’s, even if your only wrongdoing is to know that you’re better than they are.

I can hardly escape being judged for my own inclination to judge. Now, let’s be clear: human society cannot function if we fail to judge one another’s behavior. When someone breaks the law, we have a court system to deal with it appropriately. When someone in the Church violates the Scriptures or the Constitution of the Church, we have our disciplinary process to deal with it appropriately. Together, we do judge behaviors for the sake of protecting everyone. We need such judgment and cannot do without it. But God has not appointed you or me the judge of other people for their sins.

If you keep reading chapter two, you find Paul particularly pokes at those who preach against something while doing that very thing. One of my own sins of judgmental thinking has been the delight I take in the downfall of certain judgmental preachers. Many in our society still haven’t figured out that sexual difference isn’t sinful, it’s just different. Many still think that homosexual behavior is sinful. Anyway, every time one of these preachers who loudly denounces homosexual behavior then gets caught with his boyfriend I feel righteous. And Paul says to me, “Stop that! You have your hypocrisies too. God is his judge; you aren’t.”

The other purpose Paul has in writing about the judgment of God, I believe, is what you will experience as you keep reading the Book of Romans. Since God judges all, those who live under the Law of Moses and those who don’t, then all of us are dependent on the grace and mercy of God. If you think that you can march up to the throne of God and say, “You owe me,” then perhaps you need to pay a little more attention to the Law of God. Okay, perhaps you’ve never committed murder, theft, or adultery. Have you borne false witness against a neighbor? Have you ever violated the Sabbath? Have you ever coveted something that belongs to your neighbor? I don’t need to stress this point; Paul will do a very good job of stressing it. Just keep reading Romans.

God will judge each of us; indeed, I think God is already judging us. When my friend read this and said to me, “I feel convicted,” then she was already experiencing the judgment of God. In the next paragraph after what we read, Paul seems to be writing especially to preachers and teachers; he says that if you think you understand the Scriptures and what God requires, maybe you ought to be teaching yourself so you would start living the way you say people ought to live. Ouch. But as we keep reading, we see he has a deeper purpose in mind: learn to trust in the grace and mercy of God, and commend everyone else also to the grace and mercy of God.

The notion of judgment can also be thought of as evaluation, and in the light of the grace and mercy of God I feel it is an encouragement to self-evaluation. Do you remember Ed Koch, Mayor of New York City from 1978 to 1989? He used to go around asking, “How’m I doin’?” I like to think that even if we flee from judgment, that evaluation is good from time to time. When the church staff and I have our performance evaluated annually, that is not judgmentalism; that is appropriate evaluation. Likewise, I should probably go around to you all asking, “How are you doing in your walk with God?” It’s no one else’s business to judge you, but a little self-evaluation can be useful.

That’s what Lent traditionally is about: time for self-evaluation. How’re you doin’? How’s it going in your walk with God? Remember what Paul is going to teach us in Romans: the foundation of your walk with God is not your righteousness; that would be a pretty shaky foundation. The foundation is the grace and mercy of God.

Robert A. Keefer
Presbyterian Church of the Master
Omaha, Nebraska