Preached at St. Margaret’s of Scotland Anglican Church, Barrie, Ontario, 16 October, 2016
RCL readings : Jeremiah 31: 27-34; Psalm 119: 97-104; Timothy 3:14-4:5; Luke 18: 1-8
But this is the covenant that I will make with the house of Israel after those days, says the Lord: I will put my law within them, and I will write it on their hearts; and I will be their God, and they shall be my people. (Jeremiah 37:33)
A grumpy judge.
Did you notices that judges and judgement run through our readings this morning? In Jeremiah, God speaks like a judge who has gotten tired of punishing Israel and is going to try something different. In Luke, Jesus tells a parable of a grumpy judge who is persistently badgered by a widow until he gives in to her. In second Timothy. Paul tells us to follow Scripture and do the right thing, until the day when God and Jesus return “to judge the living and the dead”.
That’s a lot of judges and a lot of judgement. It makes me wonder how comfortable we are with this legalistic aspect of our relationship to God. To be sure, our faith teaches us in the creeds to think of God as our judge, but if you’ve ever been in a courtroom, and seen a judge in action, you may not draw a lot of comfort from that image. The legal system can be very intimidating when you see it working.
I remember going to court as a character witness for a young soldier who had done something stupid. On the whole, it could have gone a lot worse for the soldier. Afterwards, he told me “Padre, I was scared, that judge was really mean!” I said no, I thought he was being fair, but I did agree that it was a scary business and suggested that he stay out of courtrooms in future.
I think the same is true of our faith lives. We know that one aspect of God is that he is a our judge, but we all hope to stay out of the courtroom. It’s easier for many Christians, myself included, to focus on a personal relationship with Jesus as friend and Saviour. Or maybe, if we are feeling guilty and nervous about that final judgement, we may think of Jesus as the defence lawyer who will gain us the mercy of the court.
Even if judges and courtrooms make us nervous, I doubt any that any of us would want to live in a system where the legal system is either corrupt or just doesn’t work. We want just laws, fairly applied, because we hope that they will protect us, our loved ones and our property. So much of the anger in politics today, especially in the US election, seems to be about certain people being above the law. I think too that if we are honest, we will admit that we need laws and judges to protect us from ourselves and our worst instincts. Take a church, for example. We put some people in positions of responsibility, with access to the very young or the very vulnerable. Others have responsibility for money. The system only works if everyone takes responsibility for their actions, and if they are held accountable. That’s why we as church volunteers submit to police background checks, even if we would rather not want to (has *anyone* ever been happy to get one?).
So if we can agree that law and judgement are desirable, even necessary, for our society, can we also say that law and judgement are necessary for our faith lives? As Christians, like our Jewish older brothers and sisters, we believe in a God who is looking out for our welfare. Like a parent, God sets rules to protect us and guide our development. Paul reminds us of this in our second lesson when he says that God gives us scripture so that “everyone who belongs to God may be proficient, equipped for every good work”.
I find that word “proficient” to be very interesting, because it is a word that belongs to the world I work in, the world of military training. Someone who is “proficient” is well trained, skilled, highly capable of doing something. You want a soldier to be proficient with weapons, just as you want an artist to be proficient with paints or a carpenter with tools. So as Christians, Paul is saying, we are expected to be proficient in good works, which is presumably what Paul elsewhere calls the fruits of the spirit: mercy, kindness, charity and so forth. We get proficient, Paul says, by keeping ourselves locked into the church’s teaching and “sound doctrine” and teaching.
The only problem for me when I hear this passage from Second Timothy is that I worry about how proficient I am, because I take proficiency tests all the time in the military and I do ok, but not great. For example, in June I took a proficiency test in French language skills. I was rated ok, meaning I can speak French and be understood, but it would be no great joy for a French person to listen to me. Last month I did my annual test of physical fitness test, something all military members must pass. I passed, which was great, but the evaluation basically said that I wasn’t a choice physical specimen. “Even though you’re in your fifties and we’re making allowances for that, you could stand to lose some weight, you could be a lot faster, you could be a lot stronger.” Yaaaayyyy, me, I said in a discouraged voice.
Now if I had to take a test of spiritual proficiency, to see if I was a good Christian, I think I would get the same sort of mixed results. Well Michael, the angel would say afterwards, looking at its clipboard, you go to church, you give some money away, and you’re kind to stray kittens. So you get a pass. But, you lost in in traffic the other day, you spend far too much time thinking about your clothes, you said you were too busy to volunteer at the mission when you really just wanted to watch the baseball game, and you couldn’t name all ten commandments or get them in the right order.” You get a pass, 51%, but you have to take the remedial class.
I suspect that a lot of us think about our spiritual lives in this way, wondering if we make the grade, fearful to imagine what’s inside the ledger book that God keeps on each of us. I also wonder if one of the problems we have in our relationship with God is that because we are taught to see him as a judge, we therefore see him as an impartial judge. After all, we want judges to be impartial, we want to be treated fairly. When I go to the hymn for my physical fitness text, the examiners don’t care who I am. They just want to see how much I can lift and how fast I can run. That’s why they use stopwatches. You can’t lie to a stopwatch, any more than you can le to a police breathalyzer, and you get judged on the results. This is the reason why judges and police act stern in public, because they have to uphold the law fairly, without favouritism. Fortunately for us, God isn’t that kind of judge.
In our gospel today, Jesus tells the parable of the widow who wears down a corrupt judge with her ceaseless petitions. Sometimes we get confused about the moral of this parable, and think that it’s about how our prayers only get results if we make a total nuisance of ourselves. On the contrary, say many biblical scholars, the point Jesus seems to be making is more subtle. If this corrupt judge shows mercy to a woman he doesn’t really care for, just to get rid of her, how much more will God do out of his love for us? God, Jesus says, will “quickly” grant justice to us.
Our first lesson makes a similar point. At this point in Jeremiah, God is rebuilding his relationship with his people, Israel, because they trashed the first relationship. As Simon noted a few weeks back, Jeremiah was writing when Israel had been captured by its powerful enemies, its people scattered and enslaved in foreign lands. The people of Israel had started to believe that the promised land came with an unconditional guarantee. They forgot that God had asked things of them: follow the law given to Moses, do not worship false gods, treat the widow and orphan with justice, welcome the stranger, and so forth. These laws were written in various books of scripture called the Torah, they were repeated by the prophets, and taught in the synagogues.
Now God promises a new relationship with the people he has forgiven and restored. Not only will Israel get its land and cities back, but it will have a new relationship with God. In this new relationship, God’s law will not be set down in stone tablets, sacred scrolls or books. Instead, it will be intensely personal, even intimate. God`s law will live inside his people, written on their hearts, pulsing in their veins, as important as breath and life. It will be a new way of living, rather like a stage in the spiritual evolution of God`s people, and it will be for ALL the people. They ‘shall all know me, from the least to the greatest`.
God continues to give this gift to the church today. Not all of us are theologically trained or gifted. We don’t all go to bible study, though it’s a good thing for most of us and some of us should go more often. We may not be able to name all ten commandments in the right order. But, if we open our hearts to God, he will come to us and give us a sense of what he wants for us, and wants from us. That internal voice, that guidance, is always there. Call it the work of the Holy Spirit, call it our growing and maturing in the mind of Christ, but it is there, sometimes not even working at the level of words, but keeping us pointed to God.
I think this idea of an internal voice or guidance that keeps us pointed towards God helps understand one of the famous passages in Romans 8: “Likewise the Spirit helps us in our weakness; for we do not know how to pray as we ought, but that very Spirit intercedes with sighs too deep for words. And God, who searches the heart, knows what is the mind of the Spirit, because the Spirit intercedes for the saints according to the will of God.”
In all of our readings this morning, we have seen this image of God as a judge, and we are reminded that we are accountable for our lives, both in this world and in the next. Rather than scaring us, the idea of accountability should comfort us, because it reminds us that God cares for us and wants us to live well, in our homes and families, in our workplaces and in our churches. Accountability is part of our two-way relationship with God, because just as are held accountable, so God takes responsibility for us, guides us, and even forgives us for the many ways we fall short. So we can be grateful that God is not an impartial judge after all, but rather a merciful and kind judge who is always there for us, even when we are far from him. After all, earlier in Jeremiah 34, as God considers how Israel got in trouble because it forgot him, Jeremiah imagines Israel saying these words.
I was ashamed, and I was dismayed
because I bore the disgrace of my youth.’
And God responding:
Is Ephraim my dear son?
Is he the child I delight in?
As often as I speak against him,
I still remember him.
Therefore I am deeply moved for him;
I will surely have mercy on him,
says the Lord.
If that sounds a little like the parable of the Prodigal Son, then perhaps it is because one of the enduring figures of the bible is not the stern and terrifying judge, but rather the loving parent, waiting patiently for a loved and lost child’s return.