Advent is just around the corner. In the Church’s tradition it’s a time for considering what are called the Four Last Things – heaven, hell, death and judgement. These days, though, I’m not sure that would exactly chime with the popular mood. A Christingle service on death…? A carol service on hell…? It’s just not going to work, is it?
But I’m glad to say that those rather more serious themes haven’t been wiped out of the Church’s year completely. When the services of the Church of England were revised at the millennium, some bright sparks noticed that actually there is a little season of festivals and commemorations in November which seemed to go together – All Saints, All Souls, Remembrance and Christ the King. They decided to call it the Kingdom Season (its colour is red, as you can see). And what are those services all about? Heaven, hell, death and judgement… In effect, just as Christmas crept forward into Advent, so Advent has crept forward into November.
Today’s theme is very definitely the last of the four - judgement. That’s not something people like to talk about much these days. Most of us don’t like being judged. Philip’s school has had the Independent Schools Inspectorate in this week – the private school’s equivalent of Ofsted. It has not been fun… Being watched, knowing you are being weighed up is very hard work and stressful, even if you are good at what you do.
If we don’t like being judged, we also often don’t want to do the judging either. We don’t want to be seen as “judgemental”. We’ve seen the damage it can do to others. Who are we to say what is right and wrong for others? Most of us are quite rightly reticent about doing so.
And often we take those feelings about judging and being judged and project them straight onto God in a way that is far from helpful. Many people still picture him sitting on a throne, high above them, with a frown on his face, just waiting to come down on them like a ton of bricks. It is something that both secular and religious leaders have sometimes encouraged; with a God like this on your side, it is much easier to keep people in line. But it is any wonder that with all this baggage about people often prefer to avoid thinking about judgement if they can?
Our readings today are not nearly as coy about judgement as we tend to be, though. Jesus talks about the fact that there are tough times coming, times that will test people, but the Psalmist goes further. In his Psalm he makes it clear that it is God himself who is the judge.
But the odd thing is that he doesn’t seem at all worried by this. In fact, quite the reverse. He greets the idea of God’s judgement with joy, not terror.
“Sing to the Lord a new song,” he says. “Shout with joy”. There are harps and trumpets. Even the natural world gets to join in – the sea makes a noise, and all that is in it. The rivers clap their hands and the hills ring out. They are joyful, he makes it clear not despite God’s judgement, but because of it. This joy will erupt “when he comes to judge the earth.”
The reason the Psalmist is so happy at the prospect is because he trusts that this God who is coming to judge is going to do so “in righteousness”, in order to set right what is wrong and heal what is broken, and he knows how badly needed that healing is. His will be a judgement rooted in love, not in some petty desire to catch us out and see us suffer.
The raw truth is that judgement matters. We need to be judged. If I go to my doctor I very much hope that she’ll exercise judgement about me, otherwise how can she help? I don’t want her to say “no, no, you are fine...” when I am obviously not. I want her to see what is wrong, so that whatever ails me can be treated.
We need to make judgements too, and we do so all the time. We need to decide what we should spend our time, energy and money on, who we should listen to and learn from and who we might need to be more cautious about. If we just shrug our shoulders and accept whatever happens around us, we will soon be in a great mess.
Most of all we need to let ourselves hear the loving judgement of God, because he is the one who sees us most clearly and cares about us most deeply. We can trust him to tell it like it is, even about those things which we so carefully try to hide in the darkest corners of our lives. In our silence, let us ask God what it is he would say to us tonight, what needs to change in us, and let’s remember that as he does so, all there is on his mind is love.