I remember sitting in church with my parents and my older sister when I was young. We sat between our parents in the pews at White Memorial in Raleigh. The hymns were, and still are, posted on boards at the front of the church. The pew cushions are still red, and floor black and white, just as it looked when I was little. During the sermon, Daddy would pass peppermint life savers to us. So I never remember disliking church. I do remember wondering, when we said the Apostles’ Creed, why Jesus would come to judge the quick and the dead, and who the "quick" might be. Would Jesus only judge those folks who moved very fast? It was a mystery to me that I don’t remember being explained when I was young.
"Quick," in this usage, is an old English word for "the living." We might still hear it in this sense of living when we talk about quicksilver (mercury) and quicksand. But it is an obsolete word, in this context, which is why I prefer the ecumenical version of the creed, which says "the living and the dead."
As a youngster, I sat thinking about the quick (Where they runners?) and the dead. But as an adult, I know that the essence of this phrase is about the judgment. Jesus "will come to judge the living and the dead." In the creed, we have dealt with Jesus of the past, the historical Jesus who lived and walked the earth and died. And we have dealt with the present risen Jesus, who sits right beside God. Now we look at the future Jesus, who will leave that honored seat to come among us again, but this time as our judge.
"We are all of us judged every day," says one of my favorite theologians, Frederick Buechner. "We are judged by the face that looks back at us from the bathroom mirror. We are judged by the faces of the people we love and by the faces and lives of our children and by our dreams. Each day finds us at the junction of many roads, and we are judged as much by the roads we have not taken as by the roads we have." (Buechner, p.58) We also judge others each day – "She is too overweight to wear a dress that short." "That guy who cut me off is a fool." "That is not right. He should pay for what he has done."
In the present day, we tend to think of judges as those who sit in courtrooms in long back robes and high desks overlooking everyone else, who pass down judgment on those who have broken laws, or who have sued others. The Old Testament view of a judge was slightly different. Kings were also judges, rulers who were supposed to protect the people within their kingdoms. But, of course, many of the kings were selfish and self-serving, and did more damage than good. Our Isaiah passage gives a troubled and perhaps exiled people hope that a new king and judge will come who will be better than those who have come before and failed them. The one to come will rule with righteousness and equity for all peoples and creatures of the earth. He will not be swayed by political powers or wealthy lobbyists. He will practically wear righteousness and faithfulness as clothing. And when this judge reigns, the earth will be transformed to a place where enemies (like lions and lambs) dwell together in peace, where there is no need to hurt or destroy or dominate anyone else.
God as Judge is well established in the Bible, from Genesis ("May the Lord judge between you and me") to Revelation ("See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work." -Rev. 22:12). The Bible establishes God as "Judge of all the earth" (Gen. 18:25, I Sam. 2:10, Ps. 50:6; Ps. 82:8, to name a few). The Old Testament often talks of a Day of Judgment, or Day of the Lord, a day in the future when all will be judged by the lives they have lived, and whether they have lived as God ordains. On this judgment day, the Old Testament characters and writers saw God smiting their enemies with natural catastrophes and the wages of wars. God’s judgment was seen then in terms of nations rather than for individuals. Not until the Book of Daniel do we see a sense of individual judgment. The end of Daniel speaks of the resurrection of the dead, where "Many of those who sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt" (Daniel 12:2).
The New Testament establishes Jesus as the judge of all time and all peoples, at his second coming. Then God’s kingdom will be fully established, although we believe it has already begun among us in part now.
Just before our Matthew passage, Jesus had met with the rich young ruler, who wanted to know what to do to earn eternal life. The young man kept the commandments faithfully. Jesus told him to go sell all of his possessions and give money to the poor in order to find treasure in heaven. The young man could not conceive of this, for he owned many wonderful things. So he turned away sadly, and left Jesus’ company. Jesus then told his disciples, "It is easier for a camel to go through the eye of a needle than for someone who is rich to enter the kingdom of God."
Then, as we read a few minutes ago, Peter asked what they, who had left all their possessions behind, would have. This may seem like a self-serving question, but it also naturally followed watching the rich young ruler leave because he could not give away what he owned. The disciples had left all their belongings and their families to follow Jesus. They wanted to know what would come next. Jesus gave them an image of a place where they would join him in judging the earth. They would be on thrones as he would, in positions of authority, "rich" in the kingdom of God. They, who had left everything to be last, to follow, would be first, he said.
So if we look at it practically, the price of good judgment in God’s eyes seems very high. It may mean giving up all that we have worked so hard to earn in this life. Throughout the Bible, in the prophets’ writings, and in the parables and teachings of Jesus, we learn that we will be judged by what we do or do not do for others in need. "Lord, when was it that we saw you hungry or thirsty or a stranger or naked or in prison and did not take care of you," the people asked. And he answered them, "Just as you did not do it to one of the least of these, you did not do it to me. And these will go away into eternal punishment, but the righteous into eternal life." (Matthew 25:44-46).
This is the same answer Jesus gave to the rich young ruler, who did not like to hear it. Neither do we. This notion of being judged terrifies us or angers us. We who are such self-sufficient, ladder-climbing, fame-seeking people do not see a need to be judged by anyone.
Yet the Bible testifies to, and the Creed tells us, that we will indeed be judged at some point. And we will be judged as much by what we have not done as by what we have done. Over and over, from beginning to end, the Bible urges us to care for "the least of these," the poor, the sick, the alien, the prisoner, the oppressed. "’What do you mean by crushing my people, by grinding the face of the poor?’ says the Lord God of Hosts," according to Isaiah (Isaiah 2:15). "All who exalt themselves will be humbled, but all who humble themselves will be exalted," said Jesus (Matthew 18:14).
We tend to disregard this aspect of our faith walk, this sense of being judged for what we have done or not done, by looking instead to the love of God and Jesus as our guide and model.
And well we should, for it is in that very love of God that we will be justified even as we are judged. For the one who judges us is also our Savior. As Buechner puts it so well, "The one who judges us most finally will be the one who loves us most fully….Christ’s love so wishes our joy that it is ruthless against everything that diminishes our joy. The worst sentence Love can pass is that we behold the suffering which Love has endured for our sake, and that is also our acquittal. The justice and mercy of the judge are ultimately one" (Buechner, p.58). With Jesus as our judge, the justice he merits out becomes our justification, or salvation. The New Testament writings make it clear that we cannot earn salvation with anything we do, yet we are still expected to work and live in righteousness in order to be in good standing with the Judge. Our response to the unmerited grace of God to save us in Jesus Christ is a humbling of ourselves and a service that gives to others. "We love because God first loved us." We "do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with our God."
The New Testament also has something to say about our judgment of others. Don’t do it, it says! "Do not judge, so that you may not be judged," Jesus said in the Sermon on the Mount. "For with the judgment you make you will be judged, and the measure you give will be the measure you get. Why do you see the speck in your neighbor’s eye, but do not notice the log in your own eye?" (Matthew 7:1-3) Jesus in the Gospel of John said, "Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment" (John 7:24)
Oh my goodness, but it is so hard! Judging is often our nature. Telling some people not to judge is like telling them to turn off their personalities. Our daily walks in life, our society, our government, all involve making decisions or judgments ranging from insignificant to life-changing every day. Many have anguished over the recent judgment in Florida, which has again brought up racial justice issues, yet was decided as it had to be according to the laws of the state. But our laws are not God’s laws, our ways are not God’s ways, our thoughts are not God’s thoughts.
Maybe our Isaiah passage gives us the most hope. This passage, most familiar to us in the Advent season, brings us the image of promise rising from a stump, a plant that has been cut back so far that it looks dead. Yet new life, a shoot, will begin to appear, and grow into a new branch. And that branch will be our judge, though not a judge anything like those in our modern courtrooms. This judge will be wise in the ways of God. This judge will be in awe of God, and he will judge not by appearances, but with wisdom, equity and faithfulness that is far beyond anything our legal system can even address. "The wolf shall live with the lamb, and the leopard shall lie down with the kid, the calf and the lion and fatling together, and a little child shall lead them" (Isaiah 11:6). That child is, of course for Christians, Jesus Christ, the one who is God born among us. Because Jesus has been one with us, experienced the span of life from birth to death, he is the one best qualified to judge us. And he judges with the same love with which he walked the earth, and then died and rose to save us from ourselves. Our Judge is our Savior. We will be alright. But that still does not let us off the hook from right living. "He will come to judge the living and the dead" should remind us, each time we say it, that we have much work to do, caring for the "least of these" among us, loving one another as we are loved, bringing hope where there is despair.
Presbyterians do not generally spend a lot of time dwelling on the end times, on the Second Coming. We would rather be about God’s business here and now. And again, that is the right attitude, for we are not the judges, we are merely the vessels for the Judge and Savior. "If God is for us, who can be against us?" "It is God who justifies." (from Romans 8)
"For by grace you have been saved through faith, and this is not your own doing, it is the gift of God" (Ephesians 2:4)
Let us be about God’s work until our Judge and Savior comes again!
Praise be to God! Amen.
Brueggemann, Walter, Isaiah 1-39 (Westminster/John Knox Press, KY, 1998)
Indermark, John, Turn Toward Promise: The Prophets and Spiritual Renewal (Upper Room Books, TN, 2003)
Long, Thomas G., Matthew (Westminster/John Knox Press, KY, 1997)
McGrath, Alister, I Believe: Exploring the Apostles’ Creed (InterVarsity Press, IL, 1997)
The Westminster Dictionary of Christian Theology, ed. Alan Richardson & John Bowden (Westminster Press, PA, 1983)