Divine Judgment: What Are We Afraid Of?

August 18, 2019
Isaiah 5:1-7; Psalm 80; Hebrews 11:29-12:2

Judgment. It’s not a word we hear a lot at Hyattsville Mennonite. So often we have felt judged by others for our actions, and therefore we hesitate to pass judgment, often rightfully so.

We have been judged in many ways for almost 70 years by other congregations, our regional conference, our denomination, even by the global church. We have been judged for starting as an urban congregation, for welcoming members of both the Old Mennonite Church and General Conference Mennonite Church (the precursors to Mennonite Church USA), for allowing LGBTQIA+ people to become members, for women taking all sorts of leadership roles, and certainly more.

And yet, because of what has happened to us as a congregation, because of the trauma and pain inflicted upon us by these judgments, are we also too afraid to call out judgment where it is needed?

Whoa, whoa, hold on a minute! What about, “Judge not, lest ye be judged”? What about, “Let those without sin cast the first stone”? Certainly, and yet the Bible also talks about divine judgment in many shapes, forms, and times.

Today’s passage in Isaiah 5 is one such instance of divine judgment. This is a song with many layers and meanings. The first section has the narrator singing about their friend, also referred to as beloved in some translations, who has a vineyard. In old Israelite poetry, “vineyard” was often a metaphor for “lover”, so here is a song about the love between two people.

Then it switches, and the voice of the friend/beloved is heard in first person. We hear a plea for judgment, that the friend/beloved did everything they could for the prosperity of the vineyard, and yet it only produced wild, rotten grapes instead of good grapes. But no time is allowed for the audience to pass judgment; instead, the friend/beloved says they will destroy the vineyard, break down the walls around it, let it become overgrown, and command no rain to fall upon it. What started out as a song about love has suddenly become a statement of damnation by one against another.

But the real moral of the story comes in the final section: the audience discovers the vineyard is God’s people of Israel and Judah! While a metaphor for “lover”, “vineyard” is also a metaphor for “God’s people”. The final lines of this song/story say, “he expected justice, but saw bloodshed; righteousness, but heard a cry!” These lines are rousing in English, but in Hebrew, they are even more poetic as they play off each other (forgive my pronounciations): mishpat (justice) and mispach (bloodshed); tsedaqah (righteousness) and tse’aqah (cry). A fierce call of judgment, a poem that starts as a “love song” becomes a “judicial parable” that ends with a “judgment oracle”.

This closely parallels another story of surprise judgment, that of II Samuel 12:1-12, where Nathan the Prophet tells King David about the poor man with one little lamb, a lamb that is stolen by a rich man to feed his guests so he doesn’t have to kill one of his own flock. An angry David asks who this rich man is so he can be brought to justice. “You are the man!” cries Nathan, calling out David for his rape of Bathsheba and ordering the killing of her husband Uriah. And despite David’s repentance for his sins and being forgiven, the judgment pronounced by Nathan still occurs: David’s first child with Bathsheba dies, the sword does not depart from his house when his son Absalom later tries to usurp the throne from David, and the temple in Jerusalem is not finished before David dies.

It’s easy to call out people like Donald Trump, Boris Johnson, Vladimir Putin, Narendra Modi, Jair Bolsonaro, Aung San Suu Kyi, and more for the atrocities and injustices they commit. But Martin Luther King, Jr.’s words about the white moderate ring perhaps even truer today: “Shallow understanding from people of good will is more frustrating than absolute misunderstanding from people of ill will. Lukewarm acceptance is much more bewildering than outright rejection.”

We must not forget that we ourselves are also to blame, that we are like David and the vineyard. The injustices we commit may not be on a grand scale and may not happen every day, but when we shop on Amazon for the convenience and price despite knowing the horrible conditions for the workers and the environmental costs; when we drive our cars even though we could walk, bike, or take public transit; when we hope that others will sign up to help provide things or work an event so we don’t have to ourselves; when we go through so many other scenarios, we deserve to be judged, especially when we are not ignorant of the injustice in the situation.

John 7:24 says, “Do not judge by appearances, but judge with right judgment”. Right judgment must start with ourselves. We must remove the plank from our own eye.

For me, so many days this summer, this year, this past decade even, have been filled with many hours of darkness and hopelessness. There are so many injustices to work towards correcting, and yet I feel so overwhelmed by the weight of it all that I don’t know where to begin, and it’s becoming increasingly difficult to find the motivation to even do one thing. Suffering from clinically diagnosed depression and anxiety just makes things worse. In addition to this negativity, I’ve suffered from many angry moments, and I’ve been called out for these moments, for the words of hate and revenge I’ve spoken. While it was hard to be judged for expressing my anger, I know now the judgment was right, for my expression was selfish and unjust.

That is why the words of Psalm 80 resonate so much with me right now: “O Lord God of hosts, how long will you be angry with your people’s prayers? You have fed them with the bread of tears, and given them tears to drink in full measure. You make us the scorn of our neighbors; our enemies laugh among themselves. Restore us, O God of hosts; let your face shine, that we may be saved.”

If we say the Isaiah passage is on one side, let’s call Psalm 80 a bridge, a bridge that leads to the scripture from Hebrews this morning. Before verse 29, there are other stories about the faith of the ancient Jewish leaders, leaders like Abraham and Sarah, Isaac, Jacob, Joseph, and Moses. Familiar stories to us, but even more so to the Jews and Christians in the decades after the death of Jesus. The book of Hebrews is thought to be written to the Jewish Christians in Jerusalem, where they were facing much persecution and some were turning away from Jesus, whether that was back to the old Jewish ways or to other pagan rituals; therefore, reminding these Christians of their faithful spiritual and familial ancestors makes sense, whereas these stories would not resonate so well with the Gentile Christians in Asia Minor or Greece. Verse 29 continues the list, of the Israelites escaping through the Red Sea, the walls of Jericho falling, Rahab hiding the spies, Barak, Samson, et cetera.

But if we really look at the stories and the timeframes of the people listed, their eras were full of hardship and war, and most of the personas would be considered non gratas nowadays. Jephthah, who was quick to offer up as a sacrifice the first thing out of his house, which happened to be his daughter? Gideon, even though his leadership achieved peace for 40 years, was almost immediately disregarded after his death and the Israelites returned to worshipping the god Baal. We already know what David was like.

Even though these people believed in God and tried to do the right thing, their own egos and selfishness got in the way of divine acts, causing more chaos and injustice. Overall, this list of stories shows God is still at work throughout all these dark people and times. Ultimately, this list goes up through David, who established the united monarchy of Israel and Judah, and whose son Solomon built the Temple. Therefore, we could see this list reminding the readers then, and us now, that despite much darkness, God is still at work among us, and we are marching to Zion. Verses 39 and 40 say, “Yet all these, though they were commended for their faith, did not receive what was promised, since God had provided something better so that they would not, apart from us, be made perfect.”

Going back to the list, perhaps the most interesting person in the list is Rahab the prostitute, the lone woman. As Isaac Villegas said in a speech to the North Carolina Council of Churches this past March, Rahab not only helped the spies, but in doing so betrayed her home of Jericho. And according to the Gospel of Matthew, Rahab is in the direct lineage of Jesus, her sex work not a mark of shame. Finally, Hebrews 12 is titled “The Example of Jesus” and says, “let us run with perseverance the race that is set before us, looking to Jesus the pioneer and perfecter of our faith.” In following the example of Jesus, we remember the faithful acts of Rahab, spiritual and biological ancestor of Jesus. As Villegas continued to say in his speech, “We live in a kind of Jericho. And the question for us is whether we are willing to be like Rahab. Are we willing to let her life become our life, to betray the laws of this society for the sake of people who our rulers have identified as enemies, as threats to our national identity, as threats to our peoplehood?”

More than just betraying this nation to save the lives of immigrants and refugees, to stop gun violence, to prevent wars, to save the earth for future generations, perhaps we need to let go of the whole idea of this Jericho, of these United States? Let the old ways, the fractured nations, the oppressive systems be destroyed, and instead allow the justice of God, the peace of Christ, and the wisdom of the Spirit to lead us upward to Zion.

The persecution and judgment we face won’t be easy, as said in Hebrews 11:35-38, but we must run the race if we are to get to the finish line. Let us encourage each other to run the race well, and not be afraid to call out those who try to take a shortcut, for as James 1:2-4 says, “whenever you face trials of any kind, consider it nothing but joy, because you know that the testing of your faith produces endurance; and let endurance have its full effect, so that you may be mature and complete, lacking in nothing.”

May the love, wisdom, forgiveness, and just peace of God, which surpasses all understanding, be with us, now and always. Amen.