November 17, 2019
Weighed in the balance – J. Barry Vaughn – Nov. 17, 2019
A cardinal came to the pope one day. “Your Holiness, I have some good news and some bad news. The good news is that our Lord Jesus Christ has returned to earth; the bad news is that he has gone to Salt Lake City”.
Gene and Laura Snow, a very dear and pious couple that I knew, would regularly read the newspaper with their Bibles in hand. They were of the opinion that the newspaper’s headlines had all been foretold in the Bible. they believed that we were living in the last days and that the wars and earthquakes and plagues outlined in the newspaper were all foreshadowed in the more lurid apocalyptic passages of the Old and New Testament. Well, in a sense, they were correct. The Bible does foretell the future.
Jesus tells his followers that there will be wars and insurrections, and so there are. But there have been wars and insurrections from his day until our day, and there will continue to be wars and insurrections as long as there is a human race. The Bible foretells that there will be wars and insurrections, because the Bible is realistic about human nature.
However, the Bible does not foretell particular wars and insurrections. You cannot draw a straight line between the bizarre and surreal images of the Book of Revelation and things that are happening today. The bear does not necessarily signify Russia nor the eagle the United States.
One of the questions on a New Testament final that I gave my students at Samford was “List three of the symbolic animals in the Book of Revelation”. One student wrote: “The lion, the dragon, and the seal”. “Where did you find a seal?” I asked her. “Well, it talks about the seven seals”.
I would like to talk a little about the ways that eschatology, the doctrine of the Last Days, is both good news and bad news.
First, on the surface, the prophesy of the Last Judgment or Second Coming appears to be very bad news indeed. When Jesus’ followers admire the great and beautiful Temple in Jerusalem, Jesus says to them that it will be razed to the ground and not one stone will be left upon another.
Judgment is a persistent theme throughout the Bible. The theme of Jesus’ sermons was less “God is love” and more “Repent for the kingdom of God is at hand”. When Babylon’s King Belshazzar ate and drank from the Temple’s sacred vessels, a ghostly hand wrote on the wall of his palace: Mene mene tekel upharsin. “Thou art weighed in the balance and found wanting”. And that is what we all fear — that a voice from the darkness or a message on the walls of our lives will judge the things we have done, the things we have left undone, the kind and unkind words of our lips, the love and anger in our hearts and that the judgment on all that will be “Too little love, too much hatred, too little good, too much cruelty”.
I know that it is true in my own life. I know that much of the good I have done has been motivated by a desire for acclaim and applause and that much of the wickedness I have refrained from doing has been motivated by a fear of being caught rather than a love of doing what is pleasing to God.
Mene mene tekel upharsin. I am weighed in the balance and found wanting. If nothing else, the Bible’s message about judgment should remind us to do an occasional spiritual inventory. What am I doing that I should not be doing? What have I not done that I should do? And what is my motivation for all this?
Thus far I have been talking about individual judgment. However, there is an important corporate aspect of judgment. Jesus speaks to his followers about the destruction of an entire society. The Temple, the central symbol of Judaism, was to be completely destroyed, “not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down…” I think there is hardly any thing in the Bible that is truer than its prophesy of divine judgment upon human society.
The ancient Romans spoke about eternal Rome. Hitler spoke about his policies as giving Germany ein tausend Jahr Reich, “a thousand year rule”, and Nazism in Germany lasted barely a dozen years. The theme of judgment in the Bible offers a necessary, if unpleasant, remedy to dreams of earthly kingdoms lasting forever: Nothing lasts forever. In the end, “not one stone will be left upon another; all will be destroyed”. Knowing that God’s judgment falls on all human kingdoms frees us. It invites us to lift our eyes and our hopes from the horizon to the stars, from this world to one that is coming, from earth’s kingdoms where justice is never perfect to God’s kingdom where justice and mercy and love are incorruptible.
So much for the bad news, what is good and encouraging and hopeful in the doctrine of the Last Judgment?
Whenever I taught the Book of Revelation to my New Testament students, I would always begin by telling them that the doctrine of the Second Coming was not a doctrine of fear but a doctrine of hope. Unfortunately, that is not the way that it is preached by the fundamentalists. The message sent out over TV is “Jesus is coming again soon, and he sure is angry… at you!”. Maybe not in so many words, but that is the feeling that I get from the televangelists.
But listen again to the end of Psalm 98:
“Let the rivers clap their hands,
and let the hills ring out with joy before the Lord,
when he comes to judge the earth.
In righteousness shall he judge the world
and the peoples with equity.”
“…let the hills ring out with joy before the Lord, when he comes to judge the earth.” That’s the Old Testament saying that God’s judgment is an occasion for singing and dancing and joy.
Listen to what St. Paul tells his friends in Philippi: “Rejoice in the Lord always; again I will say, Rejoice…. The Lord is near”. The Lord is near — rejoice. God is coming to judge the earth — clap your hands and ring out your joy.
Frederick Buechner writes: “The New Testament proclaims that at some unforeseeable time in the future God will ring down the final curtain on history, and there will come a Day on which all our days and all the judgments upon us and all our judgments upon each other will themselves be judged. The judge will be Christ. In other words, the one who judges us most finally will be the one who loves us most fully.” (Frederick Buechner, Wishful Thinking, San Francisco: Harper and Row (1973), p. 48.)
So, sing and dance and clap your hands, because the Judge is also our Lover. Let go of fear — in God justice and love are two sides of the same coin.