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Sep 11, 2022

Judgment and Grace

Speaker: Rob McClellan

Series: September 2022


Today's Sermon


"Judgment and Grace"


Jeremiah 4:11-12, 22-28

11At that time it will be said to this people and to Jerusalem: A hot wind comes from me out of the bare heights in the desert toward my poor people, not to winnow or cleanse-12a wind too strong for that. Now it is I who speak in judgment against them.

22"For my people are foolish, they do not know me; they are stupid children, they have no understanding. They are skilled in doing evil, but do not know how to do good."

23I looked on the earth, and lo, it was waste and void; and to the heavens, and they had no light. 24I looked on the mountains, and lo, they were quaking, and all the hills moved to and fro. 25I looked, and lo, there was no one at all, and all the birds of the air had fled. 26I looked, and lo, the fruitful land was a desert, and all its cities were laid in ruins before the LORD, before his fierce anger.

27For thus says the LORD: The whole land shall be a desolation; yet I will not make a full end. 28Because of this the earth shall mourn, and the heavens above grow black; for I have spoken, I have purposed; I have not relented nor will I turn back.

1 Timothy 1:12-17
           12I am grateful to Christ Jesus our Lord, who has strengthened me, because he judged me faithful and appointed me to his service, 13even though I was formerly a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence. But I received mercy because I had acted ignorantly in unbelief, 14and the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus. 15The saying is sure and worthy of full acceptance, that Christ Jesus came into the world to save sinners-of whom I am the foremost. 16But for that very reason I received mercy, so that in me, as the foremost, Jesus Christ might display the utmost patience, making me an example to those who would come to believe in him for eternal life. 17To the King of the ages, immortal, invisible, the only God, be honor and glory forever and ever.  Amen.

Judgment and Grace

           The Facebook prompt read:  What advice would you give to your 16 year-old self in four words.  The first response was from a musician: practice, practice, practice!  Four words:  practice, practice, practice.  We are not good at following directions.  Perhaps you’ve seen that comic of a person pushing mightily on a door to the “School for the Gifted.”  On the door, in big capital letters it reads “Pull.”  Jesus, our sexton, said to me last week that the candles on the chancel shelf had been moved and if we’re not careful the smoke stains the wood.  I thought of putting little signs under the glass up here designating where to put them or not put them, but we often blow right through instruction.  I know I do.          

           While we’re on the topic of candles, I started my doctorate at a Lutheran seminary, where I learned that in Lutheran churches it is common to have two candles on the altar. Do you know what those candles represent today?  Law and gospel, or to put it more colloquially, rules or judgment and grace. Do you know the origin of the two-candle tradition?  It was not to represent the Lutheran commitment to law and gospel.  The custom originated before electric lights, and it so happened it took about two candles worth of light to illuminate the liturgy well enough for the priest to read it.  We tend to add meaning to existing practices, which doesn’t make them less meaningful.   

           I wonder which candle it is to which you would gravitate.  Should I assume that you would all flock to grace, gospel?  We all make mistakes, run off course, or participate in larger things that it turns out harm others.  We would like to think there’s a merciful force, a grace, that awaits us when we do.  Those of us who have experienced the grace offered by another know its power, power to heal, transform, motivate.  Can you recall such a time? 

           Would I find some among you who would gravitate toward law?  We have some lawyers in our midst, and others who I would gather recognize that law, rules, some measure of order is what holds peoples together, even if those laws need to be amended from time to time.  For those of the faith, the laws of Scripture carry a greater, more foundational weight even if we don’t follow them in the same way our ancestors did. 

           I can see how you would draw a two lights parallel to the texts you heard today.  Take the first—the prophet Jeremiah rails against the people for not adhering to the law.  “A hot wind comes from me out of the bare heights in the desert toward my poor people, not to winnow or cleanse—a wind too strong for that.  Now it is I who speak in judgment against them” (Jer. 4:11-12). After the week we’ve just had, the image of a hot wind as God’s judgment is a particularly intense image.  This is the strength of the critique of the people by the prophet.  God is angry at the people for not fulfilling the law.

           Now the second – the writer of 1 Timothy is expressing gratitude to Christ Jesus for giving strength and judging him faithful even though he was formerly “a blasphemer, a persecutor, and a man of violence” (1 Tim. 1:12-13).  These are attributes incompatible with Christ, yet, because these actions came out of ignorance and because God is who God is, “the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus” (v. 13-14). Note, by the way, it’s the faith and love of Christ, not the person’s faith, that makes the difference. 

           Of the two, which would you choose?  It is, of course, a false choice.  There is only one light that supplies the two candles.  There is one God.  Against my best efforts, you still hear in the church, “The Old Testament God,” and “The New Testament God.”  Just this week I was running and listening to David Bentley Hart’s fine history The Story of Christianity, and he was detailing the second century figure of Marcion. Marcion gave birth to the notion of two gods from the two Testaments.  He thought Scripture should include portions of the Gospel of Luke, edited and corrected by him as well as some of Paul’s letters and that’s it, certainly no Old Testament.  It was in part response to Marcion that the church set out to create an official and wider biblical canon.  Marcionism became an official heresy of the church, yet many Christians today are functionally “Marcionites.” 

           While we might embrace the overflowing love of God in Christ, we should be careful about falling for Marcion’s mischaracterization.  When you’re tempted to draw the Old Testament New Testament God distinction, remember it is in the Old Testament that we read:

8 The LORD is merciful and gracious,
             slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love.
9 He will not always accuse,
   nor will he keep his anger forever…

But the steadfast love of the Lord is from everlasting to everlasting (Ps. 103:8-9, 17).

We should remember it is in the New Testament, the mouth of Jesus no less, that the concept of eternal punishment in eternal fire is introduced (Mt. 25).  There is plenty of grace and plenty of judgment in both Testaments. 

                  There is one God and one love, a love that shows up in different forms, sometimes to foster and inspire standards for living and accountability and to embody mercy and forgiveness.  The former without the latter risks of being cold or harsh, while the latter without the former risks being harmfully permissive.  Walter Brueggemann, that great Old Testament scholar writes in a prayer entitled “On Reading Jeremiah 4”

We do not live by bread alone but by your word:
            So we thank you for your word,
                        that you have spoken in time of need
                                                with deep assurance,
                        that you have spoken in times of complacency 
                                                with deep threat…[1]           

It’s all God’s word, the deep assurance in times of need and the critique, “threat” in Brueggeman’s parlance in times of complacency. The trick is to know which we need in which moments, for the temptation is to grasp or assign the wrong one. Those who think little of themselves, perhaps who have been battered by the world, sometimes only embrace judgment on themselves assuming they must deserve it.  Those who think quite a lot of themselves may rush to ever more assurance when they need to be challenged.  Today is our annual in-gathering, a celebration to the beginning of the program year, and it would be tempting only to dole out only assurance, but the serious among you would know you’re not getting the whole truth, that we need more than a saccharin and superficial spirituality if we are to engage in serious and lasting growth, and joy of any depth as well.

            We need accountability and mercy.  It’s liberating for everyone.  Stephen and Ondrea Levine spent decades offering workshops about conscious living and conscious dying.  On a portion of their web site there is an apology section, where people can anonymously post their regrets in a form of an apology, often to those who are no longer with us.  Here’s a sampling:

I apologize to my recently deceased brother, who I love and miss so much, that I didn't visit you as often as perhaps I could have...I made the mistake of thinking we had more time. But it wasn't meant to be.

I apologize to my parents and grandparents for being so self-absorbed as a kid and therefore oblivious to their needs, suffering, emotional states. 

I’m deeply sorry for the hurt that I caused in those who worked for me…. For expecting perfection, for setting unrealistic standards, and causing suffering in the process.

There’s an apology of a babysitter who acted unkind, playing a joke on the child in their care, apologies from someone for shutting down emotionally, lots of apologies among spouses some together some no longer. 

            Some of the apologies on the site are quite severe. There is an apology for sexual abuse committed by a then confused teenager.  There is an apology of an immigrant woman, a victim of childhood abuse herself, who in her own words was not “strong enough to handle things” when her oldest son was diagnosed with anxiety and panic attacks.  She turned to some poor choices she only vaguely describes.[1]

            That woman, along with a fair number of others, also apologizes to herself.  Sometimes one needs to apologize to the self for self-inflicted suffering, or for simply having to endure suffering at the hands of others or life and luck, or for being too hard on oneself.  It’s quite astounding to witness people engage in that level of self-reflection, vulnerability and commitment to growth. 

            I wonder what we might include, were we to open up on such a forum, in a journal, or in prayer.  What would we reveal about who we want to be?  What would we include about beyond our individual lives about the groups of which we are a part or with which we affiliate?  And, if we could get to the point that we were that self-reflective and vulnerable, what response would we hope to receive? 

            These apologies might sound simply like an appeal for mercy, but they are actually a testament both to the yearning for mercy and the recognition of appropriate standards for conduct—law and gospel. It’s a recognition that we need standards by which we conduct human life and mercy as we foster accountability. 

            The Lutherans may have been onto something after all.  It takes both candles to provide the light to see fully the divine liturgy of this life.



[1]Walter Brueggemann, Inscribing the Text: Sermons and Prayers of Walter Brueggemann(Minneapolis:  Fortress Press, 2004), 209.