Wednesday, October 15, 2014

The Lord Is Coming to Judge

Psalm 96

As we get ready for Sunday's texts, we notice that we have this lofty hymn of praise for the psalm.  This psalm is prescribed every Christmas Eve (though, can be substituted with 97 or 98) and we see it a few times in our lectionary throughout the three years.

Rather than give a verse by verse, "Wow! Isn't that cool!" look at it, I thought I would lift up something that can be a stumbling block for folks who sing the psalms each week.  But, before we get there, we notice the command in the first verse, "Sing to the LORD a new song."  I choose to think that this is a command based on the language of the psalter everywhere else.  This isn't simply a suggestion or an encouragement, rather it is a "how could you not?" command that affirms the works of the Lord in creation and salvation of his people.

It's too easy for us to come up with excuses not to worship or to participate in worship.  For Lutherans we understand scripture through the lenses of Law and Gospel.  Gospel being good news that we want to hear, that we like to hear.  Too often we are comforted by the Gospel without the challenge of the Law.  While I wouldn't say that this psalm is naturally a "Law" psalm, as it were, I would say that the command to worship, to sing to the Lord a new song, is affirmed by the telling of God's deeds of creation and salvation.  To go a step further, I believe that is our responsibility, or calling (Law and Gospel) to recount these deeds every time we gather together.  The active recounting of these events comes each week in our worship, both in Word and Sacrament.  It is in the reading of scripture for the whole people that we hear the works of the Lord.  It is in the lifting up of the sacrament and our receiving of it that Christ's cross and resurrection are recounted.  Therefore, as we gather each week, weathered by the challenges and chances of life, we are a new people, being reborn each day in the gift of our baptismal covenant coming together as a body of confused human beings setting forth a "new song" through the proclamation of the deeds of our God.  Sing to the Lord a new song?  How could we not?

To address something that tends to trip up folks (including myself) when singing or reading these psalms, I wish to write for a brief moment about the idea of judgment.  This fall, I have taken on a challenge that I won't soon forget.  I have challenged myself to a "scripture surge" (my term).  I wanted to get a perspective of the whole of scripture.  I wanted to understand the Law in light of Jesus without it being close to a year between the reading of the two.  Therefore, I decided to read or listen to 10-15 chapters a day, surging through the scriptures.  I can hear it now, "Gee, I wish I had that kind of time."  It's not about time, I have learned, it's about priority. I have no more or less time that anyone else.  Are there days that I haven't read?  Sure.  But, my goal was to get a picture of the shape of the Bible.  Do I understand everything that I am reading?  No.  Often, I get impatient with a section a take a few days off.  But, this makes for good conversations about how people understand scripture.  Also, I get to see how others interpret a book or the Bible as a whole by reading commentaries to bridge the gaps of my ignorance.

Like worship, every time we approach the Bible, we are different people coming up with different observations.  This go-round, I have noticed that the idea of judgment is not nearly as dark as I have always perceived it.  Even in the psalms, we always hear of judgment as a part of a celebration of what God is doing.  The people of Israel looked to God as judge because they needed someone to make a terribly wrong situation (Egypt, wilderness, battles, exile, return) right.  This is what judgment is: putting things right.  Liberal sensibility is inclined to interpret judgment as all people being treated equally.  Rather, judgment (as N. T. Wright would put it) is all people being treated appropriately.  In this light, we see that all things can be made right.

It seems that God is celebrated as judge often in the same passages that he is celebrated as creator.  Who better to evaluate than the one who creates?  We bristle at the thought of judgment because we ourselves are not capable.  How can we who haven't created, we who haven't given life and who haven't sustained cast any judgment on others?   I think that this is what Jesus meant in the oft quoted passage from Matthew 7, "Judge not, lest you too be judged."  We read the first two words as a command, what is being said however, "Judge if you will, but know that by your own system of evaluation will you be evaluated."  In other words, leave the judgment up to God.

This is probably one of the most freeing realities of the Christian.  Judgment is not necessarily "punishment" is making all things right.  It is through Jesus that God has done this work.  God judges the world through Jesus, through his life-giving death and resurrection.  It is why we pray every Good Friday, "Lord Jesus Christ, Son of the living God, we pray you to set your passion, cross, and death between your judgment and
our souls, now and in the hour of our death."  Therefore, judgment is something to be celebrated and justice is something to work toward (but that's another entry for another time).

Our ongoing lesson?  Jesus stands at the center both of the new and renewing song and at the judgment of the world.  Celebrate this today.  Celebrate it every day.  The salvation of the world, of the cosmos has Jesus at the center of it.  Let's get ourselves out of the way and sing that new song to the Lord!

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