Trembling Before a Righteous Judge

A Homily for the Third Week of Advent

Text: St. John 8:12-20

Grace to you and peace from God our Heavenly Father and Christ Jesus our Lord, the Righteous Judge. Amen.

Growing up, I loved seeing the rather gruesome carvings that decorate the facades of many large European churches. Weird little kid that I was, one of my favorite themes was the Final Judgment: Christ sits enthroned, orb and scepter in hand, looking out at all who dare to come to the cathedral, as angels escort the Faithful into paradise and (here’s the part I really liked), the condemned are taken to places of torment, skeletons with pitchforks prod cauldrons full of sinners, and all manner of infernal punishments play out in stone. The sculptures are nothing if not vividly haunting.

These carvings capture a key turn in this evening’s readings:

…my judgment is valid; for it not I alone who judge, but I and the Father who sent me.

Or rather, these carvings capture one interpretation of tonight’s reading.

We find ourselves in the middle of a larger discourse that runs throughout chapter eight: an argument between Jesus and a group of Jewish religious leaders about the nature of judgment, the authority of witness testimony, and death sentences.

The chapter begins and ends with attempted stonings:

First, a woman caught in adultery is presented to Jesus, and the religious leaders demand to know if she should be put to death as written in the Torah. (Given that adultery is a two-person endeavor, it’s worth noting that only the woman is brought forward for execution.) Jesus bends down to write on the ground before inviting the sinless one among them to through the first stone; when no rocks are lobbed, our Lord announces to the woman that she is not condemned.

The second attempted stoning comes at the end of the argument, after Jesus has strongly hinted at his messianic identity; the same religious leaders pick up rocks to throw at him but, as St. John cryptically puts it, he “hid himself and went of the temple.”

In between these two events, Jesus and the leaders debate what it means to bear faithful witness and speak the truth, to keep the Law, and to judge and be judged – all of which also revolves around Jesus’ claim to be the Son of God sent from the Father.

And so, after telling the woman that she is free to go, Jesus claims to be the light of the world, and the Pharisees demand to know what authority he has – to challenge them, to let the woman live, and to testify on his own behalf.

Our Lord responds by saying that they judge by human standards, not divine. But, he goes on, he does not judge – and if he did, it would be valid.

Here, Christ’s words bump up against both the Pharisees’ expectations and our own: the Pharisees, seeking to reinvigorate Jewish life under Roman rule and a religion quickly spreading beyond the Temple, emphasized observance of the Law – especially around dietary restrictions and the Sabbath.  But to them, Jesus offers a more gentle fulfillment of the Law. As we saw last week, the Sabbath is a time to heal. As we see just before tonight’s reading, judgment brings life rather than death. The Torah, as Jesus judges it, is freedom rather than burden.

When we think of God’s judgment, it’s so often images of wrath: the stony-faced Christ, dressed as a monarch, including the ruling scepter, sitting over the cathedral doorway condemning sinners to torment (whether or not there are actual skeletons or flaming cauldrons). We bring our own long list of victims, our own pet sins and violations we want to see judged and punished, as we stand in place of the skeletons, pitchfork in hand, demanding that God stand in violent judgment over those we accuse.

But the God revealed in Christ is not the violent judge carved in stone nor the one to lob stones at the accused.

Yes, God does stand in judgment of us, and yes, that should fill us with mortal dread. But we should also take comfort, for the Lord our God is abundantly merciful, who sets us free and says,

Neither do I condemn you. Go on your way, and from now on do not sin again.

Jesus Christ is the one who reveals the Father’s love even when we confront him with our wrath.

Beloved, take heart, for Christ’s judgment is valid. And it is gentle. In it, we find our freedom.


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