There is a big difference between the conventional wisdom of “what goes around comes around” and the terrible and highly personal judgement proclaimed by the prophets.
Zephaniah, descendant of kings and witness to the decline of empires, offers dire warnings against those who believe that their deeds and debts, duties and devotions, are of no consequence to God, that “the Lord will not do good nor harm,” that the almighty king, judge, and author of life has withdrawn from the story, no longer cares about the antics of the characters whom God has created.
We pray through the psalms that we are like the grass before God: easily swayed by the breeze, profligate but prone to mortality, and subject still to God’s indignation, and to God’s mercy.
There is a big difference, too, between the conventional wisdom of “what goes around comes around” and the intervention of the Cross. In our petty judgements of one another’s comeuppance, of disfavour that is deserved, we do not leave room to reckon with the death of innocents, with the pain of those who cry to God, “Why have you forsaken me?”, nor with the apparent and easy victory of the vain.
But Jesus is among us in our most vulnerable hours, our most misunderstood moments, our deepest pain and our most undeserved joy. He, through the Cross, the harrowing of Hell, and the Resurrection has proved beyond doubt that the worst that falls us is not the measure of God’s mercy towards us, nor of our deserving; but that the judgement and justice of God, whose measure is mercy, is a more personal and interested and reliable and patient guide to our relationship with the world and with its Maker.
Zephaniah, descendant of kings and witness to the end of empires, writes out of his own history, and he is concerned not only with individual actions but with the disposition of the nation, and he holds its leaders particularly responsible. An oracle that we did not read this morning goes on to say,
“The officials [within the city] are roaring lions;
its judges are evening wolves that leave nothing until the morning.
Its prophets are reckless, faithless persons;
its priests have profaned what is sacred, they have done violence to the law.
The Lord within it is righteous; he does no wrong.
Every morning he renders his judgment, each dawn without fail;
but the unjust knows no shame.” (Zephaniah 3:3-5)
Zephaniah does not exempt himself from this judgement – he is surely among the reckless prophets – nor does he exempt me as priest, nor any of us, since as those responsible for our own governance, we the people have a particular responsibility for the disposition not only of our own hearts but of our nation. Only the unjust know no shame; only those who pretend that God has no interest in our lives, in our world, in our humanity pretend that no good nor ill will follow our own good or evil attitudes or actions.
There are consequences to our actions. There is the simplest cause and effect that we see when, for example, a public health emergency is greeted with sensible precautions consistently applied across the community and its spread is reduced, or when they are flouted or fail, and both the arrogant and the innocent are affected and infected.
We, the people, have a duty to consider with the love of God our obligations toward our neighbors and to stand up for their dignity and protection, and to follow public health advice.
Neither the judgement of God nor the mercy of God exempts us from simple cause and effect. But the judgement, the merciful and just judgement of God, does address our investment as leaders and lovers of God’s people in their health outcomes, their societal status, their equality under the law, their thriving, our common good.
Just yesterday, in his episcopal address, our Bishop noted that the fact that each of us, if we look with clear eyes, will find that our place in our society is affected by our race. Because of the disparity that this reality reflects, we are, as a whole, racist. (I am paraphrasing, because I do not yet have the transcript, so I apologize if I have him wrong; but this is what my heart heard from him. [Update: a link to the episcopal address has been added]) To say this, he said, is not a judgement. It is only a fact. What we do about it, however – and this is where we turn back from the bishop to the prophets – how we recognize it, and repent of it, and submit it for redemption: those things are subject to judgement.
Only the unjust know no shame, and say that because God does not change the dynamic of cause and effect, but lets us lead human lives of substance, agency, and consequence; only the foolish say that this means that God, our Judge and our Redeemer, does not notice nor care what goes on in our hearts, nor in our homes, nor in our nation.
But we sinners know better. We know that whatever the immediate and visible consequences of our sin and of our attempts at repentance, there is more at stake.
When we the people of God move toward love, we use our little power as a lever to shift our planet’s axis toward the intended reign of heaven. When we as disciples of Christ act as those commissioned and called by love, we change the trajectory of our faith and our future toward the will of God. When we embrace the judgement of God, that is neither arbitrary nor impersonal, but steadfast in its loving-kindness and consistent in its fierce mercy, then we live into our salvation.
“For,” as the apostle Paul writes us,
“God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ, who died for us, so that … we may live with him. Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.” (1 Thessalonians 5:9-11)