Friday: February 19, 2016 –– First Week of Lent
Ezekiel 18:21–28 / Psalm 130 / Matthew 5:20–26
Making Sense of Mercy and Judgment
If we take Scripture seriously (and I do), the texts for today give us a reason to have what was once called a “godly fear”.
This is in contrast to at least two prevalent attitudes that surround us: First, there is a pervasive tendency to hardly to think of God at all. Second, if God does enter one’s thoughts, it is assumed that there is nothing to worry about since he’s some distant but benign being that demands nothing but assures everyone that everything will eventually turn out okay. Again, if we take Scripture seriously, both of these attitudes are grave mistakes.
Now to be sure, the Psalmist does indeed give assurance that with the Lord there is forgiveness. But forgiveness is bookended here. On one end we find for with the Lord is kindness…. This is why we can hope for forgiveness. On the other end, though, with him is plenteous redemption. This is more than forgiveness. This phrase points us to what God desires––and does—through the salvation he offers. Here is how the Psalmist says it: he will redeem Israel from all their iniquities. In other words, God is out to make his people holy.
We are instructed and warned: God hates sin. This time of Lent is meant to bring us, in fresh ways, face to face with what it means to ignore and reject God’s ways. We need time to reflect on the difference between sin and godliness. In a rebellious world that has grossly twisted the word, we should always start with the basic fact that God is love. This means that God defines love (and we are not free to redefine it according to our tastes and desires).
This also means that love is not selfish. After St John, in his first letter, simply says God is love, he also expands that saying, In this is love, not that we loved God but that he loved us and sent his Son to be the expiation for our sins (1 Jn 4:10). As Lent takes us on the journey with Jesus to the cross, there are two important things to keep in mind. First, God shows us what love is through self-sacrifice. Second, the death of Jesus on the cross shows us the horror and the price of rejecting God’s ways.
In today’s Gospel (and in the verses that follow, if you care to read further) Jesus confronts two common tendencies in broken humanity which are at total odds with love: the desire to kill and the attitude of disdaining another. At the root of both is an attitude which essentially says to another: “you don’t matter; what I want is most important even if it means removing you”.
The attitude that God is always inviting us to embrace is his own. To use the words of the Psalmist we are called to kindness and forgiveness. When we do that we are taking a path that Ezekiel calls right and just. It is a path that is filled with the mercy of God.
Still using Ezekiel’s words, if the virtuous man turns from the path of virtue to do evil, the implication is fully present. In leaving the path, such a person is walking away from God and walking away from God means turning one’s back on mercy. It is not that God hates that person or desires his judgment; turning from God inherently means rejecting mercy and choosing judgment.
So there is good reason to fear. There is a spirit in this world that is always wanting to pull us from God. Peter warns us Your adversary the devil prowls around like a roaring lion, seeking some one to devour (1Pet 5:8). We are tempted with urges to put ourselves above others even to the point of disdain and hate. We have been given the blessing and the curse of choice. We can choose a selfishness that can destroy us and do incredible harm to those around us. It is a way that ends in judgment and death.
But…. there is a better reason not to live in selfishness and fear. Ezekiel also gives God’s deepest desire: As surely as I live, says the Sovereign LORD, I take no pleasure in the death of wicked people. I only want them to turn from their wicked ways so they can live. Turn! Turn from your wickedness, O people of Israel! Why should you die? (Ezekiel 33:11).
This is where today’s Ezekiel text ends: But if the wicked, turning from the wickedness he has committed, does what is right and just, he shall preserve his life; since he has turned away from all the sins that he committed, he shall surely live, he shall not die (18:27-28).
This is why the Church calls us to confession. It is good to be always turning in the right direction. When we are turning away from our sins, we are going toward the Lord. Conversely, if we are going toward the Lord, then we are turning away from our sins. One way is mercy; the other is judgment. One way is life; the other is death.
In the death of Christ, God is always offering us his life.