We’re on The Right Road When We Start at The Intersection of Judgment and Mercy

Do you desire to connect with others, to live as God would want in relationship to others?  Jesus’ half-brother was concerned about that, too, and he wrote a letter with that in mind. He makes it clear in James 2:1-13 that “we’re on the right road when we start at the intersection of judgment and mercy.”  September 1, 2019.

GPS makes it too easy. There are young folks who have no idea about how to use a map, and why should they? Siri will take them where they need to go. But has Siri ever blown it for you? Was the address unclear or too close a match to some other location and got you turned around or taken you down a bumpy byway instead of a real road?

What if it’s not a physical road you’re after but a career path? Siri may not be much help. Or what if you’re seeking the path to get along with others, to have friendships and relationships that are not only satisfying and fulfilling for you, but also God-pleasing? What path do we take? What road should we be on? You might have passed the birthday when you’re supposed to sign up for Medicare. You might be a Baby Boomer. You might be a millennial or Gen X, Y, or Z. We all want and need to connect with other people because relationships matter.

Jesus’ half-brother was concerned about that, too, and he wrote a letter with that in mind, the Bible book we know by his name, James. He makes it clear in chapter two that if we have a longing and desire to connect with others, to get along with others, to live as God would want in relationship to others, then: “we’re on the right road when we start at the intersection of judgment and mercy.”

Mercy through judgment

The officer knocks on your door and hands you a subpoena. You are to appear in court. You’re embarrassed and wonder, “What’s this about?” He says, “You’ll see.” You show up in your Sunday best and end up waiting and waiting and waiting out in the hall, wiggling your foot, twitching your knee up and down. Finally, your name is called, and you are ushered into the courtroom. Perspiration beads on your forehead and trickles down your spine. You keep telling yourself, “I’ve got nothing to worry about.” But then the judge pats a stack of paper five inches thick, grabs the first sheet, and begins to read … into a microphone so that everyone’s head pops up. The judge’s eyes bore in on you. This is so humbling, so humiliating!

The first charge is judging others by how they look, by external appearances, their clothes, their skin color, their hair color, their height, their weight, the schools they attended, their neighborhood. If we judge people on surface issues, well, the apostle has something to say about that: My brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ must not show favoritism [*] … If you really keep the royal law found in Scripture, “Love your neighbor as yourself,” you are doing right. But if you show favoritism [if you are judging others lovelessly], you sin and are convicted by [God’s] law as lawbreakers. Your first reaction?  I know what mine would be. “That doesn’t seem like too bad a charge. How can he convict me on what I’m thinking?  It’s a free country, and I’m free to have my own opinions. If anything, maybe I’ll pay a little fine, do a month’s probation, promise to be good, and all will go well. And if I get a good attorney, none of it will stick.”

But the judge continues with another charge. He who said, “You shall not commit adultery,” also said, “You shall not murder.” If you do not commit adultery but do commit murder, you have become a lawbreaker. “Whew!” you think, “Can’t stick me with anything there.” But the apostle says, “Look at what’s behind those commands.  I’m not writing to you about a court of law downtown or even a pretend courtroom. Wake up! I’m talking about big stuff, eternal stuff. I’m talking about your relationship with God.” The apostle James is right. The Judge spoke through his eternal Son, “Anyone who looks at a woman lustfully has already committed adultery with her in his heart” (Matthew 5:28), and through the beloved disciple, John, “Anyone who hates a brother or sister is a murderer” (1 John 3:15). So, if you ever harbored an inappropriate sexual thought in your mind, you are an adulterer. If you ever let hate toward someone well up and worm around in there, you’re a murderer. Guilty. Then the kicker. If you end your time on earth and are standing before the Holy Judge to hear your eternal destiny, he’s going to throw the whole book at you. Whoever keeps the whole law and yet stumbles at just one point is guilty of breaking all of it. Seems unfair, but you and I don’t get to make the rules. We can’t set the bar only as high as we can easily step over. God sets the bar as high as he wants, and it’s as high as the heavens, “Be perfect!” (Matthew 5:48). After all, it’s his courtroom, and unless something dramatic happens, we’re going to be not only embarrassed but humbled and humiliated.

If that’s going to happen, I’d be ready to holler, “Save your time, Lord, save your breath, and save me the embarrassment of having my whole life with all it’s bad and naughty stuff dredged up and made public for all to see. Just make your judgment and get it over with.” But even that won’t work because the penalty is embarrassment and humiliation and pain and emptiness and guilt forever.

But look! The judge straightens up in his chair, peers into your eyes and mine, and says, “Not guilty!” “What? Say again! How can that be? You’ve got the goods on me, Lord. There’s no way.” But the judge says, “There is a way. You have an advocate who stepped in to pay your fine. He’s righted your record. You’ve got nothing on CCAP, nothing accusing you, not even the accuser, the devil.” That, my friends, is mercy, mercy from God to us, mercy undeserved, mercy unexpected. It’s why James could address people as brothers and sisters, believers in our glorious Lord Jesus Christ. Jesus shows how God operates, taking the least likely and elevating them. We want to put the rich and powerful on a pedestal, and if we don’t want to, they’ll demand it or force us to. But not in God’s eyes or court. God elevates the least, those poor in spirit (Matthew 5:3), Jesus would say, those who know they’re rotten to the core and can’t cure themselves. He cleanses, he cures, he heals, he forgives. That’s how God renders a judgment in our favor. There is no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus. (Romans 8:1).  Cling to Jesus, and you’ll find yourself at the intersection of judgment and mercy. Because of Jesus, God’s judgment over you and me is “Not guilty!” His mercy comes to us through this judgment.

Because of that, I can finally feel OK in my own skin, in my conscience, with God. When that’s true for you and me, when we are OK in who we are with God, then we can say, “We deserve condemning judgment, but in Jesus we have mercy through his forgiving judgment, and we are now on the path to relate to others.” Do you see the street signs labeled “judgment” and “mercy” crossing each other? We don’t need GPS or Siri to point us in the right direction. We’re on the right road when we start at the intersection of judgment and mercy because God’s judgment in Christ Jesus brings us mercy.

Mercy over judgment

What’s the ending to this story? How would you write it? During the singing of the first hymn, a “street person” entered a church and started down the center aisle. He saw all the neatly dressed worshipers, proceeded to shuffle to the front, and then sat down on the floor next to the first pew. Old Charlie had been an usher for over fifty years. While the hymn was winding down, all eyes were on Charlie as he made his way down the aisle. When he reached the young man sitting on the floor, he bent over, and ... and … How does the story end? Did Charlie whisper, “You can’t sit on the floor here. It’s distracting”? Did he gently pull the man up by the arm and usher him to the back? No, Charlie’s knees cracked a bit as he sat on the floor next to the man for the remainder of the service.

The cool night air rustled the leaves on the trees as they sat on mats on top of that long, sloping ridge. Twinkling starlight and the gray light of the full moon filtered through the branches as Jesus turned his face toward them, cupped his hands on his knees, and leaned forward, “I know you’re worried about the end. You’re upset. Your hearts are racing. You’re troubled because I’ve told you that we’ve come to Jerusalem, and I will complete my assignment to die for all. But that is not the end. I will rise. I will see you again. I will be with you every step of your life invisibly. But you are also worried about the end of your life. How will your story end? I’m going to tell you right now. One day this entire universe which I created will end. In a flash all people who have ever lived and who are living on that great day will be gathered before my throne. You will be there, too. Books will be opened. Each of you will have a page with your name on top, and I am going to read for all to hear what I have seen in your life.  Would you like to hear what that is? Do you want to know the end of your story?” Peter shot John a sideways glance and saw that he like the others gulped hard and nodded, “OK, we might as well hear it.” Jesus smiled. He smiled! And said, “I will say to you, ‘Come, you who are blessed by my Father; take your inheritance, the kingdom prepared for you since the creation of the world. For I was hungry and you gave me something to eat, I was thirsty and you gave me something to drink, I was a stranger and you invited me in, I needed clothes and you clothed me, I was sick and you looked after me, I was in prison and you came to visit me.’ Then you will answer me, ‘Lord, when did any of that happen? I will reply, ‘Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me’ (Matthew 25:34-40).” The disciples gasped. “In spite of our sinfulness, mistakes, and loveless judging of others, the Lord will only see the times when his mercy toward us inspired our mercy toward others, when mercy triumphed over judgment!”

There will come a day when you and I are standing before the Lord’s throne. You will have your name at the top of a page in his book, and so will I. That makes me cringe when I think of what I deserve to hear read out loud, all those times when I blew it in my relationships with others, when I was too self-centered to pay attention to their needs, when I was trying to cover up or save my own skin instead of giving and helping and serving others. But Jesus will look at me and look at you and say, “Yes, there are times for which you should be embarrassed. There are attitudes and behaviors that humble you. But I’m not going to count those. I’m only seeing those times when my mercy shown to you through my forgiving judgment inspired your mercy to others, overcoming your loveless judgment. As far as I am concerned, you lived what the apostle wrote, ‘Speak and act as those who are going to be judged by the [word] that gives freedom … Mercy triumphs over judgment’.”

Do you desire to connect with others, to get along with others, to live as God would want in relationship to others? Do you see how to get there? Do you see the streets signs labeled “judgment” and “mercy” crossing each other? We don’t need GPS or Siri to point us in the right direction. We’re on the right road when we start at the intersection of judgment and mercy because our mercy triumphs over our loveless judgment.”

Sound like a tall order? You can and you will have better and closer relationships with others because Jesus fulfilled the tall order of saving you and me and giving us the best relationship of all – his! Amen.

* Suppose a man comes into your meeting wearing a gold ring and fine clothes, and a poor man in filthy old clothes also comes in. If you show special attention to the man wearing fine clothes and say, “Here’s a good seat for you,” but say to the poor man, “You stand there” or “Sit on the floor by my feet,” have you not discriminated among yourselves and become judges with evil thoughts?

Preached at Grace Lutheran Church, Milwaukee, WI (www.gracedowntown.org) on September 1, 2019