English service on January 17, 2021
Messenger: Pastor Jim Allison
Living Under God’s Judgment and Mercy
It’s good to be together with you again today, whether in person or online. I’m glad for the chance to be here one more time to pass on to you the words that I believe God is saying to us. I try my best to listen through prayer, Bible study, and so on, then basically report it in the most understandable way I can. The approach I often take to preaching like this is simply to tell you what I think God is teaching me, expecting that there will be parts of your lives that will overlap with my particular experience and learning. God’s word is amazingly practical—it often touches on the same points of life for all of us, even if we have very different backgrounds, personalities, and so on. So I enjoy the adventure of discovering God’s word together with you. Let’s do that again today.
There’s one thing that has been kind of bothering me since the COVID-19 pandemic began—coming to mind every now and then, leaving but never staying gone. It’s a question. Could this and the many other troubles in our lives today be happening as God’s judgment? In other words, is God angry at us? The goal of this message is not just to understand why these particular things are happening. Much more, it’s to help us know God more deeply and personally, which of course also holds the key to understanding our world, ourselves, and our lives. How healthy our relationship with God is will continue to matter long after this pandemic is over—as it will be someday!
Today’s message is going to be very straightforward—several answers from the Bible to the following questions.
Does God judge people? I’ll give you the answer to that right now. Yes. It may not be popular to say it in many modern cultures, but that teaching is there throughout the Bible. God does not seem to feel a need to defend this truth or explain it to us so much. Bible writers generally assume it’s a natural fact of life.
Of course, we can do great damage by too quickly and simply deciding that a terrible thing has happened because it is God’s judgment. Christ did not do that and warned us against it. (Check what He said in Luke 13 about the tower that fell and killed 18 people.) But that does not change the reality that God judges. In fact, a strong understanding of God’s judgment will lead us to accept people rather than judge them because we can leave matters of justice in the Lord’s hands. Romans 12:19 tells us, “My friends, don't try to get even. Leave room for God to show his anger. It is written, ‘I am the One who judges people. I will pay them back,’ [Deuteronomy 32:35] says the Lord.”
So why does God judge? What does He judge? How does He judge? And is there a way to avoid God’s judgment? Let’s explore those areas today. Today’s Bible passage and the first few chapters of Isaiah will shine a lot of light on them.
What purposes and goals does God have for judging people? One is upholding justice. In Isaiah 3:8 God says about Israel and Judah, “They say and do things against the Lord. They dare to disobey him to his very face.” We may want God always to be forgiving and gentle to us when we make bad choices. But when someone does something mean to us, we demand justice. God is slow to anger, but sooner or later, disobeying Him brings His righteous judgment. That’s true for individuals, but also for nations and all groupings of people. When we turn our back on God, we are inviting judgment, and it will come, sooner or later.
Here’s another way to say basically the same thing: God’s judgment is making sure that the world works the way it is designed to work. Our life’s basic purpose is to glorify God. When people insist on living selfishly and will not honor the Lord, choose not to live in ways that He is happy with, He eventually will judge us. For example, He tells us that sex is a great gift from Him, but it belongs inside marriage, as He defines marriage. If we choose to act in ways that go against these teachings, something beautiful is broken. But this also makes an opportunity for a reset, to restore things to their natural state. Isaiah 5:16 says, “But the LORD who rules over all will be honored because he judges fairly. The holy God will show that he is holy by doing what is right.”
Through judgment, God purifies His people. It is kind of like the reboot your computer does to take away the problems that are stopping it from working normally. In Isaiah 1:25, the Lord says, “I will turn my powerful hand against you. I will make you completely clean. I will remove everything that is not pure.”
The penalty of sin must be paid. But God’s goal is not getting revenge, it’s not to lower His frustration level by blasting us when He’s upset, and He doesn’t judge us because He enjoys it. He uses punishment to lead us back to Him. The vision He has for the end of the period of necessary punishment is that His people “will return to the Mighty God” (Isaiah 10:21). Even in His anger, His aim is restoring us to a right relationship with Him and others. What is a good outcome of sending judgment, in God’s mind? Isaiah 12:1-2 gives an example:
In days to come, the people of Israel will sing, “Lord, we will praise you. You were angry with us. But now your anger has turned away from us. And you have brought us comfort. God, you are the one who saves us. We will trust in you. Then we won't be afraid. LORD, you give us strength. We sing about you. Lord, you have saved us.”
That’s a very different type of judgment than a god would give who loved having power but didn’t really care about people. Can you see a hint of that difference in Isaiah 1:5, where asks His people (maybe in tears), “Israel, why do you want to be beaten all the time? Why do you always refuse to obey the LORD? Your head is covered with wounds. Your whole heart is weak.” In speaking that way, God is showing that He has given to people a free choice to do good or bad. We humans are free but at the same time responsible for the consequences of our actions. That’s a basic part of the view of humanity that the Bible’s God has. It is clearly different from many in other worldviews. The Judeo-Christian God seems really to want to stop punishing His people because we don’t need it any more. We change our ways and stop calling down His punishment on us through our actions. Again, God’s deep desire is for His punishment to lead us to return to a good relationship with Him and other people.
What does God judge? He judges idol worship, whether it is a physical idol or some human performer or leader we give our highest praise. Our idol might be money or alcohol or people’s acceptance. But God judges us when we make idols of these things because it is rejecting Him as Lord and the authority of His teachings. God judges a lack of concern, respect, and understanding regarding Him (Isaiah 5:12-13a). In Isaiah 2:8b-9a, He tells us, “Their land is full of statues of gods. They bow down to what their own hands have made. They bow down to what their fingers have shaped. So man will be brought low. People will be put to shame.”
God judges pride (Isaiah 2:11), for example people who are proud of their looks and make a show of them (Isaiah 3:16). He judges bloodshed (Isaiah 5:7b). Martin Luther King, Jr. said, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” I think that is a fact, but the Bible’s God does not allow us to use it as an excuse. He does not permit His people to turn to violence when we feel people are not listening to us enough. Remember, we follow the Christ who, when His followers were ready to fight to protect Him from being unfairly arrested, told their leader, “Put your sword back in its place. All who use the sword will die by the sword” (Matthew 26:52). Whether it is done by people on the right or left politically, God judges those who spill blood. If we do it, we can expect punishment from our Lord.
God judges unfair laws and other kinds of oppression (Isaiah 10:1-2a). Whether it is a law that forces people to pay taxes in unfair ways, one that makes cheating in an election easy or nearly impossible to check—whatever it is—if injustice is there, we should not be surprised when God punishes it. The corruption we see today in the legal system and other parts of governments is not new. Isaiah tells us in 5:23, “How terrible for those who take money to set guilty people free! How terrible for those who don't treat good people fairly!” And our Lord does not limit punishment to the individuals at the top of the power structure. After all, at least in democracies, people ultimately get the leaders we deserve because we put them in power. So what happens when our nations choose leaders who bring with them personalities, policies, programs, and people with values set against those of God? We cannot be surprised when that leads to judgment at some point.
One last example, though God eventually judges all sin. This one is from Isaiah 5:18a. God judges lying. “How terrible it will be for those who continue to sin and lie about it!” Lying could be not reporting income to avoid paying taxes. A news organization might choose not to cover (or to barely report on) an important story because it could damage the political candidate that media group supports. It could repeat false claims against its political enemies in hopes of damaging them. A social networking service could stop the free communication of certain people in hopes of damaging them or covering for their own friends. Whatever the case, lying calls down heaven’s judgment. That’s why God tells us in 1:20, “‘You must follow me. You must obey me. If you do not, you will be killed with swords.’ The LORD has spoken.”
How does God judge? However He chooses, of course. After all, He is God. In some cases, it is through allowing natural disasters, such as earthquakes, as Isaiah 5:25b describes. But the more long-term trouble Isaiah reports is God’s letting His people be invaded by a foreign military. (See Isaiah 3:8 and 5:26-30.) The prophet’s nation has become very weak, which makes such a disaster possible. Part of this is caused by political division. The country has split in two: the northern kingdom of Israel and the southern one of Judah. Their leaders are often weak and corrupt (Isaiah 3:4,12b). People in Israel are fighting each other (Isaiah 3:5). Eventually, they will lose their freedom (be taken away to other countries) and suffer from lack of food and water, Isaiah 5:13 tells us. It happened to them. What reason do we have for thinking it could not happen to us today?
As you can see, God is free to actively bring His judgment into our world, but it seems more often that He punishes by simply letting people go our own way and suffer the natural consequences of our selfish and foolish actions. Until that happens, we often do not even recognize how much He had been supporting, guiding, protecting, and blessing us up to the time of judgment.
Finally, is there a way to avoid God’s judgment? The good news is, yes. Even in times of judgment, God often chooses to bless people who honor Him. He does not give up on His children quickly or easily but calls us back to Himself. There’s not a lot of mystery to what He’s asking of us (1:16-17).
So wash your hands. Make yourselves clean. Get your evil actions out of my sight! Stop doing what is wrong! Learn to do what is right! Treat people fairly. Give hope to those who are beaten down. Cheer them up. Stand up in court for children whose fathers have died. And do the same thing for widows.
You don’t need much special training or knowledge to do those things. We usually know how to do this, if we are willing. God is willing. He invites us in v. 18 to come and talk some more with Him. He would much rather make peace with us than have to whack us! He generally does that only when He’s tried everything else and we just won’t listen. In 1:18-19, He makes an offer. If we make the free decision to turn back to Him and arrange our lives in line with His teachings, He is glad to work for us and not against us.
Even though your sins are bright red, they will be as white as snow. Even though they are deep red, they will be white like wool. But you have to be willing to change and obey me. If you are, you will eat the best food that grows on the land.
Let’s take that promise with us to the Lord in prayer.
Holy Father, we come to you in a spirit of repentance, aware that we are here only by your grace and mercy. We are weak and sinful humans, so we know that we need regularly to be forgiven of our sins. We confess them and receive anew the gift of your acceptance, with gladness and thanks. Help us to love the things that you love and see as you see so that we will not need to receive your righteous judgment but be free to live in your presence and many blessings. Through your grace, help us to be able to stand when the day of judgment does come. Help us not to fear difficulties we might face or what others may think, say, or do to us. Enable us to live in a healthy fear of your righteous, wise, and loving judgment. Hold us in your care, we pray in Jesus’ name. Amen.
King, M. L., Jr. (1968, March 14). “The Other America.” Grosse Point Historical Society. Retrieved January 11, 2021 from https://www.gphistorical.org/mlk/mlkspeech/