But with me it is a very small thing that I should be judged by you or by any human court. In fact, I do not even judge myself. For I am not aware of anything against myself, but I am not thereby acquitted. It is the Lord who judges me. Therefore do not pronounce judgment before the time, before the Lord comes, who will bring to light the things now hidden in darkness and will disclose the purposes of the heart. Then each one will receive his commendation from God.
-1 Corinthians 4:3-5 (English Standard Version)
We’re in the part of the year known to the Jewish people as the High Holy Days. The term usually applies to the the 10-day period from Rosh Hashanah (the Jewish New Year) to Yom Kippur (the Day of Atonement). (Some Jews also consider the 40 days before Rosh Hashanah as part of the High Holy Days.) The observance calls Jews to a time of soul-searching and repentance. According to tradition, God writes each person’s fate for the coming year into the Book of Life on Rosh Hashanah, and then seals it on Yom Kippur. In between, Jews confess their sins, make amends, and seek forgiveness from God and other people. At the end of Yom Kippur, they hope that they are forgiven.
At the heart of the High Holy Days are two convictions: that God is the True King, and that he is the True Judge. On Rosh Hashanah, he comes to rule in his peoples’ lives for another year. On Yom Kippur, his judgement is accepted as true and righteous.
For Christians, both of those convictions should resonate.
Jesus announced that, in him, God was taking the throne and being crowned King. Never mind that his kingdom looked different than most people would have expected. Never mind that it came into being, not through power or violence, but through Jesus’ own suffering, death, and resurrection. The Jewish leaders asked Jesus if he was the Messiah. The Romans asked if he was King of the Jews. The questions, more or less, were identical. And Jesus’ response in both cases was an unequivocal “Yes.”
And because God became King through Jesus, it is Jesus who has the authority and right to judge. Paul told the citizens in Athens that God had “set a day when he will judge the world with justice by the man he has appointed,” and that the proof of this man’s authority was in his resurrection from the dead. He would write later that a day was coming when God would judge “people’s secrets through Jesus Christ.”
God is King. God is Judge. That should resonate with Jews and Christians.
Funny, then, how we have such trouble with that.
I saw an article this week in which a young Jewish musician, discussing the High Holy Days, said that the liturgical music of her generation is “really about the energy and the momentum of the entire community together, creating space for people to have their own experience, whatever that is.” Their own experience. Whatever that is. She goes on to talk about her appreciation of the traditional music of the High Holy Days, its emphasis on God as True Judge and giving him “space” and “honor” and “respect”. But it seems that her emphasis on personal experience - whatever that might be for any particular person - is probably more comfortable.
For all of us.
Because letting God be King and Judge won’t allow us to take refuge in “energy” and “the momentum of the entire community together,” and it certainly doesn’t give half a fig for our own experiences, whatever they may be. Those are the mantras of the world we live in, unredeemed people who belong to no one but ourselves and maybe the families and tribes in which we find safety and security and identity. But to take seriously the notion that God is King and Judge is to finally embrace the difficult truth that my experience isn’t the yardstick by which reality is to be measured, and can in fact mask reality in any number of ways. It’s to realize that the verdict of even an entire community can be wrong.
It’s the Lord who judges us.
That can be terrifying, of course. Terrifying to admit that the opinions that I hold of myself, and the opinions of me held by the people I respect most, might not be worth the kilowatts of brain power that it takes to generate them. It’s terrifying to imagine that the Lord judges us because he’s beyond partiality, manipulation, or deception. He won’t be won over by my charming personality, my spotless reputation, my benevolent acts, my most pious prayers. As Paul puts it, be brings “to light what is hidden in darkness” and “discloses the purposes of the heart.” What we obscure, from ourselves and others, he drags into the open. What our family and tribe, so much like us and so partial to us, will overlook, he will point out.
But there’s freedom in that too, because so much of what we receive from other people is judgment. Judgment based on how we look, or what we’ve accomplished professionally, degrees held, works published. Unjust judgment pelts us like the fists of an angry mob. But, in Jesus, we can dismiss all that. We can consider human judgment - favorable or unfavorable - to be “a very small thing.” And then we’re free to do that the Lord tells us is right, without courting the approval of - or fearing the derision of - the masses.
In Jesus, the books are no longer open on us. We don’t have to spend our lives anxiously appeasing God, and in the end have nothing but a hope that he might forgive. We have a promise, the words of Jesus himself: “whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life and will not be judged but has crossed over from death to life.” To believe in Jesus is to receive a verdict of “not guilty” from the True King and Judge.
Of course, he won’t be fooled by pretend piety. We can use that word “believe” in a way that has no relation to the word Jesus used. As Jesus used it, the word has more to do with trust, with putting all your eggs in his basket, with following in his footsteps no matter where following takes you. It has to do with letting your heart be captured by him, and living your life to accomplish what he wants.
It’s letting him be King in your life.
It’s allowing him to sit in judgment of your every word and action, to evaluate everything you do and are.
But it’s the way to forgiveness, and life, and freedom from sin and death.
So let’s join our Jewish friends in welcoming God, the True King and Judge, into our lives. Let’s bow before him in submission, repentance, and sorrow.
And then let’s rise in the power of grace and forgiveness, in the name of Jesus.