Sermon preached on the Second Sunday of Advent (8 December 2013) by the Very Reverend David Ison, Dean

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7:30am Morning Prayer
8:00am Eucharist
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Sermon preached on the Second Sunday of Advent (8 December 2013) by the Very Reverend David Ison, Dean

The Very Reverend David Ison looks at judgement and says 'it’s learning to judge ourselves truly that’s the basic life skill'.

The second of the four last things of Advent is Judgement. Facing judgement sounds pretty grim, the kind of thing that happens to you when you get severely criticised by a judge like Simon Cowell on a TV talent show, or worse.

But ‘judgement’ sounds very different if you have a judgement in your favour. If you’ve gone to law to get justice, and the judge agrees that you’ve been wronged and awards you damages, or says that you’re innocent of any crime, then judgement is something you’d positively want to go through.

Our Old Testament reading this morning has that positive flavour of judgement. The Messiah will come and make the world a place of peace and justice: ‘With righteousness he shall judge the poor, and decide with equity for the meek of the earth… with the breath of his lips he shall kill the wicked.’

Isn’t that something which we all long for? For all the injustices of the world to be put right? For the wicked to be judged and punished, and for those who’ve got away with it to be called to account, while the poor and vulnerable are cherished and vindicated? The pages of the Bible echo with the cry of oppressed people throughout history: give us justice! Come, O God, and set the world right! Give us judgement, give us justice!

Part of the good news of the Christian gospel is that God is indeed the God of justice and truth: that the coming kingdom of God in Jesus Christ means the triumph of right over wrong, the putting right of what has been broken, the wiping away of every tear.

And yet: there’s that other side of judgement. Look at today’s Gospel reading, where John the Baptist is scathing about the Pharisees and Sadducees, the good religious people who come full of confidence that they’ve got it right before God. ‘You brood of vipers’, he says, ‘don’t presume that God will judge in your favour, but do what’s right while you still have time.’ John echoes older prophets like Amos, who asked why the people of Israel wanted God’s day of judgement to come when they themselves had been so wicked. God is not on my side or your side; God is not on anyone’s side, but is on the side of justice.

In many medieval churches there was a Doom painting above the arch at the front of the church. The old English word Doom means judgement, and the paintings showed in graphic detail the judgement of humanity by God at the end of the world, with the wicked being led away naked to hell by horrible devils, and the good entering into heaven. The painting was at the front so that the congregation would see it, and be reminded of the judgement by God which they would go through, and the need to live now in the light of that Last Judgement.

If you were to look at a scene like that, where would you put yourself? Although there are some who feel that they deserve to be condemned – and often those are people who’ve themselves been manipulated by the wicked, or touched by brokenness of mind – most of us think that we’re alright really. Many people who aren’t religious have said to me: ‘But I’ve never hurt anyone’. That’s the kind of self-image we like to have: ‘I’m basically a good woman, just the odd bit of temper, but as good as anyone else’. Or: ‘OK, I did a few crazy things with the lads when I was young like we all do, but so what?’ Or even: ‘Yes, I’ve got a bit of a temper sometimes, and yes I did kill someone once, but he deserved it.’

How hard it is to face the truth about ourselves before God and others. A former colleague of mine worked on a treatment programme for sex offenders, and discovered that many prisoners wouldn’t do it: they would rather spend longer in prison than agree to face up to the reality of what they’d done, and how they’d damaged the lives of other people. Judgement means being confronted with the truth of who we are and what we do. And finding out the truth about ourselves – the real, honest truth – can be a painful and even distressing business.

Are you your harshest critic or your most loyal fan? How will you truly judge yourself? Even St Paul had problems with this one. 'I'm the greatest of sinners' he says in one of his letters [1 Tim ch.1] – but of course he wasn't. The reality is that what we feel about ourselves is rarely the truth, because we don't see ourselves as God sees us, as we really are. Which is why we need to face judgement, both the good news and the bad news about ourselves.

Jesus once said about public and private hypocrisy [Luke 12.2-3]: ‘Nothing is covered up that won’t be uncovered, nothing is secret that won’t become known. What you’ve said in the dark will be heard in the light, what you whisper behind closed doors will be proclaimed from the housetops.’

Jesus could have been talking about the internet: the place where what’s on the inside of people so often comes out, where vitriol and aggression are openly expressed; and through the internet some of the secret actions of terrorists, governments and corporations are made known to the world. We have to live our lives in the open now, open to the judgement of others.

Today the world mourns Nelson Mandela: a man changed through his experience of learning to judge himself truly in his prison cell. He wrote these words to his wife when she went to prison, words which expressed his own experience which was foundational to his peacemaking:

‘In judging our progress as individuals we tend to concentrate on external factors such as… social position, … popularity, wealth and standard of education …. but … even more crucial [are]… honesty, sincerity, simplicity, humility, purity, generosity, absence of vanity, readiness to serve your fellow men… the [prison] cell gives you the opportunity to look daily into your entire conduct to overcome the bad and develop whatever is good in you…’

Mandela didn’t judge others. But along with the media and most other people, we spend a lot of time making judgements on other people. But that’s largely a waste of time. It’s learning to judge ourselves truly that’s the basic life skill.

Work with God on being judged now, so that you can be transformed and live freely because the Last Judgement will hold few surprises.

For, like a friend who loves us enough to tell us the uncomfortable truth, the God of love and justice confronts us with how we really are, and the ways in which we may not have even noticed that we’ve hurt the lives of others.

If we love someone, we're not content with them being unhappy, or hurting themselves and others – we want them to live life in its fullness. And just so, God will not rest content with us being anything less than the loving human beings he made us to be: that we might be those who accept judgement rather than be judgemental of others.

1600 years ago in the Egyptian desert, a young hermit asked an older one: 'Tell me how to become a monk.' He replied, 'If you want to find rest here below, and hereafter, say at every moment: Who am I? And do not yourself judge anyone.'