Sunday, October 17, 2010

How Long, O Lord?

Texts: Revelation 6:9-17; Luke 18:1-8

IF YOU WATCH VIDEOS on YouTube, or if you read online news reports, you've probably noticed a pattern in the comments. Say it's a news story about a pilot who's successfully landed a plane in the worst of conditions. Or maybe it's a video of the old Rescue 911 show, and a family has safely escaped a fire in their house. Some commenters will give God the glory. They'll say, "It was a miracle they escaped! Praise God!" And just as inevitably, ten other people will jump in with "What? How can you praise God for that? If God was good, he wouldn't've let that house catch on fire! And what about all the other houses that catch fire and all the people inside burn to death? Your god is evil! Or he doesn't exist! I don't think he exists and I hate him!!"

But you know what? It's not just atheists and scoffers who wonder how a good God can put up with evil. People who know God and love Him also struggle with the fact that justice seems to be in short supply in this world.

What is Justice, anyway? It's rendering each person what he or she has the right to and what he or she deserves. Sometimes individuals deserve bad things, sometimes they deserve good. Sometimes we forfeit our rights by our bad behavior, and we deserve to lose the benefit of them. However it is, Justice balances out the scales so good is paired with good and evil is matched with evil.

But we don't see it that way on this earth, do we? We see people whom we consider to be good receiving bad things all the time. Often the evil comes from other people, and it seems like our human justice system never gets around to punishing the guilty. Sometimes, the evil comes from nature or even seems to come from God Himself. As when someone we love gets incurable cancer. Or a child struggles with a terrible learning disability. Or a family member loses his home in a flood. And meanwhile, those we consider to be wicked seem to have no troubles at all. Where's the Justice in that? This world has a saying, "Justice deferred is justice denied." Is God unjust? Why doesn't He even everything out now?

But the Bible teaches that a day of Justice is coming in God's good time, a Day when Christ will return as Judge and lay down the verdict on Evil and mete out rewards and punishments according to what each person deserves. Both of our readings look forward to that Day, and they teach us to pray for its coming and to have faith in God, that He will indeed make Justice prevail in heaven and on earth.

In our passage from St. Luke, Jesus tells a parable illustrating how we, His disciples, should always pray and never give up. Yes, let us pray for healing for ourselves and our loved ones. Let's intercede for new jobs for the unemployed and petition God for solutions to our worries. Let us cast our cares on the Lord, for He cares for us. Let us do all we can in this world to live justly and see justice done to our neighbor. But first and foremost, as it says in verses 7 and 8, let us pray persistently for God to bring about ultimate divine justice for His chosen ones-- which is to say, let us pray without ceasing for the glorious return of our God and Savior Jesus Christ. For it is only when He returns that true Justice will have its day.

But how long, O Lord, how long? The widow in the parable knew she was in the right in her case. The unjust judge knew it, too. But he was so selfish, he couldn't be bothered to render the verdict she deserved. Or maybe he'd already ruled in her favor, but he'd done nothing to enforce the decision. This judge had no conscience before God, he didn't care what other people said about him, and he couldn't be bothered to do what he should. But the widow was going to bother him and bother him and bother him until he did his duty. He was a judge; it was his job to make sure that justice prevailed. For some time he ignored her. Maybe she'd go away. But she didn't. She kept bothering him: "Grant me justice against my adversary!" And finally, finally, out of his own selfishness, he finally does what he should have done all along: The unjust judge makes sure this widow gets justice.

Jesus says, listen to what the unjust judge says. The unjust judge finally does right by the widow because she's kept on bothering him with her petitions. So--- if a wicked man can be prevailed upon to do what is right because he's been hammered by a widow's pleas, how much more will the good and gracious God of heaven bring about justice for His chosen ones, who cry out to Him day and night? How much more will He defeat their adversaries and bring them into the good they deserve, at just the right time?

Who are these chosen ones? They are Christ's elect, whom the Father foreknew before the creation of the world, to be adopted as His children through the shed blood of Christ. Brothers and sisters, we are Christ's chosen, and though all the forces of earth and Hell should come against us because we belong to Christ, all the more should we cry out to Him for justice against our adversaries.

Our passage from Revelation chapter 6 shows this from another point of view. St. John in his vision of the End watches as the seven seals of the book of judgement are opened one by one by Christ the Lamb. When He opens the fifth seal, John sees under a great altar in heaven "the souls of those who had been slain because of the word of God and the testimony they had maintained." These martyrs cry out in a loud voice, "How long, Sovereign Lord, holy and true, until you judge the inhabitants of the earth and avenge our blood?" How long, O Lord, until we get justice? Our voices cry out to you day and night! They are each given a white robe-- which stands for the righteousness of Christ-- and are told to wait a little longer, for just the right time. For when? For when the number of their fellow servants who were also to be killed for the name of Christ was competed.

I have to admit that there's been something about this Revelation passage that has bothered me. It's just that, these martyrs are under the altar, and the altar represents the place of atonement, and our atonement is Christ. Moreover, St. John sees this altar as being in heaven. So, if these martyrs have found their refuge in the atonement of Christ, and they're in heaven, why are they so vindictive? Why are they so eager that their blood be avenged? Isn't it time they forgave and forgot?

Aren't Christian martyrs just ordinary human beings whom Jesus redeemed from their sins? Wasn't it the Holy Spirit who made sure they stayed faithful to Christ even to death? How could they claim anything for themselves?

And all the chosen ones of God: We didn't chose ourselves, did we? No. How can we claim to be more righteous or deserving than any other human being? It wasn't our works that got us into God's favor! Without the blood of Christ covering us, we would be just as lost and unholy as anybody else! How can we justify praying for Christ to come and judge the earth?

The answer lies every place the Bible speaks of God's love for His saints and His hatred of evil. It leaps out at us whenever we read that the Church is Christ's body on earth. We are His representatives here on earth, and the Word of salvation we carry into the world is the message of the living Word, Jesus Christ. Whoever persecutes His saints-- that's us, brothers and sisters-- persecutes Him. God has chosen us for Himself in Jesus Christ, and identified Himself with us and us with Him. So it is just and right that the souls of the martyrs should call out for vengeance on the earth. It is right that we His chosen ones should cry out day and night for Jesus to return and sit as Judge over this present evil age. Because ultimately, the One who deserves to have His right upheld is God. God is the ultimate object of justice. It is God Himself who must receive all the blessing, honor, praise, and glory He is due. As St. Paul writes in 1 Corinthians 15, the time will come when Christ will hand over the kingdom to God the Father, after He has destroyed all (rebellious) dominion, authority, and power. All His enemies will be put under His feet, and the last enemy to be destroyed will be death. That will be ultimate divine justice.

So how can we not pray earnestly and persistently for that day to come? Should we not call out for the justice that will once and for all defeat evil and Satan and all who belong to him will get the punishment they deserve?

But how long, O Lord? Why can't God reach down and deal the evil of this world right now?

That's what some of these scoffing Internet commenters ask. They don't realize that if God were to make an end of evil in this world right away, He'd also have to make an end of them. We humans deceive ourselves when we think we ourselves are good and evil is Out There someplace. Evil resides in each of our souls, and none of us can begin to be free of it until Jesus clothes us with His righteousness and brings us from death to life. Strict justice would mean every last one of us should be separated from God forever, but Jesus paid the full price for our sin, so as it says in Romans 3, God is shown to be just and the one who justifies those who have faith in Jesus. Through His blood we are not only justified, we are made holy before God and finally will be presented to Him glorified on the Day when Christ returns.

This is God's will for all His elect. And He is biding His time until all the company of His chosen is complete. There are some who are elect who are still dead in their sins, and one day the Holy Spirit will call them into life. There are some of the elect who have not yet been born. Every last soul whom the Father has given to the Son will come to Him, and every last soul who will have the honor of being killed for His sake will make their testimony in their blood, before the end will come and ultimate justice will prevail.

But how do you know if you are among God's chosen who know their cause is just and right? It's not my place to pry into the secret counsels of God. But if you want to be among Christ's chosen, that's a good sign. If you have a passion for justice and you look to God instead of away from Him to find it, that's a good sign. Jesus asks in Luke, "When the Son of Man comes, will he find faith on the earth?" Faith is a sign of those who belong to Him, of those who trust Him to make things right in His good time. Faith is a sign of those who love His appearing and who earnestly pray that it will be very soon. Faith is a sign of those who preach and testify to the Gospel of Jesus Christ died and risen again for the salvation of the lost, so that the full number of the elect will be speedily completed.

The sign of those who are not chosen? They are the ones described in verses 15 through 17 of our Revelation reading, the ones for whom the second coming of Christ is hateful, the ones who know they deserve His wrath and have rejected the blood that could have saved them from it. They beg the mountains to fall on them and hide them from the justice of God! Heaven forbid that anyone we love should be in that number! This is the tragic fate of all those who ally themselves with Satan and death and who turn away from the Lamb who was slain.

But you, people of God: Do you love Christ's appearing? Are you looking forward to the day when He will return and all evil, sadness, and death will be wiped away? Let us pray earnestly and persistently that Christ our righteous Judge will come quickly and bring justice to us, His chosen ones. For we belong to Him; and in Him, His cause is ours, and our cause is His own.

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