In his 1920 poem “Gerontion,” T. S. Eliot wrote, “Signs are taken for wonders. ‘We would see a sign’:/The word within a word, unable to speak a word,/Swaddled with darkness. In the juvescence of the year/Came Christ the tiger.” That was, incidentally, seven years before his conversion to Christianity. It’s a striking passage. The world asks God for a sign and gets the Incarnation, which Eliot captures vividly—“The word within a word, unable to speak a word, swaddled with darkness”—which was quite a swerve for the world, quite unexpected, but of course familiar and comfortable to us now; and then we get the swerve, the jolt from out of left field: “In the juvescence of the year,” in its youth, its springtime, “came Christ the tiger.” Christ the tiger. That’s not what we expect; which rings true, because neither was he. That image brings us back up against a Jesus who doesn’t fit our storyline of how things are supposed to go.
What is the tiger? Well, here’s another line, later in the poem: “The tiger springs in the new year. Us he devours.” Christ? Well, uncomfortably, yes. In a number of ways. For one thing, it’s not biblical language, but it captures the way that the Spirit’s work of purifying our hearts sometimes feels threatening, as if it were an attack on us. That’s just part of the picture, though; Christ the tiger is Christ as judge, as the one who not only passes sentence but executes it. That isn’t Jesus as we like to think of him; increasingly, our culture wants to boil Jesus down to being all about love, and then leave that as vague as possible so that it’s nice and stretchy. That’s not how Jesus appears to John. We see Jesus here as the Son of Man of Daniel 7, and also as the Ancient of Days; we see him as the judge of all the earth.
Notice John’s reaction: “I fell at his feet as though dead.” Coming to grips with the holiness of God and the reality that he will judge the world has that effect; it tends to make it clear why the Bible says the fear of the Lord is the beginning of wisdom, because in the light of God’s glory, our evasions, rationalizations, and self-justifications are exposed as the inadequate things they are. When we see Jesus as the holy judge, we cannot deny that we deserve judgment.
And yet, we want to deny it, and so the modern reflex is to deny that we have to see Jesus as judge. After all, didn’t he say, “Don’t judge?” (He didn’t, actually, but good luck making that point.) Talking about judgment is negative, it’s Old Testament religion, it’s reactionary and intolerant and even un-Christian. Worst, we’re told, it’s a denial of the love of God, because the spirit of the age insists that love and judgment are incompatible; thus you have Rob Bell write a book arguing (rather mushily and without quite standing up for it) that no one goes to Hell, and what does he call it? Love Wins. Because if there’s such a thing as eternal judgment, that must mean love has lost.
But here’s the thing, and we talked about this last year on 1 John: that’s a human definition of love. That’s not God’s definition, and that’s not how he sees it. Look at the context of Isaiah 44, where our passage this morning is immediately followed by a polemic against idols and those who worship them; on either side, we see God’s promise of redemption, but we also see the warning of judgment for those who dishonor him. The two are woven together; his love for his people emphatically does not mean that he doesn’t care what they do or whom they worship or how they live. In truth, he judges them because he loves them; it’s because he loves them that he wants them to change their ways and repent of their sin.
Put another way, we might say that God judges us because we matter to him and what we do matters, because we are important enough to take seriously. If God never judged anyone and everyone ended up in heaven regardless, that would mean that this life doesn’t matter, and that what we do with our lives doesn’t matter. Our lives would be of no consequence—they would be inconsequential. Which means that we would be inconsequential. We would be unimportant, too insignificant to bother with. This is the logical conclusion of a judgment-free faith; and it leads ultimately to Hell breaking loose on earth. Part of the gospel message is that our actions have eternal consequence, because we are beings of eternal consequence—and that God loves us so much that he took the consequence of our sin on himself, that he who is our Judge might be our Redeemer. This is why the first and the last, the living one, is also the one who died and rose again. Judgment is morally necessary if anything meaningful is to be real, even love.
That’s a countercultural statement these days, but deep down I think we all know it’s true. On the one hand, we resist the idea of judgment because we don’t want to face the idea that we might deserve it; no one wants to be in the wrong, no one wants to be guilty as charged. On the other, we know the hurts we have suffered, we see the abuse of children, the suffering of war and the evils of tyranny, we see the damage we have done to our world, and how can all that belong in heaven? It isn’t possible to acknowledge all that and refuse to judge unless you reach a state of total indifference, or total despair.
The fact of it is, we cannot stand nowhere, and we cannot see the world from no point of view; we cannot believe without someone or something to believe in, and we cannot act without a reason and a goal—some idea that there is something good we can accomplish, or some way that we can make things better than they are. To insist that there is nothing and no one deserving of judgment as sinful, to hold that view consistently, we would be forced in the end to conclude that there is nothing and no one we can truly call good; and if that’s the case, life is little more than a ghastly joke. Otherwise, there must be a judge. The only question is who, and on what grounds, and by what right.
Of course, for all of us, there is the clamoring voice of the ego that insists that I am the center of the world, and thus I am the only one who has the right to judge; the trouble for the church comes when we give into that temptation without realizing it, when we start passing our own judgments in the name of God. That breeds a terrible spiritual pride because it blinds us to a critically important truth: the judgment of God begins with the people of God. We see that here. Christ appears to John as the judge of all the earth, he commands John to write to the seven churches, and where does he begin? Not with the judgment of the world, but with the judgment of those seven churches, both praising them and calling them to repentance. The judgment of God on sin begins with us.
If we are to speak with any integrity of the judgment of God, we have to begin there, in the reality that judgment isn’t just for everybody else. We do not face God as judge by faith in our own merit, figuring that he doesn’t need to judge us because we’re better than everyone else. Rather, we face him by faith that he is a loving God, that his judgment on sin flows from his love for us sinners, and that because of his love for us he took the full weight of that judgment on himself, paying the penalty for sin that we could never pay and serving the sentence of death that should have been ours. The one whose word is a double-edged sword and whose eyes are aflame is the one who died and rose again and holds the keys of death and Hell—for us. To him who loves us and has freed us from our sins by his blood, who has made us a kingdom of priests to his God and Father, to him be glory and power forever and ever. Amen.