JUSTICE ON TRIAL
Ever since the O.J. Simpson trial I think that perceptions of our legal system have changed. Or maybe it was even as far back as the Rodney King trial. If the truth be told, it's actually been brewing for longer than that, but these high-profile trials have done the most to change the perceptions of many people in this country. What I'm talking about is this: In an increasing number of cases, we find the defendant not so much on trial as our legal system itself. Justice itself is on trial.
Apparently, something like this happens in our first lesson from Genesis today. Justice on trial. It begins as the investigation against Sodom and Gomorrah. The Lord comes down to investigate; it looks like their might be a trial to bring judgment on those two infamous cities. But what does Abraham do? He seemingly turns the tables. It's no longer Sodom and Gomorrah on trial, but God's very standard of justice! Abraham is as shameless a defense attorney as F. Lee Bailey or Johnny Cochran, isn't he? Listen again to his first speech: 'Your honor,'
Will you indeed destroy the righteous with the wicked? ... Far be it from you to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous fare as the wicked! Far be that from you! Shall not the Judge of all the earth do right?Then comes that unbelievable bartering! Abraham talks God down from fifty all the way to ten. God will save Sodom and Gomorrah for a handful of righteous people. Were Johnny Cochran or F. Lee Bailey any more shameless than that in their defense of O.J.? Abraham is so audacious as to turn the tables on God. It is not so much Sodom and Gomorrah on trial as it is God on trial! "Shall not the Judge of the earth do right?" Abraham asks. It is God's justice on trial!
What's going on here? Let me make a suggestion to you. What's going on here has to do with the very heart of the movement of Scripture itself. This is it folks! This is precisely what Jesus himself came to reveal to us. Jesus came to turn the tables on what Abraham does in today's lesson. Jesus represents God's justice in a way that turns the tables on us. Jesus came to be put on trial and convicted so that our human justice could be put on trial, so that we could finally recognize God's true justice as an alternative to ours.
When I say there is a movement in Scripture, a development of sorts, I mean there is a progression in our experience of God. This is vital! That we understand that there are false gods and a true God! That there are false ideas about God's justice and God's true justice itself. Taking the journey through Scripture is itself a movement from our false, human ideas about God to the true God that Jesus came to reveal. And it all has to do with the crucial matter of God's justice.
St. Paul, for example, had been a lawyer himself, and he poses the whole matter of the gospel in terms of God's justice. As he begins his vital letter to the Romans, he says, "I am not ashamed of the gospel.... For in it the justice of God is revealed through faith for faith." The Justice of God. In the cross and resurrection of Jesus, we finally get to see what God's justice is really like. And it is quite different from what we thought. It is quite different than our own versions of justice. Paul sums it up in one verse at the end of today's second lesson: "God disarmed the rulers and authorities and made a public example of them, triumphing over them, through the cross of Jesus." In other words, through the resurrection, God says "Not guilty!" to the "Guilty!" verdict of those human courts that convicted and executed Jesus. The cross and resurrection are all about a reversal of verdicts, an overturning of our human forms of justice that we might come to finally see God's justice as something completely different, as something we can only begin to comprehend through faith in Jesus.
This was stunning to the first Christians. On that first Easter morning, they weren't overjoyed. No, their first reactions were fear and confusion. Some basic things that they had grown up believing in were being questioned. Jesus had been found guilty according to their own Jewish Torah, and confirmed by the Roman overlord, so was he guilty? With the resurrected Jesus, they slowly began to understand that, 'No, Jesus wasn't guilty. In fact, he is the only one who was completely innocent. What was happening was a matter of God's justice putting our human justice on trial.
Our first lesson this morning, about the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah is a good example of the movement in Scripture. We need to learn to see the god who supposedly destroyed Sodom and Gomorrah as one of those false gods of our own making. He is not the God we learn to see through Jesus Christ. He is an angry God who violently judges and destroys places like Sodom and Gomorrah, who rains down judgment on those we feel are wicked. But when the truth be known, places like Sodom and Gomorrah are not really destroyed by this god. They can't be since we made him up. The Risen Jesus teaches us to ask what really happened. Was this the true God's justice? No, places like Sodom and Gomorrah were more likely destroyed by human hands, fire from human armies. But the story is told as if this god destroyed them, because we need this god to justify our violence. That's the bottom line: we need this god to justify our violence, to justify our justice.
We saw this god just a few weeks ago, remember? Jesus is passing by a Samaritan village because he is on his way to Jerusalem. And Jesus' disciples ask, "Lord, do you want us to bid fire to come down from heaven and consume them?" to rain down fire from the sky on a Samaritan village, some folks they didn't like very much. They saw God as the judge who does such things, a God who kills the people we don't like. It is the god that we create as part of the insider/outsiders games that we've been talking about in recent weeks. It is the god that we insiders claim to be on our side so that we can bring our justice to bear on the folks we don't like. That is what the disciples were doing in the gospel several weeks ago in asking to rain down fire on their enemies, the Samaritans, just like Sodom and Gomorrah.
But how did Jesus respond to his disciples? He rebuked them. He came precisely to reveal to them a different God, the true God. That god-of-our-own-creating, that violent, judgmental god can still be seen as represented in the story about Sodom and Gomorrah. This is critical: that we might be able to see the god who destroys Sodom and Gomorrah as one of these false gods, even though it is represented as the God of the Bible. It's only natural that that false god be in Scripture, too. For the true God has the difficulty of breaking through our false ideas about God and revealing the divine self to us slowly through the years.
Our story of Abraham shows the beginning of the process of revelation. Abraham is shown to be shamelessly questioning God's justice. But, in reality, he is beginning to question the justice of the false god we have created in order to justify our violence against others. This is what is finally revealed in its fullness through Jesus Christ.
To bring this a bit closer to home we need to recognize that our sin of worshiping false gods goes much deeper than wanting to literally rain down fire on our enemies heads. It can begin as simply as what we saw last week with Martha. Martha wasn't wrong to spend time serving Jesus. She was wrong in her motives. She served with her eyes on her sister Mary, caught up in a rivalry with her. So she was angry and resentful in her serving. How far a step is it, then, from Martha making up a god in her own image to justify herself? 'God loves the good host and hates lazy good-for-nothings like my sister Mary,' she may be heard to say to a neighbor.
And we said that the same is true of us in our serving. We come here as good church people. But how easy for us is it to turn our attention to others and compare ourselves to them, seeking to justify ourselves? And we have this picture of a god, then, to fit our own self-justifications. God loves people like me; God hates people like them, is what we think to ourselves. We create these idols. And then we may torch our neighbors with our fiery tongues, with gossip that makes me an insider and those I gossip against made an outsider. How often do we play such games? How often do we create such gods in our own image? How often do we manufacture a justice that declares ourselves just and leaves someone else out in the cold?
That's why the Resurrection is so absolutely vital to all this! Do you see? In raising Jesus on the third day, God is overturning that verdict of our earthly courts! God is overturning our idols and false gods and revealing to us what God's Justice really looks like. It is merciful and gracious almost beyond belief. That's why it takes faith. It takes faith because God, the ultimate defense attorney and judge, is declaring Jesus "Innocent!" And the most amazing and graceful thing about this is that God is willing to declare us "Innocent!" at the same time! We who were dead in our trespasses are made alive with Christ. We who participate in the human schemes of justice that crucified Jesus are forgiven. The record that stood against us with its legal demands is erased. Now that's grace! That's God's justice.
There's one last thread to sow in from today's lessons, and that is the matter of prayer. Jesus teaches his disciples how to pray. Do you notice how Luke's version of the Lord's Prayer ends? "And do not bring us to the time of trial." That's right, the time of trial -- exactly, what we have been talking about this morning! In fact, this set of lessons has helped me to see the Lord's Prayer in a totally different light. It has struck me how very much the Lord's Prayer is like what Jesus prayed in Gethsemane on the night he stood on trial. He prayed that he would not be put to trial; but he also prayed that God's will be done, God's kingdom come, on earth as it is in heaven. And he prayed not to the false God, the Judge who justifies our violence, but to the true, merciful God who is like our Father in heaven. This God of mercy forgives those who judged and crucified Jesus -- "Father, forgive them for they know not what they do," says Jesus from the cross -- so that we might also break the terrible cycles of violence by forgiving others. And so we continue to pray, "Forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us." To pray "in Jesus' name" means to pray as Jesus prayed in Gethsemane, praying that we don't have to be brought to trial like Jesus was, but ready to submit to the will of God, ready to be part of the coming Kingdom, God's new justice of mercy and love. Amen
Paul J. Nuechterlein
Delivered at Emmaus Lutheran,
Racine, WI, July 25-26, 1998