Isaiah 28:14–22; Heb. 12:18–19, 22–29; Luke 13:22–30

Dear Friends: As I look out over all you beautiful worshipers this morning, it is obvious to me that none of you are old enough to remember ’way back to the 1960s—and to a television show called “Laugh In.” Let me tell you about it.

A regular feature of Rowan and Martin’s “Laugh In” shows was the spicy mixture of the “good news” and the “bad news.” Brief moments of glee, but brutally banished by bad luck, or even gloom and doom. But neither the good news nor the bad news was to be taken too seriously because, after all, that was a rollicking comedy show.

I recall all this today by way of pointing out that our Scripture texts this morning seriously seem to mix good news with bad news. They are radiant with visions of a new covenant, a better life, a whole new world, a new kingdom of all peoples from every direction and corner of the Earth.

There are few, if any, passages in the entire Bible more ecstatic than this proclamation of Good News in the Epistle to the Hebrews: a letter to those Jews who had become Christians—but Jews who had been persecuted and stood in great need of good news. So the Epistle declared:

You people have come to Mount Zion and to the city of the living God, the heavenly Jerusalem, and to innumerable angels in festal gathering, and to the assembly of the firstborn who are enrolled in heaven, and to God the Judge of all, … and to Jesus, the mediator of a new covenant.

Wow! That holy exuberance over the joys and privileges of belonging to those first generations of Christians, welcomed into this divine community of grace and peace, inaugurated by “Jesus, the pioneer and perfecter of our faith, who for the sake of the joy that was set before him, endured the Cross.”

My Friends, I’m not sure that most people joining our churches in these latter days are quite as excited about it as those Hebrews must have been!

But I like to think that any truly faithful Christian fellowship is surely bound to experience—at least, from time to time—this overwhelming, exhilarating consciousness of coming into the transforming presence and power of the living and the loving God. And, if you hang around this Cathedral often enough, such moments will surely be yours: moments of transforming power!

Now that’s the Good News: Your faithful God-centered life can come to know the most joyful, beautiful, glorious, peaceful, healing moments we mortals can ever experience.

But religion doesn’t always seem to work that way! The great prophet Isaiah, five, or six, or seven centuries earlier than Jesus, also had addressed some people caught up in a lot of religious excitement. He warned that some religious and political leaders, precisely in their seeming religious ecstasy (and even drunkenness!), were living lives of foolish pride and false security. Why? Their style of religion had no connection with decency, or honor, or integrity, or fairness, or kindness. It was religion gone bad. Their covenant was really not with God at all: it was a covenant of death, a pact with hell, a life of lies and injustices. It was not a covenant of justice.

The Bad News for such pretentious religious folks was that God’s justice would sweep away their lies and their security. Again and again, we learn from the great prophets that religion itself is not necessarily Good News. It can be bad news, or wicked stuff, inhuman behavior.

Now Friends, in this highly charged political season here in America—and with these same words (lies, security, justice) so commonly exploited in campaign rhetoric—we Christians must be very careful not to claim Isaiah or any other prophet or biblical text as an endorsement for our own political party or preferred candidates.

The misuse and abuse of religion in the politics of 2004 is already rather blatant—as in pastors and congregations being pressured to turn over their membership lists to partisan campaign organizations.

Our Lord Jesus, on his travels from town to town, delivered Good News for some folks—but Bad News for others. One day, on the road to Jerusalem, somebody asked him: “Lord, will only a few people be saved?” And Jesus, in one of his harsher utterances, foresaw “weeping and gnashing of teeth” for those evildoers who would be thrown out of the Kingdom. He was saying then, as he did so often, that religious faith—salvation itself—is inseparably bound up with the moral character of our lives—with whether we really are loving and just, kind and merciful and peaceful. But if we presume special status because of our wealth, or our success in life, or our power over other people, or even our religiousness, we will learn that the divine justice of the Kingdom of God will strip us of such pretentious status. And we shall also learn that many of the world’s outsiders, and losers, and paupers, and victims will be the featured guests at God’s Great Kingdom Feast. For God Almighty reverses our most common assumptions about status, prestige, and privilege. The whole hierarchy of status will be turned upside down. Bad news for some. Good news for others.

So our three passages from the Bible offer three visions of the future. Three vivid pictures of—yes, let us say it!—pictures of heaven and hell. Good News and bad news.

But many of us twenty-first century Christians simply do not believe that we should live our lives according to the rewards and punishments that may await us in heaven or hell. In fact, most of us, most of the time, don’t really take either heaven or hell very seriously.

But if there is no hell—no blazing inferno in some fourth dimension of creation—what does the judgment, or the justice, of God really mean? What is justice after all? And what does justice require of us?

Philosophers, politicians, preachers, and theologians have never come to easy agreement as to what that word “justice” really means. And the Bible itself seems to offer a variety of notions about justice.

Actually, there is no deeper drama in the whole biblical story, taken as a whole, than the gradual unfolding revelation as to what God’s own justice is all about.

That drama begins with stories that feature a very primitive ethic of justice—like unlimited revenge in reaction to an insult or injury or injustice. In Genesis we are told the story of Lamech, one of the descendants of Cain. And Lamech had two wives, Adah and Zillah. It’s not entirely clear whether his very tough words to those two wives were meant to intimidate them, or simply to boast about his masculine toughness. At any rate, he declared to those two ladies: “Now listen what I say: I have killed a man for wounding me, and killed a young man just for striking me. If Cain is avenged sevenfold, I will be avenged seventy-seven fold!”

So, Friends: that’s one concept of justice: you mess with me in any way, and you’ll pay for it with your life! (I will resist the temptation to suggest that any political leader in our time thinks or talks that way.)

But the biblical story moves on and up to a little bit higher moral ground: to a more finely measured sense of justice: yes, retaliation, but limited and proportional retaliation. The morality of Moses, as set forth in the Book of Exodus, decreed that, if you have been harmed, you should respond only in kind: “life for life, eye for eye, tooth for tooth, hand for hand, foot for foot, burn for burn, wound for wound, stripe for stripe.” In short, this kind of justice means retaliation, but in proper measure. Don’t overdo it!

But then in Deuteronomy 32, revenge and even finely measured retaliation become prohibited because they are now seen as belonging to the exclusive jurisdiction of God. “Vengeance is mine alone,” says God. And St. Paul echoes that in Romans 12: “Beloved, never avenge yourselves.”

Then, beyond all thoughts of retaliation or vengeance is the command to treat our enemies kindly. Yes, even in the mean Old Testament! For Proverbs 25 tells us: “If your enemies are hungry, give them bread … and if they are thirsty, give them water.” Again, Paul repeats that command in Romans 12.

In this particular claim of justice—the humane treatment of enemies—is a foundation for universal human rights and the humanitarian laws of war: a claim that has been so badly abused by a few American soldiers in Baghdad’s Abu Ghraib Prison.

Friends, none of this settles the question as to whether justice may require going to war. That is a topic for another sermon, or two, or three.

Even so, in God’s justice, we are to forgive our enemies, whether personal, or political, or national. Jesus offers a clever bit of arithmetic here. When Peter asks him: “How often should I forgive someone who sins against me? As many as seven times?” And Jesus, who knew Genesis and the story of Lamech’s 77 times vengeance, replies to Peter: “You must forgive 77 times!” Or, according to another translation, “70 times 7!”

So the unfolding biblical revelation of justice has moved from unlimited revenge, 77 times over, to unlimited forgiveness, 77 times, or even 70 times 7. Which is really to say: the arithmetic of God’s justice is really infinite. For God’s justice, while it sets the highest standards for human conduct, never ceases being lovingkindness.

Justice? Since classical Greek and Roman times, and the prophetic heritage of Israel, justice has been regarded as the most precious, most sacred, most fundamental principle of our common life, our public institutions, our politics.

We must always guard against that all too common tendency to insist on harsh and vengeful notions of justice in total disconnection from the Gospel of love. And that is one of our greatest moral and social blunders—whether in family life, or our criminal justice system, economic life, or foreign policy—to believe that justice must be hard and often brutal—but love is soft and weak.

Friends, in the ten weeks between now and Election Day, I invite you to assess all such issues in the light of your own most faithful understanding of what justice requires in the United States of America, and in our relationships with the other peoples of this world of terrible troubles.

Perhaps the effort to define what we mean by justice will never, and should never, end. But perhaps we can at least say:

  1. Justice is fairness, especially in respecting the sacredness and dignity of every person and especially with regard to those persons burdened by poverty or oppression or imprisonment.
  2. Justice is the ordering of all our human relationships by love as the divine law of life.
  3. Justice is the pattern of human rights and responsibilities that best express God’s covenant love, as revealed in Jesus Christ our Lord.
  4. Justice is the hard work of lovingkindness.
  5. Justice is the vision of what Martin Luther King, Jr.’s “Beloved Community” might become, in the power and providence of God.
  6. And finally, Friends: Justice is the Good News of the Kingdom of God: the joyful, ecstatic anticipation of the heavenly Jerusalem, and our own consecration to its embodiment, here and now.

In Jesus’ name, Amen.