Mercy and judgement.
A Sermon for the Twelfth Sunday after Trinity
August 27, 2023 at Holy Communion
Note: This sermon is not based on the appointed readings for Trinity 12.
“My song shall be of mercy and judgement: unto thee, O LORD, will I sing” (Psalm 101:1). In the Name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit. ☩ Amen.
Recently, my favourite Bible translation is a paraphrase. It’s called Bible Stories for Children (Geoffrey Horn and Arthur Cavanaugh, New York: MacMillan Publishing, 1980). Besides the handsome illustrations, its strength is that it retells Bible stories very closely—and where it adds interpretation, it is often delightfully insightful.
A few evenings ago as we were putting Theodora to bed we read the story of Cain and Abel. These two brothers offer sacrifices to God, but Abel’s sacrifice is more acceptable than Cain’s sacrifice, which makes Cain jealous. He kills his brother Abel, and God punishes him by making him live an an exile and a wanderer. Cain says that the punishment is too great for him, and that he is afraid that anyone he meets will kill him as payback for killing his brother. According to the story book, this is how God answers:
“The Lord heard Cain’s plea, saying, ‘I will put a mark on your forehead to let everyone know that whoever kills you receives a punishment seven times worse than your punishment for killing Abel. This mark will protect you, but it will also remind you, wherever you go, of the great crime you have committed.’ ”
Here, something has been added. Why question is this: how do the authors know that this “mark of Cain,” whatever it was, was placed on Cain’s forehead? The Bible does not say that. I’ll make a guess: the authors know that the mark of Cain is placed on the forehead because they themselves have the same mark on their foreheads. That mark was placed there in baptism: it is the sign of the cross.
Placing a mark on Cain’s forehead is an act of mercy. God passes judgement on Cain’s murder of his brother, but he also alleviates that judgement somewhat by placing on him a mysterious mark which protects him from the violence of those who would not forgive him. It is a sign of forgiveness. The mark also changes his relationship to God: Cain is no longer simply a condemned criminal wandering the world and far from God, but someone who owes his life day by to the mercy of the God who sealed him as his own. I tend to think that, although Cain is the archetypal murderer and understandably doesn’t have a great reputation, he learned how to live with God in the wilderness. Cain may be among the redeemed saints.
So likewise for us, the mark of the cross which is placed on our foreheads in baptism is a sign of mercy and forgiveness, a sign that we have been made Christ’s own and are heirs of his heavenly kingdom. We might say about the sign of the cross what Bible Stories for Children says about Cain’s mark: “This mark will protect you, but it will also remind you, wherever you go, of the great crime you have committed.”
It’s the second part of that equation that we tend to forget. The cross is a sign of mercy, but it is also a sign of judgement, a reminder of our crime. Perhaps we stand too far away in history from the literal meaning of the cross to appreciate what it means. An ancient cross was an instrument of torture and execution, a symbol of the human capacity for brutality. To be a Christian is to pass judgement on the violence of the world—and especially that violence as it is present in our own hearts and lives—by calling it out, by calling it what it is. By dying on the cross, God revealed the gravity of sin by showing what its true cost is. He passed judgement on sin from the cross, condemning sin as worthy of death, while also showing we was willing to suffer that death for the sake of saving sinners.
No one knows like a Christian does that “the wages of sin is death, but the gift of God is eternal life in Christ Jesus” (Romans 6:23): and the cross is the sign of both death and life. It is a sign of the Christian mystery of “redemption,” which, as a single word, includes both an acknowledgement of evil and death and a celebration that God made a way for us to pass through that death into new life.
The forgiveness and grace which we celebrate day by day and Sunday by Sunday is that out of his great love for human beings God always creates a provision in his justice for those who acknowledge the reality of their own and their people’s sin. We see this again and again in the Bible. Perhaps this happens with Cain. But it certainly happens in Noah’s flood (Genesis 6–9), in the Exodus from Egypt (Exodus 12), and in the visions of the prophets (see, for example, Ezekiel 9): when God judges he always makes a “way through” for those who turn to him with genuine repentance.
The acknowledgement of sin which repentance involves becomes the source of new life for us, initiating us into a relationship with God of joy and obedience, in view of the fact that we have we have been mercifully pardoned. “The one who is forgiven much loves much” (Luke 7:47). So the judgement of God is something that we can, in fact, celebrate, because the strictness of God’s justice reveals the magnitude of God’s mercy in setting his judgement aside. We can also celebrate the justice of God because it is a guide for us. The way of sin and death is one which we have left behind at the cross, where God condemned it, and now we live for God’s righteousness (see 2 Corinthians 5:21).
The reason for exploring how the cross is a sign of judgement is that, as modern people, many of us are very judgement-averse. That is a tragedy, because we miss out on the riches of the biblical story and biblical faith. Without a healthy concept of the judgement God passes against sin, we fail to understand either the real value of exercising ourselves for righteousness or, even more importantly, the great patience and mercy of God in Christ. We lapse into tired old assumptions which inoculate us against what the biblical message like, “The Old Testament is about a judgemental God and the New Testament is about a merciful God, so I believe the New Testament”—but in fact both the New Testament and the Old are bursting at the seems with both mercy and judgement.
Of course, the point is not at all that we should “be judgemental,” looking with scorn on others (remember last week’s gospel?) nor even be over-the-top in our habits of own self-accusation, but simply this: we live as a people under the sign of the cross. Marked with the cross in baptism, we both celebrate the longsuffering of God for our sake, and are accountable to live as people who recognize the validity of his judgement against sin, joyfully choosing to go a different way. We celebrate the judgement of God, regularly to bringing our own consciences into the judgement of self-examination, so that every inward part of us could be marked with the sign of the merciful cross.
In short, as Saint Paul says, “if we would judge ourselves, we would not be judged” (1 Corinthians 11:31).