Zephaniah 1:7, 12-18, Psalm 90:1-11, Thessalonians 5:1-11
Imagine the scene, if you will: It’s a Tuesday morning, and I’m sitting in my upstairs office with my nice hot cup of tumeric ginger tea beside me. My purring cat is asleep on my lap, and I’m snuggly and warm in my fake-sheepskin-lined slippers on this rainy morning. I turn to the lection passages for this Sunday, still a little sleep-fogged, hoping to find a word of truth and wisdom for me to preach on. The lectionary is a daily three-year cycle of scripture readings, and it always includes at least four readings — one from Hebrew Scriptures, one Psalm, one from the Gospels and one from one of the other books of the New Testament. I decide to read each of these four passages out loud, as a way of more fully taking them in. This is the first one I read:
Helen reads Zephaniah in a passionate, heated manner.
That woke me up! I think somewhere in the middle of reading that passage the cat jumped off my lap. The wrath and venom in it was so over the top that by the time I got to “their blood shall be poured out like dust and their flesh like dung” I was laughing. Maybe a little nervously, but laughing.
Next. Psalm 90 starts out promising — in fact, the first two verses of this psalm served as the scripture for our 25th anniversary celebration in 2000, which marked my first Sunday of being the pastor here.
Helen reads the Psalm starting out warm and comforting and then getting increasingly worked up.
No wonder we didn’t use the rest of that psalm for our 25th anniversary celebration. By now, I’ve taken off my fake-sheepskin slippers. It’s getting hot in here, and I’m still not sure I’ve heard a word of wisdom. At least, not a word of easy wisdom.
Next. I turn to I Thessalonians, Paul’s letter to one of the first Gentile communities he established in Greece. I Thessalonians is the oldest book in the New Testament, written about 20 years after Jesus’ death and resurrection, during a time when Paul and other followers of Jesus are awaiting what they think will be Jesus’ imminent return, when he will come to judge the world:
Helen reads I Thessalonians 5:1-3
Clearly, there would be no escape from the theme of judgement and wrath. I’m not going to read the Matthew passage, but it ends with this verse:
Helens reads: “As for this worthless slave, throw him in the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”
What do we do with these passages in Scripture — and there are many — that speak to the judgment and anger of God? Specifically, what do we do with this idea of the Day of the Lord, which is directly referenced in both the Zephaniah and Thessalonians passages and forms the context for the others? The Day of the Lord is The Big Day, the Judgment Day at the end of time when God or Christ will judge all people — and some will go to heaven and some will go to the weeping and gnashing of teeth place. It’s when God’s anger against human wickedness and God’s judgement against it will finally, fully come to pass.
And this Judgement Day, this Day of the Lord is not a peripheral idea in the Bible, even though I confess that I sometimes want to regard it as one, as I think many liberal Christians do. As one encyclopedia of Christian theology says, “Few truths are more often or more clearly proclaimed in Scripture than that of the general judgement.” The prophets of the Hebrew Scriptures constantly refer to it; in the New Testament, the coming of Christ as the Judge of the world is often mentioned. Jesus himself not only foretells the event but graphically portrays it in his teaching. The Apostles give a prominent place to it in their writings. The book of Revelation is all about it. What’s more, the encyclopedia continues, “The belief in the general judgment has prevailed at all times and in all places within the Church. It is contained as an article of faith in all the ancient creeds.” We don’t say the Apostles Creed in this church but it is an example of one of those ancient creeds that is still said every Sunday in many Christian churches and it includes this line: “He ascended into heaven. From thence He shall come to judge the living and the dead.” You can’t go to an old church in Europe and not see this Final Judgement depicted in often gruesome detail on some painting or sculpture or stained glass window. Like the painting on the cover of the order of worship, which was was painted in the 1400s by a German artist. You can’t really see this, but the folks on the left are the ones sent happily to heaven at the last judgement and the folks on the right are the ones who are engaging in the aforementioned weeping and gnashing of teeth.
What’s more, this idea of a Last Judgment is found in all Abrahamic faiths — Islam, Judaism and Christianity — as well as some other religions. And, it’s not just a relic of less enlightened times. There are many people in the world today who steadfastly believe in a Last Judgement in which infidels will be judged and punished and the faithful will be glorified. Because of the prevalence of this idea across cultures and its persistence over time, depth psychologists would say that the Last Judgment is an archetypal image in the human psyche — that is, it is a powerful image or idea that occurs over and over again in our religions, mythologies. and stories. It’s a kind of universal symbol, like the Great Mother, or the Wise Old Man, or the Tree of Life. One that keeps showing up in our collective psyche and that has layers of psychological meaning around it.
So what could this Last Judgment mean, psychologically speaking? I am serendipitously reading a book by the depth psychologist Edward Edinger, who has written several books interpreting the Bible from that perspective. (This one was from The Bible and the Psyche: Individuation Symbolism in the Old Testament.) He says that the Last Judgement archetype refers to a “major encounter between the ego and the Self in which the former experiences a devastating insight into its defects… It is the experience of being seen by an Other often symbolized by the eye of God. The image of widespread destruction refers to those aspects of the personality which are not grounded in psychic reality and therefore cannot survive transpersonal scrutiny. If, in this encounter, the ego holds, it is followed by an enlargement of the personality”
Let’s unpack that, shall we?
“Last Judgement refers to a major encounter between the ego and the Self in which the former experiences a devastating insight into its defects… It is the experience of being seen by an Other often symbolized by the eye of God.” We talked about ego during our Lenten series on the soul. The ego is basically our everyday conscious, “ordinary” self. The ego builds and protects our sense of identity and esteem; it helps us regulate ourselves and control our impulses; it also helps us adapt to our environment — to fit in with where we are, to “play by the rules” so that we get affirmation and approval from our social world. It’s good and important to have a strong, healthy ego. The ego is also the part of us, however, that gets really attached to the idea that it is in control, that it’s the captain guiding the ship. It does not like it when it realizes that this is not the case. Our ego is also the part of us that does not like to acknowledge there may be shadow parts of ourself — aspects of ourself that our ego has repressed as “not me,” as “evil” or “bad.” Those parts of ourself that we often had to repress to win acceptance from our family and peers. Those parts of the collective shadow that live in us — including the “isms” and phobias (racism, homophobia, etc.). We aren’t usually conscious of what is in our shadow, and all sorts of mischief and mayhem can result when we unknowingly project it outward onto others or become possessed by it or repress it to the detriment of our physical and psychological health and wholeness.
For the “Self” in this quote, think of it as the Divine Spark in us that constantly calls us to greater wholeness and consciousness of what is not yet conscious. If you want, you could also call it Spirit or Soul or Truth— as long as it has a capital letter at the beginning of it. An encounter with this Capital Letter Force is an experience of being seen for who we really are, including our shadow stuff — our pettiness, our woundedness, our complicity in untruth and injustice. It is an experience of being seen in our sin, a word that means those ways in which we miss the mark, the ways in which we are not in alignment with God or Spirit or Soul. As the Psalmist says, “You have set our iniquities before you, our secret sins in the light of your countenance.” There’s that Divine Eye, that penetrating gaze. As such, this encounter will feel like a judgment because it is a judgement. If you have ever felt a burning sense of appropriate shame or guilt, or remorse, or contrition, then you have had the experience of being seen and judged for your “defects,” for the ways in which you have missed the mark. And it can be a devastating experience for the ego.
“The image of widespread destruction refers to those aspects of the personality which are not grounded in psychic reality and therefore cannot survive transpersonal scrutiny.” I’m not exactly sure what Edinger means by “not grounded in psychic reality” but I hear it as those aspects of our personality that are not grounded in truth — not grounded in the truth of who we actually are, and not grounded in the truth of our Divine call. We can easily be swayed by other people’s agendas for our life; we can easily adapt or twist ourselves to meet others’ expectations and our own need for affirmation and approval. And we live within a system in which it is easy to be asleep to the truth — where we can be swept up in behaviors, attitudes, and economic and political systems that are “destructive for ourselves and others, without knowing it.” These ways in which we are grounded in untruth need to be brought under what Edinger calls “transpersonal scrutiny” or what we might call God’s Way or God’s Law or God’s Justice or God’s Truth.
“If, in this encounter, the ego holds, it is followed by an enlargement of the personality.” In other words, if our small self, our ego, can bear up under the scrutiny of this judgment, then we will be enlarged — more whole. When Jesus calls us to be “perfect, even as our Father in heaven is perfect” in Matthew, the word perfect should really be translated as complete or whole. We are called to be whole, as God is whole, as Jesus is whole — the human one who shows us how to be fully alive and aware in these bodies. We are called to the truth of ourselves, to the truth of our world — including our shadow, our defects (if you will), our limitations, and also, our unexpected power and beauty.
If we are on this path of awakening, of enlargement, then there are words of comfort for us, rather than words of wrath. Listen to the full passage from I Thessalonians, after Paul says: “There will be no escape” from the judgement of the Day of the Lord:
But you, beloved, are not in darkness, for that day (of judgement) to surprise you like a thief; for you are all children of light and children of the day; we are not of the night or of darkness. So then let us not fall asleep as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober…For God has destined us not for wrath but for obtaining salvation through our Lord Jesus Christ… Therefore encourage one another and build up each other, as indeed you are doing.”
So, may we be children of the day, awake to the truth of who we are and of our world. May we endure the day of our judgement when it comes and welcome it as the wake-up call it that it is. May we encourage and build each other up, as indeed we are doing. Amen.