Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice; let the sea roar, and all that fills it; let the field exult, and everything in it. Then shall all the trees of the forest sing for joy before the Lord; for he is coming, for he is coming to judge the earth. He will judge the world with righteousness, and the peoples with his truth. (Psalm 96:11-13)
These are challenging times…and that, of course, is an understatement. 2020 has already seen the worst pandemic in more than a century. In the U.S. alone, more than 108,000 people have lost their lives to COVID-19, and that number continues to rise, one precious life at a time—someone’s mother, someone’s neighbor, someone’s best friend. Last week, I was checking out the COVID-19 “statistics” online, when I found a website that actually tracked the reported deaths in real time. Every minute or so, the number would change—every minute or so reminded me that “statistics” aren’t the same as people—someone’s mother, someone’s neighbor, someone’s best friend. Whenever this virus ends; whenever we discover an effective vaccine; whenever restaurants and hotels and movie theaters finally reopen…it will sadly be too late for those who have lost their lives and for those who have lost loved ones.
And then, just when things seem like they can’t possibly get any worse, they do. Another racially-charged incident involving excessive police force, lack of restraint, and betrayal of the public trust. That incident results in another death of another unarmed African American, and sets off protests—both peaceful and violent—across an already beleaguered and ravaged country. But this incident doesn’t simply add weight to the troubling history of racial injustice in our country; and it doesn’t merely add a number to the already staggering “statistics.” It is a painful reminder that every tragic injustice, every poorly considered decision, every act of hatred, every victim and every perpetrator has a name. It wasn’t simply another unarmed black man killed by a white police officer, it was George Floyd, who died at the hand of Officer Derek Chauvin—both of them someone’s son, someone’s neighbor, someone’s best friend.
It has been difficult to know the best way to respond to either of these human tragedies. We feel helpless and powerless, angry and confused. We feel like we need to identify the “bad guys” and choose “sides.” But the good guys aren’t always that good; the bad guys aren’t always that bad; and neither side feels like home. As Christians, we know we need to trust God to bring about justice and righteousness for the oppressed (Psalm 103:6), but we also know that we too, are called to actively pursue justice and to always do what is right (Psalm 106:3).
Psalm 96 begins as so many other psalms of praise, “Sing to the Lord a new song…praise his name…proclaim his salvation…declare his glory among the nations” (vs. 1-3). There is no doubt in the psalmist’s mind that God is worthy of our praise and worship; and not our worship alone, but also the worship of the heavens and the earth, the seas, the fields, and the trees of the forest (vs. 11-12). “All creation,” he declares, should rejoice. Why? Because “he is coming to judge the world with righteousness and the peoples with his truth.” Hmmm…not the answer I was expecting!
What is praiseworthy? What is deserving of creation’s worship? That our God knows, that our God cares, that our God is coming again to set things right! For people who belong to God, there is something freeing in that knowledge, but there is also something frustrating. God is coming, but when? God will set things right, but how? And what should His followers do in the meantime?
In Matthew 25:31-46, Jesus paints a picture of that final judgment for his disciples, and he seems to answer those very questions. “When the Son of Man comes,” he tells them, there will indeed be a reckoning. Christ will separate the “sheep” from the “goats,” the righteous from the unrighteous. The righteous will be led into eternal joy, and the unrighteous cast away to eternal punishment. He will judge, as Psalm 96:13 foreshadows, according to his righteousness and truth:
Truly I tell you, whatever you did for one of the least of these brothers and sisters of mine, you did for me. (Matthew 25:40)
Jesus doesn’t suggest that his followers have to figure it all out and set everything right—that’s God’s job. Instead he tells us that doing something…anything…for one of the least, means doing something praiseworthy for Him. God’s judgment is coming, but God’s justice is already here.
Justice isn’t simply a grand American idea or an elusive Christian dream. It won’t be brought about by laws or proclamations or prosecutions alone. It’s not something you can Tweet into existence. No, God has designed it to happen one relationship at a time—one act of righteousness, kindness and compassion; one friendship, one sacrifice, one selfless decision.
Followers of Jesus are outraged and frustrated by injustice in this world, but we are not helpless…and we are not alone. Every day we are invited to join King Jesus in practicing justice—his righteousness and truth–toward someone’s mother, someone’s neighbor, someone’s best friend. This week, as you encounter someone who looks different from you…as you find someone in need or in pain…remember that they are not a statistic, but a precious child of God. Be Jesus to them, and begin to heal the world…one life at a time!
Stay thirsty, my friends.