Presented on The Lutheran Hour on October 22, 2023
By Rev. Dr. Michael Zeigler, Lutheran Hour Speaker
Copyright 2023 Lutheran Hour Ministries
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Text: Psalm 96:13
"He comes to judge the earth. He will judge the world in righteousness and the people in His faithfulness" (Psalm 96:13).
I don't usually go barefoot, especially not on hot asphalt in a city park. My kids go shoeless all summer long. I almost never take off my shoes. It's because I have baby feet, my wife tells me. That's why I won't go barefoot. But at the time, it seemed like the better choice because a quarter of a mile into our walk, my new shoes were wearing blisters into my heels, so I took them off. My feet were not prepared, however, and I learned that A), hobbit's feet aren't built in a day, and B), blisters on the soles of your feet are much worse than blisters on your heels. I ended up with both and hobbled around for about a week afterward.
I was walking with a friend that day. I'll call him Craig. I explained to Craig that these are new shoes, and they're wearing funny, and I could already feel them giving me blisters, so I'm just going to take them off and walk barefoot. Craig listened and then without comment, did something that struck me as exceedingly Christ-like. Although his Birks fit just fine, he stopped, slipped them off, and started walking barefoot as well. Craig and I have known each other for almost a decade, and on and off for about a decade, we've been talking about Jesus of Nazareth. Craig is a fan of Jesus but not a follower. But what he did that day, shedding his sandals to match my pace, to feel what I was feeling, to walk with me, was a very Jesus-y thing to do.
Matching another person's pace is easier said than done, and I don't just mean a walk in a park. Walking together with other people is life. Most people have a sense that they are going somewhere on a journey, with a career or a hobby, with a romantic relationship or a family. We see ourselves as going somewhere, somewhere may or may not be a house on the beach or in the mountains, going somewhere may be a journey toward a better place emotionally or morally or spiritually. A journey toward inner peace or self-actualization, or simply to be the kind of person who's willing to shed his sandals and walk alongside a friend with blistered feet. However you imagine the goal, it's common to see life as a journey, and we hope that the somewhere we're going is better than where we are right now or what we are right now. And so making the journey, we are also making a judgment.
Some people today hear judgment as a bad word. But if you think about it, we're all acting as judges in some form or another. Life as a journey wouldn't make sense without a judgment, a judgment that where you are now or who you are now could be better and should be better. Life is an exercise in judgment, a journey made in hope. And hope? Hope, as someone once said, hope is the excitement of a person starting a long journey whose conclusion is uncertain. That's life, isn't it? An exciting, fearful journey, the conclusion of which is still uncertain. Although some people may take issue with that last word, uncertain. Some Christians may take issue with it, but we'll talk more about that in a moment. For now, if you do take issue with the idea that the conclusion of your life's journey is still uncertain, I'd invite you to be like my friend Craig.
Even if the sandals of your certainty fit just fine, suspend judgment for a moment. Match pace with someone who might not be so certain about how it'll all go and how it'll all end up. Now, I'm not saying that people who don't follow Jesus live in constant uncertainty. My friend Craig, for example, he doesn't entrust his life to Jesus, but I wouldn't say that he's riddled with constant uncertainty about his life. As with many others, I think he would say that so far, life has been a mix of confidence and doubt of wandering and returning, sometimes certain, other times, not so much. And he has tried different ways of walking to cope with that tension. And every way of walking, as we've said, involves a judgment, a decision about a goal to journey from here to there, to a place that you judge in some way to be better than where you are right now or who you are right now.
So Craig makes a judgment, and he uses a strategy. As far as I can tell, he has tried at least two different strategies. He's tried to form the world to fit with his wishes, and he's tried to reform himself to fit with the world, to reconcile himself to the world as it really is. For example, he started his own business. He made good money, bought a nice house in a place where he has always wanted to live, has good friends, started a family. He has been successful at forming the world to fit his wishes, but sometimes, he still has his doubts. During our walk, just as I was starting to feel the blisters form on the soles of my feet, he told me, "I have everything I ever wanted, or at least I thought I wanted, but I still feel empty." Like most people, Craig has his doubts. He's not certain that his judgment was a good one.
Craig has used another strategy to make his way through the world. Rather than reforming the world to fit his wishes, he's tried reforming his wishes to fit the world, to be reconciled to the world as it really is, or as he's judged it to be. A few years ago, Craig took a spiritual retreat to Thailand. He devoted several weeks to living among Buddhist monks. Through the jungle in a single-file line for eight hours a day in silent meditation, they would walk barefoot in the hope of reconciling themselves to the world as it really is. Put simplistically, that is the goal of Buddhist teaching, to give up our desires to reform the world, to accept that the world is what it is. And when you play the judge, when you try to reform it, you only make yourself more miserable. Sometimes, Westerners look at this Buddhist path and call it hopeless. "How depressing," we might say.
But again, let's try shedding our sandals and matching pace trying to see it from their vantage point. It could still be a hopeful story, but it's a hope not toward an external goal but an internal one, a path toward inner peace, a journey to accept things as they are, to live in a world without judgment, no good, no evil, no heaven or hell, no God who threatens to judge us. It's a world in which many try to find freedom from fear, to live fully in the moment without guilt over the past or concern for the future. That's what makes it hopeful? It's a journey from illusion to enlightenment. But if you call something an illusion, aren't you still making a judgment? I suppose so, and those who have made this judgment still have their doubts. It's hard to let go of the judgment that some behaviors really are evil. It's hard to let go of the desire that we could be somewhere better. It's hard to let go of the hope that even though so much has gone wrong in the world, someone maybe could put it right.
The way of Buddhism and other paths like it is difficult. You might have to walk through the woods eight hours a day barefoot, and even then, you'll have your doubts. That's life. Every path is an exciting, fearful journey we take and hope, the conclusion of which is still uncertain. But if you're a follower of Jesus or you're considering following Jesus, won't you have certainty then? Christians are often taught to say yes. We're told that this is what gives our hope the advantage over the competition. We alone can be certain. But at best, it's a half-truth. It's only half true because people are referring to at least two different things when they use the word "certain." Sometimes, they're talking about internal certainty. Other times, they mean external certainty. Internal certainty means, I am certain. External certainty means, that is certain.
For example, I might say, "I am certain that my friend will pick me up at the airport. He will certainly do what he promised." Those statements are about two things, an internal certainty and an external certainty. The external certainty focuses on the character of my friend. It says that he's got a track record of reliable behavior. He's delivered on his promises again and again. He's proven himself. His behavior has a certain quality to it. But that is external certainty from my vantage point because it belongs to him, not to me. The certainty that belongs to me is internal, a psychological certainty. It's how I think and feel and speak about my friend. So here's the question: what do Christians mean when they say that their hope is certain? Is it internal certainty? I don't think so, if they're being honest. Because every Christian that I've ever known has been on a journey with Jesus that has passed through moments of certainty, moments of unflappable confidence, and moments of doubt. Maybe not doubts about God's existence. Although Christians struggle with that too, but doubts about God's goodness, about God's plan, God's judgment.
And it's not just us modern Christians who struggle with doubt. We see this in the great heroes of the faith recounted in the Bible. Abraham and Moses had their doubts. John the Baptist, locked up in prison, had his doubts about Jesus. And even after Jesus' resurrection from the dead, the great Peter and Paul both expressed their own nagging doubts about God's plan. See Acts 10:14 for Peter and Romans 9:3 for Paul, and these are the so-called heroes of the faith. But for most ordinary Christians, the expression of that father of the tortured son who prayed to Jesus for help, recorded in Mark 9, pretty well sums up the sentiment we've all had at one time or another, "I do believe, help me in my unbelief." And for those Christians who say that they are absolutely certain about the internal certainty of their own faith, 1 Corinthians 10:12 has an appropriate warning for them: "Let anyone who thinks he stands, take heed lest he fall."
On this side of Jesus' return for the Day of Judgment, the normal Christian experience is a lot like everyone else's journey. We are on a hopeful path somewhere in between confidence and doubt, wandering and returning, certainty mixed with uncertainty, saved from our sins and fears already, but not yet. That's how it is. That's how the Bible says it will be for the duration of this mortal life. If you are a follower of Jesus, you don't have to pretend that you have this false internal certainty. You can be honest with others about your doubts. You can be honest with God. He can handle you and your doubts. At some point, we all need to shed the footwear of this false certainty. It doesn't fit anyhow.
Christians are a lot like everyone else on this journey. The only difference is that we are on a journey with Jesus. He is the difference with Christian hope. It's not internal certainty we find in ourselves, in our thoughts, or our feelings. It's the external certainty we find in Jesus, in His self-giving death on the cross for our sins, in His resurrection from the dead, and His promise to be the judge who can bring the world and us to a better place. And because it's external certainty, it belongs to Him, not us. We still have to wait and see.
Every year, around this time of year, many Christian churches have readings from the Bible that talk about final judgment. Even the psalms, we hear talk about judgment, like Psalm 96, which I shared at the beginning. This time of year, we hear those uncomfortable parables of Jesus. The story about the young women who run out of oil in their lamps and get shut out of the wedding feast. The one about the servant who didn't manage his talents well and gets cut off forever. The one about the shepherd who separates his sheep from the goats. All of these, Jesus says, are pictures of the final judgment, God's final decision to separate the faithful from the wicked, the saved from the condemned, the sheep from the goats.
We can't talk about Christian hope without this part, too. It is this double conclusion to the journey. The possibility of either salvation or damnation still set before each of us, that puts every Christian in the same internal tension as everyone else between certainty and uncertainty. It's our strategy in dealing with the tension that's different. We don't seek certainty by trying to reform the world to fit our wishes. We don't seek certainty by trying to reform ourselves. We don't look for certainty inside ourselves, but outside of us. We seek certainty in a person, in Jesus, God's Son, our Judge, and our Savior. That means we take His warnings seriously, and we cling to His promises all the more desperately. We hold to Him who weeps over the condemnation of the wicked, to Him who came into the world for the very purpose of speaking and doing and suffering and offering to everyone, everything necessary for salvation.
If you are becoming a follower of Jesus, I can't promise you an easier path. I can't promise you a way free from doubt. I can't promise you internal psychological certainty, but neither can anyone else. All I can promise is the faithfulness of the Son of God who suffered and died and rose again for you, to save you. I can promise because Jesus promises not just to shed His sandals and match your pace, but also His outer garments, to wash your blistered feet. And He walks with us. He calls us to walk with others, to match pace with them, to withhold judgment, to witness and hope, and maybe even to learn from the way they walk, wherever they are in this journey we call life.
The week before that walk in the park with my non-Christian friend, Craig, my family and I were walking on that same path one evening, and my wife, Amy, was complaining about her footwear. Her straps of her sandals were rubbing on her foot weird and causing her pain, so she took them off and walked barefoot. And for the rest of the walk, I was so annoyed because she was walking so slowly. At the time, I didn't even think to take off my shoes and walk barefoot with her. I mean, who does that?
Would you pray with me? Dear God, Father, You will judge the world in righteousness and all peoples in Your faithfulness. And deep down, we know we need this judgment. The world is not yet the world you made it to be, and we are not yet the people You saved us to be. We need You to bring us and all creation into a better place. So help us, on this journey, to entrust ourselves and all things to Your judgment, through Jesus, Your Son, and help us to walk with others on the way. Amen.
No Reflections for October 22, 2023
Music Selections for this program:
"A Mighty Fortress" arranged by Chris Bergmann. Used by permission.
"I Walk in Danger All the Way" arr. Henry Gerike. Used by permission.
"Let Us Ever Walk with Jesus" from Wide Open Stand the Gates (© 2022 Concordia Theological Seminary, Ft. Wayne)
"Holy God, We Praise Your Name" From The Concordia Organist (© 2009 Concordia Publishing House) Used by permission.