From Jonathan Bailes
“Let the heavens be glad, and let the earth rejoice…before the LORD; for he comes, for he comes to judge the earth.” Psalm 96:11-13
Life-giving redemption and righteous judgment: to some, these two aspects of God’s salvation might sound opposed, but in our scripture passages today they are inseparable. In Isaiah, God promises a new heavens and a new earth in which “the former things shall not be remembered.” The citizens of this new Jerusalem will no longer weep, and death will no longer threaten them. But this beautiful vision comes only after a promise of judgment and those who “forsake the LORD” are given a different message: “My servants shall eat, but you shall be hungry; my servants shall drink, but you shall be thirsty; my servants shall rejoice, but you shall be put to shame.” We hear a similar refrain coming from the psalmist: a call to joyful praise (95:1-2; 96:1-4) and a reminder of God’s righteous judgment (95:8-10; 96:13).
What does this mean for our experience of Eastertide? Have we not already endured Lent and its fasting? Aren’t we in a season of celebration with its feasting? Yes, we are. We know that the God who promised a new heaven and new earth will keep that promise because, in Christ’s resurrection, He has already begun to do so. And so we should celebrate and sing our new songs and “be glad and rejoice forever.” Only, let us not forget that the renewal of creation comes through judgment. The empty tomb comes after a bloody cross. The risen Christ still bears the scars of Calvary.
This is a mystery and it resists any easy resolution. As I said, to some the love and the justice of God seem incompatible. This was the conclusion of Marcion, anyway, one of the earliest and most famous Christian heretics. He insisted that the grace of God left no room for judgment. The God of justice was, to his mind, an altogether different God than the one who raised Jesus from the dead. Because of this, Marcion did away with the Old Testament scriptures, with such thorny passages as Isaiah 65 and Psalm 96, and reduced the canon of Christian scripture to some of his favorite New Testament writings. We don’t have that option. On Sundays, we hear the words of the prophets and the psalms read out as the “the Word of the Lord” and we say, “Thanks be to God.” We confess that Jesus Christ, raised from the dead, will come again to judge the living and the dead. So, perhaps we shouldn’t attempt to resolve the mystery of our God. Perhaps the only proper response is the exhortation given in Psalm 96: “Worship the LORD in holy splendor; tremble before him, all the earth.”
I study theology at Boston College and am currently working on a dissertation on the church father Gregory of Nyssa. My wife and I live in Cleveland Circle with our three children.