“It was for me the day of vengeance;
the year for me to redeem had come.
I looked, but there was no one to help,
I was appalled that no one gave support;
so my own arm achieved salvation for me,
and my own wrath sustained me.
I trampled the nations in my anger;
in my wrath I made them drunk
and poured their blood on the ground.” Isaiah 63:4-6
The prophet Isaiah speaks to us about “the Day of the Lord” which seems to roughly equate with the idea of Judgement Day. The day when the Lord will judge and punish and set things right. It’s a difficult concept for Christians, so used as we are to hearing about grace and redemption and atonement. But for the Israelites a day of vengeance was a powerful and often much desired thing.
And we might say too that so many terrible atrocities have happened, that surely they must be righted somehow, paid for? And maybe we try to imagine that Jesus’ death on the cross accomplished that redemption. But then we think about Auschwitz, Nagasaki, the Khmer Rouge, genocides, rapes and tortures, and we think, that is paid for? That is healed? We wouldn’t doubt the power of the cross out loud mind you, as I seem to be doing here (I’m not, by the way, read on), just in case someone gets the wrong idea or doubts our faith, you know. Because Jesus did it all, didn’t he?
Then why does Revelation talk about the end times the way it does, in violence and judgement? And why this prophecy, where the right arm of God wreaks his destruction? And why does Isaiah move straight from this visionary figure dressed in bloody robes into praising God for his kindness and compassion?
We clearly need to find a way to reconcile the crucified Christ with the avenging Christ. Or to accept that we in our small minds cannot cope readily with the seeming paradox. But should it surprise us that the God who loves paradoxes contains so many of them himself?
We struggle with an angry, triumphant Messiah. We are often taught that Jesus is meek and mild, the Good Shepherd, tending his flock, playing with children, finding the lost. And such he is on one level. But he is also the One to whom all power and authority has been given and he is coming again in clouds of glory to judge. And lest we forget, he had no problem fashioning a whip out of cords and chasing the moneylenders out of the Temple. We wonder at the rabbinic saying, “God is not nice. God is not your uncle. God is an earthquake.” And yet such he is. But as Elijah discovered, he is also in the soft, still voice after the earthquake.
Two ideas may help us here, particularly when people dismiss such passages by saying we are living under a new covenant now where all is forgiven and no vengeance is necessary. Well, yes we are, but John’s vision in Revelation shows that the final battles are still to come.
One is that I know, with a certainty I can’t put into words, that kindness and compassion are what motivates God. Always and without exception. He does nothing that is not for the ultimate good of those he loves. And by that I don’t mean some chosen few, but all living things on this earth. I also know that Jesus’ sacrifice on the cross was, is, a universe-changing action. It was more powerful and all-encompassing than our feeble words can express and our brains know how to hold. More than salvation, more than redemption, more than atonement (huge as these things are), this was a fulcrum event in space and time that began to solve everything.
Yes, what happened on the cross, God’s beloved dying in obedient love for this world, was like the epicentre of God’s grace earthquake. Its power will never stop echoing out, transforming and healing all things. And by this we can see that sometimes God’s answers are bloody and that they have yet to come to full culmination. When heaven comes to earth, all will be accomplished. The victory is already assured, but we are told that heaven will be birthed here and should expect labour pains. If we read his word at all or keep our eyes open in this life, we know that redemption often comes by suffering and resurrection requires death. So we also know that God does not look at death the way we do. And that both wine and blood, the trampling of grapes of wrath and of nations, are methods in the Old Testament that seem to find their own redemption into grace by the sacrifice Jesus made. That gall, that vinegar of the Lord’s anger was turned into the pouring out of blood, of a new kind of wine.
Photo Philip Jackson’s “Christ in Judgement”, Chichester Cathedral