A Divine Thumb on the Scales
Johannes Vermeer was a famous Dutch painter who lived in the 1600’s. Among his well-known paintings is one entitled, “Woman With a Balance.” It depicts a young and beautiful housewife standing at a table gazing with rapt attention at a jeweler’ balance – one of those scales with hanging balances on each side and a pointer in the middle. She is checking to see that, when the scales are empty, the pointer will rest in the middle. There are two things which make this painting stand out. First, this isn’t just some everyday housewife in the kitchen weighing out her flour or sugar. On his woman’s table are arranged her precious worldly goods – pearls, gold and silver coins, and boxes which contain more treasures.
On the wall behind this table hangs a painting. It is this painting-within-a-painting which signals the message Vermeer is trying to communicate. Above this table of jewels and silver, above this empty and balanced scale, hangs a depiction of the Last Judgment scenes, with the dead being resurrected under the presence of God in the sky. Their souls will be weighed in the balance. In Vermeer’s painting, the woman holds onto the tiny scale as a reminder of the weighing, the judgment, which awaits people in this life.
That was the scene conjured up inside of Vermeer’s mind at the word “judgment.” Scales. Heaven and hell hanging in the balance. What image do you see when you hear the word “judgment?” Is it of St. Peter at the pearly gates with his big ledger of good deeds and bad deeds – sort of a Santa in the sky knowing who’s been naughty and who’s been nice? Or do you picture God as a judge sitting on a leather chair on a very high bench looking down at all souls who have ever lived, ready to pronounce the verdict.
Or maybe your image of the judgment comes from the 25th chapter of Matthew which says, “When the Son of Man comes in his glory, and all the angels with him, then he will sit on the throne of his glory. All of the nations will be gathered before him, and he will separate people one from another as a shepherd separates the sheep from the goats, and he will put the sheep at his right hand and the goats at his left. Then the king will say to those at his right hand, ‘Come, you that are blessed by my Father, inherit the kingdom prepared for you from the foundations of the world.’”
Just what is it that comes to your mind’s eye each Sunday when, in the creed, we say, “I believe in Jesus Christ … who will come again to judge the living and the dead.?”
Sometimes people ask me questions which can’t be answered quickly. One such question came recently when someone asked me, “Why do we need Jesus anyway?” The gist of the question was, “If we have God the Father who created us and who takes us home to him, why do we need the son to come to the earth and go through all the things he did?” It’s a great question. It’s what pastor’s call teaching moments – opportunities to say something about the doctrine of the Trinity or the third article of the Apostles’ Creed, but in a way that eye’s don’t just glaze over.
But we need to answer that question. When people shake your hand on the way out and ask you, “So why do we need Jesus anyway?” we need to say something about judgment. We need to give kind of the Cliff Notes version of the Bible – sixty-six chapters in two minutes. We say, “Think of it as if God created a perfect world and put two people in it whom he loved very much. These two people soon disobeyed God and so did their descendants. So God gave them rules to live by. But they kept breaking the rules. So God sent them judges to enforce the rules. That didn’t work. Then God tried rulers That didn’t work. Then God sent prophets who were very poetic and vivid in delivering the message, “If you don’t follow the rules, things will go very, very badly for you.” Well, that didn’t work. God had tried floods, fire, and brimstone. Nothing worked.
So – now listen very closely to the next part – God judged the creation to be wrong – failed – erring – in a state of apartness from what God wanted. In short, God judged the world to be in a state of sin.
Now, what would you do if YOU were God You had tried everything; the smoking mountain, the cataclysmic flood, the lightning. You had even turned one disobedient person into a pillar of salt! What would you do?
It seems to me that God had a choice. God could have declared creation to be a failure and ended it all right there. God could have chosen a fiery meteor to burn the planet to ashes or an eternal winter to freeze it all to death. Or God could have done exactly what God did and say to his children, in effect, “I have tried and tried with you You can’t, or you won’t, get it right. I don’t know what else to do with you … so I will do this: I will send my own flesh and bone to the earth in the form of my beloved son. He will come as a baby whom you will name Jesus. He will grow with you and, as he grows, he will teach you things and offer you an example of how a life is to be lived. But that is not the main thing he will do for you. Ultimately, he will suffer for your sins and will take them to the grave with him. Because he dies, you will live. You will see that with your very eyes.”
You see, God has already judged the world. God has already put the weights on the scales and watched them tip quickly over to the wrong side. The judgment is “guilty.” But those who are guilty have been set free.
Free. Freedom. Set free. Two weeks ago our kids once again went out and dabbled in the demonic – dressed up like dead people, devils, and goblins – a custom originating from the time when it was the church who encouraged kids and grownups alike, on the eve of All Hallows Day, to go out there and make fun of all the forces of evil which have no more power over those who believe. Set free from death. Set free from the devil. Set free from sin.
Yes, picture those scales in your mind. Picture all of our sins on one side of them. Then picture Jesus on the other side of them. Balancing the pointer perfectly in the middle. You can put all the weight you want on your side. You can jump up and down on the scales. But Jesus is on the other side of it. No matter what you do, no matter what you don’t do, no matter what you say, no matter what you think, the pointer will always balance perfectly in the middle because Jesus is on the other side.
Text: Hebrews 9:24-28