"If I went in there, the roof would fall in!"
This is a surprisingly common response that I hear when I invite people to church.
I often wonder whether I should respond by explaining that our church building is very sturdy and has shown no sign of caving in over the past 163 years. However most people aren't really all that worried about the structural integrity of our building.
More often this is a way to politely and humorously decline the invitation. Yet behind the joke lurks an understanding of how God's judgement works.
This understanding includes a recognition that they have lived a life that hasn't really given too much thought to God. In some cases they may even think of themselves as having been particularly rebellious against him.
So they imagine God to be unapproachable by people like them. Should they walk into his special place, God, who must be super angry with them, will finally have them within his grasp and will strike them down on the spot. So they had best keep their distance.
Knowing that this is closer to what people generally mean, I must admit that occasionally I have replied by informing people that if God really wanted to strike them down, he doesn't need to wait for them to go into a Church building.
My poor attempts at humour aside, there is a serious point to be made about what God's judgement looks like.
If we think about God's judgement at all, we tend to envisage it in terms which are violent and spectacular. We think of events such as drought, fire or pandemic. And at times this might be true.
However the Bible gives many other reasons why such things might come from God's hand. These include building a right character in his people, or even seeking to turn people back to him!
At a more fundamental level, God's judgement is seen in his withdrawing and leaving us to the choices that we have made.
In the Biblical book of Judges a common theme is that the people of God jettison God's law and each "do what is right in their own eyes".
God's response is not to wipe the people out. There is no hint that the local Synagogue will cave in on them when they enter it.
Instead he simply says to them: "But you have forsaken me and served other gods, so I will no longer save you. Go and cry out to the gods you have chosen. Let them save you when you are in trouble!"
Of course the false gods who they had chosen are powerless to do anything useful. Their lack of saving power quickly reaches the point where it is exposed.
Likewise, the things we often trust to give us security, safety or a sense of meaning in life can quickly hit the limit of their saving power. And just as was true in the time of Judges, God's judgement is more likely to be experienced as he allows us to continue clinging to these failed gods.
However there is a wonderful flip side to this story. God actually delights in showing mercy. A mercy which is not shown so much in his granting us an easy life, free from trouble or tragedy. Rather, it is a mercy which is seen in drawing us near to himself.
This idea of drawing near is at the very heart of the Christian story. We see it most spectacularly in God drawing near to us in the person of Jesus. He came into our world, made like us in every way.
But unlike us, Jesus never turned from God. He remained near to God and in doing so makes possible the Bible's tender invitation to each of us in James 4:8 to "Draw near to God, and he will draw near to you."
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