Today’s animators use software to create computer-generated images. In the early days of the Walt Disney Studios artists drew each frame by hand. It must have been painstaking work.
An old-school illustrator once said this about using pen and ink. At the very moment the pen touches paper, you’re committed. You’ve made a mark that you can’t erase.
Initially I thought that this resulted in lots of discarded paper. After all, nobody’s perfect. Everybody makes mistakes.
But I was wrong. At least this artist didn’t go about his craft that way. He said that he would incorporate every stroke of the pen, even the errant ones, into the final picture.
He doesn’t discard a flawed image and start all over. He takes what he’s got right in front of him—smudges, crooked lines, and all—and crafts something lovely from it.
It’s occurred to me that this is how God’s judgment works. Let me explain what I mean.
The world is a messy place. To echo Frederick Buechner, beautiful and terrible things happen here. There are nurturing parents and cyberbullies. Selfless first responders and brutal narcoterrorists.
And strictly speaking, sin is a thing. A universal thing that usually comes in small, mundane packages.
Each of us has done or left undone, said or left unsaid, something that falls short of the mark. I mean, after all, the standard is pretty high. Love God with your whole substance and love your neighbor as if your own life depended on it.
Instead of that we have a world where compassion and tenderness are also littered with cruelty, racism, greed, and violence.
This is contrary to God’s vision for the creation. God dreams of a realm ruled seamlessly by the law of love. The wolf will lie with the lamb. Toddlers will romp with adders and all will be well.
The prophets tells us again and again that God is a God of justice. God will set things right. The question for us is how God will go about this.
John the Baptist followed in a prophetic tradition. He taught in fiery terms that God will establish justice by punishing wrongdoers and rewarding the righteous. God will separate the wheat from the chaff. The wheat will be gathered in. The chaff will be burned.
At least, that’s how he thought about justice and God’s judgment at the height of his preaching ministry. He understood himself as preparing the way for the Messiah. And indeed he was. Only, he may not have been so clear about what the Messiah would get up to.
When he saw the Messiah in action for himself, it made him wonder. Wonder about the nature of divine justice. About the way that justice and love fit together in the one God.
After Herod had tossed him into the royal dungeon, John wrestled with who his cousin Jesus actually was: “Is he the one? Is he the Messiah? But he doesn’t act like a Messiah. Or else, maybe I need to rethink what the Messiah will be like. Maybe I need to rethink what God is like.”
So, John sends his disciples to ask Jesus straight up. “Are you the one who is to come, or are we to wait for another?” (Luke 7:20b)
Jesus came to show us who God really is. That’s why he said this to John’s disciples:
“Go and tell John what you have seen and heard: the blind receive their sight, the lame walk, the lepers are cleansed, the deaf hear, the dead are raised, the poor have good news brought to them.” (Luke 7:22-23)
Jesus came to do more than make sinners pay a price for wrongdoing. In Jesus God embraces the disfigured world we actually inhabit and makes it lovely again by the power of love. In God, justice is the creative power of love. Justice is more than mere retribution. It’s perfect restoration.
In other words, God recognizes that life gets messy. And God responds to that mess by showing up with the love that created the entire cosmos, that brought the Israelites home from Babylonian Captivity, and that raised Jesus from the dead.
The divine love is more than an affection. It’s a force. It’s the only power capable of making something good and beautiful and holy from even our most ghastly, chaotic messes.
But God doesn’t do this all on his own. God works through the likes of you and me. And that means that we have to respond to the love that God is pouring out. Make it our center of gravity rather than our own narrow self-interest. That’s what it means for us to repent.
Repentance is more than listing our sins and trying our very best to avoid them in the future. It’s a total life commitment rooted in the startling realization that “I am the beloved” and that everyone else is too.
Each day we are drafting our messy life. We have made and will make mistakes. We’ve inherited or suffered from the mistakes made by others.
And as it turns out, the picture we are drawing is more than a self-portrait. Whether we realize it or not, we are participants in God’s restoration of all things in even our simplest acts of kindness and compassion, acts of forgiveness and patience.
God works through us in his own grand drawing project. In Jesus we see that God does not toss our mistakes into a cosmic waste bin. Instead, God says, “Let’s see what we can make of this together. Something new. I think it’s going to be beautiful.”