“For you yourselves are fully aware that the day of the Lord will come like a thief in the night. While people are saying, “There is peace and security,” then sudden destruction will come upon them as labor pains come upon a pregnant woman, and they will not escape.” – I Thessalonians 5: 2-3
I was driving home from a friend’s house around midnight. As I merged into the far left lane of the highway, a slow moving street-sweeper obstructed my path. To avoid a collision I retreated to the center lane and continued on my way. At this moment, the flashing lights of a police cruiser filled my review mirror.
“Son, do you know why I pulled you over?”
“No sir. I’m wearing my seatbelt. And I just got on the highway, so I haven’t really had the chance to speed yet.”
“Well, you changed lanes twice without signaling. First you went across three lanes without using your blinker. And when you saw that street sweeper, you shot back without signaling. That’s dangerous, and it’s against the law.”
Guilty as charged. And I knew it. But it seemed to me that the officer had a flawed understanding of the spirit of the lane-changing laws: to protect the lives of other drivers or individuals from careless driving. I asked him who was I endangering on a relatively empty highway at midnight, other than myself?
He was in no mood for this discussion. Plus, it was hard to plead my case when his records indicated that five weeks earlier I had received a “ticket” for failing to “click it.” Again, guilty as charged. Indignant, I took the $170.00 ticket and berated myself for the remainder of the drive for being so careless in such a short period of time.
Yet slowly, and somewhat deliberately, I began to force the facts of the night into a new story. In this story I was not only innocent, but I was justified for not using my blinker. If that street sweeper wasn’t in my lane I could have remained where I was without having to move back so quickly! He gave me no time to signal. This is his fault. Convinced of my innocence now that I had a viable scapegoat, I checked the “not guilty” box on my ticket and mailed it out the next morning.
Boldly, I told my wife about the street sweeper and how I wanted a judge to hear my side of the story. Secretly, I hoped the officer would not appear at court to testify against me and that the case would be dismissed.
When the court date was set for July 18 at 7pm, I continued to tell myself that there was no way the police officer from that night would show so late on a Thursday night. Somehow, the reality that this officer had nothing better to do than pull people over on empty highways at midnight escaped me.
On the day of the trial, at 6:35 pm, I walked into Austin Municipal Courtroom 2A and took my seat on a hard wood bench, waiting for justice to unfold. There were ten to fifteen others in the room. Some waiting for their chance at a fair trial; others were hoping, like myself, that their case would be dismissed and they would be let off the hook. Scanning the room, I rejoiced at the realization that no police officers were present. Yet.
When the first officer entered the room, my heart skipped a few beats. It was not the same officer from that night. Now, every tick of the clock chiseled away my confidence as I sat and wondered if he would show up. Two minutes left on the clock and the door opened. In walked the officer.
I had no time to react because at this moment the prosecutor asked us all to rise while the judge entered the room and asked us if we were ready for trial. Although the confidence I had upon entering the room had now left entirely, I forced out an audible, “Ready your Honor,” when I heard my name “David Sick-ee-ma” mispronounced from the front.
As I wondered how (or if) my story would hold up against the officer’s account, the prosecutor pulled me into a side room to explain the reality of my current situation. She informed me that the officer who had ticketed me not only was present, but he possessed a short video of my lane changes that night. In light of this new information, I had two options.
First, I could continue with my plea of “not guilty,” and proceed to trial. This would give me the chance of sharing my side of the story with the judge. However, if the court maintained the “guilty” charge, I would be responsible for the cost of the trial. And this could run upwards of six hundred dollars. (At this moment, a $170 ticket seemed reasonable). Second, I could take this opportunity to plea “guilty,” forfeit the trial, and pay a reduced penalty on the driving infraction.
Confronted with an officer who not only witnessed, but recorded, my failure to signal lane changes, I saw the foolishness of my self-justifying claim for innocence. I had no excuse. I was not innocent. Without hesitating, I signed the guilty plea, paid the penalty and left the courtroom.
Not-Guilty As Charged: An Alternate Ending
In the New Testament Paul reminds the Church, and all of us, that the Day of the Lord is coming. We do not know when it is coming, but like the flashing lights of a police car on an empty highway, it will be when we least expect it. And no one will escape judgment on that day. Paul wrote to the Romans,
“We will all stand before the judgment seat of God; for it is written, ‘As I live, says the Lord, every knee shall bow to me, and every tongue shall confess to God.’ So then each of us will give an account of himself to God.” (Romans 14:10b-12)
Undoubtedly, the judgment seat of God is going to be more terrifying than the judgment seat in Austin Municipal Courtroom 2A. Terrifying for two reasons. First, I will not only be giving an account of a traffic violation, but I will be giving an account of myself, involving every thought, word, and action of a lifetime. Second, the judge who wants me to give an account for “all that I ever did” is one who knows intimately “all that I ever did.” Remember what the woman from Samaria said to her friends after one conversation with Jesus at a well?
“Come, see a man who told me all that I ever did.”(John 4:21).
Imagine the weight of guilt at this trial. When the police officer showed up with a video of my driving, the truth exposed my guilt and shattered my faith in a street-sweeper scapegoat. If Jesus, on the other hand, knows everything I have ever done, how much more will His truth expose my guilt? What street-sweeper scapegoats exist right now that lead me to pretend I am a victim of, and not really guilty for, my various sins?
Considering the answers to these questions I am left only with the same thought that came to mind when the officer described to me my driving infraction: guilty as charged. Guilty to the extent that I do not deserve a court appearance with God, because I realize now the depth of my sin, and in so doing, I understand the truth in the passage:
“None is righteous, no, not one;
no one understands;
no one seeks for God.
All have turned aside; together they have become worthless;
no one does good,
not even one.”
In short, I deserve hell more than I deserve a trial. So who wouldn’t be terrified?
Perhaps only those who believe our story must end with guilt. What if an acknowledgement of guilt is only the beginning of our story? What if a scapegoat entered into our story as a Divine gift, and not as the figment of a fallen imagination? What if this scapegoat suffered all the consequences of our wrongs and bore all the weight of our guilt just so that the Judge could declare us innocent of any charges brought against us?
This alternate ending is at once so radical and so loving that it is nearly impossible to believe.
But it is the truth of the gospel.
“…you are not in darkness, brothers, for that day to surprise you like a thief. For you are all children of light, children of the day. We are not of the night or of the darkness. So then let us not sleep, as others do, but let us keep awake and be sober. – I Thessalonians 5: 4-5