Tuesday, October 14, 2014

God's Wrath

    During the summer while I was teaching a class on the basics of Christianity, I talked a bit about the Israelites worshiping the golden calf.  For those of you who may not be familiar with this part of biblical history, let me give you a quick refresher.

    The Israelites had been enslaved by the Egyptians and through the mighty, miraculous acts of God, they had been freed.  A man named Moses, who was called by God, led the people out of Egypt and toward the freedom of the Promised Land.  They traveled to a mountain called Sinai, and while there, God made a covenant with the people.  God would look after the people and bless them, and the people would worship God alone and follow His commands.  All parties agreed to this arrangement. 

    After this agreement, God called Moses to come up on the mountain.  Moses was gone an extended period of time, and the people became concerned.  In their anxiety, they turned their backs on the covenant they had agreed to and forged an idol out of gold.  Of course, it was a calf.  They worshiped and held a celebration to this god who led them out of Egypt.  As you can imagine, God’s anger was kindled mightily against those who were worshiping this false god.  Moses came down off the mountain and exposed the people to God’s wrath–many were consumed by that wrath as God literally opened up the earth and swallowed them.

    In our day and age, some might scratch their heads in bewilderment at God’s actions here.  I mean, why kill thousands of people for simply worshiping another god?  What were they hurting?  They were just following their hearts and beliefs.  They weren’t killing anyone or stealing or anything.  Why would God get so angry and upset over something which is rather trivial–at least according to modern standards?  Why didn’t God simply forgive them instead of consuming them?  Here’s what I told my class.

    A God who does not become incensed at sin is not a God worth worshiping.  Let me say that again: a God who does not become incensed and wrathful at sin is not a God worth worshiping. 

    That might give some of you pause, especially given what many folks believe about the Christian God.  I mean, we in the church proclaim over and over and over that God is love.  And this is most certainly true!!!  One of my favorite passages of scripture to quote is 1 John 4: 7-8.  “7 Beloved, let us love one another, because love is from God; everyone who loves is born of God and knows God. 8Whoever does not love does not know God, for God is love.”  There’s actually a camp song I learned as a child which goes along with this passage, and perhaps because I learned that song, this passage is burned into my brain.  And that is a good thing.  It is important to know and understand and realize God is love. 

    But don’t confuse the fact that God is love with the fact that God is also a God of justice.  God is not simply one to walk around with a flower lei around His neck; putting flowers into firearms; and saying, “Let’s just love one another.  Everyone will come into my love eventually anyway.  Peace, man.”  God’s anger burns brightly at sin.  In fact, I’m not sure I can adequately convey to you this morning just how angry God gets when He sees us falling away from His ways.  Hell fire and brimstone doesn’t even begin to cover it. 

    I mean, I’ve known pastors and preachers who yell and scream about hell and damnation.  I know they do so to scare the living daylights out of people and get them to repent.  This is not my method of preaching.  “You catch more flies with honey than vinegar,” the saying goes.  And this is true.  But, if you think God is simply honey, then you don’t get the fullness of what God is about; and you certainly will not understand the Gospel.

    I mean, as I read through Scripture, as I read about how God hates sin, I can’t yell.  It’s as if I am sitting in a horror movie, and the fear is so great, I cannot even scream.  God’s wrath is that terrible.  It’s that menacing.  And we just don’t seem to get that anymore.  We don’t seem to understand how God looks at our imperfections–our unwillingness to follow His commands–our inability to live out His teachings–and His wrath is kindled.  God is angry!  Tell me you don’t see the same thing in our Gospel lesson this morning from the 22nd chapter of the book of Matthew.

    Jesus says, “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to...”  Think about this.  “The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who threw a wedding banquet for His son.”  Those first invited turn him down.  He gives them another chance, and this time the king’s messengers plead with those invited.  The best of the best is prepared for the banquet.  “Come to the wedding!!!”  The invitation is sincere.  It is heart-felt.  The king wants to honor his son and have the guests celebrate, but they refuse again.  This time, they get nasty.  They move onto things they consider more important.  They refuse to listen to the slaves, and some become violent with the king’s messengers.  They beat, torture, and kill the slaves.  And what does the king do next?  Sometimes we gloss over this passage because we know Jesus is making a comparison with God.  We don’t like hearing what God does next to those who flat out refuse to come to the feast.

    He sent his troops to destroy those murderers and burn their city.

    Does this sound like a God of love to you?

    Does this sound like a king full of compassion and charity to you?

    Wrathful.  Vengeful.  Angry.  These are the words that come to mind.

    But who now will come to the wedding?  Who now will honor the king’s son?

    “Go out into the highways and crossroads and invite anyone and everyone to the feast,” are the instructions.  “Those who were first invited were not worthy.  Throw open the doors.  Let everyone else in.  The party must go on.”

    Now, this sounds more like it.  This sounds more like the God we know and love.  All inclusive.  All loving.  The good and the bad are let in.  Everyone is having a great time. 

    But here we go again.  The parable does not end there.  The king comes in to check on the guests.  He comes to see how things are getting along at the party, and the king stumbles upon a man who is not dressed appropriately!! 

    “How did you get in without a wedding robe?” the king asks.

    Now, before some of you who were raised to wear your Sunday best to church start looking disapprovingly of my blue jeans and boots, let me fill you in on something here.  Remember, first off, the king brought folks from the streets and intersections of the roads.  These folks were of all walks of life.  They were good and bad; rich and poor.  They all came to the feast, and not all of them had wedding robes to wear.  However, it was customary that if a person could not afford a wedding robe, a king would gladly provide one for them for free.  This is not a place to cry, “Wear your best clothes to church!!”  This is something much, much different.  This is about a guest who was provided with the clothes to wear, and he refused to put them on.  He refused to be clothed in the proper manner when all was given to him. 

    “Throw him out into the outer darkness where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  He’s not allowed to be at this party anymore.”

    For not wearing a robe?  Thrown out because of his attire?  The punishment doesn’t seem to fit the crime. 

    If you don’t understand God’s wrath.

    If you don’t understand God’s justice.

    If you think God just lets us do whatever we want whenever we want with no consequences.

    But God is not that way.  The parable shows that irrefutably.  God’s anger burns hot against sin.  Even ones we consider inconsequential.  Why?  Because He abhors evil.  He abhors when violence and hatred arise.  He abhors it when we hurt one another and take advantage of one another.  And such pain must be paid for.  Such violence must have an answer.  Think about it, if you are taken advantage of, do you just rub it off?  If someone angers you or breaks your trust, do you continue to have the same sort of relationship with them as before?  If someone steals from you, do you just write it off and let bygones be bygones?  Do you rejoice when such things happen and just say, “Oh well, it doesn’t matter, I’ll just love them and they will be okay.”?  Does anyone actually do this?  No.  Deep down, we don’t.  We know crimes must have some sort of punishment.  Justice must be served; for without justice there is complete and utter chaos.  And if justice is not meted out in this world?  If God knows about such injustice and He just overlooks it?  What then?  Do you have a God worth worshiping if He overlooks such things?  Do you have a God worth worshiping who turns a blind eye to violence and hatred and pain?  Do you have a God worth worshiping if He simply says, “Oh well, this all happened, but I’m sure folks feel sorry for it.  They can come join me without consequence.”?  Is this the kind of God you worship?

    No.  Not at all.  God becomes extremely wrathful at sin.  Even small ones.  For those small sins lead to larger ones.  Think about the progression in how Sunday mornings were once reserved for worship and family.  Think about how they slowly progressed to the point where some select sports now schedule tournaments on Easter Sunday.  And we who let things slide early on can now just scratch our heads in bewilderment.  God doesn’t do that.  God’s wrath burns hot against small sins as well as large ones–whether you’ve rejected the invitation or failed to wear the robes provided for you.  God’s anger burns.

    This parable does not seem to have much good news in it.  Not if we are honest with ourselves.  For oftentimes we are much like those first invited to the wedding feast fo the Son.  We know we are supposed to follow the Son–to worship Him regularly and dine with Him and celebrate His goodness.  And yet, we find other things to do.  We get involved with other activities–sports, outdoors, sleeping, work.  We place all these things of value in front of our relationship with Jesus.

    And even though we know we’ve been invited to the party, most of the time we don’t wear the appropriate clothing.  “For as many of you who have been baptized into Christ Jesus have clothed yourself with Christ.”  So said St. Paul in Galatians 3.  But how many of us during the course of the day really feel like we show forth Jesus?  How many of us believe we truly are wearing Him and being a good representation of Jesus?  Be brutally honest.  From what you know about Jesus, do you honestly think someone would mistake you for Him?  Not much of a chance of that, is there?

    And so, if we are honest with ourselves, we see that we are like those who refused to come; or we are like the one cast out because we failed to wear the clothes provided.  It would seem as though all hope were lost to us.

    But there is one who hasn’t really made an appearance in this parable.  Who was the wedding banquet thrown for?  The Son.  What if, the Son comes to His Father and says, “Dad, wait a minute.  Before you consume everyone because they are not worthy...before you cast those who are not wearing the robes out into the outer darkness...let me act on their behalf.  Let me take their punishment.  Don’t destroy them.  Yes, they deserve punishment.  Yes, they deserve your wrath, but let me take it.  Let me save them.  For I love them.”  And what if the king said, “Yes, Son, you may take their place.  My wrath will be satisfied because of what you do.”? 

    And what if the Son was stripped of His robes?  And beaten?  And tortured?  And crucified all for the sake of those who deserved God’s wrath?  And what if, the Father, the King were so distraught and so overwhelmed by what His Son did, that He raised His Son from the dead to show that death would not be the end?  That love and justice could meet in an absolutely beautiful event?  Where God’s wrath would be satisfied and His love could be extended?

    Would that be a story worth sharing?

    “For God so loved the world that He gave His only begotten Son that all those who believe in Him would not perish but have eternal life.  For God sent the Son into the world not to condemn the world, but that the world might be save through Him.”  The wrath of God has been satisfied.  And you are welcome at the banquet because of it.  Amen.  

1 comment:

John Flanagan said...

You have raised many perplexing issues in this post, and indeed the evidence of God's wrath against sin is shown continually in the Old Testament narrative. All of us struggle with the nature of evil without and within, and I suppose our feeble minds cannot begin to discern the acts of God in response to evil and sin. Yet, when such deep thoughts disturb me, as I approach 70 years of age, I just go to Jesus like the wandering and confused child needing reassurance that all will be well. I can do no more. I have studied God's word for 40 years, and still many areas remain elusive to understanding. So, all I can do is love The Lord, rely on grace, the cross of Christ, and take life day by day until this journey is over. The person of Christ is closer to me than the complex theology of religion. Simple faith and humility is what I seek, and Knowing God hates sin, I try to guard my heart, and expect to fail as often as the next guy...but grace is where I put my trust.