Monday, October 17, 2011

God's Power: A Mercy-Centered Wrath

Preached Sunday October 16, 2011

Scripture readings: Jeremiah 7:3-15; Mark 11:12-25; Romans 1:16-23; 1:28-2:11

Did you know that “the wrath of God is being revealed from heaven against all godlessness and wickedness of human beings?” (Romans 1:18) This is what the Bible says, and I believe that it is so. But there is a lot of misunderstanding about the wrath of God, and I think it would take a sermon about as long as the Bible to explain it.

The wrath of God makes us think of a fire-breathing God; a God who smites people. Whatever else the Bible may say, elsewhere, about the wrath of God, Paul says nothing about fire or smiting here.

According to Paul, what is the form that the wrath of God takes when human beings push God, and the reality of God, away? Paul says that God gives them over, or that God gives them up. (1:24, 26, 28) God lets them go. What if, of all the horrifying pictures we have of the wrath of God, this image of God letting the world go, and letting us go, is the most horrifying picture of all?

We hear Paul describe this process. Paul says, “Although they claimed to be wise, they became fools.” (1:22) He says, “Since they did not think it worthwhile to retain the knowledge of God, he gave them over to a depraved mind.” (1:28) In other words, to those who did not want to see reality in the same terms that God sees reality, God gave them up to the reality that would exist if he did not exist. God let them get a taste of the world and of their own minds as they would be without the boundaries created by God and his love.

Paul says, “They have become filled with every kind of wickedness, evil, greed and depravity. They are full of envy, murder, strife, deceit, and malice. They are gossips, slanderers, God-haters, insolent, arrogant and boastful; they invent ways of doing evil; they disobey their parents; they are senseless, faithless, heartless, ruthless.” (1:29-31)

When we speak of God giving up a person, we mean that God is willing to let them go from bad to worse, if they are determined on going that way. You know, sometimes this is the only way.

There are broken people who want to go a way we cannot accept or support. We would like, with all our heart, to fix them. We are always kind to them, but we also have to be firm as well, and not support them or enable them in the harmful journey they have chosen.

We have to let them go. We have to entrust them to God by giving them up, in the hope that they will see the truth and seek God’s help (and our help too) when they are ready; when it is the right time, when it is God’s time, when they “hit bottom” and feel the pain of the way they have chosen.

We know (in the sorrow of our heart) that giving someone up, or giving them over to the life they choose, is not a lack of love. It is an act of love, and faith, and a prayerful, concerned hope. And so, one of the discoveries we make about the wrath of God, through what Paul teaches us, is that the wrath of God is not separated from his love in any way. The wrath of God is not an absence of love.

We know, from human experience, that even the presence of a red-hot anger is not necessarily a sign of hatred: not when we are family or friends. And all people belong to the family of God in virtue of their being his creatures. They are God’s sons and daughters by creation.

We know, from human experience, that our anger can give way to complete indifference, or to bitterness and hatred in the end. But we also know (or we should know) that we are not God, and that God is not measured by our limitations.

Our love seems to come to an end because of our human limitations, but God is love. God has no limitations, nor does his love. If God stopped being love, in any way, he would stop being God. “The steadfast love of the Lord never ceases, his mercies never come to an end; they are new every morning; great is thy faithfulness.” (Lamentations 3:22-23)

We have a lot of misunderstandings about the wrath of God, and understanding that wrath is a part of the love of God doesn’t make it any easier to understand. Paul says that we can experience God’s coming wrath (or even God’s judgment) as kindness, tolerance, and patience (2:4), and that even his own people (like you and me) might not realize that not feeling the wrath or not feeling the judgment of God for ourselves might be the kindness that is meant, by God, to lead us to repentance. (2:4)

If the wrath of God means that God will sometimes let people go their own way, what does it mean if, so many times, God lets us go our own way? We think what we want, we feel what we want, we deal with other people as we want, and we think that, because nothing apparently goes against us, that everything is OK.

The Bible clearly doesn’t agree with what we might be thinking, and feeling, and doing, but we manage to do it anyway. Sometimes we explain this by saying that the Bible is sort of extreme and it doesn’t always mean what it says? And, after all, we have accepted Jesus as our Lord and Savior, and so we are immune to God’s wrath and judgment (so they say); because God is a God of love.

We wouldn’t be the first to think this way. Paul knew such people, and they appear in his letter to the Romans.

But Paul is saying that we are not immune and, if we think that God allows us to be so, then we are doing what Paul says that others have done who wanted to go their own way. We have “exchanged the truth of God for a lie.” (1:25) And Paul, in this part of his letter, is talking to the Christians in Rome. He is talking to us.

The people of God in the time of the prophet Jeremiah thought they were immune from the wrath and judgment of God. In their case, part of their self-confidence was that they had “the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord, the Temple of the Lord.” The Lord had his dwelling with them. (Jeremiah 7:4)

The temple seemed to them like a wedding ring on the finger of the bride of the Lord, and so they thought they were protected. They thought they were immune. Are we not tempted to think the same way, just because we are the bride of the Lord Christ?

They thought he would never let anything happen to them. We think that God will never let anything happen to us to show that we have been caught, and that we have been found to be false.

Jeremiah said that they had made the temple into “a den of robbers”. (Jeremiah 7:11) This means that they had made it into a hiding place where they thought they could escape detection, and where they could not get caught. They had made the temple into a den where they could even hide their own eyes from the truth abut themselves.

They had robbed God by depriving him of their primary allegiance and their first love. They worshipped idols, just as we worship our homes, and our security, and our money; just as we worship our own happiness.

They mistreated and used other people for their own happiness. And, in this way, they robbed those who were supposed to stand before them as the image of God. They robbed them by not giving them the treatment that we owe to those who are made in the image of God. And they robbed them by not being for others the image of God that we are created to be. They robbed them by not being the image of God’s steadfast and faithful love to others.

Jesus acted against the temple as a hiding place. He attacked the very operation of the temple as a place where the mercy of God was acted out through the sacrifices made for the forgiveness of sins.

These sacrifices could not be made because they could not be bought without the temple coinage that the money changers provided. Because of Jesus overturning the tables of the money changers, all offerings for sin stopped in the temple that day. The only offering for sin that was present in the temple that day was Jesus, himself.

The attack of Jesus on the temple was a sign that the temple had come to an end as a place for the mercy of God to be found, because of those who used it to hide from their own failure to love God and to love others.

The cursing of the fig tree was another sign of this wrath of God, and of his promise to destroy the temple. Jesus said that every faithful prayer for God’s judgment to come upon the mountain of the house of the Lord would find itself fulfilled. (Mark 11:23) When Jesus says “Have faith in God!” he means for us to trust that he will never let this sort of robbery and hiding stand.

When we read Paul’s writings about the wrath and judgment of God and see how he applied it to his readers, including us, we see that he is very interested in getting us to stop hiding from our involvement in sin. He says, “You who pass judgment do the same things.” (2:1)

We don’t do all of the things on the list. That would be nearly impossible. It would be exhausting.

But look at that list, and I will tell you what disturbs me most about it. There is no order to it. There is no top or bottom of the list. There is no way that we can comfort ourselves because of where our peculiar sins fall on that list.

Envy comes before murder. Is envy worse than murder?

The God-hater comes two steps below the gossip. What does that mean?

It means watch out. It means know yourself as God knows you. It means stop hiding and stop thinking you are immune.

What makes God mad? What gets his wrath going? Paul says, “For the wrath of God is being revealed…against all godlessness and wickedness.” (1:18)

Godlessness and wickedness represent the two most important parts of our lives when we have gone wrong. We show godlessness when we are not living as if our lives belonged to God. We show wickedness when we are not living our lives in love and service to others.

We are made for love; which means we are made for life with God and with others. When we do not live for love we destroy God’s work of creation within us. When we fail in love for God and others it is as if we had cut off our own arms and legs. It is as if we had plucked out our own heart, and given ourselves a lobotomy.

When we do not live in love toward God and toward others, we have robbed God and others of the gift that we were created to be. We have mutilated ourselves and lived destructively.

My dad had two big tattoos on his upper arms: a panther on one, and a snake on the other. He hated them.

He had not gotten them willingly. When he was a kid in the navy, going on shore leave, some of the other guys got him drunk and took him to a tattoo parlor and got him tattooed.

The panther and the snake were a constant reminder to my dad of a time when he was the butt of a joke that had mutilated him against his will, and yet his going out with those guys was a willingness to play into a behavior that got him there. He never quite got over the wrath in that; the wrath toward the guys who did it to him and the wrath toward himself for the foolishness that got him in trouble.

We are, in our own time, the people of God and the people of the covenant, in Christ. But we are not immune to the consequences of where we place our heart. We need to be, spiritually, centered in a state of repentance, which is an intensely practical place to be.

Repentance means a change of mind and heart. It means turning about face. It is the difference between going one way and going the opposite way. Paul asks us to look at where our heart loves to live. What way is our heart going?

The gospel means good news, and it is the good news of “the righteousness of God” and “the power of God.” (1:16-17) The good news of Jesus is that God has done everything that is needed to put an end to the self-seeking self, and to make you new and give you a new heart.

God has come as a human for your sake, to die for your sins so that you can die to yourself. And God, in Christ has risen from the dead so that you may rise with him into a new life that will not end.

In a self-mutilating world God has two options for us. One option is holding onto the mutilated life. In such a life we continue to seek our own way instead of living in love for God and for others.

The other option is the new life rising from the ashes of the old as, through Christ, we die to the old life and rise into the new. In such a life our hearts are set on a relationship of love with God and others that will never fade, or spoil, or end.

Think about the world as it is; this beautiful, magnificent world that is packed so full of outrage, and injustice, and victimization, and brutality. What is more surprising in such a world: the wrath of God or the grace of God?

Would the world be a better place if God was not angry with what we have done to it? Should the absence of the very thought of God’s anger make us happier with the world as it is?

Between wrath and grace, does it seem unjust that we have no third choice? What third choice could there be (between wrath and grace).

There could be a third choice. Between grace and wrath, there could be a choice of God making us cease to exist. It could be a kind of spiritual euthanasia or mercy-killing. In such a mercy killing God could say, “I brought you into existence but, given the chance, you have shown yourself to be unworthy of existence.” Perhaps God could take our undeserved existence painlessly away, but would that be the work of a God of love?

Even the wrath of God can be the love of God. It can be God saying, “In spite of what you have done to waste your life, and in spite of the way you have diminished and damaged my children and my world, your life still has meaning for me. Even now I have not made junk. I have loved your existence enough to give you life and I will not deny it or take it away.”

The love that will claim to mercifully remove a soul from existence is not the love it claims to be. It judges a person to be unworthy of life. It goes beyond saying that you can love a person and yet continue to be angry with them. It goes on to say that you can love a person and destroy them completely.

For those Christians who believe, as I do, in capital punishment and the death penalty, I would explain it like this. In executing the person who is guilty of a heinous crime we are not claiming to eliminate their existence from the universe.

We are sending them to a higher court. We are sending them to face their maker and the one who died for their sins. Capital punishment is wrath. It is violent, but it does not deny the worthiness of a human soul to live.

Wrath and grace are both about love. The message of the wrath tells us that we should understand that we may be hard to love. The message of the grace of God tells us that God finds it to be a very costly thing to love us. God’s grace can be called his power because it comes through his own death, taking our place on the cross. And it comes through his breaking the power of death through his own dying and resurrection.

Above all that, the story of God’s grace tells us that God finds that such a love is not too hard for him. The love of God loves to love us into salvation and transformation even when he must bear such an infinite cost.

This is why God’s plan of grace for the world and for us (if we want it) is good news. And when a world of wrath becomes too much for us we can find our freedom by the surrender of ourselves that comes through faith.

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