October 12, 2014, Pentecost 18 – When God Gets Mad

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We have a friendly but passionate controversy ongoing in our family, on the subject of discipline. We divide into two camps. Some of my children-who-are-now-parents follow the classical line of thinking about child discipline, with clear rules and clear consequences for breaking rules, including at times and in the right circumstances a little corporal punishment, a.k.a. spanking. The other camp is much more modern in their philosophy and practice of child rearing, and they are passionately against any form of corporal punishment. And further, their method of discipline involves almost nothing in the way of rules and much in the way of negotiation and reasoning.

And the thing is, that all of my children, in my opinion, are excellent parents. My grandchildren on both sides of this controversy, while not perfect angels, are all growing up intelligent and kind and pleasant to be around, and I firmly believe they are all on their way to being successful human beings. My personal opinion on this controversy of spanking vs. not spanking (and I absolutely don’t get involved in this debate – at all – ever) but my personal opinion is that it is possible to parent in many different ways, and that happy, secure, good children may be raised by a wide variety of parenting styles. Specifically, I don’t believe that a child is ruined by being raised in a non-violent “spare the rod” way – but I also don’t believe that a child is harmed psychologically and emotionally by being given a swat on the behind to remind them that it is never OK to run into the street or to clobber their sister or to torment the cat.

The one thing that I am very sure is always harmful, always wrong, is for a parent to punish his or her child in anger. And I don’t mean that surge of anger that we feel when our little guy just ran into the road and our adrenalin is pumping and we lose our temper and yell because we are terrified at what almost happened. I’m talking about the rage that a parent sometimes directs towards the child himself, rage that in that moment utterly blocks out love and patience and compassion, rage that doesn’t seek to teach what is good but seeks only to cause pain. That kind of anger does terrible harm to a child, so that children who have been abused very often end up bearing that pain within themselves into adulthood, Very often abused children come to feel that they deserve to be hurt and belittled, and that brokenness of self puts that child at risk in every other relationship of that child’s life.

It is that uncontrolled, vicious, destructive sort of rage that many people think of when they think of the wrath of God. They think of God as that faceless being somewhere out there, who is never pleased with us no matter how hard they try, who has his eye on them day and night just so he can catch them when they fail. And they know they will always fail, because the standard of God is perfection, and no one can ever be perfect. And more than that, even at those times they feel they have been good people, the wrath of God seems to them such a capricious, unpredictable force that they hold themselves continually on the defensive, ready to ward off a blow if he decides to be particularly vindictive today.

In short, so many people think of God the Father as the worst kind of human father. And I think that is at least in part because so many people have experienced that kind of abusive anger at the hands of their own human fathers or mothers. It is in part because they recognize that kind of anger within themselves. And it is in part because the church has too often done a poor job of communicating the real character of God, and what exactly it means when God gets angry.

This image of a wrathful God is out there in the world; you don’t have to look far at all to find an atheist or agnostic who has written off the whole idea of faith and Christianity because they have rejected the vengeful God they met in their childhood, like young adults who leave home with no desire ever to return, in order to escape the everlasting fear and pain of their relationship with their parents. But you’ll also find a lot of people in the church who have a very uneasy understanding of the wrath of God. And very often what they do is to relegate that God, the angry God, the scary God, to the strange and bloody pages of the Old Testament. And, except for the mandatory brush with the Hebrew Scriptures in our Sunday lectionary, they pretty much keep their focus on the New Testament, and on Jesus, who wears a face that is much less scary, much more accepting and welcoming. They like Jesus, we like Jesus, because he’s the kind and loving one.

But the thing is, that won’t do, because if we understand the whole meaning of the Incarnation it is that Jesus came to put skin and bones on the divine nature of the Father so that we can know him, and so that we can experience his presence. And the truth is, when we look at who Jesus is and what he did we find that he gets angry, too. And specifically, in the sequence of parables that we have been reading, today and last week, and the week before – Jesus is expressing some real anger. So it is essential to our understanding of this part of the gospel that we really understand what it means when God gets mad, and how entirely unlike the wrath of man God’s wrath really is.

Remember back in the previous chapter Jesus entered Jerusalem – that was shortly before he told all these stories that we have been reading, and he went in to the Temple and he found that the powers that be had transformed the house of his Father into a sort of religious WalMart – one stop shopping for all your sacrifice and ritual needs. He was furious, and he did all those things I mentioned last week, overturning the tables and driving out the money changers. Then he did something I didn’t mention last week – he went to a fig tree, which had no fruit on it because it wasn’t the season for fruit, and he cursed it. As a sign of his anger against the barrenness that had corrupted the religious establishment, against its failure to nourish and feed the his people he spoke a word that withered the tree from roots to leaves, on the spot.

It is no surprise at all that the religious leaders came to him and demanded to know where he thought he got off disrupting things in Jerusalem. And the three parables are his response to that demand. And there is no denying that these parables express his anger. The first was that story of the two sons who were called out to work in the field by their father: and there was the one who said he would go, all agreeable, but didn’t go after all, and the one who sassed his father but had a change of heart and went. And Jesus said, “That first son, the bad one, that’s you – and you watch, it’s the tax collectors and the prostitutes, those people you despise, who are going to get into the kingdom of heaven before you do.” And then last week there was the story of the wicked tenants, and Jesus pointed the finger at them again, saying, “That’s your story, and that’s why the kingdom is being taken away from you and given to those who will produce its fruits.” And finally, the story we read today, where he makes it very clear that they are the ones who have rejected the invitation of God.” Jesus is always gracious, always good, but here we see he is also angry. So what does that mean? How do we continue to trust and love God – and not just “the God of the Old Testament” but Jesus himself – when he gets mad?

I think that the first thing we need to understand is that God’s anger is not like the human anger we know – whether we mean the anger we feel within ourselves or the anger we have felt directed towards us by other people. When God sent Isaiah to warn his people of their sin, he did not hide his anger from them. The parable of the tenants recalled the words of Isaiah when he called Israel “the vineyard of the Lord of Hosts.” And Isaiah went on to say, “Therefore the anger of the Lord was kindled against his people, and he stretched out his hand against them and struck them…” The anger of God is fierce against his people who have rebelled against him, but the message of Isaiah is not a condemnation; it is a call to repentance. And in calling his people to repentance, he assured them that they would be forgiven, that they would surely find compassion. Because, he told them, “my thoughts are not your thoughts, neither are your ways my ways…For as the heavens are higher than the earth, so are my ways higher than your ways and my thoughts than your thoughts.”

We have all known the implacable anger of human beings, we have all known people who wanted only to pay back the evil they think we have done to them. But we never need to fear that God’s anger is meant to exact his “pound of flesh” from us. God’s anger seeks to heal and reconcile, not to condemn and punish. We like to use the expression, “Hate the sin, but love the sinner.” but he only time we human beings are very good at actually doing that is when it comes to our selves, and we aren’t always very good at it then. But that is exactly what God does all the time. Paul wrote, “While we were still dead in our sins Christ died for us.” Believe this: God’s anger and disgust toward evil and sin is infinitely greater than ours will ever be. And yet, while we were still wallowing and helpless in the midst of all that is most hateful to God, he gave up everything, he endured everything, he suffered everything, in order to bring us home to him.

The thing is that God never forgets what he is angry at like we so often do; his anger never boils over and scorches the innocent. With God’s anger there is never collateral damage. God’s anger never destroys, except for the purpose of rebuilding and healing and restoring. John wrote, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son…not to condemn it, but so that the world might have life through him.” This is very good news – when God gets mad – and sometimes God gets mad because there are things in this world that are well worth getting mad about – his anger is never at us; his anger is always – always – on our behalf. When Jesus told those angry parables about the disobedient son and the wicked tenants and the ungrateful wedding guests, it was in order that his people – those very Pharisees and elders and scribes who were taking offense and plotting his death – it was in order that they might turn to him and be healed. Because he has never stopped loving his chosen people, and we can be sure he will never stop loving us.

When Moses met with God on the mountain and received the tablets of the Law from him, he asked God to reveal himself. And God did; he passed before Moses, allowing him to see as much as Moses was able to take in of his glory. And God proclaimed to Moses his name; God gave himself a sort of tag line that he repeated over and over in the course of his dealings with mankind, so that we would know what he is like. And this is what he said about himself, “The Lord, the Lord, gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abounding in lovingkindness.”

In psalm 103, the psalmist recalled those words God spoke to Moses, and he added to them: “The Lord is merciful and gracious, slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love. He will not always chide, nor will he keep his anger forever. He does not deal with us according to our sins, nor repay us according to our iniquities. For as high as the heavens are above the earth, so great is his steadfast love towards those who fear him; as far as the east is from the west, so far does he remove our transgressions from us. As a father – the very best and most perfect of fathers – shows compassion to his children, so the Lord shows compassion to those who fear him.”

We are called to fear God, but we are never called to that kind of fear that lives in terror of his wrath. We are never called to the kind of fear that cringes at his approach lest he come to hurt or belittle or destroy us. Our fear of God is meant to be the kind of fear that the humblest child feels for her father, whose wrath is utterly terrifying when he comes to his child’s defense, who absolutely expects the very best from her, but to whom the child always knows she can run and be safe, whose lap is always open to welcome her, whose arms are always extended to embrace her, and who would give his own life in a heartbeat to save her.

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