Sermon by the Reverend Trevor Jamison preached at St Columba’s United Reformed Church, 3rd February 2019
When we, the human beings of God’s world, reject God’s messengers, reject God’s will, and reject God, gods-self, what’s God to do? Does God just walk away, muttering something about not getting into a fight: “Just leave them, they’re not worth it”? Alternatively, does God get angry? Is now the time to deploy divine fire and brimstone? Is this my moment for a sermon declaring to you “the wrath of God”; that we are sinners in the hands of an angry God? Or yet again, does God decide not to make a fuss, taking it on the chin; determined to go on loving despite the abuse he receives in a toxic relationship with the humankind?
These questions that come into my mind when I read that prophet Jeremiah is concerned that he is ill-equipped to talk to the people and fears what their response will be should he declare God’s message to them. These questions come into my mind when I read about the reaction of the synagogue congregation in Nazareth, when Jesus, deploying words of the prophet Isaiah, declares God’s message for the people of his day: ‘Today this scripture has been fulfilled in your hearing.’ (4:21)
Jesus, as we heard last week, given the opportunity to read the scripture in his home town synagogue on the sabbath day, read from the prophet Isaiah: ‘the Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because he has anointed me to bring good news to the poor. He has sent me to proclaim release to the captives, and recovery of sight to the blind, to let the oppressed go free, to proclaim the year of the Lord’s favour.’ (4:18-19) The initial response to the quotation from scripture, and its contemporary application by Jesus’ declaration of its fulfilment, is one of surprise and delight: we never knew he had it in him, especially when you remember who his father is!
Things change, however, when Jesus begins to set out the implications of what he has read and is saying. God, according to Jesus, is as much or more concerned with other people that he is with his supposedly chosen people. Not only that, Jesus deploys the scriptural life stories of Israelite prophets to drive home his point. You think Elijah is one of our great prophets? Well, when he was in danger of starving God provided food for him via a foreign widow-woman in Zarephath. And as far for Elijah’s successor as prophet, Elisha, well he’s best known for healing a Syrian army general Naaman, leaving Israelite lepers to fend for themselves. God has sent me, says Jesus, not as a doctor who heals himself, nor to entertain my home-town folk with wonders. I’m here to look out for those on the margins of your society – the poor, the captives, the blind and the oppressed – and to put foreigners first. That’s God’s will.
And what’s the human response to God’s will, expressed through Jesus of Nazareth? ‘When they heard this, all in the synagogue were filled with rage. They got up, drove him out of the town, and led him up to the brow of the hill on which their town was built, so that they might hurl him off the cliff.’ (4:28-29) If this is how things were in earlier times (and they were), you can see why Jeremiah was a bit concerned by God’s intention for him to deliver a message that God was going to pluck up and pull down Jerusalem, destroy and overthrow the kingdom. Unsurprisingly, perhaps, one Jewish tradition is that Jeremiah died by being stoned to death by some who did not like his message. Throwing someone off a cliff, as the Nazareth folk intended to do with Jesus, was a frequent prelude to stoning them to death.
So, what’s God to make of all of that? What are we to make of it and how do we think that God responds to such violent opposition? Make no mistake, this is not just about one incident in Nazareth, two thousand years ago. Wider issues are at stake here. This event encapsulates the life, the message and the ministry of Jesus: for the sake of others, he arrives from God, declares God’s love for the downtrodden and for other people, and then identifies himself with God and God’s message. The people – perhaps particularly the religious people – are enraged by this, turning to violence, and arranging his judicial execution. They are his home town folk, but they are also representative of the whole of humanity, in how it rejects God’s ways, God’s messengers and God’s very self.
That’s how it was then and that’s how it is now. So, what does God do? How does God respond? Well, not with any one of the three responses I have mentioned, but with a combination of two of them; not by walking away, but with a combination of anger and love.
“God is not here,” so the slogan goes, “he is elsewhere, contemplating a less ambitious project.” God has walked away; that’s a widespread, popular view in a society where the majority of people still believe that there is a god, however you define the word “god”, but that this god has little or no impact upon how the world is and how we lead our lives. Such a god has nothing to contribute to the plight of the poor and the sick, the homeless and the oppressed, the victims of violence and torture; nothing to say those at the bottom of the economic and social heap; to those forced to flee from war, drought and famine that has engulfed their homeland.
Now, I believe that that’s a false image of God. Approaching God by way of this Jesus of Nazareth, I believe that God is greatly concerned with the world, including us human beings, and is interested in how we live our lives within that world. I believe that in Jesus God steps into the world to deal with what ails the world, which is closely tied up with how we human behave and misbehave in this world. And I believe that Jesus’s death and resurrection is central to how God deals with what is wrong; wrongness that moves God both to anger and to love. Somehow, through the death and resurrection of Jesus, which is the pivotal moment in a bigger story, God reconciles us, reconciles the world, with all our flaws, to God’s perfect self. The technical term here is “the atonement” – the action that brings about our “at-one-ment” with God.
Some people’s understandings of this atonement – our being made one with God – emphasise how the cross of Jesus deals with God’s anger, God’s wrath. For them, Jesus’s death turns aside or absorbs the anger of God over neglect of the poor, captives and the oppressed in Jesus’s time. It does the same with regard to God’s anger over our shortcomings, our sin, our actions that hurt others; our disregard for God and opposition to God, which puts us in solidarity with those who were enraged by Jesus and sought to destroy him.
You will find a good example of that understanding of the work of Jesus and the cross of Christ in the hymn we are going to sing after this sermon, Stuart Townend’s, In Christ alone my hope is found. I really like many of Stuart Townend’s hymns; twenty-first century singable tunes, combined with words that clearly express a strong Christian theological message. Whilst I like his hymns, however, most of them contain a line that I find difficult or wish he had not written – you just can’t please some people!
In Christ alone is no exception. In verse two I happily sing, “In Christ alone – who took on flesh, fullness of God in helpless Babe! This gift of love and righteousness, scorned by the ones he came to save.” Then I find myself hesitating, if not choking, on the next line, “till on that cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied, for every sin on him was laid; here in the death of Christ I live.”
I understand that Stuart Townend forbids all attempts by hymn book publishers to amend that line; publish it unchanged or you don’t get to publish it. I respect and understand that. After all, what’s the appropriate feeling about child abuse, sexual violence, the Holocaust, racially inspired violence, injustice towards those without power, and a host of other wrongs. Don’t you feel angry about them? I do! If you see these things in the world, or experience them, and you don’t feel angry I fear that there’s something wrong with you. AND, if God is not angered by these things then I would think, surely there’s something wrong with God. Yes, I fear God’s anger, God’s wrath, but not as much as I would fear a God who knows no anger in the face of such things.
The reason though that I hesitate or choke at singing that on the “cross the as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied,” is that I believe it does not tell the whole story of God. The God who gets angry is the God who is loving, just as the God who is loving is the God who gets angry: for love of the abused, the violated, the murdered, the victims, God gets angry. It won’t work, as some think it is ok to do, to take the word, “wrath” out of the hymn and replace it with love: “as Jesus died, the love of God was satisfied,” even if that feels more comfortable to me and to you. Where is the justice for the victims of this world if there is no judgement; no divine anger or wrath.
If you want to see why that is so, consider this story, one told to me by a child protection social worker: “A man was going down the road when he was set upon by robbers. They beat him, stripped him, and stole his possessions, leaving him lying in his own blood. A church minister came down the road, and seeing the man, crossed over to the other side and carried on without stopping. A church member came down the road, and seeing the man, hurried by on the other side. Finally, a social worker came along the road, saw the man, rushed over to his side, observed his sad condition, and said, ‘Whoever did this to you … really needs help.’” Love without justice is insufficient.
On the other hand, anger, divine or human, without love, won’t work either. Part of the bad reputation that some churches have, and which affects all churches today to some extent, relates to our long tradition of enthusiastic preaching about the wrath of God. Sometimes the enthusiasm with which this has been preached is as much a symptom of human shortcoming as it has been an observation of it. I remember one preacher I heard who catalogued the horrors that awaited those who did not accept that God’s wrath had been dealt with through the suffering of Jesus of Christ. He then said, “don’t think I enjoy telling you these things” … but he did.
So, what shall we sing when we get to verse two of the hymn? Here’s my suggestion. When you get to the line, “as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied,” make a choice. Choose either to sing “the wrath of God” or choose to sing “the love of God.” I don’t care which one you choose. I do care that next time we sing the hymn you remember whether you chose “wrath” or “love” this time, and you then sing the other one. At the cross, through the death of Jesus, God is dealing with the ways of the world that anger God, and saving the world that God loves.
We are told that having on this occasion escaped those who would kill him, Jesus ‘went on his way’ (4:21) Ultimately, of course, he went on his way to the cross, where God’s anger with all which is wrong is swept up into God’s saving love for the world. Thanks be to God: Amen.