Matthew 4:12-23 and Excerpts from On God by John Shelby Spong Rev. Nicole M. Lamarche
Welcome again everyone, on what is in our tradition the Third Sunday after Epiphany, thank you for being here, for yourself and for one another to tune into the Ground of Being together. I invite you now as you are moved to take some deeper breaths, one of the oldest words for God is, Ruah, breath, wind … Let each of us arrive a bit more fully to hear whatever word God has for us today. And I offer this preacher’s prayer from Psalm 19.
Gracious God, speak to each of us in ways that we can hear, and may the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, our Rock, and our Redeemer Amen.
“the Reason why (people) don’t go down to Hell at each Moment, is not because God, in whose Power they are, is not then very angry with them; as angry as he is with many of those miserable Creatures that he is now tormenting in Hell, and do there feel and bear the fierceness of his Wrath. Yea God is a great deal more angry with great Numbers that are now on Earth, yea doubt- less with many that are now in this Congregation, that it may be are at Ease and Quiet, than he is with many of those that are now in the Flames of Hell. So that it is not because God is unmindful of their Wickedness, and don’t resent it, that he don’t let loose his Hand and cut them off. God is not altogether such an one as themselves, tho’ they may imagine him to be so. The Wrath of God burns against them, their Damnation don’t slumber, the Pit is prepared, the Fire is made ready, the Furnace is now hot, ready to receive them, the Flames do now rage and glow.”
These are words from a sermon spoken in 1741 by American theologian and preacher, congregationalist forebear Jonathan Edwards. And I might sum it all up by saying, beware, you are doomed.
The sermon is titled Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God and it is credited with serving as one of the catalysts for the First Great Awakening, a religious revival movement that forever changed the landscape of Protestant Christianity in America and maybe around the world.
The focus of this revival and the awakening that followed, was on individual piety and religious devotion. And the foundation was and maybe still is the idea that God often acts out of anger, responds to us in wrath, because of our sinfulness and our wickedness. And in some cases, as we heard in that sermon, God is quite literally waiting to snare us, for beware, the pit has already been prepared.
We do read of God’s anger throughout our sacred text. For example, in the book of Ezra we read (8:22) “For I was ashamed to request of the king an escort of soldiers and horsemen to help us against the enemy on the road, because we had spoken to the king, saying, “The hand of our God is upon all those for good who seek Him, but His power and His wrath are against all those who forsake Him.”
And in Isaiah, we read that God put onto the people his burning hot rage. It says, “So He poured out on Jacob His furious anger and the power of war.”
Beloved Jewish theologian Abraham Heschel argued that while God might get angry, it’s justified. He wrote “The prophets never [portray] God’s anger as something that cannot be accounted for, unpredictable, irrational. It is never a spontaneous outburst, but a reaction occasioned by the conduct of humans…and motivated by concern for right and wrong.” 1
And still, I wonder, if we might challenge not just the idea of God being angry, but of God having emotions at all? What I mean is that as we allow ourselves to thoughtfully examine some of the theological constructs that we have been handed, it’s clear that in many cases, we humans have simply created a God with all of the same limitations that we have.
I have been thinking about this because as you know, for those of you who are following along, this is the third week in our series A New Dream for An Old Faith and today we are talking about where the idea of an angry God comes from – a God who holds grudges and keeps track of our record of wrong. Doesn’t that sound more like Santa? But instead of coal, it’s the Flames of Hell? What if the main reason we humans have believed God to be angry is because we are? Because we often turn to anger as the default? And it’s really hard for us to imagine that even the Divine could have a different, more evolved, first emotional response?
What if the idea of a wrathful deity has very little to do with who God really is, and more to say about us, about us human beings? It’s extremely difficult for us to think that God could operate differently than we do, but what if It does?
Maybe you have heard that quote from Anne Lamott, it’s one of my favorites from her, “You can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God hates all the same people you do.”
And maybe today we would add to that, you can safely assume you’ve created God in your own image when it turns out that God is angry in all the same ways you are, at all the same people that you are?
What if we are imperfect humans who fall short and some of us are really far from love, but, what if we aren’t sinners in the hands of an angry God, but really sacred pieces having this human experience, co-laboring with the Creator and still in need of being called back to our purpose again and again?
What if we humans can fall short and still, what if God isn’t angry at us? Maybe that doesn’t matter to you, but I think it does to some. I will occasionally hear people tell me that something didn’t go their way because the Universe had a beef with them, because God was mad at them. What if that’s not how It works?
Because as we heard in this story in the Gospel of Matthew and we hear throughout the Christian scriptures, Jesus wanted us humans to get the message that following his teachings, doing what he did, would be good, that it would be healing, that it would offer us hope. We read that when he recruited his disciples and asked them to join him, he went on, “proclaiming the good news of the kingdom and curing every disease and every sickness among the people.” What if Jesus was serious about the Good News part? We heard it from the text that Jesus was sharing this message, “Repent, for the kingdom of heaven has come near.” And you might remember that in Greek, repent is metanoia, which really just means change, change your mind, have a new way of thinking, a new outlook, a new way of loving… So the message for us is not beware, but behold, the Source of Love flows through us, tune in, turn around, transform…it’s never too late. As we heard from the now late Bishop Spong, “If the word “God” can be identified with the Source of Love that flows through the universe, always enhancing, the way we worship that which we call God is by loving, loving wastefully. Wasteful love never stops to ask whether love is due or deserved.
This message from Jesus for those gathered with him then and now is Good News:
What if we aren’t sinners in the hands of an angry God, but what if the invitation is that we can always repent? Or in 2023 a better way of saying metanoia perhaps is that the Ground of Being always offers us, a chance to turn, the turn around is always available, the tune in is always there for us, because whatever name we have for God it is just there and ready, for the kingdom of heaven has come near, holiness is already here. So the message for us is not beware, it’s behold the Source of Love inviting us to find love and be love and give it away. May it be so. Amen.
1 Abraham Heschel, The Prophets Vol. 2, “The Theology of Pathos,” p362.