A sermon for the Third Sunday of Lent, 2018
How comfortable are you with angry Jesus? Last week, he practically spat and swore at Peter: “Get behind me, Satan!” This week, he is causing chaos and uproar in the Temple, whipping animals, shouting at people, making a mess, frightening the birds. Jesus is not afraid to experience the whole range of human emotion, including anger, including outrage, perhaps even outright rage.
Is that encouraging to you, or worrying? How comfortable are you with an angry Jesus?
It is easier, certainly, to be comforted by a Jesus who is angry with other people: cattle-drivers, money-changers. But when his disciples are also in the line of fire, then we get a little nervous.
Jonathan Edwards, eighteenth-century preacher of the Great Awakening, preached a famous sermon on Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, during which he gave his opinion that,
Yea God is a great deal more angry with great Numbers that are now on Earth, yea doubtless 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.
While I would not care to live entirely within the world that Edwards’ theology constructs, it is no doubt true that if the Incarnation were to have chosen this moment in history to happen, instead of the last decades of the Jerusalem Temple, that twenty-first-century Jesus would have found plenty that needed cleansing, plenty that cried out for overturning, plenty that definitely wanted driving out of the temples of our lives, and our sacred and civil religion.
[Of course, if the Incarnation had been delayed until now, our entire history of the past two millennia would be different, so I understand that the comparison doesn’t quite work …]
Take the Ten Commandments. If we were to apply a letter grade to our adherence to the Mosaic Covenant, I do not like our chances of passing.
Have no other gods before me. How do you think we are doing with that one? If the proverbial alien landed in one of our cities today, what would they observe to be the object of our worship, our obedience, our religion? Would it be God, or a gun? Our Father, or a flag? Christ, or hard currency?
Do not make for yourselves idols.
You shall not make wrongful use of the name of the Lord your God. During these past difficult days, I heard a modern-day American preacher give his opinion that the guns to which we cling came not of human invention, but a special, unique, American dispensation direct from our Creator God, in whose presumably armed and armoured image we are made; the same God who said, “for your lifeblood I will require a reckoning”. If that is not blasphemy, then I have lost track of what the word means.
It also covers idolatry. Back to Jonathan Edwards:
Natural Men’s Prudence and Care to preserve their own Lives, or the Care of others to preserve them, don’t secure ‘em a Moment. …. But the foolish Children of Men do miserably delude themselves in their own Schemes, and in their Confidence in their own Strength and Wisdom; they trust to nothing but a Shadow.
It’s also worth noticing that if you add Preacher LaPierre’s special gun dispensation to a few choice Stand Your Ground laws, then you have the perfect get-out-of-hell free card to exempt you from Commandment #6, Thou shalt not kill; or at least for a portion of the population.
As Kelly Brown Douglas, eminent Episcopalian and Womanist theologian writes,
Stand-your-ground culture reveals a nation that is actually at war with itself.
It is a culture that appoints its own saviours and demons, and arms them to the teeth.
I’m not going to go through all of the Ten Commandments because frankly, unless we can reconcile our fundamental issues with the first three and the prohibition on killing, not to mention loving our neighbour, I do not see a way for us to achieve any kind of passing grade.
As Jonathan Edwards reminded his audience of miserable sinners in Massachusetts and Connecticut,
Sin is the Ruin and Misery of the Soul; it is destructive in it’s [sic] Nature; and if God should leave it without Restraint, there would need nothing else to make the Soul perfectly miserable. The Corruption of the Heart of Man is a Thing that is immoderate and boundless in its Fury.
Which leads me back to my opening question: How comfortable are we with angry Jesus? Because I think that we have plenty of fuel here for his fury.
Oh, but here comes the twist, that pretzel in the logic and justice of God that is the form of the Cross. Here is the madness that undermines our clever arguments and justifications, which renders our judgement questionable, which redeems and refines our confusion.
Jonathan Edwards would have us believe that God is holding us “over the Pit of Hell, much as one holds a Spider, or some loathsome Insect, over the Fire,” and Wayne LaPierre would have us take up arms against bad guys and sinners, but the way of the Cross makes a mockery of us all, and especially of preachers.
By way of the Cross, in God’s wisdom, instead of striking us down, or burning us up, God has decided to die for us, to offer up, to lay down life itself, so that we might recognize that the way back to Godliness is one of self-sacrifice, of immeasurable love.
Jesus is angry because he cares, to cite a cliche. He is angry because it matters to him what we do next: whether we suffer the little children to live; whether we beat our swords into ploughshares; whether we continue to sacrifice our doves of peace on the altars of the money changers, or not. He is angry because with the pretzel logic, the foolish wisdom of the Cross, he would rather die than watch us kill one another.
Here is the way of the Cross, which is foolishness to Americans, with its naïve non-violence, its disarming innocence. Here is the way of the Cross, which is a stumbling block to revolutionaries, with its radical redemption even of the unrighteous.
The way of discipleship, the one that follows Jesus to the Cross, admits that we make Christ angry more often than we should. It accepts his judgement, receives his rebuke, prays for his cleansing as part of our direction and redemption.
Sinners in the hands of a merciful God, we may not need to fear Christ’s anger, but we should pay it heed, because it is part of our training in the way of the Cross, the way of life and love.
When his disciples remember the scripture, “Zeal for my Father’s house will consume me,” they might as well be talking of the temples of our bodies. Jesus’ passion for us, and for our salvation, is burning him up, and, if we let it, his passion will burn away the chaff that keeps our souls from a clear view of God and of God’s will for the world, to live in peace with one another and in harmony with Christ.
Sinners in the hands of a merciful God, may righteous anger infect our hearts. May the wisdom of sheer foolishness bring us courage, and drive out our tendencies to disappointment and dereliction. May the stumbling blocks which bring us pause and bruise us cause us only to turn back to God, and to the way of the Cross to which Christ has called us. May the peace which passes human understanding fill our hearts and minds instead with the love of God, and of God’s Son our Saviour Jesus Christ. Amen.
Jonathan Edwards, Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God, preached July 1741, at https://digitalcommons.unl.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1053&context=etas
Wayne LaPierre at CPAC, February 22, 2018, via https://www.theatlantic.com/politics/archive/2018/02/wayne-lapierres-trumpian-base-strategy/553964/
Kelly Brown Douglas, Stand Your Ground: Black bodies and the Justice of God (Orbis Books, 2015) – in its entirety, a brilliant definition and indictment of the problem, and a hard but hopeful theological reflection on the redemption offered by the Crucified One