The truth about God’s wrath

God did it. That’s how some Christians explain the coronavirus pandemic. It’s God’s judgment on humans because of our sins.

Which sins? Well, what’s on your list of sins that other people commit but you don’t? Obviously those must be the sins God is punishing people for. You, of course, as pure as the wind-driven snow, would never think of committing those sins.

It’s all because of other people that God is punishing all of us, so we – poor martyrs! – must endure punishment with them. Beam me up, Scottie. Where’s the Rapture when you need it? Where’s my magic escape hatch from this vale of toil and tears?

God caused the coronavirus to punish sinful people – that’s the blasphemy you’ll hear in many churches today. This morning I want to tell you the truth about God’s wrath, what it is and what it isn’t. This is the biblical truth, not the fantasy truth you may have heard over the years. This is the biblical truth, not the counterfeit you’ve heard proclaimed from many a church pulpit.

Does the name Zeus mean anything to you? How many of you remember Zeus from your childhood studies of ancient mythology, or from movies made from Marvel comic books?

Zeus is king of the Greek gods, the god of sky and thunder and lightning. The Romans called him Jupiter. In Norse legends, he’s called Thor. He’s usually portrayed as a big strong guy with a shock of white hair and a bushy white beard.

If fact, he could be a stand-in for God in Michelangelo’s famous painting of God creating Adam. In fact, a lot of Christians have Zeus and God confused. They think God is like Zeus, and one of the ways God is like Zeus is that God likes to throw thunderbolts at people who displease him.

Pinch a Snickers bar at the candy store and God’s gonna get you the moment you step out the door! Zap! Sizzle! One more sinner fried. Think an impure thought, steal a paper clip from the office, vote for anybody but a Republican and – Zap! You’re done for, brother. You’re toast, sister. That’s how God punishes people for sin!.

Except, it’s not. God is not Zeus, or Jupiter or Thor. God is God, and God doesn’t work the way those clowns from other ancient religions work. “The wrath of God” is a phrase you’ll see frequently in the Bible, but it does not mean divine retribution. It does not mean divine punishment. It means something else entirely.

It doesn’t mean that God is soft on sin. It means that God has other ways of dealing with sin than zapping people with thunderbolts – or floods or tornados or pandemics or any of the other awful things some people like to blame on God.

Let me show you what I mean using a passage from Psalm 7. Start with verses 11, 12 and 13:

God is a righteous judge, a God who is angry at evil every single day. If someone doesn’t change their ways, God will sharpen his sword, will bend his bow, will string an arrow. God has deadly weapons in store for those who won’t change; he gets his flaming arrows ready!

Wow. It looks like God prefers flaming arrows rather than thunderbolts. But either way, sinners are thoroughly cooked, right?

Hang on. Let’s read verses 14, 15, and 16.

But look how the wicked hatch evil, conceive trouble, give birth to lies! They make a pit, dig it all out, and then fall right into the hole they’ve made! The trouble they cause will come back on their own heads; the violence they commit will come down on their own skulls.

Evildoers dig a pit to trap someone else but they end up falling in it themselves. The trouble they try to cause for others comes right back at them.

God is indeed a righteous judge. What does God do as a righteous judge of our conduct? God evaluates our faithfulness. What is the judgment that God pronounces? It’s that we receive a just return for our actions. God does not enforce this personally. God never says, “I’ll get you for that!” But we don’t walk away unscathed either.

“Do not be deceived,” the Apostle Paul tells the Galatians. “God is not mocked, for you reap whatever you sow.” (Galatians 6:7)

Do you hear that? You reap what you sow. You are punished by your sins, not for them.

Paul stands firmly in the biblical tradition. Proverbs 22:8 : “Whoever sows injustice will reap calamity.” Job 4:8: “Those who plow iniquity and sow trouble reap the same.” Proverbs 1:31: those who reject the wisdom of the Lord “will eat the fruit of their ways and be filled with the fruit of their schemes.”

Multiple times in both Old and Testaments it’s said that when people rebel against God, God gives “them over to their stubborn hearts, to follow their own counsels.” That is, God gives “them over to the penalty of their sin” (Psalm 81:11-12, Job 8:4 Judges 2:14, Nehemiah 9:27-28).

Paul tells the church in Rome that “the wrath of God” is revealed in the life of sinners when God “gives us up” to the wages of our sin (1:18, 1:24, 26, 28). But Paul says that God’s “kindness and forbearance and patience” always leaves room for – and always hopes for – our repentance (2:4-5).

Never “repay anyone evil for evil,” Paul says, but “leave room for the wrath of God, for it is written, ‘Vengeance is mine. I will repay, says the Lord’ ” (Romans 12:17-19).

That’s a loose quotation from Deuteronomy. Here’s the full thing: “It is mine to avenge; I will repay. In due time their foot will slip. Their day of disaster is near, and their doom rushes upon them” (Deuteronomy 32:35 NIV).

God’s “anger” at sin is metaphorical. It’s a metaphor, not a literal reality. God does not “lose his temper,” “fly off the handle,” “come unglued” or “get bent out of shape” over sin or sinners. Rather, God acts to save us from the long-term consequences of our actions by allowing us to experience some shorter-term consequences of our actions, thus nudging us to turn our lives around in repentance.

But if God’s “anger” is metaphorical, that doesn’t mean that we sinners don’t feel it as real. Besides the physical consequences of our misdeeds, we feel our separation from God as increasing spiritual misery.

Saint Augustine calls this a “darkening of the mind.” You know what it feels like. So do unbelievers. But they will never understand the cause of their misery as separation from God unless we help them come to that understanding. That’s why we who have seen the light are obligated to show it to others.

We also have an obligation to speak out against perverted notions of who God is. Some people imagine that God hurts people to punish them for wrongdoing. If God actually did that, none of us would survive long, would we? God does not punish us. God lets us punish ourselves. God allows us to experience the folly of our actions.

If that sounds a bit like the Hindu concept of karma, so be it. “What goes around comes around.” Sooner or later, you get what you deserve, more or less.

It’s usually not so simple. You may suffer not only for your own sins, but also for the sins of others. You may not pollute the river, but if somebody upstream pollutes the river, you are going to suffer the consequences of that person’s actions.

You also suffer when someone sins directly against you. Being persecuted for doing the right thing totally violates the “fairness code” of the universe. Injustice is just not right.

Scripture offers many laments from those who suffer injustice, especially when the perpetrators appear to get off without consequence. It’s especially galling when somebody more powerful than you decides that you are worshipping the wrong deity, or worshipping the right deity the wrong way, and thrashes you for it. Then you are justly outraged that you are punished for doing what you think is right, and your tormentor is apparently rewarded for wronging you.

Children have a well refined fairness meter, and they are quick to object, “That’s not fair!” I think fairness is why some people find comfort in the idea that God punishes people directly for sins. But I find it very sad that people think God uses tornadoes and forest fires and hurricanes and pandemics and other “natural disasters” to punish us.

Insurance companies call these things “acts of God.” By that, they mean only that these aren’t acts of people. These are natural events – part of the way the world works. But they may be influenced by human actions. Where we build and the way we build; where we farm and how we farm; where we dam rivers and where we don’t – all of these actions influence natural events such as floods and windstorms.

I believe God can use such events to change our hearts, but I don’t believe God causes floods and windstorms to punish us or force us to repent. If you believe that God acts that way, you must also believe that God has terrible aim and doesn’t care about collateral damage. What does it matter if innocents suffer as long as a few sinners get what’s coming to them?

Here’s the gospel truth. God is not mad at you – or anyone else. God loves you – and everyone else. We’re all created in God’s image, and loved by God. God is saddened that sin controls the lives of so many people, but God “desires everyone to be saved” (1 Timothy 2:4).

Through the Holy Spirit, God is working in everyone to bring everyone to repentance. But as long as there is sin, everyone will experience the “wrath” of God that is born of love, and some may experience injustice as well.

This message is condensed from a chapter in a book I’ve written about the book of Revelation. Revelation is focused on Jesus, whom we know as “the lamb of God.” Though Revelation mentions “the wrath of God” about a dozen times, it once actually speaks of “the wrath of the Lamb” (Revelation 16:16).

I would like you to try to picture in your mind a wrathful lamb. Does it snort? Does it stomp its little hooves? Isn’t what is most obvious, as well as most endearing, about a lamb is that it is so helpless?

Our first encounter with the Lamb in Revelation is an astonishing moment. “Behold the lion of Judah!” a voice says. And when John of Patmos looks, he doesn’t see a lion standing by the throne of heaven. He sees a lamb that has been slaughtered (6.5).

We’re never told how John knows that it has been slaughtered. Is the gash in its neck still open? Does it have a red “bib” in front from where the blood spewed out?

The Lamb of God carries the scars of crucifixion on his hands and feet and in his side. They are eternal signs of God’s love for all.

This is a true vision of the wrath of God. This is the Lamb of God, “who takes away the sin of the world” (John 2:29). This is the Lamb of God, who “gave himself a ransom for all” (1 Timothy 2:6). This is how God conquers sin. This is how God punishes sinners. God takes the pain of the world upon God’s very self, and the blood of the Lamb cleanses us from all unrighteousness.

God is not out to get you, but you may get yourself. The next time you think of digging a pit for an enemy to fall into, remember that God allows you to suffer the consequences of your folly. Do not ask for whom the pit waits. It waits for you.

Amen.

This message was delivered outdoors at Edgerton United Methodist Church on June 27, 2020, the Fourth Sunday After Pentecost.

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