What Is God So Mad About?
March 10, 2013
First Presbyterian Church, Sterling, IL
If you’ve been reading along, you read chapters 12- 18 this past week. We didn’t get to have Bible study on Tuesday, so if you read, you may have found these chapters a bit overwhelming. We started out with sevens – seven angels and seven churches and seven lamp stands; seven woes, seven seals, seven trumpets. The kingdom of this earth and the holy kingdom of God. The lamb that was slain and the wrath of God. Now we have Heaven and Hell. God and Satan. Armageddon and one thousand years of peace. Golden bowls full of prayers, and golden bowls full of plagues. Now we have a woman clothed with the sun giving birth on the moon while a dragon watches, waiting, to devour the child. It sounds a little bit like the story of Jesus’ birth, but then it sounds a lot like the local mythology of the gods of the time. There’s an unholy trinity of the dragon and the beast and the Satan – the accuser -- alongside the holy trinity of God the father, son and Holy Spirit. The seals are being opened, the trumpets are sounding, the bowls poured out, not one after the other, but all at once.
Listen for God’s word in the 15th chapter of the Book of Revelation:
1 Then I saw another portent in heaven, great and amazing: seven angels with seven plagues, which are the last, for with them the wrath of God is ended.
2 And I saw what appeared to be a sea of glass mixed with fire, and those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name, standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands.
3 And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb: "Great and amazing are your deeds, Lord God the Almighty! Just and true are your ways, King of the nations! 4 Lord, who will not fear and glorify your name? For you alone are holy. All nations will come and worship before you, for your judgments have been revealed."
5 After this I looked, and the temple of the tent of witness in heaven was opened, 6 and out of the temple came the seven angels with the seven plagues, robed in pure bright linen, with golden sashes across their chests.
7 Then one of the four living creatures gave the seven angels seven golden bowls full of the wrath of God, who lives forever and ever; 8 and the temple was filled with smoke from the glory of God and from his power, and no one could enter the temple until the seven plagues of the seven angels were ended.
In February of 1999, Rob Bell, son of a prominent federal judge, founded Mars Hill Bible Church in Grand Rapids, Michigan. Bell’s conservative evangelical message combined with his post-modern sensibilities drew thousands of people to his Sunday services. He wrote books, and made public appearances. He was smart, good-looking, hip but not too hipsterish, and he was the darling of the conservative Christian world. Then Rob Bell fell from grace, when he wrote a book called Love Wins. The fallout was immediate and severe. What was it about Rob Bell’s book that was so distressing? What was Rob Bell’s crime?
I quote one of his critics – his crime is that he believes: “that it is possible — even probable — that those who resist, reject, or never hear of Christ may be saved through Christ nonetheless…. He argues that the gates that never shut in the New Jerusalem… that Christ is saving humanity through means other than the Gospel, including other religions.”
They believe that Rob Bell, by saying that it is possible that God might extend heaven to everyone, is questioning the inerrancy of the Bible. The big names of evangelical Christianity called Bell apostate, a false teacher, and worst of all, a liberal. They use the term liberal not in its political sense, but its theological sense: liberal, --as opposed to evangelical or fundamentalist. Liberal Christians reject most unequivocal statements of doctrine, or litmus tests of salvation, believing that the our path is to follow Jesusand let God make final judgments; they believe that since Jesus didn’t have people sign doctrinal statements, or check boxes that confirmed their agreement with essential tenets, but simply said to follow him, that we must be open to a continual unfolding of God’s message. This is similar to the slogan of Presbyterians and other Reformed Protestants— reformed and always being reformed. Underneath that liberal Protestant position is a small voice saying: “This is what I believe. But I could be wrong.”
Conservative, or evangelical or fundamentalist Christians disagree, particularly about salvation, redemption and hell. They prefer more declarative, black and white statements of absolutes. They believe that without a hell, the Christian message is eviscerated,
left an empty shell of moral platitudes and niceness; without hell, why should anyone turn to Jesus? When I say hell, I mean eternal, conscious punishment after death. They believe that there will come a day when God judges the unrighteous, and condemns them not to death, but to an eternal life sentence. They believe that God is absolutely going to punish unbelievers, and that the punishment will be irrevocable, unconditional, and eternal. This belief relies strongly on their understanding of God’s character as an immutable, omniscient, omnipotent judge and father.
It only makes sense, if God is our father.
When children act nicely, their parents are proud and praise them. When children misbehave, their parents correct them. When we act virtuously, we are rewarded for it. When we do something wrong, we are punished for it. If we believe in the message of Jesus Christ, we are saved. If we do not believe, or do not hear it, we are damned. That’s just how it is.
But that’s not how it is, not in real life! As much as we would like for it to be true, it just isn’t. Wicked people live a long time, and sweet people get cancer in their 30s. Tyrants rise to power, and generous people never even get promoted. So what we want from this grand story of faith is some justice. We want to know that in the end, some people are going to get their rewards. And some people are going to rot in hell. We want to believe that God is going to come out onto the porch like a dad, and see us fighting in the yard, and that God is going to pick out the bad kids and swat them, and bring us into the air-conditioned house and give us ice cream.
So often, that’s the way God we think of God, like a parent looking out the living room window, with the ice cream in one hand and the fly swatter in the other. But if we characterize God as a judging father who rewards the good people, and punishes wrong-doers, we end up in some pretty horrid places. We fall into the trap of works righteousness, somehow thinking that there are people who are too bad for God to forgive, and that we can figure out how to be good enough for God to love. God does love us, more than anything, right? So what loving parent, when a daughter leaves home, announces that the child is now forever unwelcome, and should by rights suffer for all eternity, no matter what she does. What loving parent, when a son says “I hate you!” responds by setting the child on fire? to burn forever? If we heard of a parent doing that, we’d call child protective services.
Still, we have to think that the suffering Christians of the first century would really, really want that to be God’s character. They would really, really want to know that these horrible Romans who had persecuted them and tortured them and exploited them and oppressed them and mocked them and imprisoned them and had them put to death -- those bloodthirsty oppressors -- were going to be punished. Severely. Eternally. They wanted to believe that Jesus was coming back and he was mad as…well, mad as hell. Or mad enough to send a whole bunch of bad people there.
But that’s not what the book of Revelation is about. The book of Revelation is about the hope we have in Jesus Christ, and the promise of God’s ultimate justice to restore all of creation. Including us. The Book of Revelation begins with words of encouragement to churches that are suffering, and with words of warning to people who are wavering. Throughout the book are interludes of worship, like the scripture you’ve heard this morning, words that offer the promise of God’s love and joy and hope. That is the promise we find throughout scripture, if we can come to it without vengeful presuppositions.
While Presbyterian and Reformed Christians affirm that the Bible is true, we do not ascribe to the idea of inerrancy, nor do we read the Bible literally. I like to think that we take scripture too seriously to take it literally. So, while these violent and disturbing images are part of the Bible, we don’t take them literally, or, as I’ve said, look for any one-to-one correspondence to particular future events or people.
There are some obvious references in this section of Revelation to the roman Empire – to the seven hills of Rome, to the empire, to Nero. There is comparison of the to the current trials of the first century church to the captivity of God’s people in Egypt, and the exile in Babylon. And there’s no escaping those references to the wrath of God.
If any of you grew up hearing about the wrath of God, as I did, this scripture conjures up all kinds of spooky stuff about hell, Satan, the rapture, and tribulation. The end of the world.
Even if you managed to escape that business as a child, the imagery and references have been so deftly constructed and reified by a certain very vocal segment of Christianity, you can hardly imagine that they aren’t part of every Christian’s belief.
Truthfully, I don’t think that Christians need to believe in hell in order to embrace the good news of the gospel. Maybe I’m wrong, but it seems to me that the promise of the gifts of love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, generosity, faithfulness, gentleness and self control is a sufficient motivator. Far more appealing than repeating a prayer as fire insurance. And, as someone said to me the other night, it is generally the people who are certain they are not going there, who believe most firmly in hell.
So, let’s just say, for now, that Jesus is coming back, but it isn’t to sort us all out and send a bunch of us to hell. What is this book doing in the Bible in the first place? Why all this talk about the wrath of God? It’s pretty clear that in the Book of Revelation, and in fact in all of scripture, that when God gets angry, it is pretty specific.
In Revelation, God is angry with the way God’s people have been treated. God is wrathful, about the oppression, persecution and suffering to which Christians have been subjected because they would not give up their faith. God is wrathful about the insidious, hedonistic, evil of the Roman Empire. God is angry at the idolatry of people who worship money, who worship power, who worship their own gratification over every other possibility, God is angry at people who torment the helpless, and God is furious at the destruction of the planet.
Make no mistake -- God gets mad at us, too. God is angry when we receive blessings and benefits, and complain about them. It makes God mad when we deliberately disobey Jesus.
And what does God do? If we can get past our human interpretations of war and plague, and if we can look for the overarching message of God’s love in the good news of the Bible, here’s what we find:
When Moses met God on Mount Sinai, the Bible says “The Lord passed before him, and proclaimed, ‘The Lord, the Lord, a God merciful and gracious, slow to anger, and abounding in steadfast love and faithfulness,’” but then God gave a warning: “keeping steadfast love for the thousandth generation, forgiving iniquity and transgression and sin, yet by no means clearing the guilty, but visiting the iniquity of the parents upon the children and the children's children, to the third and the fourth generation." And Moses quickly bowed his head toward the earth, and worshiped. He said, "If now I have found favor in your sight, O Lord, I pray, let the Lord go with us. Although this is a stiff-necked people, pardon our iniquity and our sin, and take us for your inheritance." And God replied by saying “I hereby make a covenant.”
When the people of Israel, after God freed them from slavery, were receiving God’s benefits and blessings, and complaining about them – God was angry. And so God provided -- fed them manna and meat.
When Balaam disobeyed direct orders – God used his ass to turn him back the other way. I’ll leave it to you to draw your own conclusions about which ass God uses to speak to you!
When God’s people turned away in idolatry, or ingratitude, abandoning the covenant, God pulled them back, called them back, welcomed them back, time after time after time.
What makes God mad? Isaiah said it is when we fail to keep the fast, and the fast God chooses is this: to loose the bonds of injustice, …to let the oppressed go free, and to break every yoke, to share your bread with the hungry, and bring the homeless poor into your house; when you see the naked, to cover them, and not to hide yourself from your own kin.”
Then your light shall break forth like the dawn, and your healing shall spring up quickly; …
Then you shall call, and the Lord will answer;”
The Bible as a whole is a description of the grace of God, and of the truth beyond literalism, beyond inerrancy. By the grace of God, we do not get what we deserve. By the grace of God, we get what we do not deserve. Ultimately, according to Scripture, in response to our unfaithfulness and stubborn disobedience, God sent Jesus as a demonstration of love, and as the embodiment of grace. And certainly Jesus demonstrated that characteristic, and taught about it, not only with stories like the lost sheep and the prodigal son, but also in his forgiveness of Peter, who had publicly denied him three times! What made Jesus mad was when religious people condemned others, and when religious leaders judged themselves to be above certain people, and when people failed to forgive other people, and when they didn’t love their neighbor. Jesus talked about love in action, and the certainty of God’s judgment at the end.
The last verse of Revelation 15 describes what happens when God’s judgments are revealed: All nations will come and worship. Next week, we will see in even more detail, what the Book of Revelation says about the end of time. And believe me, it is very, very good news! When Jesus returns, we have nothing to fear, for he will judge all the nations with perfect love and mercy. Come, Lord Jesus! Even so, Lord, quickly come!