God’s wrath and our deliverance

preaching a sermon, based on Jeremiah 4.11-12, 22-28 and Luke 15.1-10, preached with the people of Epiphany Episcopal Church, Laurens, SC, on the 17th Sunday after Pentecost, September 11, 2016

the-prophet-jeremiah-lamenting-the-coming-destruction-rembrandt-1606-1669

It would be easy for the sake of spiritual security and emotional sanity to ignore Jeremiah’s prophesy of destruction, dismissing it as an ancient word, which it is, directed at the people Judah, thus not…never at us. Yet it has an ageless quality. There is much we in our time can glean from these terrifying words that remarkably parallel a better known story in the first chapter of Genesis: “In the beginning when God created the heavens and the earth, the earth was a formless void and darkness covered the face of the deep while a wind from God swept over the face of the waters,”[1] calling into being light, firmament, sea and earth, vegetation, sun, moon, and stars, creatures of all kinds and humankind[2] “and God saw that” everything “was good.”[3]

Sadly, according to Jeremiah, God “looked on the earth” seeing only “waste and void, and to the heavens, and they had no light,” no sun, moon, or stars. Because of the malfeasance of humans who “do not know” God, “have no understanding…skilled in doing evil, not knowing how to do good,” squandering the stewardship of dominion God granted at creation,[4] God’s handiwork has reverted, regressed to the primeval state with which God began when “the earth was a formless void.” Therefore, that same “wind from God,” in the Hebrew, ruach, breath or spirit, that created all things now blows “hot…from the bare heights in the desert towards my poor people, not to winnow or cleanse (but to judge) against them.”

Jeremiah prophesies nothing less than the destruction, the deconstruction, the de-creation of the cosmos by a God of wrath. But suppose we think of God’s wrath not as an emotion, a divine feeling of fury, God being upset with us and desiring to do us harm (though, yes, the English text speaks of God’s “fierce anger”[5]). Rather as the sun rises, giving light, then sets and darkness falls, so God’s wrath is a metaphor for an inherent (that is, written into the code of the universe) cosmic reactivity to a creation gone bad. In that light or perhaps shadow, let us read Jeremiah’s prophecy as less about what God does and more about what we over time have done.

I think of climate change. Despite the deniers who believe talk of climate change comes from the chirping lips of Chicken Little pseudo-scientific pessimists who think the sky is falling, I believe it’s real, too real to ignore and that humans, with our ages-old obsession with fossil fuels, are principal culprits. We have upset our Mother Earth and she is reacting. The symptoms of her distress? Rising temperatures and sea levels, mounting winds and waves, scorched earth, the erosion of seacoasts, and evaporating water resources, all affecting arable lands and agricultural production, and human habitation. All making terribly real that petition in The Great Litany: From lightning and tempest, from earthquake, fire, and flood, from plague, pestilence, and famine, Good Lord, deliver us![6]

In addition to climatic forces, I think of destruction wrought by human hands. Today, we commemorate the 15th anniversary of September 11, 2001, when terrorists at the controls of hijacked airliners brought down New York’s World Trade Center towers, damaged the Pentagon, and crashed in a Pennsylvania field killing nearly 3,000 people, injuring more than 6,000 others, causing billions of dollars in damage to property and infrastructure. Since that day of this generation’s mega-event, akin to Pearl Harbor, the assassinations of John Fitzgerald Kennedy and Martin Luther King, Jr., or Watergate, we have witnessed the horrifying rise of incidents of terror and hate crimes. Sadly, there is nothing new under the sun about human cruelty in whatever name, for whatever cause.

We might react to all that befalls our world and us with immobilizing dismay and active fear, save for our faith, our trust and confidence in God. Jesus, in response to the religious authorities grumbling that he “welcomes sinners,” tells parables of a shepherd leaving ninety-nine sheep, seeking, finding the lost one…

the-good-shepherd-le-bon-pasteur-james-tissot

and a woman searching her home for one lost coin.

the-lost-drachma-la-drachme-perdue-1886-1894-james-tissot-1836-1902-brooklyn-museum

Immediately following these stories, Jesus says, “There was a man who had two sons”; the Parable of the Prodigal Son making clear the point that God always is in the redemption-business. God always seeks the lost. God always is never done with us. Surely, one faithful response to God’s unconditional, unconquerable love…one faithful response to God Who is love is our repentance, turning away from our abuse of our world, turning away from our abuse of others and ourselves.

In 1989, September 1 was proclaimed by the Orthodox Church as the World Day of Prayer for the Creation. Now, September 1 through October 4, the feast of St. Francis of Assisi, the patron saint of the environment, is observed ecumenically and globally as the Season of Creation. Again, today is the 15th anniversary of 9/11. In the spirit of these commemorations, one aspect of divine deliverance is our contemplation and taking action, communally and individually regarding our daily behaviors in relation to our struggling planet and one another. What can you and I do to make the world a safer, saner, sounder place?

 

Illustrations: The Prophet Jeremiah (lamenting the coming destruction), Rembrandt (1606-1669); The Good Shepherd (Le bon pasteur) (1886), James Tissot (1836-1902), Brooklyn Museum; The Lost Drachma (La drachme perdue) (1886-1894), James Tissot

Footnotes:

[1] Genesis 1.1, 2

[2] Genesis 1.3, 6-7, 9-10, 11-12, 14-16, 20-25, 26-27

[3] Genesis 1.4, 10, 12, 18, 21, 25, 31

[4] Genesis 1.26

[5] Jeremiah 4.26

[6] The Book of Common Prayer, page 148

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4 thoughts on “God’s wrath and our deliverance

  1. Paul,
    I so appreciate your interpretation of God’s wrath as the natural playing out of human choices. It reminds me of the old saying, meant as encouragement to do good when I was small, “God has no hands but our hands.” I had never thought of its application to negative and destructive forces, but your sermon awakened me to that new view. Like any good parent, God allows us to experience the consequences of our human choices. The question, as ever, is whether we learn in time to rescue something from the forces we unloose. With us it always appears to be nip and tuck, doesn’t it? In this, Jeremiah was, and now you and other prophets are the leading edge of God in our world, showing the way, telling us where to look and how to see. I’m afraid you’ve drawn a particularly difficult era to serve – in the chaotic vortex of so much radical change and transition – but I do so love your beautiful faithfulness to the task.

    Keep on, my dear friend, keep on.

    Much love,

    Karen

    Liked by 1 person

    • As always, Karen, I thank you for your keen, verily, most keen observations – compelling me to think and rethink – and your encouragement.

      For quite the while I’ve forsaken that olden notion of an angry God threatening wrath in the form of punishments cosmic and earthly, which has led, I think, to much human forecasting throughout time of the coming end based on the reading of violent weather and seismological events.

      I’m reminded of Jesus’ word: “You know how to interpret the appearance of earth and sky” (meaning, I think, that we are able to predict weather patterns) “How is it you don’t know how to interpret this present time?” (Luke 12.56)

      With so much wrong in our world and during our time, what I hear from voices in the public square, rather than exhortations to communal responsibility and accountability, is the vilification of others (enemies, opponents), at times, based on what I consider to be a selective reading and interpretation of sacred texts, whatever the religion or faith tradition. Rarely do I hear folk reflect on their lore in an act of self-judgment and in an air of self-correction. That element of self-confession and repentance, for me, is an essential aspect of interpreting the time.

      Again, thanks, Karen.

      Love to you always

      Like

  2. Dear Paul,

    Lord knows that I’ve always been afraid of EVERYTHING listed in the Great Litany…. And as you pointed out so eloquently, it’s all becoming REAL!!! Just think of all the natural disasters of the last two years, in any and every possible form and touching all corners of the Earth! Every week there seems to be a earthquake, hurricane, tornado or flood! And of course the way we treat and destroy each other is unbelievable!! In any and all forms in every corner of the world (though the US surely seems to have a big lead in mass shootings over every other country!) “Creation gone bad!” Lordy that’s it and I thank you for that phrase!

    I’m pondering your question about what each of us can do to accomplish the Triple S – saner, safer and sounder world…. Will we ever as individuals be able to change our behaviors significantly enough to become saner? I thought I could answer that question until this current electoral race began. There hasn’t been one sane thing to occur since both candidates received their party’s nomination.

    In addition, I also have no idea why killing is so rampant in Chicago for example… There’s not one sane thing going on in that city right now and I don’t think the pleas from distraught parents about changing the mindset and behaviors had done one thing to stem the tide.

    A Safer world I believe has a better chance with a few more behaviroal changes on our parts. Structures are better made to withstand damage from earthquakes, and dams have been strengthened to lessen flooding in many areas. Law enforcement has done its best to take down terrorists. If every case of a terrorist plot that was foiled was put on the news none of us would ever sleep at night. We just have to keep at it…

    There much work to be done to make us sounder too as you pointed out so well. I love how you broke the three S’s down because each one of them needs to be handled separately in order for real change to occur. I wonder if you or I will see this change in our lifetimes even if all of us changed our behavior today. I’m losing hope about that, but I so appreciate your words of explanation and of hope. Thanks for another outstanding sermon.

    Loretta

    Liked by 1 person

    • Loretta, I appreciate your taking the question to heart and mind and considering what you might and can do to make the world safer, saner, sounder.

      I agree that each is best taken separately with particular intentions and actions ascribed to each. I also agree – sadly – that things in our life and world appear to be (are?!) so rueful that perhaps nothing any of us and all of us can do to make a difference…

      I suspect, probing my heart and mind anew as I write, this is why I (and pray we all) lean heavily on faith in God, for, come what may, come when it may (including death), I will trust that the God of unconditional love and justice, unconquerable grace and mercy abides and rules.

      Like

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