As I mentioned a couple of weeks ago in my sermon, we’ve been hearing a series of “thundering” messages from the Book of the Prophet Hosea in recent weeks. And it’s easy sometimes to stereotype the Old Testament as portraying an angry God, or a God of wrath, while seeing the New Testament as being all about a loving and forgiving God.
But that’s much too simplistic as our Readings today make clear. There are plenty of passages about God’s love in the Old Testament, and plenty of passages about God’s judgment in the New! After weeks of confronting Israel about their selfishness and greed, today Hosea speaks this message from God to his people:
“When Israel was a child, I loved him…(but)…the more I called them, the more they went from me…Yet it was I who taught Ephraim to walk, I took them up in my arms; but they did not know that I healed them. I led them with cords of human kindness, with bands of love. I was to them like those who lift infants to their cheeks. I bent down to them and fed them…How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel?…My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger…I will return them to their homes, says the Lord.” (Hosea passim)
What a beautiful description of God as a loving parent. A parent who gave birth to the children of Israel, who taught them “to walk” by establishing a Covenant with them, who “bent down to them” in love over and over and over again, even when they rebelled, even when they were faithless – God was faithful. Very much like a loving parent, perhaps disappointed and let down by a child, but always ready to reach out and help…and to forgive!
The Psalmist knows of this loving, Hebrew God: “Give thanks to the Lord, for he is good, and his mercy endures for ever, “ the Psalmist sings, “…let them give thanks to the Lord for his mercy and the wonders he does for his children. For he satisfies the thirsty and fills the hungry with good things.” (Psalm 107 passim). Once again, this is not an Old Testament God of wrath, but a redeemer and a protector of his people.
On the other hand, we have some pretty harsh words from the New Testament today, the author of Colossians writes, “Put to death, therefore, whatever in you is earthly: fornication, impurity, passion, evil desire, and greed…On account of these the wrath of God is coming on those who are disobedient…But now you must get rid of all such things – anger, wrath, malice, slander, and abusive language from your mouth.” (Colossians 3 passim)
And Jesus himself has sharp words in his parable of the rich man who could think of nothing but hoarding and hoarding more wealth, and satisfying his selfish desires instead of thinking about anyone else, “You fool!” God says in the parable, “This very night your life is being demanded of you. And the things you have prepared, whose will they be? So it is with those who store up treasures for themselves but are not rich toward God.” (Luke 12 passim). So much for “gentle Jesus, meek and mild!”
So how are we to understand all this talk about God’s wrath and anger…and the corresponding descriptions of God’s mercy and compassion? We even have to deal with it in our Liturgy! Every week we say that “We acknowledge and bewail our manifold sins and wickedness, which we from time to time most grievously have committed by thought, word, and deed, against thy Divine Majesty, provoking most justly thy wrath and indignation against us.” Pretty scary words!
And right before coming up for Communion, we often say something called the “Prayer of Humble Access” in which we declare ourselves “not worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under (God’s) Table” – presumably because of those “manifold sins and (that) wickedness” we confessed earlier! How are we to understand all this?
Well, Rebecca Craig, a writer and ELCA pastor in California, puts it this way, “The key to understanding God’s wrath lies in understanding the nature of God’s love. For anyone who has loved another should recognize the reality that love, while at times wonderful, can also hurt – more deeply than if love were not involved at all. The wrath of God is the puzzling concept that God loves our neighbors so much that God gets angry with us when we do things that cause them to suffer…God gets “angry” with the way human beings treat one another! This “anger” is what might be termed “God’s loving wrath.” After all…who do you get angriest at? The people you love the most!”
Now, I don’t want to “anthropomorphize” God too much, make God seem “too” much like us. I don’t think God’s anger or wrath is exactly like ours or that it comes out as destructively and thoughtlessly as mine does sometimes. My anger is often a human response to frustration! I get frustrated because I can’t do something or things don’t go my way and, if I’m not careful, I can lash out with angry words or actions. I don’t think God is that petty.
But God did give us free will. We often abuse that free will and, in doing so, hurt others and frustrate God’s longing for us to live in peace and harmony. I can understand God being frustrated at that, perhaps even being tempted to step in and overrule our freedom in order to set things right. But, being faithful to the original design, God doesn’t do that. And so whatever the Divine version of anger or frustration is, God experiences it!
But the Good News today is found back in that First Lesson from Hosea. “How can I give you up, Ephraim? How can I hand you over, O Israel…My heart recoils within me; my compassion grows warm and tender. I will not execute my fierce anger…” The Good News is that, while God may experience something like our anger and our wrath when we hurt one another or fail to live up to the best that is within us, for God, compassion and forgiveness ALWAYS trumps that anger and that wrath.
For, these words too are found in our Liturgy, “Almighty God…who of his great mercy hath promised forgiveness of sins to all those who with hearty repentance and true faith turn unto him, have mercy upon you, pardon and deliver your from all your sins, confirm and strengthen you in all goodness, and bring you to everlasting life; through Jesus Christ our Lord.”
And even though some of us may not feel “worthy so much as to gather up the crumbs under (God’s) Table, that same prayer reminds us that this is “the same Lord whose property is always….Always….ALWAYS…to have mercy!”