More on this later but, I recently started co-hosting the podcast God Complex Radio with Carol Howard Merritt. I'm following in the footsteps of two of my favorite people, Bruce Reyes Chow and Landon Whitsitt. It's been a pretty life-giving venture at a time where not much that I've done has felt meaningful, so I am grateful for the opportunity.
When the people saw that Moses delayed to come down from the mountain, the people gathered around Aaron, and said to him, “Come, make gods for us, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” 2Aaron said to them, “Take off the gold rings that are on the ears of your wives, your sons, and your daughters, and bring them to me.” 3So all the people took off the gold rings from their ears, and brought them to Aaron. 4He took the gold from them, formed it in a mold, and cast an image of a calf; and they said, “These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!” 5When Aaron saw this, he built an altar before it; and Aaron made proclamation and said, “Tomorrow shall be a festival to the Lord.” 6They rose early the next day, and offered burnt offerings and brought sacrifices of well-being; and the people sat down to eat and drink, and rose up to revel.
7The Lord said to Moses, “Go down at once! Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely; 8they have been quick to turn aside from the way that I commanded them; they have cast for themselves an image of a calf, and have worshiped it and sacrificed to it, and said, ‘These are your gods, O Israel, who brought you up out of the land of Egypt!< 9The Lord said to Moses, “I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. 10Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them; and of you I will make a great nation.” 11But Moses implored the Lord his God, and said, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand? 12Why should the Egyptians say, ‘It was with evil intent that he brought them out to kill them in the mountains, and to consume them from the face of the earth’? Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people. 13Remember Abraham, Isaac, and Israel, your servants, how you swore to them by your own self, saying to them, ‘I will multiply your descendants like the stars of heaven, and all this land that I have promised I will give to your descendants, and they shall inherit it forever.’“ 14And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
Once more Jesus spoke to them in parables, saying: 2“The kingdom of heaven may be compared to a king who gave a wedding banquet for his son. 3He sent his slaves to call those who had been invited to the wedding banquet, but they would not come. 4Again he sent other slaves, saying, ‘Tell those who have been invited: Look, I have prepared my dinner, my oxen and my fat calves have been slaughtered, and everything is ready; come to the wedding banquet.’ 5But they made light of it and went away, one to his farm, another to his business, 6while the rest seized his slaves, mistreated them, and killed them. 7The king was enraged. He sent his troops, destroyed those murderers, and burned their city. 8Then he said to his slaves, ‘The wedding is ready, but those invited were not worthy. 9Go therefore into the main streets, and invite everyone you find to the wedding banquet.’ 10Those slaves went out into the streets and gathered all whom they found, both good and bad; so the wedding hall was filled with guests. 11“But when the king came in to see the guests, he noticed a man there who was not wearing a wedding robe, 12and he said to him, ‘Friend, how did you get in here without a wedding robe?’ And he was speechless. 13Then the king said to the attendants, ‘Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.’ 14For many are called, but few are chosen.”
I have always had a problem with anger. Not the problem that people usually have when they say something like that. My problem has been one of not knowing when it is okay to express anger. My problem stems from growing up in a house where anger was at times expressed in really unhealthy ways. I never wanted to be that person. This, of course, became even more true once I was married and again more pronounced once Thomas was born.
I have to say that my understanding of my own relationship to anger has changed with my understanding of God. When I primarily thought of God as angry, then I felt a little more comfortable with the idea of being angry myself. As my theological perspectives began to shift, and I no longer saw God first and foremost as someone who was out to get me, then I began to notice changes in myself as well.
Controlling anger, though, as I think we all know it isn’t simply a matter of never getting angry. That’s impossible. I thought for a time that I could do it. What I found instead was that I was burying anger that then would come out in very unhealthy ways, like a volcano building pressure until it ultimately erupts. I realized that was no good. Part of what I have had to learn, and am still learning, is the proper place of anger in my life, ways to express it without losing relationships, and ways to focus it towards ends that I believe to honor God.
That was a long introduction to today’s scriptures. They are passages that have been problematic as I’ve had conversations with people about their sermons this week. The Exodus passage is not as challenging for people, so maybe we should start there.
We journey back into the desert after taking a quick jump to the end of the story last week. Had I followed the lectionary last week I would have preached on the ten commandments. Sorry about that. But here we are, after Moses has ascended the mountain to receive the law and has been gone for awhile. The people assume that he is dead and interestingly enough assume that since Moses, their leader, is gone, so is their connection to God. Without their leader, they go a little haywire. They begin to question Moses’ brother Aaron, who is obviously no Moses. Aaron allows the impatient people to build a god for themselves. They worship it. They sacrifice to it. How silly! After all they’ve been through they worship something that they built. Something that showed off their ingenuity, something that represented how great they were. Silly, Israelites!
Well, God is angry. Very angry. Wipe them off the face of the earth angry. If not for Moses stepping in and talking God down, this would be a much different story.
It’s not just that they turned away from God. In fact there is strong argument to believe that the calf was actually meant to be a symbol of what they thought God was… of course, the problem with that is that they just received the ten commandments Commandment #1: have no other gods Commandment #2 no images of god. Oops. They’re at least breaking number 2 , but probably also breaking number 1. Oh, and here’s what’s left out of the story, sacrifices and worshipping of idols in those times usually had all sorts of other nasty components: human sacrifice, sexual rituals… Moses probably came down that mountain to find a Mardi Gras-esque disaster on his hands. So there may have been a couple other commandments thrown out the window fresh off of their reception.
So stop right there. What if God wasn’t angry at this scene? What if God would have just said kids will be kids and gave them a pass? What if God would have looked the other way? Then we have a God who doesn’t really care. Then we have a God who will let us hurt ourselves. Then we have a God who doesn’t care about order. That’s not a good God.
This makes so much more sense to me now that I am a parent. Boundaries are crucial to keeping a toddler alive. The most frustrating things that Thomas does aren’t the messes I have to clean up, they are they things he does that could potentially be dangerous. When his fingers are almost caught in a door, when he pulls out the socket covers, when he grabs scissors off the kitchen table… that’s the stuff that gets me excited. It’s because I don’t want him to hurt himself. I can imagine myself as Thomas ages uses some of the same lines my parents used on me about things being for my own good.
It’s hard to balance a God of grace and a God of order. A God who loves us dearly and because of that, not despite it, gives us limitations. If we don’t understand that God’s discipline is a part of God’s love then we miss out on the fact that God loves us too much to see us hurt ourselves. We also need to understand what that discipline looks like.
So let’s look at the gospel story. If it ended after verse 10, we’d probably have no problem. It’s a parable in which people are invited to a feast but turn down the invitation at best and turn against those carrying the invites in violent ways at worst. We can understand that pretty clearly. Obviously God would be displeased with someone refusing his invitation. But what’s happening in the second part of the parable? (reread vs. 11 to the end) This is where it is nice to have a New Testament scholar as a friend. Margaret Aymer Oget is a New Testament professor at the Interdenominational Theological Center in Atlanta. It’s a collective of historically black colleges and seminaries. She clued me in that from the context here we can piece together that it was the king who was offering people clothes to wear to eh banquet. It’s not simply that God throws someone out of the party for wearing the wrong thing. It’s that he was offered a free garment by the king that he refused. This person has had the opportunity to, Paul says in Galatians 3, put on Christ, to be clothed in Christ’s righteousness and refuses. Once again, this is about refusing the grace and love of God.
So what does God’s anger look like? More often than not, it looks like the consequences of our own actions. When we refuse to live within the lines that have been drawn for us, or when we refuse the grace that has been offered to us, we will hurt. Our actions must have consequences if God is truly a God of love.
And yet the good news is that God is a God of love. We see this weeping, wailing and gnashing of teeth in the parable and we automatically assume hell. We assume this is God’s final judgment. That says more about us than what they actual parable is trying to say. Our weeping and wailing may be for a season, but it is only for a season. And in that season God is forming us, shaping us and teaching us.
I think then this can also inform our own anger. I took the title of my sermon as a play on Jonathan Edward’s famous Great Awakening sermon Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God. If you haven’t read it and if you aren’t given to nightmares, I’d suggest you read it. It’s pretty much the ultimate fire and brimstone sermon reflecting God’s anger toward unrepentant sinners. The anger of God in that time empowered a church of angry people to spew their anger on those deemed improperly dressed for the party. More often than not though, we see in scripture God’s anger is reserved towards those who would call themselves followers, believers, or children of God. Our anger then should be reserved for those that we see hurting others. Those that we see hurting themselves. But since we are in no place to judge, our anger must tread lightly and be communicated in ways that build others up and does not tear them down. It’s a tough thing to do.
5And you have forgotten the exhortation that addresses you as children— ‘My child, do not regard lightly the discipline of the Lord, or lose heart when you are punished by him; 6 for the Lord disciplines those whom he loves, and chastises every child whom he accepts.’ 7Endure trials for the sake of discipline. God is treating you as children; for what child is there whom a parent does not discipline? 8If you do not have that discipline in which all children share, then you are illegitimate and not his children. 9Moreover, we had human parents to discipline us, and we respected them. Should we not be even more willing to be subject to the Father of spirits and live? 10For they disciplined us for a short time as seemed best to them, but he disciplines us for our good, in order that we may share his holiness. 11Now, discipline always seems painful rather than pleasant at the time, but later it yields the peaceful fruit of righteousness to those who have been trained by it.
God gets angry. We need to be okay with that. But know that God’s anger is balanced with grace as ours must be as well.