Sunday, January 11, 2015

Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God (Speaking of God Sermon Series #1)

Luke 12:4-7  

Several decades before the American Revolution, a preacher got up to preach a sermon that has lived on in infamy.  Some of you may have read it as a high school student.  Perhaps you liked what you read, but I expect that it didn’t resonate with most of you. That preacher was named Jonathan Edwards and the context was the First Great Awakening that shook the American colonies in the 1740s.  It was titled “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”

You might think that a sermon like this was preached by a backwoods fire and brimstone preacher.  The fact is, the person who delivered this sermon is one of America’s greatest intellects.  It was an expression of a revival that swept New England, dividing the region’s Congregationalists into Old Lights and New Lights.   The question of the day was whether the people and even their spiritual leaders were actually Christians.  Although Jonathan Edwards did speak of God’s mercy, what we remember is the description of God’s wrath and judgment that stands over the unconverted.   

When Edwards delivered this sermon, he was hoping to stir up a congregation that he felt needed to experience revival.  In other words, he wanted to light a fire under this congregation whom he had been asked to address. It is in that context that Edwards delivered words like this:
 O sinner! Consider the fearful danger you are in: it is a great furnace of wrath, a wide and bottomless pit, full of the fire of wrath, that you are held over in the hand of that God, whose wrath is provoked and incensed as much against you, as against many of the damned in hell. You hang by a slender thread, with the flames of divine wrath flashing about it, and ready every moment to singe it, and burn it asunder; and you have no interest in any Mediator, and nothing to lay hold of to save yourself, nothing to keep off the flames of wrath, nothing of your own, nothing that you ever have done, nothing that you can do, to induce God to spare you one moment. [Edwards, Jonathan (2014-05-19). Sinners In The Hands Of An Angry God (Kindle Locations 237-241).]  

You can see why English classes read this sermon.  The descriptions and the imagery are vivid.  You can understand why the congregation that heard this message broke into convulsions and hysterics, which meant that he never got to the part of the sermon where he intended to speak of God’s offer of mercy. They were swept up in a frenzy of concern about their spiritual welfare. 

Although you don’t hear much about love, mercy or inclusion in this message, you have to understand that preachers like Edwards and George Whitfield were concerned about the eternal state of the people. They wanted to get their attention so they would turn to God. We hear this concern in the closing words of the sermon: 
  Therefore, let every one that is out of Christ, now awake and fly from the wrath to come. The wrath of Almighty God is now undoubtedly hanging over a great part of this congregation. Let every one fly out of Sodom: "Haste and escape for your lives, look not behind you, escape to the mountain, lest you be consumed." [Edwards, Sinners, (2014-05-19), (Kindle Locations 379-381).]
I don’t normally give that kind of message from the pulpit. This is not the core of my theology.  I’m not sure it fits with my understanding of the good news that Jesus brings to us.  And yet, in our reading from the Gospel of Luke, Jesus tells his audience not to “fear those who kill the body, and after that can do nothing more.  But, I warn you whom to fear: fear him who, after he was killed, has authority to cast into hell”  (Luke 12:5).  Who is it that has that kind of authority?  It would appear to be the risen Christ.  Yes, we tend to think of Jesus as a preacher of love and we contrast his message with that of Paul and the Old Testament. We  know that these kinds of passages are there, but we would rather ignore them.  Of course, Edwards didn’t ignore these passages, but instead he drew from them to express his understanding of God’s expectations for humanity.  We are sinners in the hands of angry God, who, Edwards believed, deserve to suffer the penalty of our sins.  

So what do we make of texts like these?  What do we have to say about God and God’s relationship with humanity and with the Creation as a whole?  Is this the God we worship and adore?

When Carol Howard Merritt was here in November, she addressed the question of how to minister to the religiously wounded.  How do we minister to people whose experiences with religion, especially its institutional forms, have been less than welcoming?  What do we say to people who have heard time and again messages of judgment and even hate? In responding to this question, Carol pointed to our God-talk. She said that what we believe and say about God can affect our behavior.  With that in mind, I decided that maybe we should spend some time thinking about what we believe about God and how we speak of God.  

Several years back, Baylor University did a survey of American beliefs about  God.  They came up with four basic categories: The Benevolent God, the Authoritarian God, the  Distant God, and the Critical God.  So, which version of God do you embrace?  Is God distant or close at hand?  Is God benevolent or critical?  Do you fear God or do you find comfort in the presence of God?  How do your beliefs influence how you think about yourself and about others?

 Over the next few weeks we’ll be thinking together about the love of God, the revelation God, the role of God the Creator, and we’ll conclude with a reflection on the Trinity as the Christian way of naming God.    

In keeping with the question of our “God-Talk,” I think it’s important that we spend a moment thinking about Gender and God. Although Genesis speaks of God creating humanity in God’s image as male and female, our God-talk tends to elevate the male over the female. Think of the Gloria Patri, which we sang this morning.  We sang of God the Father and God the Son.  We do the same with the traditional Doxology.  They reflect traditional understandings of God, but what message does the masculine nature of the language send?  While many of us might find Edwards’ language about divine wrath repugnant, could we be sending similar messages with the words we use today?

Years ago feminist theologian Mary Daly declared that “if God is male, then the male is God.”  Even though we may believe that God transcends human gender, if our God-talk is male oriented, are we saying that God is male and therefore to be male is to be god?

While we do not discriminate against women in leadership or ministry in this church, some churches use God’s “maleness” to limit women’s roles in the church. Just the other day, a very conservative Catholic Cardinal bemoaned the feminization of the church and blamed the lack of priests on the presence of altar-girls in the church. Boys, it appears, don’t want to play with girls.  How do we know that God is male?  Well, after all God is the father of Jesus, and Jesus is also a male and Jesus is the revelation of God.  Therefore, males should lead and women submit.  As you can imagine, many women find both male-dominated language and exclusion from leadership hurtful. 

One of the ways we can address this sense of hurt and exclusion is to broaden our language about God, by introducing female metaphors in our prayers and our songs and hymns.  That’s one of the reasons why we’ve been trying out different versions of the Gloria and the Doxology. I appreciate what Catholic theologian Elizabeth Johnson has pointed out in her book She Who Is – 
Until a strong measure of undervalued female symbolism is introduced and used with ease, equivalent imaging of God male and female, which I myself have advocated and still hold to be a goal, remains an abstraction, expressive of an ideal but unrealizable in actual life. [She Who Is: The Mystery of God in Feminist Theological Discoursep. 57]
When it comes to God’s essence, God is incomprehensible. But God is not without witnesses. After all, God created us – male and female – in God’s image. While we don’t perfectly reflect the nature of God, we can find ways of speaking of God that can make sense of our reality.  But that will involve addressing the way we speak of God.  Yes, the Bible does speak of God’s anger and judgment, but these aren’t the only images available to us.    

We will continue this conversation next Sunday as we consider the biblical witness that God is Love.  In the meantime, let us expand our vision of God by singing Ruth Duck’s hymn “Womb of Life, Source of Being.”

Preached by:
Dr. Robert D. Cornwall, Pastor
Central Woodward Christian Church (Disciples of Christ)
Troy, Michigan
January 11, 2014
Epiphany 1B

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