An Open Table where Love knows no borders

Wrath or Generosity

A sermon on Luke 3: 7-18 by Nathan Nettleton

Straight after this sermon, we will be celebrating a special rite with our children as part of our honouring of the journeys of growth and faith that they are sharing with us, but of course, when we made the decision to do that tonight, we had no idea of what would be all over the front pages of our newspapers today. The tragedy and horror that was inflicted on a group of children of a similar age group to many of ours here, in Newtown Connecticut yesterday, probably makes most of us want to hug a child protectively and wish we could somehow shelter them from even knowing what an ugly and brutal place the world they are growing up in can sometimes be.

And as this Advent season speaks to us of hope for the future and expectation of the dawning of a new age where God will set all things right, events like yesterday certainly heighten our yearning for the coming of such a new age, but they also give a particular focus to questions about just what it is we are expecting and hoping for. What sort of world are we hoping to see our children inherit? What sort of kingdom are we praying will come on earth as in heaven?

Events like yesterday’s evoke sharply differing reactions in different people. One place it is always apparent is in any consequent talk of gun control. One group of people react by calling for action to get guns out of people’s homes and out of the general community, and another group react by buying more guns to protect themselves against gun-toting madmen. And there is a similar, and not altogether unrelated, division among religious people in the ways they imagine what the coming of the Messiah and the fulfilment of the Kingdom of God will look like. Nearly everybody, of course, imagines that it will be good for them, that they and their loved ones will be blessed for eternity with love and joy and peace. But we divide up when it comes to what we imagine it is going to look like for those who are not of our tribe and faith, for those we distrust and fear, and especially for those who have perpetrated outrageous acts of unspeakable evil and violence.

You might remember six years ago when there was another school shooting in the USA, in a small Amish school in Lancaster County, Pennsylvania. Many Americans were shocked and some even critical of the immediate talk of forgiveness and reconciliation that came from the Amish community. Even on the day of the shooting, the grandfather of one of the murdered Amish girls warned some young relatives not to hate the killer, saying, “We must not think evil of this man.” Another said of the community, “I don’t think there’s anybody here that wants to do anything but forgive and not only reach out to those who have suffered a loss in that way but to reach out to the family of the man who committed these acts.” Amish community members visited and comforted the gunman’s widow and relatives, and they later set up a charitable fund for his family.

But, of course, this reaction from our Amish cousins was far from typical of the usual reaction to such atrocities in our society. More commonly there is a rush to judgement and a thirst for vengeance and even a religiously expressed desire to see the perpetrator cast into the fires of hell, and so it was no surprise that some took offence at the Amish response. Some commentators criticised the immediate and complete forgiveness of their response, arguing that forgiveness is inappropriate when no remorse has been expressed, and that such an attitude runs the risk of failing to take evil seriously. Of course, to a large extent, this criticism was defensive and self-justifying. Whenever anyone breaks from the standard script and responds in a radically different way, there will be a rush to defend the standard script, and find fault with those who have implied by their opting out that it might not be the divinely sanctioned right course of action. The Amish though were unperturbed. They explained that their willingness to forgo vengeance does not deny or pardon the wrong, but rather constitutes a first step toward a future that is more hopeful. A future that is more hopeful. There’s that Advent question again. Clearly the Amish were not hoping and praying for a future in which their enemies would burn in hell.

Expectations of judgement, punishment and hell fire feature strongly in many people’s visions of what the coming of the Kingdom of God will bring, though. And for many people, fears of being on the wrong side of that fiery judgement have been a major motivation for religious observance. When John the Baptiser thunders at the crowds who were coming out to him for baptism, “You brood of vipers! Who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?”, he seems to be seeing them as motivated by nothing much more than a desire for some sort of insurance policy against a coming judgement. They are, he thinks, hurrying to be baptised for much the same reason others build bunkers and stock up on provisions. And such an insurance policy approach to religion has remained common enough ever since.

John is clearly scathing in his critique of such an approach, and he demands that they bear fruits worthy of genuine repentance, and lays out a vision of what that might look like with a radical call to forsake the pursuit of personal gain and to generously put one’s belongings up for grabs by those whose need of them is greater. But it must be acknowledged that John did little or nothing to question the underlying assumption of this insurance policy approach, and that is the assumption that what the future holds is God is coming with the fires of judgement to bring everlasting punishment on the enemies of God. He is very much part of that old prophetic tradition that expected the day of the Lord’s wrath, and so he is very ready to speak of the axe lying at the roots, and a winnowing fork dividing the wheat from the chaff and tossing the chaff into unquenchable fire. And all this was clearly bound up with what he was expecting of Jesus, the more powerful one who is coming to baptise with fire. Which explains why later on, John begins to have doubts about Jesus and sends messengers to ask him whether he really is the one or whether they should be waiting for another. Where is the expected fire and the unleashing of vengeance on God’s enemies?

But what is actually revealed in and by Jesus is much more complex than what John was expecting and shows an extravagant generosity in God’s ways that John had not anticipated. Jesus gives no support at all to this expectation of a coming day of vengeance and wrath. In fact, when he is quoting the scriptures, he frequently edits out references to such things from his quotes. Jesus reveals a God beyond wrath, a gracious God who lets the sun shine and the rain fall on the righteous and the unrighteous alike, and who calls us to love our enemies, because that’s what God is like. Jesus certainly agreed with John’s call to bear good fruits of repentance by sharing our belongings with those in need and not exploiting anyone, but Jesus extends the call so that the recipients of this new generosity are no longer just our neighbours and kinsfolk, but our enemies, those we distrust and fear and resent, those who make our world a more frightening and dangerous place. As Jesus later said, anyone can love those they like and who love them. But the true fruits of repentance are shown in how we treat our enemies.

Now one of the scary parts of all this for us is that when the threat of judgement and punishment is taken away, it does do exactly what people fear it will do: it unshackles some evil doers and leaves nothing to constrain their evil doing. This is clearly happening in our world, although not because people have latched on to Jesus’s proclamation of an insatiably forgiving God, but because they have stopped believing in God altogether. And then the religious people have responded by talking up the image of a vengeful God and behaved vengefully themselves, and the spirals of violence spin further and further out of control.

You see, the problem is not really that we need to maintain the threat of divine punishment to keep people in line. The problem is that that never did enough to keep people in line anyway, and that what our divided and fearful world needs, is not more threats, but a vision of a God who invites us into the joyous and exhilarating task of being partners with God in blessing and healing the earth and its inhabitants. Or in other words, of being part of the solution instead of part of the problem.

The world we want for our children is not a world of fear and violence and constant cycles of retribution. And if we want something different for them and we want them to be part of something different and partners in creating something different, then we need to pass on to them a vision of the God made known in Jesus, a God who forgoes vengeance and seeks forgiveness and reconciliation, and leads us step by step toward a future that is more hopeful.


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