The gift of God’s wrath
Proper 28A – 11/16/14
St. Paul’s Alexandria
The Rev. Dr. Rosemary Beales
“That day will be a day of wrath.
When I was in high school, I played bass guitar in an all-girls band. I know, looking at me now, you would not expect that I had done something so cool. But going to school every day and doing all my assignments and working my little job at a furniture store downtown were not enough for me. I had a little talent and a big dream.
As graduation was approaching, I approached my parents with my plan: Instead of going directly to college, I would go with my band to New York City and hit it big. My mother was not pleased. And you can probably imagine my father’s reaction: Anger.
The prophet Zephaniah has something to say today about anger, about the wrath of God. “Be silent before the Lord!” he cries. And don’t imagine that “the day of the Lord,” which sounds kind of sweet to us, is a day to celebrate. Rather, “it will be a day of distress and anguish, a day of ruin and devastation, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness.” That day doesn’t sound like a day I want to wait around for.
What has made God so angry? In Zephaniah’s tirade, God was incensed about people who had offered incense and worshiped foreign gods, and others who had sinned against the Lord. But notice what made God so angry that he would reverse his acts of creation and destroy the whole earth and all its inhabitants: “I will punish the people who rest complacently… who say in their hearts, ‘The Lord will not do good, nor will he do harm.’”
Such indifference – indifference toward God and toward others –is what most enraged Zephaniah’s God. Complacency — the careless sense that God could not possibly care what we do or don’t do — that is what really ticks God off. Indifference invokes God’s wrath.
We don’t hear much about the wrath of God in today’s Church. Now I’m not proposing that we return to the era when Jonathan Edwards preached mightily about “sinners in the hands of an angry God.” But Edwards, that prophet of 18th-century America, had a purpose in mind: to shake people out of their complacency and wake them to God’s righteousness. There’s a reason his era went down in history as The Great Awakening.
Of course, it’s human nature to wake, and sleep, wake and sleep. And I think we need Zephaniah’s trumpet blast from time to time to interrupt our dream state and spur us to action. I think, from time to time, we need the wrath of God.
When my father, a gentle and soft-spoken man, became angry with me, I was shocked. And then, strangely, I was comforted. As the sixth of seven daughters, I hadn’t had much contact with my father. By the time I came around, I think, he had lost interest in this houseful of women. In my adolescent brain, I imagined that he didn’t much care what I did or didn’t do. My father’s anger woke me up. It showed me, in a way no gentle words could do, that my father loved me.
It’s a paradox, that anger can be an expression of love.
Had God not cared for the people of Judah in Zephaniah’s day, he would have simply turned his back on them, rather than sending his prophet with words of warning.
Had the master in today’s parable not cared what the servants did with the talents given them, he would have rewarded all 3 the same, instead of casting the indifferent slave, the one who didn’t even try, into outer darkness.
Had Jesus not cared about the people he would leave behind as he went forth to his passion, he would not have told this parable of wrath.
But in the face of wrath, there is hope. In the love story between God and God’s people, there is always hope. At the end of Zephaniah’s short book comes a reversal, when the prophet sings: “Rejoice, O daughter Zion, for the Lord has taken away the judgment from you.” After your time of exile, “The Lord will bring you home . . exult over you with loud singing, restore your fortunes.”
There is hope for all of us in the restoration brought about by Jesus’ death and resurrection. In a move that the theologian Hans von Balthasar calls “The Great Reversal,” Jesus the Judge turns and becomes Jesus the Advocate. Jesus is the one in whose light we stand convicted for our complacency. And Jesus is the one who turns and pleads on our behalf for mercy in the face of God’s anger.
In the face of my father’s anger, I did not go to New York and hit the big time with my band. I did go to college as expected. Sadly, before I could graduate, my father died. But his love, the love expressed in anger, did not die. It remains even to this day. So may it be for us in our relationship with God.
And may the wrath of God be with you always. Amen.