Readings: Exodus 32.7-14; Luke 15.1-10
Today’s Old Testament and Gospel readings present two apparently irreconcilable views of God. In Exodus we find God hot with anger at the wayward Israelites. He is so furious he wants to burn them to a crisp on the mountainside and it’s only the intervention of Moses that stays his hand. By contrast, in the Gospel reading we find a picture of God as the good shepherd desperately seeking out his lost sheep and rejoicing loudly at finding the sheep and bringing it home. To underline the point, Jesus assures us:
“There will be more joy in heaven at the one sinner who repents than over the 99 righteous people who have no need of repentance”
I trust it will come as no surprise when I say that any reading of this disparity as a simple illustration of the difference between the God of the OT and that of the NT would be very wide of the mark. So what do we make of it? For me the best explanation I’ve heard comes from a story in the life of Nils Bohr, the Danish Physicist who made great contributions to understanding the atom and who played a key role in laying the foundations for quantum theory. One day Bohr’s teenage son was caught shoplifting. Bohr was furious, ashamed and vengeful as any parent might be. But then his fury abated as he realised how much he loved his son come what may and that he could forgive him. Crucially, on reflection he realised that while he was equally capable of being a loving and forgiving father as he was an angry and vengeful one he couldn’t be both at the same time. That’s a truth that will resonate with anyone here who’s a parent or has been one.
I believe this is an immensely important insight not just in helping us reconcile the two views of God in our readings but also pointing to a very necessary balance we need to strike in talking about and practicing our faith.
Thanks to Marjorie, I recently read a book by Fleming Rutledge called “The Crucifixion”. It’s one of most helpful books I’ve read since being ordained 12 year ago. An easy read it is not.
Now in her 80s, Rutledge’s book is a summation of a life’s work as an Episcopalian priest in US. The basic argument is that as a church we fail to preach sufficiently about the cross and that we’ve given up engaging with the sheer awfulness of it in favour of a bland “Jesus loves you and everything’s lovely” kind of religion. Her book is not an easy read for all sorts of reasons, not least her unflinching focus on the absolutely vile facts about what a crucifixion entailed. It’s not something you want to read twice.
The point she makes is a powerful one, namely that the cross is what happens in a world in which human sinfulness holds sway and that it wasn’t, in a key sense, a one-off event.
Switch on the nightly news and you’ll see in often graphic detail the awful effects of our sinfulness repeated again and again. Sin is nothing more or less than our human tendency to make wrong choices through pride, selfishness and lack of self-control. Individual acts of sinfulness may not seem so bad but they have an horrific multiplier effect as sin begets sin in a never-ending spiral. Sin is an abomination that should make us angry and ashamed and if it doesn’t there’s something very wrong.
So is she right that the church is often guilty of insufficiently engaging with the cross and with the awful reality of sin? Years ago, friend who’s a vicar joked that in the C of E there are often only two kinds of sermon: there are ones that tell us that God loves us and there are ones that tell us we should be nice to each other. I laughed at the time but I think there’s some truth that as a church we’ve become a bit bland – even a bit gutless - in our faith. As the American theologian Rheinhold Niebuhr once said, when we forget or downplay sin and the cross we tell a story in which:
“A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgement through the ministrations of a Christ without a cross. When this happens we may have religiosity, we may have uplift, we may have spirituality, but we do not have Christianity”.
When I preached on my 10th anniversary of ordination I shared with you the bible verse that spoke most to me of what I want to communicate about the gospel. It’s John 10.10 “I came that they might have life and have it abundantly”. It’s still the bible verse that speaks most to me about God’s loving intentions and desires for us and I believe it with all my heart.
But it’s only one half of the story – for truly, God can only draw and welcome us into that promised abundance if we are willing to truly engage with - and repent of - our sinfulness.
Put simply, you can’t have Easter Sunday without Good Friday.
But that, I’m afraid, is how many prefer it. Last Easter 60 or so people attended the Good Friday devotions here at St. Mary’s compared to almost 200 on Easter morning.
Of course, it’s quite possible to err in the other direction. We can all think of Evangelical churches that are obsessed with sin and the dire torments that await us if we don’t repent.
If the “God loves you and be nice to each other” approach risks leaving us with an unjustified sense of uplift that of the sin-obsessed evangelical preacher risks giving us an undue sense of despair. In other words, we have to hold these things in balance.
Ours is a loving God who wants the very best for us. But he is also a God of judgement who weeps and is in anguish at what we do to each other and our world. And it’s only repentance, an earnest, honest, contemplation of our own and our world’s short-comings and a heart-felt desire to turn away from them that can begin the process of inner transformation that is God’s desire for each of us.
In reality we are neither Good Friday people nor Easter Sunday people. Rather, we are Saturday people caught uneasily between the sin and despair of Good Friday and the as yet not fully realised hope of Easter Sunday. As the philosopher and critic George Steiner put it:
“Ours is the long day’s journey of the Saturday”.