I decided to have some “fun” this week and I read the famous sermon of Jonathan Edwards entitled “Sinners in the Hands of An Angry God.” He preached it on July 8, 1741. And all I can say after reading this sermon is “WHOA!” It is a sermon preached on one verse out of Deuteronomy, that I didn’t even know existed: “Their foot shall slide in due time” was the text.
Now just to give you some perspective – my sermons – here are my notes – are on four pages, typed out in font size 12 type, single spaced – and last around 15 to 20 minutes, at most. Edwards’ sermon is 12 pages full of threat, vengeance, and is at least 60 minutes long. One full hour of all wrath, all the time.
Listen to this: “
The God who holds you over the pit of hell, much as one holds a spider, or some loathsome insect over the fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked: his wrath towards you burns like fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the fire…”
What ever happened to “Jesus loves me this I know, for the Bible tells me so?” Every week when Clover and I say, “You are a beloved child of God, with whom I am well pleased” Well, that seems downright wimpy after Edwards’ sermon!
And listen to this:
“And let every one that is yet of Christ, and hanging over the pit of hell … now hearken to the loud calls of God’s word and providence. This acceptable year of the Lord, a day of such great favors to some, will doubtless be a day of as remarkable vengeance to others…. Therefore, let everyone 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 everyone fly from Sodom: haste and escape for your lives, look not behind you, escape to the mountains, lest you be consumed.”
Well, the reason I am preaching on SIN this week is three-fold:
1) All three scripture lessons we heard are centered on the issue of sin.
2 Cor. 5 reminds us that being in Christ means that we are a “new creation.” It’s this marvelous promise that in Christ, God has reconciled us to himself in Christ, in Christ God was reconciling the whole world to God’s own self – And what I love about this is God’s own nature, that God is no longer counting trespasses – but instead is encouraging us to be the ambassadors of what? Wrath and doom? No. Reconciliation! Reconciliation. And of course that is a bedrock word that grounded this denomination with the Confession of 1967, and I know that for this particular church that Confession is just bedrock. We are called to be agents of reconciliation.
And in the Psalm, Psalm 32 – what is that about? It’s a declaration of how good it feels to be forgiven from transgressions. Just let it go.
And of course those wonderful few words that we heard from Luke tell us the good news that Jesus ate with folks just like you and me and had no preconditions for table fellowship. No preconditions. Just come and eat.
2) The second reason I’m talking about sin this week is because I believe that most of you know about the Evangelism small group within the church that is learning and practicing how to tell the “Good news” of Jesus and make it relevant to others. Richard Peace has written the 12 week curriculum entitled Holy Conversations: Talking about God in Everyday Life. Each week the group considers an aspect of the “Good News” of Jesus Christ. Last week the group discussed the chapter entitled; “Talking About Sin.” It was very lively!
3) Not that I have the final answer on the topic, but I think many Christians and many seekers, many of us have such a misunderstanding or stereotypical definition of sin that we just shut down. I think that many believe that Edward’s sermon, while harsh, is what Christians are supposed to believe. It is one of the things that turn people off about church and faith – “it makes me feel so dirty, guilty, shameful, down.” and God being so angry?
The traditional language about “Jesus saves you from your sins” (which is powerful language) seems to be such a barrier because to so many – the words don’t mean anything to them.
And of course, sin is a bummer. We don’t like to talk about it. It conjures stereotyped evangelist preachers, encourages self-loathing and pours on what Erma Bombeck called the “gift that keeps on giving”- guilt. It makes us feel judged and drives us to be judgmental. And when any religious group be it Christian, Muslim, or Jewish decides that they are the arbiters of what the Bible says and what is sinful, and the rightful protectors of orthodoxy – well, then we’re in a heap of trouble, and suicide bombers and abortion clinic killers and political assassins wield the self-righteous power to destroy in the name of God.
And even when good gentle people say that they “love the sinner but hate the sin” I sort of get that, but what does that mean, really?
And yet, the fact that we all fall short of the glory of God is everywhere present in our own lives, in the life of the church and every institution and every nation. We do not always live up to our best ideals is a given. It is apparent within every nation and among the nations. War is a terrible sin. It is a mar on any kind of godly That children go to bed hungry is a sin too. Toxic home loans are sin. That our culture is still divided along racial lines, and gender lines and sexual orientation lines, and national lines and religious lines and partisan lines, particularly since St. Paul told us that in “Christ Jesus there is no longer male or female, slave or free, Jew or Gentile” It just shows us how deeply we don’t reflect the best and highest and most hopeful.
We invest our money in companies that pollute our world and plow over houses to build unjust settlements. We go after that which will make us the most money and we really don’t want to know off whose back we are making the profit. We try to create a cocoon of safety from the nagging sense that we will never really be safe. We justify our actions and cover up truth.
The fact is we carry such burdens and they can be so self-destructive. Some of us carry such a deep self-loathing that we eat ourselves and drink ourselves and drug ourselves and porn ourselves into oblivion – and we wonder and wander along dark paths towards misty destinations and it can be very, very hard sometimes. So I am not one to dismiss the reality of sin and yes, even evil in our world. The truth is: there is a very large gulf between hope and reality, a chasm that we can’t cross alone – just by the force of our own will. This has verifiable meaning to me – it feels true.
The great theologian of the 20th century Reinhold Niebuhr once wrote that Original Sin is “the only empirically verifiable doctrine of the Christian faith.” And I tend to agree with him. But I defy Johnathon Edwards. And I defy Edwards’ depiction of God, and of how life is and can be. Edwards, and Christians who essentially agree with him, don’t have the final answer by a long shot. I wonder if it is even biblical.
The question is – so what? What can we do about sin? What difference does Jesus make in this? I hear “Jesus died for my sins.” And I wonder sometimes: “What does that really – really – mean?”
Shirley Guthrie, a wonderful teacher and theologian, begins a chapter of his book Christian Doctrine with this story (pg. 250-51), and I want you to listen carefully:
“Once upon a time a boy went to a church meeting. The preacher held up a dirty glass: “See this glass? That’s you. Filthy, stained with sin, inside and outside.” He picked up a hammer. “This hammer is the righteousness of God. It is the instrument of God’s wrath against sinners. God’s justice can be satisfied only by punishing and destroying people whose lives are filled with vileness and corruption.” The preacher put the glass on the pulpit and slowly, deliberately pulled back the hammer, took deadly aim, and with all his might let the blow fall. BUT a miracle happened! At the last moment the preacher covered the glass with a pan. The hammer struck with a crash that echoed through the hushed church. He held up the untouched glass with one hand and the mangled pan in the other and says, “Jesus Christ died for your sins. He took the punishment that ought to have fallen on you. He satisfied the righteousness of God so that you might go free if you believe in him.” As you can imagine, when the little boy went to bed that night he couldn’t sleep. He could love Jesus who had sacrificed himself for him, but could he love God who wanted to “get” everyone? And was God only kept from doing it because Jesus got in the way?”
I’m with the little boy. I don’t need to be threatened with punishment for my total depravity when I already know the burdens I carry. I don’t need to know that I am filthy when I can see dirt. I don’t need to hear that I am judged when I am looking for love (even in the wrong places.)
I don’t need to be threatened. And I reject a message of fear – fear is no gospel, not even half a gospel. And while surely creative preachers can find verses throughout the scripture that can be manipulated to build a theology about just about anything, and no doubt this picture of an angry God that has been pressed upon the faithful and culture since the reformation – we still see it on our billboards, don’t we? “Don’t Make Me Come Down There!” That’s popular culture!
I want to lift up another Biblical image – which is gospel and worthy of acceptance, worthy of spreading, worthy of living – Jesus didn’t die to protect you from God’s wrath. If Jesus died for anything it was to take on the powers and the principalities and show that love conquers even suffering, even sin, even death. See, the cross is about the length and breadth and height of God’s love for you. It is not God’s anger that is the issue but the depth and breadth and height of God’s abiding love that while we were still sinners, even still in our brokenness, despite anything and everything – God is present, not absent, God is close, not far away. And punishment and hell isn’t the issue, grace and love and hope and presence and the kingdom of God close and near is what is at stake here.
Last week you heard the psalmist say “Ho, come to the waters … you with no money come, buy and eat!” And Paul tells us that you and I are ambassadors of THAT reality – that all things are new. You and I have been given a commission to admit that “it may not look like it yet” but God’s kingdom of love and inclusion and great hospitality is now how we will view this world and live in this world.
We read that Jesus ate with sinners – but who called them sinners? It was the Pharisees – religious folks who decided that they knew what the Biblical definition of sinners was. No one was a sinner in Christ’s eyes. Sure he told that woman caught in adultery to “go and sin no more.” But he didn’t threaten her with hell. It was more out of a concern to lessen the real, daily pain of bad choices. And of course Jesus didn’t mention the real sin of male violence and domination that probably has almost everything to do with the woman’s predicament.
Why do we bring eternity into it? I mean, really, is that why you are a Christian, is that why you’re coming to church? Because you fear hell and don’t want to anger God? I hope not. Because that is messed up.
In Christ’s eyes all are brothers and sisters, even the Pharisees – and the door is open and nothing bars the door, and the table is set, and if you don’t want to come eat because you don’t like the company, well – that’s your problem for the moment, but you’ll have another chance.
That is what Jesus died for, if he died for anything more than being a threat to the political and religious powers that be – to let you know that God embraces even you, even if you don’t think you want it – so don’t struggle so much anymore. Accept that you don’t have it all together. But the narrative of faith encourages you to get a new mind for a new age and live as if you really believe that nothing separates you from the love of God in Jesus Christ our Lord.
And what I have found to be true is that accepting this love does not lead to passivity – I don’t have to do anything since I don’t have to worry about hell – but rather lifts up the possibility of change and hope and a future. Why waste your life on speculation about eternity when Christ has called me to be an ambassador here and now?
Indeed, as the Psalmist says how good it is to feel a burden lifted. To say I am sorry. To move towards reconciliation – to work towards the accomplishment of wholeness within and without and no longer worry about what is going to happen in the by-and-by because the here and now is so full of possibilities. That God’s love even embraces your sinfulness, your brokenness, your doubt and waste – and still says “you are good enough, follow me.”
For Christians, Jesus’ death showed what has always been the case since creation. Not sinners in the hands of an angry God but sinners in the hands of a loving God – forgiven, freed. We tell you that every week – do you trust it? And what will you do with this good news? Well, that calls for decision and action which we call repentance – but I’ll save that for another week!
God bless you, beloved friends of God.