(This homily was delivered at my DEPO parish, Trinity Church in Yazoo City, MS, which I oversee on behalf of the Bishop of Mississippi.)
Exodus 32:7-14, I Timothy 1:12-17, Luke 15:1-10
If this were a classroom, instead of a church, there’s a certain game I would like to play with you. I would divide this congregation into two groups. I would ask Group One to read the following passage of scripture, from the prophet Joel:
Let all the inhabitants of the land tremble, for the day of the Lord is coming, it is near, a day of darkness and gloom, a day of clouds and thick darkness! Like blackness there is spread upon the mountains a great and powerful people; their like has never been from of old, nor will be again after them through the years of all generations. Fire devours before them, and behind them a flame burns. The land is like the garden of Eden before them, but after them a desolate wilderness, and nothing escapes them.
I would also ask Group One to read a passage from the book of Revelation:
When he opened the sixth seal, I looked, and behold, there was a great earthquake; and the sun became black as sackcloth, the full moon became like blood, and the stars of the sky fell to the earth as the fig tree sheds its winter fruit when shaken by a gale; the sky vanished like a scroll that is rolled up, and every mountain and island was removed from its place. Then the kings of the earth and the great men and the generals and the rich and the strong, and every one, slave and free, hid in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains, calling to the mountains and rocks, “Fall on us and hide us from the face of him who is seated on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who can stand before it?”
I would then ask Group One to write a description of the nature of God, based solely on the information that they could glean from these two passages.
What do you suppose they would come up with? Words like “angry” and “vengeful” and “capricious” would probably come to mind quite readily. But if the members of Group One continue to reflect seriously on the question, they might arrive at a more positive adjective, such as “just.” God is just, even in his wrath.
A few minutes ago, we read a very dramatic narrative from the book of Exodus. Moses has been up on Mt Sinai for forty days receiving the Torah—the Law—from the hand of God. He comes down at last, and what does he find the people of Israel doing? They have forsaken the Lord, who had led them out of slavery in Egypt, and taken to worshiping an idol, a golden calf that had been fashioned by Moses’ brother Aaron. At that moment, God announces to Moses that he’s about to press the Reset button on this whole enterprise of a chosen people, and start from scratch. Moses alone will survive. Strictly speaking, it would not have been at all unjust of God to destroy those people. They had behaved shamefully, and deserved to be done away with.
Stories like this bring us up short. When we allow ourselves one of those rare moments of absolutely clear honesty, we realize that if God were to be absolutely just with us, we would deserve something along the same lines of what God had in mind for those ancient Israelites. We have, indeed, done those things which we ought not to have done, and left undone those things which we ought to have done. We have not loved God with our whole heart, and we have not loved our neighbors as ourselves. We deserve no less than the full wrath of God.
But what about the other half of the congregation, Group Two? I would also have some scripture readings for them. First, I would have them look at the fortieth chapter of the book of Isaiah:
Comfort, comfort my people, says your God. Speak tenderly to Jerusalem, and cry to her that her warfare is ended, that her iniquity is pardoned, that she has received from the Lord’s hand double for all her sins.
I would also have Group Two look at those passages which long-time Episcopalians remember as the “comfortable words,” like John 3:16:
God so loved the world that he gave his only son, to the end that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.
…and Matthew 11:28:
Come to me, all who labor and are heavy laden, and I will give you rest. Take my yoke upon you, and learn from me; for I am gentle and lowly in heart, and you will find rest for your souls.
…and I John 2:1-2:
If any man sin, we have an advocate with the Father, Jesus Christ the righteous; and he is the perfect offering for our sins, and not for ours only but also for the sins of the whole world.
Then I would put the same question to Group Two: Describe the nature of God, based solely on these passages of scripture. I think it’s safe to say that the results of their deliberations would offer a much different picture than that presented by Group One. Phrases like “slow to anger,” “rich in mercy,” “faithful,” “caring,” “forgiving,” and “compassionate” would emerge.
So … are we talking about two different God’s here? Is there one God who is wrathful and just, and another God who is merciful and forgiving? In the early years of Christianity, there were some who thought precisely that. There was a fellow named Marcion who taught that the Hebrew God of the Old Testament was a completely distinct being from the Christian God of the New Testament. But Marcion’s views were eventually declared to be heresy, and the orthodox teaching of the church has been that God is both wrathful and merciful, both completely just and utterly loving.
And this is, of course, a paradox that is virtually impossible for the human mind to wrap itself around. We can understand justice and we can understand love, but we also understand that there are situations when those two values conflict with one another, and one must be favored to the detriment of the other. We cannot comprehend both love and justice being perfectly upheld by one being at all times.
Yet, this is precisely what our Christian faith teaches us to affirm. When God declared his intention to manifest the justice inherent in his nature and destroy the idolatrous Israelites, it was Moses, of course, who stepped into the breach. He implored God on the people’s behalf. He reminded God of the promises made to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob, of everything he had already invested in that people. Moses begged God to relent, to change his mind, to turn away from his anger.
Now, it’s pretty amazing for a mortal man to talk to God this way, and it’s even more amazing still that God listened! In response to the intercession of Moses, God did change his mind, and manifested the mercy that is also inherent in his nature.
Now, as we read the Old Testament through the lens of the Christian gospel, we see in Moses a prefigurement, a foreshadowing, of Jesus. When Moses stepped into the breach on behalf of Israel, he bridged the gap between God’s justice and God’s love. What Moses did for one nation on that one occasion, Jesus does for all people for all time. As he stretched out his arms of love on the hard wood of the cross, Jesus stepped into the breach between God’s justice and God’s love, and forever bridged that gap.
And when God’s justice is combined with God’s love, the result is like a strong chemical reaction. The resulting compound is alive and active. It makes all things new. It seeks out wounds that need to be healed, relationships that need to be reconciled, sin that needs to be forgiven, loss that needs to be redeemed. The gospel parables of the lost sheep and the lost coin illustrate the persistence and power of justice combined with love. The shepherd does not passively wait for the lost sheep to wander back to the fold—he takes the initiative and searches for it. The widow does not just sit back and wait for the lost coin to turn up someday—she sweeps every corner of her house until she finds it.
Because God is just, he will not let us off the hook for ours sins. Because God is loving, he will not let us perish in our sins. Because Jesus bridges the gap between divine justice and divine love, God seeks me out, seeks you out, like we were that lost sheep or that lost coin. He takes us who are, in the words of the General Confession from Morning Prayer in the older Prayer Book—he takes us who are “miserable offenders” and fashions us into his own very image and likeness. He makes us holy; he redeems. The combination of justice and love is redemption.
In his letter to Timothy, St Paul holds himself out as “Exhibit A” in the collection of evidence that God is a redeeming God. Paul was a sworn enemy of the cross of Christ and the chief of sinners. He was the most unlikely candidate imaginable to be made a herald of the gospel of Christ. But the risen Jesus—the same Jesus who stands in the gap between the demands of justice and the demands of love—actively sought Paul out and knocked him off his horse with redemptive power.
Justice … plus love… equals redemption.
And the only appropriate response to redemption, on the part of those who have been redeemed, is thanksgiving. That’s what we’re here for. That’s what the word “eucharist” means: thanksgiving. You and I now have the opportunity to respond “eucharistically,” by offering ourselves at this altar, by making ourselves available to a God who is fully just and fully loving. Let’s not hold ourselves back. We wouldn’t want to miss anything he has to offer!