Rev. Tom Sorenson, Pastor
November 10, 2002
Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all of our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O God, our strength and our redeemer. Amen.
We more or less liberal Christians donít talk much about Godís judgment, Godís wrath. We talk a lot about Godís grace, mercy, love, and forgiveness. Thinking about those things is a lot more fun, and a lot more comforting, than talking about judgment. Talk of Godís judgment dredges up in us Congregationalists institutional memories of what now seem to us the bad old days of New England Puritanism, when preachers like the great Jonathan Edwards preached sermons like his rightfully famous "Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God." For those of you who find change uncomfortable, listen for a moment to a couple of passages from that sermon, and think how much youíd like it here if the UCC had never gotten away from this version of the faith. Edwardsí point is that humans outside the state of grace are so sinful that God despises them and that it is only Godís unchecked discretion and forbearance that keep us all from plunging into hell every minute. I put one of these passages at the head of todayís bulletin, just for the fun of it. Elsewhere Edwards says, referring to sinful humans:
The wrath of God burns against them, their damnation does not slumber; the pit is prepared, the fire is made ready, the furnace is now hot, ready to receive them; the flames do now rage and glow. The glittering sword is whet, and held over them, and the pit hath opened its mouth under them.And again:
The God that 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; he is of purer eyes than to bear to have you in his sight; you are ten thousand times more abominable in his eyes, than the most hateful venomous serpent is in ours. You have offended him infinitely more than ever a stubborn rebel did his prince, and yet it is nothing but his hand that holds you from falling into the fire every moment.Now thatís preachiní! Scary isnít it? More importantly, I doubt if anyone here today believes that this sermon gives an accurate picture of God or of how, in our experience, God relates to us and to creation.
So, if we donít put much stock in the notion of Godís wrath and judgment, what are we to make of the Scripture passages we heard this morning? Why is Amos saying that the Lordís day, that is, the day of the Lordís judgment, is one of darkness and not light? Why does Matthewís Jesus say to the unwise bridesmaids I do not know you and shut them out of the Kingdom? Do we just write these passages out of our Bibles? Should we all get out our pencils right now and cross these verses out so that we never have to deal with them again? Itís tempting, isnít it?
And yet, it isnít that easy. Godís judgment is a constant theme of Scripture. This year most of our Gospel lessons on Sunday morning have come from the Gospel of Matthew; and Matthew is famous for the way he has Jesus issue ringing condemnations in which people are "cast into the outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth," to quote one of Matthewís memorable phrases that doesnít appear in any of the other Gospels. The Christian tradition, in and through which we live our life of faith, has no doubt that God judges and condemns unfaithful behavior. Now, we really donít believe that God condemns everyone, or all but a very small number of the elect, to hell, as Jonathan Edwards did. So what are we to make of these judgment passages that he loved so well?
I think taking a closer look at this morningís passage from Amos, the passage that ends with two of my favorite lines in all of Scripture, can help. Whatís going on here? Amos was a very early prophet in the Hebrew tradition. He wrote in the 8th century BCE, at a time when the northern kingdom of Israel was threatened with annihilation by the Assyrian Empire, something that actually happened not much later. Amos first has God saying that those who desire the day of the Lord are deluding themselves. This apparently refers to a very early version of Israelís Messianic expectation, the hope that God would send a rescuer to destroy Israelís enemies. Amos turns that expectation around and aims it at Israel herself. That day will not be a day of salvation and vindication for Israel but a day of darkness, danger, and destruction, as if Israel were being attacked by bears or bitten by serpents.
Amos then tells the people why the day of the Lord will not be good news for them. He has God reject, in the strongest possible terms, the religious practices of the day: "I hate, I despise your festivals...." I wonít accept your offerings. I wonít listen to your music. Now, this message was very counter-cultural in Amosí time. God is rejecting the very worship that the Hebrew people had believed, by this time for at least several hundred years, was precisely what God did want from them. Amos had a different message. Like all prophets, he believed that message was from God. Although the Book of Amos does not contain an account of the kind of visionary experience that is reported about some of the other prophets, it seems pretty clear that Amos had some kind of such experience. He speaks what he says are the words of God, and he certainly had some kind of numinous experience in which his message of justice came to him. It may be hard for us to understand just how radical this rejection of the Hebrew ways of worship must have sounded. The entire social structure of Israel was founded on two institutions-the sacrificial worship of Yahweh and the monarchy (the king and all of his retainers). Amos here kicks one of those two supports out from under the social and political order of his day. I doubt that his message made him very popular. Israel often killed the true prophets-and not just Israel.
Amos didnít end with just this negative message of Godís rejection of Hebrew worship, however. He next uttered one of the most famous passages in all of Scripture: Instead of your meaningless worship "let justice roll down like waters, and righteousness like an ever-flowing stream." Thatís what God wants. Not empty worship but justice. And by justice God doesnít mean "due process," a fair trial, the impartial application of procedural rules, which is what we usually mean by justice. God means real, substantial justice for the poor and vulnerable. Justice means taking care of those who need taking care of. It means not exploiting the poor for the benefit of the rich. We see this meaning of justice in another passage from Amos that comes just before the bit the lectionary people pulled out for reading this Sunday. At Amos 5:11-12 God says:
Therefore because you trample on the poor and take from them levies of grain, you have built houses of hewn stone, but you shall not live in them; you have planted pleasant vineyards, but you shall not drink their wine. For I know how many are your transgressions, and how great are your sins-you who afflict the righteous, who take a bride, and push aside the needy in the gate.Thatís the sin of the establishment, of the elite, who lived lives of luxury at the expense of the poor. Thatís why their worship is meaningless-because they go through the motions and do not do justice for the poor.
And God is powerfully angry about it! God judges it! God does not sit back and Itís OK. I forgive you because I love. Donít worry about it. No. According to Amos God says: Because you oppress the poor your land is going to be laid waste by your enemies. You are going to be destroyed. And thatís exactly what happened. Now itís probably true as an historical matter that Israel fell to Assyria because Assyria was a mighty empire, the mightiest of its day, and little Israel was an easy target for conquest. To the eyes of faith, however, the destruction of Israel was Godís punishment for the faithlessness of Israelís elite in failing to do justice for the poor. Amos is telling us in no uncertain terms that God hates injustice and oppression and the people who commit those sins, condemns them, and wills their punishment.
Well, OK. But what does that mean for us? We believe in Godís grace, given and revealed to us in Jesus Christ. We believe that that grace is unconditional. We neither can nor have to earn it. All we have to do is accept it. As Protestants in the Reformed or Calvinist tradition, that is truly what we believe. It is what I believe. As Paul says, nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord. Even our refusal to do justice, our living lives of comfort at the expense of the poor throughout the world, will not cause God to abandon us. What we always need to remember, however, is that Godís grace has an element of judgment in it. God hates the injustice and oppression we inflict on the worldís poor and vulnerable, and there is even a sense in which God hates us when we do it. Another way of saying that is to say that the grace we receive from God in Christ makes powerful demands on us. We are called to respond to that grace by doing justice. More than that, Godís grace demands that we do justice. And when we donít, God gets powerfully angry about it. Godís judges our injustice and us.
Maybe this example will help illustrate what I mean. Many of you, like me, are parents. We often call God Father, that is, parent. I know from my parenting experience, and Iím sure many of you do too, that our love of our children does not exclude the element of judgment. Not of our child as a person. We always love our children, or at least I hope we do. But nonetheless we donít accept everything they do. We condemn their misbehavior, their wrongful acts, their sins. And sometimes we punish them for those things, or at least we did when they lived at home and were young enough so we could. We did it out of love. We did it to teach them a better way. Our judgment of their wrongful behavior was motivated by and was an expression of our love for them. Itís the same with God. God loves us. We always have a home to come back to with God; but that doesnít mean God doesnít judge our sin. God does judge our sins of injustice and oppression, and condemns them.
Our traditionís way of talking about that condemnation is to use the language of judgment. It is to say that the day of the Lord will be for us a dark and bitter day if we do not do justice for the poor and the vulnerable. "We" here means you, and it means me. But it also means we, we as a society, we as a nation. Amos didnít condemn individuals. He condemned Israel, by which he meant the ruling political, social, and religious elite of Israel. So we need to ask, not about ourselves individually only but about ourselves as a nation: Will the day of the Lord be darkness for us? Are we doing justice? Does justice-real, substantive justice-roll down like waters among us? Is righteousness, which here means essentially the same thing, an ever-flowing stream in our midst? If not, God is not happy with us however much we believe ourselves blessed. If not, God is powerfully angry with us. If not, the day of the Lord will indeed be darkness and not light. With Godís grace we can do justice. We can make the day of the Lord a day of light. Will we?