"Unmasking God's Wrath"

Sermon Preached By Rev. Richard E. Stetler - February 15, 2004

Psalm 1; Jeremiah 17:5-10

     This morning I would like us to think about one question.  Does God have emotions like we do? It stands to reason that since we are created in God's image that this might be so.  But how far should we go with such thinking?  For example, can God's feelings be hurt? Is God that fragile? Can God experience unbridled euphoria?   

     Our lesson begins today with these words, "The Lord says, 'I will condemn those who turn away from me and put their trust in human beings, in the strength of mortals.'"  Such words certainly suggest that the author has answered this question until we examine the entire passage. 

     There are literally scores of examples in the Hebrew Bible where writers have painted a verbal portrait of God's emotions that are every bit as destructive as any tyrant in human history.  One of the better examples of this image comes from a writer who has God ordering the destruction of the Amalekites.  "Go and attack the Amalekites and completely destroy everything they have.  Don't leave a thing; kill all the men, women, children and babies; the cattle, sheep, camels, and donkeys." (I Samuel 15:3) 

     In the teachings of Jesus, we find many passages that discuss God's anger and judgment.  We have images of people being thrown out into darkness and gnashing their teeth.  We have Jesus' very graphic discussion in Matthew 21 of a division between the sheep and the goats. 

     Today numerous writers have also developed this theme. There is the bumper sticker which says, "Jesus is coming soon and boy is he mad."  There is a large billboard near Lancaster, Pennsylvania, which says, "Shape up now.  At the end you will meet God."   

     There is a cartoon that featured a theme for Stewardship Sunday.  A couple was walking into church, and upon noticing the sermon title on the outside marque, the one commented, "Oh dear! I think we are really going to get it this morning."  The sermon title was:  "Tithe or Die!" 

     How are we to understand such images of God, particularly when Jesus taught us to forgive all people every moment of our lives (70 times 7)?  Was Jesus asking us to do what God apparently cannot, or was he pointing to who we are designed and created to be once we have learned how to remain authentically gracious to everyone?  Being gracious has to be linked to authenticity!  Nothing less will do. 

     Many of us grew up with the notion that we need to please people.  We automatically please our parents, our teachers, our mates and sometimes our own children.  Of course, most Christians have been taught that we need to please God. Is our purpose for being here to please God? Think about this question before you answer it with what you believe is a resounding, "Yes!"

     How many times do we find people who are hurting spiritually and they do not know why?  After hearing a little of their life story, it becomes apparent that they have spent the vast part of it living up to the expectations of others, pleasing everyone by either doing what others wanted, or by sacrificing their own passions in an attempt to make others happy.   

     I once served on Congresswoman Gladys Spellman's Academy Selection Review Board.  The task of our group was to interview candidates and make recommendations to her for their appointment to our five service academies.  

     There was one candidate I will never forget.  His father and grandfather had graduated from the United States Naval Academy and he was expected to carry on the family's rich tradition.  He had all the qualifications but one; he did not want to go.  He was going through all the motions so as not to disappoint his family who was truly proud of him.  His love, however, was the National Park Service.  Since he was a child he dreamed of becoming a Park Ranger.  We found ourselves coaching him on how to tell his parents and why it is important to be honest with himself, regardless of his fear of disappointing those he loves. 

     We run the same risk with our attempts to please God.  We may exert so much energy resisting various temptations, laboring over our decisions and seeking divine guidance that we never develop any confidence within ourselves.  May many even forsake developing the qualities God placed within our one-of-a-kind seed.   

     Without realizing it, we may be following an unrecognized belief that we must earn God's favor by practicing certain beliefs, attitudes and behavior.  Instead of needing to please God, suppose we begin expressing our loving, creative energy through our own unique wiring whether in the helping professions or our particular trade.    

     If we attempt to unmask the perceived wrath of God and yet remain faithful to the Scriptures, how might we do that?   There are three areas in our lesson today which may help clarify this issue as we stretch toward perfection, as John Wesley used to say.  The first area is learning that there are powerful consequences when we completely trust God for all things.

     Jeremiah wrote, "I will bless the person who puts his trust in me.  He is like a tree growing near a stream which sends out its roots into the water. The tree is not afraid when hot weather comes, because its leaves will stay green.  The tree will have no worries when there is no rain because it will keep on bearing fruit." 

     Such a concept has nothing to do with pleasing God.  Our response has to do with trusting God, a process where we focus our emotions and spirit on letting go and not on the emotions of God.  When we trust God with all things, we allow highly energized consequences to come our way, consequences we could never have anticipated. 

     The other day I faced a very challenging task.  I had to tell our custodian, James Young, that we are asking him to retire at the end of June.  This 86-year-old saint has been with us since the church was built 40 years ago.  He is one of the dearest men that I know. To look into his face is to see what Heaven is like. I have so much respect for him that I imagined that this moment would be difficult for both of us.  The church's needs have changed. We are going to hire someone to work evenings and on weekends, a schedule our current custodial staff is unable to meet.  

     I had no idea what would happen when we met.  I placed the experience into God's hands and let go. I did not give our meeting a second thought.  When the day and the moment arrived, I found James faithfully polishing the floor of the kitchen.  I asked him to come by my office when he had completed his work.  He did.    

     As we sat together and he heard where the conversation was going he said, "Dick, I want you to know that last week God came to me and said, 'James, it is time you retire.'  There are other churches where I could work, but I am not going to do that.  I want some time for myself.  I have some things that I want to do before I leave this world." We had a beautiful visit together, one that I could not possibly have designed.  

     Where does unmasking God's wrath come into play?  What we have come to call "wrath" is not an emotion of God; our experience of it comes as a consequence when we cannot bring ourselves to trust. Think of the uncertainties we face each week where we begin investing our energy in worry and fear. There are distinct results. We cannot sleep.  Our appetites fade.  We become aloof and distracted.  We become filled with a sense of impending doom. Trusting God produces freedom just as the illustration of the tree used by Jeremiah. 

     A second area is knowing what to do when we learn that our feelings have become the source of our guidance.  Jeremiah wrote something that may surprise some of us, particularly around Valentine's Day.  Jeremiah has God say, "Who can understand the human heart?  There is nothing else so deceitful; it is too sick to be healed." 

     When our feelings become a primary source of guidance, we need to be extremely careful.  There are broad sweeping results that come when we follow through on what our feelings are telling us.  Low self-esteem, for example, comes from such guidance.   

     Hurt feelings are designed to put us in touch with areas within us that need polishing. When we listen to them for guidance, we may respond with our own variety of hostility.  How many times have we arrived at incorrect conclusions, said words that we could no longer recall or fled from opportunities to refine our communication skills all because we bowed to our bruised feelings?  

     When we are romantically involved, our feelings of euphoria and ecstasy are so powerful that the wise, mature adults among us repeatedly warn, " Be very cautious.  Love is blind."  Most of us have recognized that many relationships which appear to have been made in Heaven were not!

     How is this unmasking God's wrath?  There are consequences when our emotions become our guide and we grow way beyond the boundaries that were designed to protect our caring, peaceful and loving nature -- qualities which reflect God's spirit.  We can easily experience being abandoned by God when our feelings lead us to perceive others without love, a place where God is not. Is God angry?  Not at all.  Consequences were designed to teach and guide, never to condemn or punish us eternally as many believers have suggested.    

     A third area to remember is that we are exactly what we think, feel and do.  We are who we are.   There is no escaping this.  Jeremiah has God say, "I, the Lord, search the minds and test the hearts of all people.  I treat each of them according to the way they live, according to what they do."  God is extremely fair.  Fairness and Divine justice are not expressions of anger. 

     We have to remember that many of the harsh judgments we find described in the Scriptures have to do with damage to our physical bodies.  This is the worst punishment the early writers could imagine, for example, the killing of the Amalekites and being thrown into darkness where we gnash our teeth.   

     We are spirit beings living in solid, physical forms.  If we assume that God would ever want to punish us by wiping out entire populations to teach us some lesson, God would accomplish nothing.  Death and destruction have never been a deterrent that has caused us to turn away from evil.

     We are the ones who place such importance on physical life.  In time we all leave our physical forms and our transition has nothing to do with God's wrath. Rather it is part of a much larger process we only partially understand. (I Corinthians 13:12)  No matter who we are or what we have done, everyone continues living.  This has to do with God's design, a design that is not dependent on any of our beliefs. 

     How is this unmasking God's wrath?  We are capable of hiding many of our faults from public view.  We may engage in secret deeds.  We may be able to lie, cheat and manipulate others without being discovered.  In spite of our behavior and attitudes, God still loves us beyond anything we could imagine. However, if we have never developed the essential skills of spirit and we have never taken any risks of faith, we have to be treated by God as though we never graduated from kindergarten or first grade.  

     Could a football coach, for example, award the starting quarterback position to someone who never played the game? Could anyone sit at the keyboard of a piano and create beautiful music if they had never before seen a piano?  As Jeremiah's words indicate, God responds to us exactly where we are in our growth.  Once again, God's response has nothing to do with anger, it has to do treating us in a form that will encourage our growth.     

     How could God ever be angry with us?  God made us.  As the Psalmist once wrote, "All my experiences were written in your book long before any of them ever came to be." (Ps. 139:16)  It is our task to be faithful out of trust, instead of trying to be righteous out of fear! 


    Loving God, we come into the sanctuary this morning realizing all the bittersweet moments we have experienced this week.  As we come to focus our minds and hearts on seeking your guidance, help us to remember that our journey is one of trust.  There are times when we cannot know the meaning of events.  We cannot understand the impact of our presence on others, nor can we realize the significance of our attitudes and words.  We humbly ask that you liberate us from being bound by lessons we did not learn, from old responses that cannot heal, and from desiring detours around moments when our inner lights could have made a difference.  Teach us how to be more secure with ourselves during moments that challenge us.  Amen.


    Eternal God, we thank you for your creativity, love and continued guidance through every phase of our lives.  Help us find renewed meaning from the pain caused by our pettiness, the sleepless nights caused by our worry and the remembrance of how our words said in haste  chased smiles from the faces of others.  Thank you, God, for placing the very compass we need for direction inside of us. 

    Open our minds so that we understand what it means to live by faith.  Sometimes it is difficult to believe and trust in a world we cannot see.  Yet we know that our world is forever changing and that we are not here long enough to learn all the mysteries of your will.  Lead us to turn every day into a laboratory of refinement, a source of energy for radiating love and a living carnival filled with surprises and opportunities for stimulating our continued growth.

    Lead us to think a little more of others and less of ourselves.  Lead us to invest our energy in thoughts of hope and thanksgiving, lest the big picture escapes our inner vision.  Lead us to teach others how to rise above the noise, chaos and senseless imaginings that surround us, so that we might more perfectly reflect the love you placed inside of us.  We pray these thoughts through the spirit of Jesus, who taught us to say when we pray . . .