March 21, 2021 Sermon
“Return from the Wilderness: Wrath”
1st Scripture Reading – Psalm 138:7-8
7 Though I walk in the midst of trouble,
you preserve me against the wrath of my enemies;
you stretch out your hand,
and your right hand delivers me.
8 The Lord will fulfill his purpose for me;
your steadfast love, O Lord, endures forever.
Do not forsake the work of your hands.
2nd Scripture Reading – Romans 12:14-21
14 Bless those who persecute you; bless and do not curse them. 15 Rejoice with those who rejoice, weep with those who weep. 16 Live in harmony with one another; do not be haughty, but associate with the lowly; do not claim to be wiser than you are. 17 Do not repay anyone evil for evil, but take thought for what is noble in the sight of all. 18 If it is possible, so far as it depends on you, live peaceably with all. 19 Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God; for it is written, “Vengeance is mine, I will repay, says the Lord.” 20 No, “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink; for by doing this you will heap burning coals on their heads.” 21 Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.
“Return from the Wilderness: Wrath”
Do you know how difficult it is to find a clear example of human wrath in the Bible?
For the past few weeks, I have searched…and searched…and searched.
There’s the one seemingly very obvious example very near the beginning of the scriptures: the story of Cain and Abel. We’re never told in the story that Cain killed Abel out of wrath, but we are told that Cain was very angry when God had great regard for Abel’s offering but little regard for Cain’s offering. And, as we’ll see when we talk about the definitions of wrath in a bit, there’s a VERY close relationship between anger and wrath. But…did Cain kill Abel out of anger/wrath against Abel or anger/wrath against God? The answer isn’t clear.
There are a great many other stories of people behaving very badly toward other people:
- The Egyptian Pharaohs enslaved God’s people, even killed a great many of God’s people…but we’re never told that the reason had anything to do with wrath. Fear…but not wrath. Even when the Egyptian Pharaoh pursued the fleeing Israelites to the Red Sea and was intent on destroying them, wrath – or anger – aren’t mentioned as Pharaoh’s motivation. In the whole of the Exodus story, the words “anger” and “wrath” are only associated with God or God’s representative – Moses – so far as I can tell.
- Haman sought to destroy Mordecai and all of Mordecai’s people – the Jews – in Persia…but we’re never told that the reason had anything to do with wrath. It was pride that drove Haman, not wrath. Yes, Haman had rage, anger, even fury toward Mordecai, but his feelings were rooted in pride.
- Or how about Jezebel? Jezebel killed hundreds of prophets of God. Jezebel set things up so that her husband, the king, could forcibly take a vineyard he wanted from a man who didn’t want to sell that vineyard. Surely Jezebel was guilty of wrath. But here’s the thing, I read and re-read Jezebel’s story this week, and nowhere do the biblical authors even IMPLY Jezebel was motivated by wrath or anger.
If you perform a word search on the words “wrath”, “anger”, and “vengeance” in the NRSV translation of the Bible, you will experience great difficulty, as I did, to find examples of human wrath in the Bible (that’s not to say they’re not there if you search a different translation). But, we know people were guilty of wrath in the time of the scriptures, if for no other reason than there being so many places in which God told people to NOT act out of wrath. And there’s even the curious example of our Psalm reading for today in which the Psalmist declared that God preserves him “against the wrath” of his enemies…something that could only happen if people DID tend to act out of wrath.
Keep this in mind as we spend some time today considering the deadly sin of wrath.
Today is the fifth Sunday during the season of Lent this year – just one more Sunday in Lent to go after today. As I’ve mentioned the past four weeks, Lent is a season during which we prepare for Holy Week and Easter by considering the ways we stray – and have strayed during the past year – from God’s desires for us.
During our sermon series this Lenten season, we are examining some of the most egregious ways people turn away from God, the most egregious ways people sin. These ways have been deemed “the seven deadly sins.” If we are to begin turning away from sin and back toward God, these seven sins are a good place to start…not so much because any one sin is inherently worse than another but because these sins have been deemed by the Church to be the sins that lead to the commission of even MORE sins. Which means, if we can turn away from these sins and back toward God, we might just be able to leave ALL sinfulness behind, we just might return from the wilderness of sin to a God-focused life.
With each of the six sermons I preach during Lent, I will be considering one of the Seven Deadly Sins.
Like I will do with each of these sins, I’ll consider the sin of wrath by defining the sin and then looking at some biblical examples of the sin in action. From there, I’ll look at some modern examples of the sin in action, as well. These biblical and contemporary examples will lead to a discussion of the consequences of the sin, and I will conclude by discussing how we can work to return from the wilderness of this sin. This is the model I’ll use for each sin in this series.
Ok. Wrath. Let’s define this sin.
According to dictionary.com’s first definition, wrath is “fierce anger”. As a second definition, wrath is “punishment or retribution that stems out of anger”…which means wrath is intricately associated with vengeance. From these two definitions, I hope you can see that the common denominator of wrath is anger…acting out of anger. In the OT, the Hebrew word that gets translated as wrath is predominantly reserved for God. There are some instances, like Psalm 138, in which wrath is associated with people; in these cases, it’s always – as far as I can tell – an evil thing, associated with “enemies” (of God’s people) and badness; in other words, “wrath” is a sin because it’s something the “bad” or something “anti-God” people do or have. (And wrath being associated with people is mostly found in the Proverbs…with God’s wisdom using strong language to warn against wrath.) So..definitionally, wrath has to do with acting out of anger…sometimes out of an anger that results from a desire for vengeance. AND, at least biblically, wrath is something reserved for God…not people.
Which brings me back to the difficulty in finding examples of wrath in the scriptures. Certainly, we can speculate that many of the people who acted violently toward other people or who otherwise did bad things to other people were acting out of wrath…but we don’t KNOW…because the scriptures don’t directly tell us. I suppose you could imagine that all violent acts stem from wrath…butI’m not so sure.
There is, however, one figure in the Bible who is presented as acting out of anger, acting out of rage. He is King Nebuchadnezzar from the book of Daniel. King Nebuchadnezzar is the king God used as God’s instrument of punishment for the kingdom of Judah. King Nebuchadnezzar of Babylon besieged Jerusalem and then overtook Jerusalem, taking many of the prominent members of Judah into captivity in Babylon. But that action is NOT the action for which the Bible associates Nebuchadnezzar with human wrath; no, in the act of overtaking Judah and Jerusalem, Nebuchadnezzar was presented as doing God’s will, not acting out of his own wrath. (By the way, Nebuchadnezzar is also never, as far as I can tell, presented as being a good guy. Sure, God used Nebuchadnezzar, but God didn’t use him because he was good; in this case, God used him because he was bad.)
But several more stories involving Nebuchadnezzar ensue, several stories providing examples of wrath-in-action. I’m sure you’ve heard them. In one, the king threatens to execute ALL of his wise people, his wisdom advisors, if they can’t reveal to him the dreams he’s been having and the interpretation of his dreams. The NRSV translation tells us Nebuchadnezzar “flew into a violent rage”. The Hebrew for this phrase includes two separate words that both can translate as “anger”. Out of anger, out of wrath, the king actually commanded all the wise men of the kingdom be killed.
In a related story, told in the very next chapter of the book of Daniel, King Nebuchadnezzar made a huge golden statue – about 90 feet high – and commanded all the people of the kingdom to bow down and worship the statue. When three Jews – Shadrach, Meshach, and Abednego – refused to do so, you guessed it: the king flew into a rage again and, out of great anger and wrath, ordered these three Jews to be executed…in a terrible way.
It might be difficult for you to relate with this kind of story. More than likely, you haven’t ordered the deaths of countless people – or even three people – out of a raging anger…so, you might wonder how the sin of wrath applies to you. I imagine that of all the sins, this is the one about which most of us can make a claim that we’ve never committed; we’re just not in a POSITION to act out of wrath. We’re not kings. We don’t have subjects whose deaths we can order. We don’t have slaves or subservients of some kind. In fact, as ordinary folks, we’re very limited in our ability to be wrathful. In your life, toward whom could you display wrath…and how could you get away with it if you did? But…that way of thinking is inconsistent with the great number of times God commands us through the scriptures to NOT act out of wrath; it must have been a problem for ordinary people back then, and it most assuredly is a problem for ordinary people today. Here are some examples of how wrath manifests itself in the lives of ordinary folks – like us – today:
- Some people make it their personal mission to tear another person or group of people down…out of wrath. We see this often in the political realm, don’t we? How often do we see one side or the other pounce on those on the other side…at the mere mention or whisper of a possible miscue or mis-step? You can tell these actions stem from wrath against “the other side” instead of from what we might call righteous indignation when the very same folks – supposedly righteously indignant – refuse to speak against members of their own party for the exact same kind of whispers of miscues or mis-steps by members of their own party.
- Beyond partisan politics, we see this manifest elsewhere in the public sphere. Take the numerous public riots over the past year. I get it, the anger that stokes these riots is often the result of actual injustices that have occurred. But the way you know the riots are the result of wrath is this: they are acts of vengeance, acts of anger, instead of acts of fixing or repairing. What I mean is that a riot on the west coast isn’t going to change systems in the midwest; no, such a riot is just a violent expression of anger and vengeance; it is wrath. And burning down a business or stealing a big screen television isn’t going to change systems…even systems in the same town where you burn down the business or steal the television.
- Wrath also gets uplifted in movies and in other aspects of popular culture, like music, books, television shows, and more. When our society uplifts wrath as “something the protagonists do” or even as “heroic”, it spills over into the lives of regular folks. Movies glorify heroes who go on a killing spree after someone killed their dog or protagonists who go on a killing spree after someone harmed or killed a member of their family. Movies and television shows glorify protagonists who violently put others in their place for any assortment of minor offenses. Music uplifts vengeful violence. In other words, popular culture uplifts wrath. Lest we think this is a brand new phenomenon in pop culture, something being perpetuated by the younger generations and so something that doesn’t involve or affect us, I’ll remind you of the 1976 movie, “Network”, that won 4 Academy Awards. In the movie, a network news anchor persuades the nation to shout from windows across the USA: “I’m mad as hell, and I’m not going to take this anymore.” Sounds like wrath to me.
- And then of course, there’s wrath in our personal spheres, wrath with the people to whom we should be the closest and most loving. Parents act out of anger quite frequently with their children, yelling at them out of anger, sometimes hitting them or otherwise punishing them out of anger…or worse Like Cain long before them, I imagine these parents’ anger isn’t even anger toward their kids most of the time. And, of course, people act out of wrath toward their spouses or other intimate partners…to the tune of 8 million cases of abuse in this nation each year. I can’t say that ALL of those cases involve wrath, but I’d guess a great majority of them do.
So…yeah…wrath happens, even with otherwise ordinary people…most likely involving those with whom we’re closest to in life because they are the people over whom we have enough power to act out of wrath. And our culture seems to be encouraging this wrathful behavior, glorifying it even, instead of discouraging this behavior.
In case you’re wondering what might be so wrong about acting out of wrath, there are a great many things. For starters, wrath almost always involves some kind of violence, some kind of injuring of another person. That’s not good. Also, human wrath is evil – meaning “against God’s desires”. Paul said “do not repay anyone evil for evil.” This is a reminder of what our parents and teachers taught us when we were kids: “two wrongs don’t make a right.” Responding out of anger or vengeance – meaning responding out of wrath – is WRONG, is evil, for people. And, a third reason suggests that we, people, KNOW acting out of wrath is wrong. In my life, I don’t think I’ve ever met a person who didn’t REGRET acting out of anger or vengeance. Really. As a pastor, I’ve heard a great many people express to me their regrets that have resulted from acting out of anger or vengeance. I don’t recall one person – myself included – who didn’t wish with all their heart that they could take back wrathful acts. And the final negative consequence of wrath I’ll share today is pride. Remember, when I talked about pride I said it’s almost universally considered the most dangerous sin. Well, if vengeance, if wrath, is reserved for God, when we act out of wrath, we place ourselves in a position reserved for God…which is pride…and which is VERY dangerous.
So…yeah, wrath is bad. Wrath is dangerous. It harms the people toward whom we act with wrath, and it harms us.
As followers of Jesus, what can we do to prevent ourselves from acting out of wrath?
I see two options stemming from our reading from Romans.
The first option involves creating for yourself a very intentional way to remind yourself of the reality that wrath is the realm of God (not people) whenever you start to feel anger or a desire for vengeance creeping up inside of you. Have a prayer at the ready, asking God for calm, asking God to remind you that wrath belongs to God. Paul suggested if you can remind yourself of this every time you start to experience some anger, maybe, just maybe, you will be able to prevent yourself from wrath. After all, you’re a person of God; you don’t inherently WANT to act against God’s desires; you don’t inherently WANT to play God’s role…so, remind yourself that that’s exactly what you would be doing if you acted out of anger or vengeance, and maybe you’ll be able to stop yourself.
A second option – a better one but also a more difficult one, I think – is this: when you feel wrath coming on, do something kind, something good, something loving for the person toward whom you are inclined to act out of anger or vengeance. Paul said: “if your enemies are hungry, feed them; if they are thirsty, give them something to drink.” Paul also said this would metaphorically “heap burning coals on their heads”…so, maybe it would satisfy your desire for vengeance in a way that doesn’t hurt anybody, but, my hope – and I believe Paul’s hope – is that it will actually provide healing to a breaking or broken relationship and lead to a much better future relationship.
So…wrath is bad…for people. But, are you starting to wonder how wrath can be ok for God? It has to do with the last words from Paul in our reading from Romans today: “Do not be overcome by evil, but overcome evil with good.” When WE, people, act out of wrath, we will be overcome by it; we will lose control. God, on the other hand, will not. God can act out of anger and STILL love. God can have vengeance and STILL love. God will NOT be overcome by evil.
We, people, aren’t like that – we can’t control ourselves the way God can – even if we THINK we can. I think this is why every person I’ve ever spoken with about their wrath has regretted those actions.
So, my friends, leave wrath to the realm of God, and prevent the pain – to others and yourself – that results from wrath.