In the text for the third Sunday of Advent, John the Baptist denounces a group of religious leaders as a family of snakes. I imagine people have always treated a nest of snakes in their back yard in the same way: with a long, blunt instrument and vigorous clubbing. John talks about trees being cut down at the root and chaff being burned in the fire. John uses all of this very picturesque language to describe what he calls the “wrath to come.” Sin, anger, destruction: these are all part of John’s vivid language.
Is God angry? Is there an ax at the root of the tree? Will the chaff in this world be reduced to fuel for the furnace?
I confess: I believe in an angry God.
Many years ago, I remember seeing the report of a trial on the local news. The trial concerned a traffic accident, and one of the witnesses described it this way. She was driving her car when another vehicle came speeding up behind her. She said she saw him coming in her rear view mirror, and said to her companion, “That car is going to hit us.” Before the speeding car reached her, however, it swerved off the road. As the car ran along the shoulder, it struck two little boys who were riding their bicycles home from school. The two boys were killed. And the driver of the car was drunk.
The TV cameras showed the man who was being tried. I could see something in his eyes that made me feel sorry for him. I’m not sure just exactly what it was. Perhaps it was the pain of realizing what he had done. Perhaps it was just that his whole life was a mess. I realized that he is probably an alcoholic, addicted to a substance that controls his life. And I found myself hoping that he would be able to get some help for his problems.
But the TV cameras also showed the parents of the little boys. I saw their grief and their pain, and my heart broke for them as well. When I saw their faces, I started thinking about what it must be like to lose your precious son or daughter. I have no greater fear than for the well being of my children.
Mothers Against Drunk Driving
Twenty-five few years ago, a woman named Candy Lightner also had a child that was killed by a drunk driver. The driver had a history of drunk driving, but when he was taken to court, he was let go with a slap on the hand. He was set free to endanger the lives of others.
Mrs. Lightner was not satisfied with what had been done. She was mad. She began to study the problem of drunk driving in this country. She began to discover just how much pain and suffering and death that drunk drivers were causing. She discovered that the problem was getting worse instead of better. She discovered that the laws and courts of the land did not deal adequately with the problem. And she became even madder.
She founded an organization she called Mothers against Drunk Drivers – MADD (now Mothers against Drunk Driving). The members of her organization began to lobby for better laws. They worked tirelessly. They used pressure. They made the highways a campaign issue. They started to make it very uncomfortable for those legislators who opposed new legislation. As a result, the D.U.I. laws were strengthened in nearly every state in the union. Drinking ages were raised.
They took the same approach with the courts. Observers started attending every session of the various courts. M.A.D.D. publicized the names of judges that did not enforce the laws or did not treat drunk driving as a serious offense.
They also began to work to change public opinion. Businesses and corporations started jumping on the bandwagon. Even the distillers, brewers, and vintners started publicly discouraging over consumption and irresponsible drinking.
An Angry God
Now, I’ve told this story not only because it is an interesting and important story in its own right, which it certainly is, but because I believe I believe it illustrates something very important that the Bible says about God. He gets mad.
Some say that anger is beneath God, that it is somehow un-Godlike. They say it would be very bad news to think that God gets angry. “God is a loving god, and could never angry at us.”
I remember talking with one woman who does some volunteer work in Alcohol and Drug Rehabilitation who did not much care for those MADD folks. She said, “They seem so angry.” She believed that what they were doing was making her work harder, that it made addicted persons even less likely to seek help. To her, anger and compassion didn’t seem to go together.
Even our human experience tells us, however, that anger and love can live together. My friend Bill likes to say that every parent and pet-owner knows what it means to experience anger and love in close proximity. Our kids and and our dogs drive us nuts sometimes, but we still love them. And of course, he’s right.
We misunderstand what the Bible means by God’s anger, however, if we simply identify it with human emotions. In our fallen world, anger destroys relationships, incites violence and taints the spirit. I may know that human anger is an echo of something righteous, but my personal experience of anger is much less wholesome. Human anger is so often irrational and ugly.
So when I say that God is like the Mothers against Drunk Driving, I hope you realize that you can’t push the comparison too far. I have met some of the members that group who are overly vindictive. They are fallen humans just like the rest of us and their judgments have been clouded by their own wounds.
When I say that I believe in an angry God, I mean simply this: God is as resolutely and actively opposed to all sin and evil as the members of MADD are against the particular sin of drunk driving.
Certainly God is compassionate and loves even those who are in trouble. But he is also angry, just as those mothers are angry, and for the very same reason. His children are being hurt and killed by evil at work in the world. And something has to be done about it.
Something Must Be Done
The Mothers against Drunk Driving see what is happening to their children as a result of drunk driving, and say “Something has to be done about this.” Their concern for their children says to the offender, “You will have to change, or we will not tolerate you.” It says to the politician and to the judge, “You will have to change, or we will sweep you out of office.” It says to business, “You will have to start being responsible, or it will hurt you financially.” Their love for their children makes their safety the highest priority. Everything else, however important, is secondary. Their anger, their relentless pursuit of justice, is a result of their love for their children.
God’s anger, just like theirs, is a result of his love. Because God loves, he has sworn that he will eliminate everything evil from the face of the earth. The things that hurt and destroy people will not be allowed to remain.
I can imagine God looking into your home and mine, and seeing the thousand different things that scar our souls, wound our hearts, and rob us of joy and love, and saying, “Something has to be done about this.” I can see him looking down on sickness and hunger, slavery and death, hatred and despair, and saying, “Something has got to be done about this.”
God loves his children, and he is as opposed to everything that can harm us as we are to everything that can harm our children. This firm and unalterable opposition to evil is what the Bible calls the “wrath” of God.
Good News and Bad News
Luke says that John the Baptizer’s message of the “coming wrath” is part of the good news of the Gospel. The news of God’s anger is some of the best news we can have for three reasons.
1) A being incapable of anger is also incapable of love. Such a being is not a “person” in any meaningful sense. But the Scriptures reveal a personal God to us.
2) A being that is capable of anger, but is not angered at the horrible things in the world is some sort of beast. But the scriptures reveal a righteous and holy God.
3) God’s anger means our salvation. God’s anger is not simply a twisted human emotion, but his resolute determination to defeat all the enemies of life.
God’s anger, however, is bad news for those who stand in its way.
In 1861, Julia Ward Howe of Boston visited some of the fields of battle in the War between the States. She left those battle fields with two feelings.
She did not like war. She saw what the war did to the bodies of the young men who fought. She hated that part of it. In 1872 she suggested an annual observance of a “Mothers Day.” It was to be a day dedicated to peace, so that mothers would never have to send their sons off to war again. She left the fields of battle dedicated to peace.
However, she also left those fields deeply committed to the Union cause. She believed that God himself was at work in the war, as deadly as it was, to rid the world of the injustice of slavery. She put her beliefs in a song, with images drawn from the Old Testament:
Mine eyes have seen the glory of the coming of the Lord. He is trampling out the vintage where the grapes of wrath are stored. He hath loosed the fateful lightning of his terrible swift sword. His truth is marching on.
In the “Battle Hymn of the Republic,” Julia Ward Howe tells us that God is unalterably opposed to evil in the world. His wrath will sweep it away, whatever the cost.
What Arouses God’s Anger?
The Bible also makes it very clear what sorts of evil God is opposed to. It’s not just slavery or murder or theft or the like. It’s something much more basic than that.
What is it that breaks God’s heart because of the pain and misery it causes? What is it that most arouses the anger of God? It is what theologians call “Sin,” with a capital “S.”
Sin is the basic separation from God and self-centeredness and self-sufficiency and just plain selfishness that all human beings share in. We are all part of the problem. We all share in the evil that ruins our world and arouses the wrath of God.
God gave a number of rules to live by. We didn’t keep them. So Jesus said that all the others rules really boiled down to two: Love God, and Love your neighbor. We can’t even do that. If Jesus was just a teacher with a new set of rules, we aren’t any better than we were before. Our minds have become so twisted that we don’t even fully realize what love means. Our basic selfishness colors everything we do.
Children start to speak by saying loving things like “Mama” and “Dada.” At the same time they are saying, “Mine,” and “I want …,” and “I don’t want …,” and crying if they don’t get their way. And we grown ups are not much different. We are an inseparable mixture of love and selfishness.
That means we have a problem. God is firmly and unalterably opposed to sin. He will not rest until he accomplishes his goal. He will not be turned away from it. He has sworn that he will destroy all sin and evil.
We are all sinners. What are we going to do? What is God going to do? He loves us and hates the evil that infects our planet, and yet we all share a part of that evil. God cannot say, “Don’t worry about it” when it comes to our sinfulness.
If you were God, and you loved the world as deeply as he loves it, and you hated evil as deeply as he hates it, do you see what a predicament that you would be in? And yet God has a way of dealing with our sins.
John the Baptist pointed us toward that way. He not only announced the coming wrath of God and called people to repentance; he proclaimed that “he who is mightier than I is coming, the strap of whose sandals I am not worthy to untie. He will baptize you with the Holy Spirit and with fire.”
It is the arrival of this mighty one – who can deliver us from both the power and consequences of human sin – which we both remember and anticipate in this season of Advent.