Sermon: Sunday 31 August 2014
The Very Revd David Monteith, Dean of Leicester
‘Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God.’
I’m not sure I can recall a sermon preached from this pulpit in the last 6 years which has stressed the vengeful nature of God. Indeed, I can’t remember any sermon I’ve heard in a very long time which stresses the frightening vengeful nature of God. Yet the vengeful God is persistent in our own fears and phobias and present in the conversation and prayer requests of many who come here feeling locked out of God because of a sense they have of unworthiness or fearfulness that the wrathful hand of God is about to hold sway or may even already be holding sway through their experience of grief, or illness or unemployment.
Of course there are plenty of medieval images of a wrathful God and a surface reading of the Old Testament provides plenty of such material. Today, in our reading from Jeremiah, the complainant says ‘bring down retribution on my persecutors’. But is that because they really believe that God behaves like tit for tat on the playground, or because it is a sophisticated way for an individual to reckon with their conflicted feelings, or because they too have somehow been shaped in the ether of their day that God’s wrath means punishment and that God’s wrath can be seen, identified, named and called into our service?
We can find plenty of calls for retribution in our bibles. The Psalms are chocca with calls for the destruction of enemies and annihilation of neighbours. Indeed there seems to be a connection between the experience of political or social upheaval with the calls for God to act and destroy our enemies.
I have noticed not dissimilar ideas in the way the media and us have been trying to deal with the outrage of decapitated adults and children by ISIS in Iraq, or nearer to home with the disbelief of the scale of levels of covered up abuse in South Yorkshire. There is certainly something within men but I think it is there in women too which seeks to find an outlet for retribution which is a kind of valve to give us the belief that some kind of order can be restored to the world when it is so chaotic that only words like ‘mad’ or ‘terrifyingly scary’ will suffice. I’m glad that our scriptures voice for us the kinds of thoughts that we feel and that we can offer them in an unhindered way to God. We don’t hear as plaster cast saints but rather as lumps of clay made by God who are being remade – and for most of us it is a terrifyingly slow process with at times more steps backwards than forwards. Sometimes I need to express a desire for retribution and nothing will satisfy the need other than expressing it – ‘God, destroy this – you know I’d like that!’ But do I really think that is the long term solution? Of course not, but it needs to be done.
I remember hearing Walter Brueggeman speak of that most brutal verse in the bible from Psalm 137 – verses 8 and 9 – ‘O daughter of Babylon, you devastator! Happy shall they be who pay you back what you have done to us! Happy shall they be who take your little ones and dash them against the rock!’ There are those who say that such a verse shouldn’t appear in a book of scripture. Indeed Brueggeman tells the story of how he heard that so often from groups of church people, especially women. But as a skilled teacher he kept people with that thought and it didn’t take too long for someone to admitting thinking that when they had a baby who would not sleep for days on end no matter what was tried. Or the mother who had tried everything to connect with her teenage son was neglecting his school work, being rude to his parents and coming home repeatedly drunk or high on weed – I want to bash his head against the stone and make him wake up to sense! The vengeance is within us and our need to express it is real. The fact that we might even contemplate doing it in church is not blasphemous but rather a reconnection with a way of praying that is rather more visceral than Church of England worship or with due respectt to my musical colleagues, Anglican chant normally allows.
St Paul in Romans 12 exhorts the Christians to love. It is Paul’s commentary of Jesus’ instruction to ‘love our enemies’. And so firstly, as a good Jew, Paul remains consistent with the teaching of the Old Testament. Despite all its talk of retribution and wrath, the Old Testament teaches that vengeance belongs to God, not to us. Indeed he quotes from Deuteronomy to back his case. But he takes it further because the Old Testament saw such a limitation of vengeance to refer to God’s special people but Paul extends the reach to a universal truth. So he argues that we ‘should leave room for the wrath of God’. In other words despite all our efforts to reap vengeance that in the end it is ultimately an impotent gesture because if there is any effective retribution or any effective wrath it is not within our reach but rather belongs solely to God.
So what might the character of such wrath be? What is the game of vengeance that we might expect God to play? For Christians it is impossible to answer that question without reference to the cross because there God reveals the fullness of God’s activity – it is there we see the one who does not retaliate, the bound lamb before the executioner whose silence reveals a wrath as unlike ours as we could ever imagine. The bible commentator Cranfield says: ‘the wrath of God which was revealed in its full awfulness in Gethsemane and on Golgotha… it is to have the vengeful sword dashed from one’s hands’ (p316 Romans: a shorter commentary C.E.B. Cranfield).
Indeed even having raised the spectre of such wrath in these words in Romans, Paul goes on to illustrate what such wrath that is an alternative kind of vengeance might look like. Paul speaks in verse 20 of feeding one’s enemy in order to shame him or giving him a drink, thus ‘overcoming evil with good’ (12:20). It is a kind of shaming by doing good rather than by engaging in retaliation. The implication is that God’s vengeance and wrath might well have the same character – ‘heaping coals on their heads’ not by a fearful angry judgement but rather the fiercer and more enduring judgements which are utterly loving. It is a wrath about doing good rather than retaliating in kind.
It was reported in the newspapers that at the height of the recent debates about Richard III that the Dean of York received such terrible vitriolic and retaliatory letters that she had to go to the police because such vengeance was frightening and even potentially violent. I’ve had correspondence of a similar kind and the Cathedral Facebook page has its fair share of wrathful trolls. They are now part of our daily challenge and call to love wantonly.
There are days when I am all too aware of my own compulsion for retaliation heightened both by the pressures of life and by the mess and injustice of the world. But liberating too is the realisation that I do not have to bear or execute the weight of justice and judgement in the world. The Gospel liberates me from that responsibility and places it on Jesus Christ. And not only places it on him but through that completely redefines the very nature of wrath and retribution from seeing it purely as punishment to an experience of it as restorative and redemptive so that even the worst of me or the worst that others might throw at me can be transformed and I can hope again.
‘Beloved, never avenge yourselves, but leave room for the wrath of God.’