Tuesday, April 03, 2007

LUBH 5 - The Wrath of God

Transcript of session 5 of my talks on Christianity and Peak Oil. This one is exploring the nature of God's wrath, and how it should be understood. Click on 'full post' to read the text - it's about 5000 words.

Good morning and welcome. It’s nice to be back. One practical thing in terms of dates because of the session that was missed [I was ill], I’m simply shoving all the topics back by one and there will be an extra session on 10 March to make up the balance. If you look on the web site there are now slightly retitled talks to make things a bit clearer, so for example, I’m going to have one session on “The Green Bible, one session called “With you is my contention O priest” which gives you a bit more of an idea of what the topics will be.

But this morning I want to be talking about wrath, and I want to convince you really of two things. This is John the Baptist proclaiming “who warned you to flee from the wrath to come?” and then you’ve got Julian of Norwich, “there is no wrath in God”. I want to convince you that both these things are true. That there is wrath, that the phrase the wrath of God refers to something real but also that there is no wrath in God, so that’s my challenge for this morning. Now I do have a hand-out, but I do want to hold it back just for the second, otherwise you might see a surprise too soon.

I want to begin with outlining the pagan understanding of sacrifice, this is Andromeda. Anyone seen “Clash of the Titans”? Remember this bit, basically Andromeda’s mum has offended the gods by saying that Andromeda is so beautiful, and the gods are offended, and disaster descends upon the city, a famine, and in order to work out why it is that there is a famine, they go to the oracle and the oracle says, “It’s because you have offended the gods by describing Andromeda as being so beautiful and therefore what you have to do is sacrifice Andromeda to the gods and then all your troubles will be over.” And this is what happens, you’ve got Andromeda chained to the rock and you’ve got the Kraken coming to gobble her up, but of course if you’ve seen the film, you’ve got Perseus coming along with the head of the Medusa which turns the Kraken to stone. But’s that a separate thing.

But this is the pagan understanding of sacrifice, you have got an angry god who needs to be appeased, the gods have been offended and therefore we have to give up something in order to appease the angry god. OK, this is the pagan concept. Think of Aztec sacrifice for example, or think of King Kong. You know, lots of theology going on here, but the understanding that in order to appease this angry vengeful monster, you have to offer up these beautiful virgins for sacrifice. This is the pagan conception, alright? And at the heart of it is this sense of you’ve got to appease, you’ve got to appease a wrathful god. OK?

Now there are elements of it found in the old testament, if you want to go away and look up this passage, 2 Samuel chapter 21, you have a little account of where the Gibeonites are suffering from a famine and so are the Israelites and so the cause is found to be an offence committed against the Gibeonites; who now want all of Saul’s sons to be offered up in sacrifice. And so they are sacrificed at the beginning at the barley harvest and the famine ends. So, you know, it is not something which is foreign to the Old Testament. It is however, not the Jewish understanding of sacrifice. Which is what I want to explore with you.

This is Solomon’s temple and really what I want to do is talk through the ritual of the Day of Atonement as it happened in the first temple period. Now this could get a bit complicated, but hopefully I will do it gently enough to make it understandable. You recognise the rough shape, here you have got the Holy of Holies, the Ark of the Covenant, this is the main temple area and here of course, only the High Priest can come, this is the priestly area, the men’s area, the women’s area is out here and so forth, you have got a real hierarchy going up to what’s holy, what’s the most holy bit. OK.

Now the Day of Atonement is when the people get reconciled with God and their sins get wiped away, OK, that’s fairly well understood, and there is a particular ritual which the High Priest goes through on this day which I am going to talk through with you, because this is quite important for understanding the Jewish view of God - and how it is different to the pagan. To begin with the High Priest comes in and he sacrifices an ox as propitiation for his sins. OK? So the High Priest, having made that sacrifice, becomes ritually pure, OK, he’s cleansed. And as a result of that the High Priest then puts on a bright white robe, because in a ritual at that point the High Priest adopts if you like the persona of God, of Yahweh. He becomes Yahweh for a day, he acts in the name of the Lord. And the phrase that we have in our Eucharist “Blessed be the one who comes in the name of the Lord,” is taken from this liturgy. So the High Priest becomes the one who wears this bright white robe and he becomes Yahweh for the day, he becomes an angelic figure. He is also called the Son of God at points in the liturgy, OK, so this is what is going on.

The High Priest becomes this bright white figure and he then takes two animals, two sheep or two goats normally, and by process of lot, i.e. chance selection, one is chosen to represent basically the demons, Azazael, he becomes, that goat becomes the scapegoat, of which more later, and the other one represents God, so you have got two goats representing like the good and the evil. And what then happens is that the Priest sacrifices the God goat. OK? In the Holy of Holies. So the goat is sacrificed up in the Holy of Holies and the blood in then sprinkled in the Holy of Holies, and this represents the cleansing of creation. Because the Holy of Holies represents God in his essence as it were. Beyond space and time, beyond creation. So there is the sacrifice of the goat there which represents the cleansing, purifying. OK.

Then what happens is that the High Priest comes out from the Holy of Holies and here you have got the curtain, this is where the curtain is, OK, the curtain that gets torn in two. That one. And what happens when the High Priest comes out he gets wrapped in fabric, the same material as the curtain, and this represents God engaging with the creation. So it is not God in pure white linen, pure purity, it’s God engaging with creation. OK, and he then continues to sprinkle the blood of the goat around this area and around the people gathered, OK? And that is the cleansing of their sins, so you have had the cleansing of creation as it were and expanded outwards the one representing God is coming out into creation and acting to cleanse the people OK? And what then happens - and that represents the healing of the world, the wiping out of their sins - and what then happens is that the High Priest and the other Priest lay hands on the scapegoat, which is the second goat and they drive that goat out. Normally you know, there is a crowd to drive the goat off a cliff and kill it, but that represents the sins being driven out from the community and at the end of this ritual, OK, the people are reconciled to God. So that’s the dynamic.

Now did that make sense just going through those steps?

Because there is one key thing going on here, which is why the Jewish understanding is different to the pagan one, and it is obvious what the difference is. The difference is in the pagan understanding the motion is from sinners towards God, that the sinners do something to appease the god. In the Jewish understanding it is God who is active, who moves towards the sinners. So it is God who is taking the responsibility to overcome sin and estrangement in the world. That’s the fundamental difference. Does that make sense?

Is that a surprise to people? People were aware of this... Now this is quite crucial. For if you are going for example in the letter to the Hebrews, this is what Jesus does, I’ll come on and explain that a bit more in a second. So just to summarise what’s going on. This is the High Priest, first temple period, as I say, the High Priest goes through this journey, this ritual enactment of God’s activity in reaching out towards creation, he goes into the Holy of Holies, represents God, and it is God’s initiative that is being carried out OK, that God is benign. God’s not angry. God is the one actively reaching out in love. You know, there is a profound consistency between this and Christianity, if it isn’t obvious. OK. Now as I say this is where our understanding of Christ’s sacrifice begins, OK? Because this is what Jesus is doing, Jesus is the great High Priest who is acting in the stead of God, obviously the doctrine is developed, but He is the one who is acting as the great High Priest, he is doing this work and He’s not sacrificing an ox at the beginning of the process, He is himself the sacrifice. Make sense?

But the question is, there is this notion of sacrifice going on, you still have got a dynamic whereby there is an angry deity present. But the angry deity is not Yahweh. So who is the angry deity? We are. God is acting to try and overcome our wrath. To reveal it to us and to set us free from it. We are the ones being revealed as the pagans who require sacrifice in order to maintain our sense of identity and social processes, we are the angry ones, we are the ones being revealed as that through what happens to Christ, and the revealing of that and in particular the resurrection, which I’ll come on to in a second, is what sets us free from being trapped in this process. Jesus doesn’t refer to the Old Testament directly very often, but there is one bit from Hosea which he quotes twice, and he says, “Go and learn what this means. I desire mercy not sacrifice.” God is consistent in acting from love, OK? This is the really core fundamental point.

So if God is not wrathful in the sense of this pagan angry deity, “Oh no, you’ve called your daughter beautiful therefore I’m upset.” - you know, that is totally not what the Christian God is about! - what is this language of wrath referring to, because it is certainly saturated in the Old Testament and it is not vanished, it is not absent from the New Testament? Paul for example beginning of Romans talking about wrath, there is a theme in Paul’s writings, but there tends in Paul to be "wrath" rather than "the wrath of God". I think something like twenty to twenty five references to wrath, only two or three are to the wrath of God. Mostly he refers to wrath as the concept.

So what is it? Two senses. One natural and one human. And that’s really what I’m going to try and describe for you. It is not a divine attribute in the sense that it is not something that is within God’s nature. It’s something that we can experience but it is not intrinsic to who God is, you know, the verse from I think it’s 1 John, “God is light and in Him there is no darkness at all.” God is love and in Him there is no wrath. OK, but this concept this language of wrath describes something essential, very important. So the natural, what’s the natural side. Well, we understand that the world is made through Christ, that the world is consistent, it can be understood, and that’s what we call logos. Of course this fits in very neatly with a lot of Greek philosophy, that the world is made consistently. And that is one of the foundations for the development of science in the Western world, that because you can trust the maker of the world to be consistent, therefore you can actually apply scientific method to discern truth. You know, scientific method depends upon some prior theological assumptions. If you’ve got a situation where you have got a panoply of gods intervening willy nilly there’s nothing reliable on which you can base your science, but at any point something really arbitrary can happen. OK?

So this understanding of natural theology, that the world is consistent and bound by laws that we can see and understand, OK, and of course one of the claims made, particularly in medieval theology is that there were two ways of understanding God, you had got the book of nature and the written word, the Bible. And that you can discern the nature of God from looking at His creation; contemplating the creation can lead you to affirm the Creator. It can’t lead you to affirm Christ, that’s the realm of Revelation, but you can through natural reason come to the conclusion that God exists. OK, and it all flows from this.

But if the world is consistent and bound by laws that means that the transgression of those laws has particular consequences. If you put your hand in the fire you will get burnt. OK, it’s simple. But that I think is one of the main ways in which the language of wrath can be applied. Wrath is when we experience the consequences of our actions, and grace is when we escape the consequences of our actions. I’ve talked before about karma, because this is if you like the equivalent concept to natural law, that the world is consistent, that every action has a necessary consequence and it cannot be escaped. That if you do something wrong that wrong will return to you, if you do something good, that good will return to you. OK. Now grace doesn’t fit into that system, but there is as I say, an analogous understanding to karma in the doctrine of natural law. That the world is consistent and has certain effects, and therefore if we break the bounds, if we break the laws, then we will suffer the consequences, unless grace intervenes. So this is a sense, I think one of the most important senses in which we can talk about wrath, even the wrath of God, that when we breach the laws – remember the thing about the Ten Commandments, it is not the Ten Commandments, often we miss out the first sentence, which is “I am the Lord your God who brought you out of Egypt.” Again this is this benign God acting for our welfare. And then gives these commandments which set out how to live, and if we observe them we flourish, when we break them we suffer, that’s all part of this process. Make sense?

Another sense in which wrath can be described, coming back to the scapegoat. Human society, if it isn’t rooted in God, in right worship, right relationships with self and neighbour, it will fixate on to something else. Something else will be used to form a society around and that idol, for want of a better word, and that idol will need to be sacrificed to in the pagan sense in order to keep the society together. Perfect example, I know it’s a cliché but 1930’s Germany and the scapegoating of the Jews. A society which is under tremendous stress for all sorts of reasons, seeks to shore up its unity by picking on a scapegoat and therefore you get a unity amongst the majority through denying and expelling a minority. OK? And that this is if you like a fact of human nature. If we are not centred on God then we tend to be centred on something else and that something else becomes an idol.

A little hint, [picture of muslim woman in a veil] some of the ways that our society is trying to shore up its identity because we are also very weak. But essentially it is pointing out the truth about our own unredeemed natures. That we are prone to violence and anger and slaughter and sacrifice, and this is what we need to be redeemed from, and of course what that means in terms of the course of human history is war. And I think this is the second way in which the language of wrath can be used. That wrath is first and foremost about if you break the natural order you will suffer, but it also something about the nature of who we are as a human society when we are fallen, that if we don’t focus our human society on God, on the Living God, we will end up having this process of scapegoating and sacrifice repeating itself, and therefore wrath, in this sense, is something human but it is also very, very real. Can you see the two senses of wrath which I want to hang on to?

Now it comes back as always to Christ, remember that He said He was going to abolish the temple and create it again in three days. The empty tomb now corresponds to the Holy of Holies, you know, God has come out from the place of sacrifice and we are sprinkled clean, instead of the goat, goat’s blood, we have Christ’s blood, which makes us clean and reconciled with God. OK. And there is a feature, the two angels at the empty tomb, correspond to the two cherubim on the Holy of Holies, you know, once you are sort of tuned into this there are all sorts of references being picked up in the New Testament accounts. Of Christ the High Priest who has gone and been sacrificed and who comes out and cleanses us, the letter to the Hebrews is the main one, but there are all sorts of references elsewhere. And this isn’t separable from either the crucifixion or the Last Supper, the three things together, hang together and can’t be separated out. “This is my blood of the New Covenant shed for you and for many for the forgiveness of sins.” This is the sacrifice which we are called to share in. OK. We are made clean by the blood of the Lamb.

And the core of it is, it is about aligning ourselves with Christ. Christ is through whom the world was created and in so far as we are aligned with Christ we thereby keep the law. You know, standard Christian sense, standard Christian teaching, but just you know, articulating, linking it in with the process of sacrifice, that when we do this we are aligning with who Christ is and therefore if you like we are keeping the law. And the Eucharist begins, think of our liturgy, the Eucharist itself begins with the exchange of peace. And that is very important because that is what stops the scapegoating, the human wrath, that you are at peace with your neighbour. You are not at peace because you are both righteous, you know, we come to it as sinners, as people in need of forgiveness, we can’t get that forgiveness by our own merit, we are relying on that benign God coming out to us, and therefore because we don’t have any righteousness of our own, we are not expelling anyone else who is unrighteous, because we are none of us righteous. It is a core element of sharing the bread and wine, that we don’t expel beforehand. This is what Jesus is accomplishing. This new Covenant. It begins with the exchange of peace and so we receive the forgiveness and we give thanks for it. That’s what the word Eucharist means. It is giving thanks.

But can you see how this is picking up the themes of what went on in the first temple and is focused on a benign God acting to redeem us, to set us free, can you see the link? Good, good. Right. Swifter than I was expecting!

OK, the wrath that is to come. Jeremiah who I quote a lot and what I have been talking about so far, that we are in a situation where we have been profoundly transgressing the natural laws. And one of the sessions, for example on the green Bible, I will be picking out all the elements in scripture which indicate the natural laws that we have been breaking, and there’s a lot. And because we have been transgressing those laws, breaching the limits, then wrath is going to descend upon us, unless grace intervenes, unless we change our ways radically. But if things carry on the way they are, there will be wrath descending upon us because of these breaches of the natural law. So that’s one aspect of talking about the coming wrath, and the second is, as I say, the human consequences, that this is going to put societies around the world, it already is putting societies around the world under tremendous strain.

Rwanda for example, they have done an analysis of where the slaughter was worse and it was where the population was most dense. They weren’t able to feed themselves and they slaughtered each other and it was actually less to do with Hutus and Tutsis than to do with where the population was most dense. These things have begun. This is wrath. “Come let us return to the Lord for He has torn us and He will heal us.” Another one of my favourite verses. That there is never anything inevitable, that hope is one of the most important Christian virtues to keep us going, and it is a decision, it is not a feeling, hope is always a decision to be made. And we return to the Lord because the Lord is merciful. The Lord is forgiving and compassionate and doesn’t want the death of a sinner but that the sinner should turn from his ways and live. You know this is always what God is calling us towards.

God is not for our punishment, God is merciful. The wonderful passage is Micah, “What shall I do O Lord? He has shown you, O man, what is good, you must do justice and love kindness and walk humbly before your God.” We know what the answers are, the answers haven’t changed, it is that we need to turn back to it. And in particular our imaginations, in particular how we understand God, who we understand God to be, whether we picture in our hearts and minds God as someone angry, seeking to punish and chastise, or whether we see God as someone loving and merciful, seeking to bring us into life. I think this is actually where the real fundamental work needs to be done. Our imaginations need to be renewed in the light of Christ, who He was and how He taught. And that requires us to explore the question of apocalypse, which is next week’s session. Exploring what the language of apocalypse is doing, how Jesus uses it and therefore how we are to use it, because the language is like applying the language of the wrath of God, and therefore how we understand that is quite important. And that was quicker than I was expecting, so a shorter session this morning! Questions, thoughts. Interesting?

What year was Solomon’s temple? About 980 BC, that’s off the top of my head, it might be out by a bit, but that sort of time.

Was it the same as the Ancient Egyptians? Exactly the same? Could well be. I don’t know much about Egyptians, what I find ironic though is that the chapel at my school was also built on that model. It didn’t have a Holy of Holies but it had that sort of structure and shape.

It is quite difficult to explain it now but there is a sort of esoteric significance in the layout of the Holy of Holies which actually corresponds to the temple of the body, the human body... Right. The Holy of Holies is actually the head and the eastern turns of the chapel where the spiritual light comes in and so the curtain actually represents the division between the head area and the rest of the body. I’m not sure that would - in the Old Testament the heart actually does the job which the mind is considered elsewhere, the heart is the seat of judgement, and therefore drives the character, yes but it’s always the heart or sometimes it’s the liver or the guts in the Old Testament which are the seat of decision making. So that’s intriguing but I’m not sure it would actually apply. The Orthodox churches tend to have the screen here which I find problematic. I like lots and lots of things about Orthodox worship but I find the screen which separates off the people from the sacrament doesn’t quite fit with how I understand it.

Can you draw a distinction between personal karma and society’s or world karma? Can grace be selective?

I’m not sure, although I’m using karma as an analogy, I wouldn’t think in terms of karma most of the time, it’s just a useful word for people to hand their understand on. In terms of natural law I’m not sure I would make a distinction between individual and social. Grace, you could understand grace as basically God giving extra lives within the system. That if you like the odds are stacked in favour of mercy, but how it happens to individuals I think that is unfathomable.

Going on from what was said about the Greek Orthodox church and that screen, when Reg and I were in the Greek Orthodox church ourselves, I was not allowed to go behind that screen to see what there was, but Reg was because he was a man. And then I had to admit that when I was in Cyprus I went and visited some of the churches there, out of curiosity I did go into the Holy of Holies and it is absolutely wonderful.

As I understand it in the actual Solomon’s Temple, the real Holy of Holies, there is very little there, in the second temple not the first one, because in the first one the Ark was there, but in the revised temple after the exile when they built it again the Holy of Holies was actually empty, and I think there is something quite useful about that as an image.

I’m a little bit puzzled, I think you mentioned the wrath which is manifested in human life is of human origin.

In terms of human hatred, yes.

So there is only one source of wrath which is human because there is no wrath in God, which baffles me, but what I’m puzzled at is if we talk about the wrath to come, I ask the question, whence?

Well either from natural processes or from human processes but not from divine processes.

So there are in fact two sources of wrath, one of them is a natural consequence and the other is human, in which case that would come together?

Yes oh yes.

They are not God?

I think the heart of it is I think this is really Julian’s insight, that God isn’t concerned about punishment. I think the understanding of God in Christian faith is not pagan, it’s not that we have to appease someone who is angry otherwise we will be punished, that God is supremely love. I mean that Julian of Norwich talks about courteous love. That God is loving to the exclusion of all other attributes. Now this doesn’t mean that what is described as the wrath of God or vengeance or punishment in the Old Testament isn’t describing something real. So it is saying that it has got more to do with how in particular the Old Testament peoples understood it than it has to do with the nature of God as revealed in Christ himself. A wrathful, punishing God wouldn’t get involved in this process of allowing himself to be sacrificed in order to heal.

Why do you think then, that God created wrath in man?

Well is it a creation? I’m not sure it is.

I just wondered.

To describe where it comes from I want to talk about the language of the fall. That before the fall there was no wrath and after the fall there is wrath, because we are estranged from our natural relationship with the environment, we’re kicked out of Eden, and we’ve got angels barring our way back, and our relationships with each other have broken down. And what overcomes that is Christ. So therefore wrath is a result of our sin. Our sin provoked wrath, but it’s not wrath in the sense that 'you have broken my rules I’m going to punish you', it’s wrath in the sense 'this is the nature of the creation we are in'. It’s not that God is angry. God doesn’t take offence. Put it like that. God is always acting with love.

Which would tend to give the impression that at the judgement all will be saved, whereas in fact when we stand before God on judgement day we shall be condemned by our own wrath, because we have disobeyed God’s laws.

Well, God sent Jesus into the world not to condemn the world but to save it and I’m certain that God’s intention is for all to be saved, but I also believe that some people can turn him down. I don’t accept universal salvation as it’s called. So I think there is a hell, to put it in a different way. But I think hell is self-imposed. I think God’s desire is for nobody to be in hell, but some people for whatever reasons, put themselves there. And that applies in this life as much as at the judgement.

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