The Triune God reverses from wrath and enters into the darkness and evil of this world to bear the weight for us, to offer us peace and joy in the love of God that embraces us and the creation.
Pr. Joseph G. Crippen
The Nineteenth Sunday after Pentecost, Lectionary 28 A
Texts: Exodus 32:1-14; Psalm 106:1-6, 19-23; Philippians 4:1-9; Matthew 22:1-14
Beloved in Christ, grace to you, and peace in the name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen
God’s anger is terrifying in these readings.
The God who rescued Israel from Egypt, carried them through the Red Sea, fed and watered them in the wilderness is now, at the foot of Mount Sinai, threatening to “consume them.” “Let me alone,” God says to Moses, “so that my wrath may burn hot against them.” God will make Moses the new Abraham, once God has destroyed the others.
If we hear today’s parable in the usual way and assume the ruler in the story stands for the Triune God, then the anger of God in this parable equals the anger at Sinai. The ruler sends troops to the city of those who rejected the invitation, destroys them all, and burns their city.
No one disputes that the Holy and Triune God has every right to be angry at whatever God might be angry at. If we, created in the divine image, can and do get angry, of course we have to believe God can and does. It’s just horrifying to witness here.
It’s not a surprise, though.
God’s anger at Sinai is because these people whom God lovingly broke out of oppression and slavery, saved from the Egyptian army, and provided for in their wandering, have created an idol out of gold and held an orgy in honor of it. Only forty days and nights after receiving the Ten Commandments, Israel’s breaking a bunch of them.
And in the parable, those invited to the wedding feast not only reject the invitation, they mock it. Some go back to their own business, but others seize the representatives and kill them. The ruler is justifiably furious about the treatment of the invitation and these faithful servants.
If we assume that the Holy and Triune God can and does get angry over human behavior, we’re surely not surprised that idolatry, unfaithfulness, blasphemy, and murder would inspire such righteous wrath.
Here’s what we don’t see coming: the Holy and Triune God doesn’t act on this wrath.
At Sinai, Moses “stood in the breach,” as we sang with the psalmist today, and said firmly to the God of the universe: “you can’t do that.” Moses argued that God’s reputation was at stake, that Egypt would witness the destruction of these people and conclude that their God was evil and brought them out just to kill them. And God WHO IS changed God’s own mind about the disaster planned for Israel.
But, you rightly notice, if in the parable we see the ruler as standing for God, there’s no Moses here. The ruler simply sends in the army, kills the wrongdoers, and burns down the city.
The problem is that interpretation doesn’t take into account the end of the parable.
Jesus told this parable in the middle of Holy Week. That accounts for Jesus’ anger and strong language. Jesus is, of course, under tremendous pressure and deeply frustrated at the rejection of the elders of God’s people, as his Holy Week parables reveal. But today’s parable doesn’t end here, where we stopped. This is around Wednesday of Holy Week, and within twenty-four hours Jesus will be kneeling in anguish in Gethsemane. Within forty-eight hours he’ll be dying on the cross. That’s where this parable ends.
And there’s your Moses, my friends. The Holy and Triune God doesn’t need Moses to “stand in the breach” on behalf of God’s people anymore. The Incarnate Son of God stands there now.
In Gethsemane Jesus struggles between wanting to destroy the leaders who rejected God’s embrace, and the divine desire to enter fully into the evil and pain and darkness of the world to draw all things back into God.
And we know Jesus’ final decision in Gethsemane. He will not bring armies of angels to destroy his enemies. He will allow himself to be arrested and tortured and brutally killed. He will, in fact, to use his own words, willingly go into the “outer darkness, where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth” himself. That’s where the ruler in this parable is at the end of it.
This all deeply matters to you and me. It’s not just about the past.
Even if our idolatry doesn’t take the form of a golden calf and an orgy, we seek other things to rule us, things that are more comfortable, visible, tangible, than a God who cannot be seen, who challenges us to live in God’s way. That’s undeniable. What we look to for our greatest good – our finances, our reputation, the approval of others, our own way of doing things, whatever– becomes the driving force in our decisions and actions, not God.
And the invitation to join all people at God’s feast of life, to see God’s celebration as the point of this life and the shape of the next, seems too good to pass up. But we humans pretty easily set aside God’s inclusive invitation in favor of a narrow, self-centered, smaller view that we’re what’s important, our needs are what we care about. Everyone else is on their own.
Seeing God’s wrath at idolatry and rejection is terrifying because we know we do the same things.
Yet Paul says to you today: Rejoice. Don’t be anxious. God is near.
We’ve heard Paul tell us these past weeks that Christ Jesus humbled himself and endured death on the cross, that that is God’s plan and God’s loving action. Not wrath. Not destruction.
And so, Paul has told us, that means that belonging to such a God gives you the confidence, as it did Paul, to live in whatever circumstances you find yourself. Paul knows his sin and failing, and trusts that God’s answer in Christ is grace, not judgment, because of the cross. Paul knows torture, rejection, imprisonment, hunger, suffering, because of following Christ. And yet he is at peace, even in his jail cell, because Christ is with him in the darkness.
It’s simple, Paul says. Jesus reveals that God’s mind is changed to love, not wrath.
So, rejoice in God’s changed mind, Paul says. Pray with thanksgiving to the God who is near you, and God will calm your anxious heart. Focus on what is good, honorable, commendable, just, pure, Paul says. It will help you not be overwhelmed by all the problems we face.
And keep on doing the things you’ve learned and received and heard in Christ, Paul says. Keep being faithful. Stand in the breach for others if they need it, because there is pain and suffering in this world, even if we learn to focus on the good and the commendable and the beautiful. You might be needed in the breach as Christ was needed, to offer your life as love to your neighbor and to the world.
And when you do all these things, Paul says, you will find the God of peace is with you. Not the God of wrath. And that’s life for you, and for the world.
In the name of Jesus. Amen