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SERMON ARCHIVE

 

 CONSUMING FIRE

Old Testament Reading: Isaiah 6:1-7

New Testament Reading: Romans 1:16-25


In his 1935 essay "The Revelation of God's Wrath," Gunther Bornkamm wrote, "It is a generally observed fact that in Romans 1:17f. Paul describes the revelation of God's righteousness in the gospel and the revelation of wrath on all godlessness and unrighteousness of men with parallel phrases: 'For in it the righteousness of God is revealed through faith for faith... For the wrath of God is revealed from heaven against all ungodliness and wickedness of men,' etc. ... But how, then, are the two apparently opposing revelations in vv. 17 and 18 related to each other?"

You may find Bornkamm's lucid and persuasive answer to that question elsewhere in his essay if you wish, but as for me, when I read this, what immediately sprang to mind was the Tibetan Book of the Dead, the Bardo Thodol. (I am afraid this is the kind of sermon you are liable to get when your pastor is studying New Testament and teaching Comparative Religion at the same time!)

The underlying issue here seems to be the broad theological question of the wrath or justice of God and how it relates to the saving love of God. Is there a relation? Or do we just lop off God's love, as in some old-time Puritanism? Or shall we eliminate the severity of God as Liberal Protestantism has done? Or would you prefer that combination of the two characteristic of revivalism with its cheek-by-jowl preaching of Hell's horrors and a God who walks with you in the garden, whispering sweet nothings in your ear? This is what someone has called "brimstone and treacle."

I believe that the old theologians were right: God is essentially simple and single in being. He does not bear the divine attributes like so many necks sprouting from the body of the Hydra. The differentiation we see in God is a result of what Shankara called the upadhis, or the conditions of finitude. We see the whole and eternal God as if he were a finite being analogous to ourselves, with distinguishable parts. We are really seeing the clear light broken up by the prism of finitude into the color-bands of the spectrum. But that is the only way we can see the light. And two of those color-bands are God's wrath and his love.

How do we see them? How do we become aware of them? Mostly, I think, we do not. We just believe in them, or take them for granted. Not that they cannot be experienced. Indeed there is a chorus of witness that testifies otherwise. And if for us their experience is second-hand, I fear it will have to do until you and I experience them for ourselves.

When you compare the reports of mystics and prophets through the ages, as Rudolf Otto did, you find that they unite in the conviction that, as the Epistle to the Hebrews puts it, "our God is a consuming fire."

That is, to face the Holy is a terrifying experience, a soul-shaking trauma. How could it not be? We are talking about an unimaginable Entity "before whom [as Shankara says] all words recoil." God is that Power before whom the very nations of the earth are as grains of sand.

Though we are made in God's image, in another sense he is Wholly Other. Where we are finite, God is infinite! If we are temporal, living for a miserable handful of years, God is eternal! Where we are pitifully contingent, liable to be snuffed out by a careening truck or a rampaging disease cell, God is gloriously absolute and invulnerable!

To see him is to see the utter contradiction of everything we are! One seems to face a destroying tempest, and the only fit reaction is Isaiah's: "Woe is me! For I am undone! For my eyes have seen the Lord of Hosts!" To glimpse that terrible majesty, that limitless power which by its very nature threatens to sweep us away, is to feel, as it were, the wrath of God.

Yet the revelation of his wrath is also the revelation of love divine, all loves excelling! Love from heaven to earth come down! Because in that vastness, that ocean of being, that plenitude of life, we find precisely that which we in our finitude and our misery lack! There is the fountain of life! If only one might bathe in it! Oh to be baptized in that Spirit!

So at one and the same time we see revealed the wrath and the love of God! For they are the same! They are simply the consuming fire that is God! And here is the great secret: "It purifies or destroys according to the proportion of chaff there is in you to be burnt away!"

I am saying that whether the fire of God is wrath or love lies largely in the eye of the beholder. And I suspect that this is nowhere better said than in the Book of the Dead. Perhaps you know that this once-secret scripture of Vajrayana Buddhism is a guidebook to the beyond, read by a priest to the about-to-die or the newly dead. It purports to provide a blow-by-blow description of precisely what one will see on the other side, so as to facilitate safe passage to salvation. As Paul Tillich lay dying, Hannah read to him from this text.

At a certain point one is warned that one is about to meet up with a series of visions of the Peaceful and then the Wrathful Deities. These are the great celestial Buddhas and Bodhisattvas seen under two aspects. At first they will seem benign and Olympian, then demonic and hellish. You are urged:

O nobly born, whatever fear and terror may come to thee ...
forget not these words; and, bearing this meaning at heart, go forwards: in them lieth the vital secret of recognition:
Alas! When the Uncertain Experiencing of Reality is dawning upon me here,
With every thought of fear or terror or awe for all [apparitional appearances] set aside, May I recognize whatever [visions] appear, as the reflections of mine own consciousness;

May I know them to be of the nature of apparitions in the {Intermediate State}:
When at this all-important moment [of opportunity] of achieving a great end,
May I not fear the bands of Peaceful and Wrathful [Deities], mine own thought-forms. The deities ... are not come from somewhere else: they exist from eternity within the faculties of thine own intellect. Know them to be of that nature.

They wear the clothing you put upon them! They seem wrathful or peaceful according as to whether good or evil karma predominates in you! That is, your own life has set a pair of spectacles of a particular shade on your nose, and through them you will see the deities under a peaceful or wrathful aspect. If you see wrathful beings, it is literally your evil deeds coming back to haunt you!

Even so, I suggest, God is being revealed to you in the gospel, but whether it comes to you as divine wrath or divine love depends on you and what you bring to that moment.

And really I think it is less a matter of moralism, the good guys versus the bad guys, than it is a matter of greater or lesser "maturity".

Have you ever heard of Kohlberg's theory of the stages of moral development? He maps out how moral reasoning evolves as one grows up ("if" one grows up!). In the early stages, we do what our parents tell us because we want a hug or a cookie, or because Santa Claus is coming to town. Morality is dog school obedience. We're in it for the Milk Bone, and that's all. Later, in the MTV stage, we define right and wrong by the behavior of the herd, our peers.

Without going through the whole schema, let me just say that one of the earlier stages is that in which fear of punishment is the chief motive for morality. Much conventional Christianity never
grew beyond this stage, what with all the threats of hell.

Many people have been converted under "turn or burn" preaching -- and then, thank God!, matured to one of Kohlberg's higher levels, that on which one does what is right simply because it is right, or simply out of gratitude toward God -- because one loves God.

One of my favorite glimpses of the early church is that of a debate between Tertullian and Apelles. Tertullian believed in hell; Apelles did not. And Tertullian just could not understand this! No hell? he asked Apelles. Then why not kill? Why not steal? All Apelles had to say in reply was "God forbid! God forbid!" Of the two, Tertullian is the one whom Church historians call "orthodox," but the "heretic" was the one more morally mature.

It is the religiously immature person for whom God is primarily an object of wrath and fear. The impious person cares nothing for God's law, but by the same token, neither does he fear the "judgment" of God! It is the one whom Paul called the "weaker brother" who lives in fear of the God he worships.

He has not yet, as John puts it, come to trust the love God has for us. In his heart love has not yet been made sufficiently perfect to cast out all fear.

God is a fire that consumes the chaff, that smelts out the impurities. And do you know how he does this? By forgiving and loving the sinner with a rehabilitating love. A love that gives such a confidence of love that the son or daughter will never think to turn prodigal again.

Not that we ever lose that dialectic: God for us must always remain an object of awe. Any true glimpse of him will remind us of this! We can not have a pat or comfortable "buddy" relationship with God. That is the familiarity that breeds contempt.

Indeed if we lose sight of his terrible holiness, we will lose sight of his love, too. For we will forget the great immeasurable abyss his saving love had to cross.

So what of Bornkamm's question? How to relate the revelation of the righteous wrath of God and of the saving love of God? As his love, shown in Jesus Christ, saves from his wrath, his wrath becomes the raging fire of his love. Because in Christ he has opened our eyes to recognize that what we thought was his wrath was ever but his love, which once we feared.

Robert M. Price

 

Copyrightę2004 by Robert M Price
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