Wednesday, 2 December 2015

Advent Sunday - Panentheism and the Wrath of God

The reason for this particular focus is a promise I made to the congregation about how we should respond and what we should think about the place of God in a world filled with terrorism.  It's not something that makes me doubt the existence of God, but it forces us to think hard about how God may respond.
Apologies that there are three readings.  These were the ones set for last Sunday evening and they make sense of the topic at hand.

Joel 3:9-end
Proclaim this among the nations:
Prepare war, stir up the warriors. Let all the soldiers draw near, let them come up.
Beat your ploughshares into swords, and your pruning-hooks into spears;
let the weakling say, ‘I am a warrior.’

Come quickly, all you nations all around, gather yourselves there.
Bring down your warriors, O Lord. Let the nations rouse themselves, and come up to the valley of Jehoshaphat; for there I will sit to judge all the neighbouring nations.

Put in the sickle, for the harvest is ripe. Go in, tread, for the wine press is full. The vats overflow, for their wickedness is great.

Multitudes, multitudes, in the valley of decision! For the day of the Lord is near in the valley of decision. The sun and the moon are darkened, and the stars withdraw their shining.

The Lord roars from Zion, and utters his voice from Jerusalem, and the heavens and the earth shake.
But the Lord is a refuge for his people, a stronghold for the people of Israel. The Glorious Future of Judah.

So you shall know that I, the Lord your God, dwell in Zion, my holy mountain. And Jerusalem shall be holy, and strangers shall never again pass through it.

On that day the mountains shall drip sweet wine, the hills shall flow with milk, and all the stream beds of Judah shall flow with water; a fountain shall come forth from the house of the Lord and water the Wadi Shittim.

Egypt shall become a desolation and Edom a desolate wilderness, because of the violence done to the people of Judah, in whose land they have shed innocent blood. But Judah shall be inhabited for ever, and Jerusalem to all generations. I will avenge their blood, and I will not clear the guilty, for the Lord dwells in Zion.

Revelation 14:13-15:4
And I heard a voice from heaven saying, ‘Write this: Blessed are the dead who from now on die in the Lord.’ ‘Yes,’ says the Spirit, ‘they will rest from their labours, for their deeds follow them.’

Then I looked, and there was a white cloud, and seated on the cloud was one like the Son of Man, with a golden crown on his head, and a sharp sickle in his hand! Another angel came out of the temple, calling with a loud voice to the one who sat on the cloud, ‘Use your sickle and reap, for the hour to reap has come, because the harvest of the earth is fully ripe.’ So the one who sat on the cloud swung his sickle over the earth, and the earth was reaped.

Then another angel came out of the temple in heaven, and he too had a sharp sickle. Then another angel came out from the altar, the angel who has authority over fire, and he called with a loud voice to him who had the sharp sickle, ‘Use your sharp sickle and gather the clusters of the vine of the earth, for its grapes are ripe.’ So the angel swung his sickle over the earth and gathered the vintage of the earth, and he threw it into the great wine press of the wrath of God. And the wine press was trodden outside the city, and blood flowed from the wine press, as high as a horse’s bridle, for a distance of about two hundred miles.

Then I saw another portent in heaven, great and amazing: seven angels with seven plagues, which are the last, for with them the wrath of God is ended.
And I saw what appeared to be a sea of glass mixed with fire, and those who had conquered the beast and its image and the number of its name standing beside the sea of glass with harps of God in their hands. And they sing the song of Moses, the servant of God, and the song of the Lamb:
‘Great and amazing are your deeds, Lord God the Almighty!
Just and true are your ways, King of the nations!
Lord, who will not fear and glorify your name?
For you alone are holy.
All nations will come and worship before you, for your judgements have been revealed.’

John 3:1-17
Now there was a Pharisee named Nicodemus, a leader of the Jews. He came to Jesus by night and said to him, ‘Rabbi, we know that you are a teacher who has come from God; for no one can do these signs that you do apart from the presence of God.’ Jesus answered him, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can see the kingdom of God without being born from above.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can anyone be born after having grown old? Can one enter a second time into the mother’s womb and be born?’ Jesus answered, ‘Very truly, I tell you, no one can enter the kingdom of God without being born of water and Spirit. What is born of the flesh is flesh, and what is born of the Spirit is spirit. Do not be astonished that I said to you, “You must be born from above.” The wind blows where it chooses, and you hear the sound of it, but you do not know where it comes from or where it goes. So it is with everyone who is born of the Spirit.’ Nicodemus said to him, ‘How can these things be?’ Jesus answered him, ‘Are you a teacher of Israel, and yet you do not understand these things?
‘Very truly, I tell you, we speak of what we know and testify to what we have seen; yet you do not receive our testimony. If I have told you about earthly things and you do not believe, how can you believe if I tell you about heavenly things? No one has ascended into heaven except the one who descended from heaven, the Son of Man. And just as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.
‘For God so loved the world that he gave his only Son, so that everyone who believes in him may not perish but may have eternal life.
‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.

The Wrath of God

Parental anger seems like a good place to start...

Most of us, if we are lucky enough to have been brought up in a happy household, will have one abiding memory of that time when, as a child, we pushed one of our parents just a little too far and their anger, their temper, snapped. Maybe we got a smack, or maybe we were shouted at. Whatever it was, it left an impression, an abiding memory, of that time when we went too far, when parental resolve to be reasonable was pushed beyond the limits.

Maybe you weren't as lucky as I was. Maybe there never was much parental resolve. Maybe you had a parent who was utterly unpredictable so that an action would be fine one day and intolerable to them the next, a method of control that I've known psychologists refer to as 'Mad Dog'.

Whichever way around it is, for most of us there is a memory of a mental disconnect, of a moment of shock when the love that we thought we could rely on turned an angry face on us and our world was changed. It may very well have been our fault. As children we often know that we are pushing the boundaries. But the memory still remains with us.

And maybe your experience of childhood is far worse, and even now you're still, on a very deep level, struggling to understand the idea of an all-powerful yet all-loving God who wishes to be known as Father, or Mother in some traditions.

I believe that these experiences may well be at the psychological root of why it is that we find talk of God's wrath to be extremely difficult to cope with. I know many Christians, including some clergy, who simply believe the Bible to be wrong about this aspect of God; that God is only loving and forgiving and that all people will eventually come to rest in him. I respect that point of view, even though, as I hope I can show, I disagree with it.  I also have friends who have left the church over this because they have been subject to the kind of 'Turn or burn!' abusive rhetoric that annoys and upsets me intensely. No one should ever be scared into conversion, and neither should the fear of God, or rather of hell-fire, be used to control people.

Whichever way around it is, I think the wrath of God is a problem for us partly because of our personal experiences and fears, and also because it's not something that we teach from the pulpit much these days. But the First Sunday of Advent's theme and readings leave us little choice, and in the face of the headlines in the papers over these last weeks and months, it's high time we took a look at this.

As a Christian I am a Panentheist. ["A what?"  Read on...] 

It's a compound Greek word which literally translates as 'All-in-God'. Essentially it declares that all things are in God, and God is in all things. It differs from pantheism that declares that 'All is God', because panentheists believe that God also has a separate existence from the created order. When they start thinking about it, most Christians would probably think of themselves as Panentheists.  Why do I bring this up on Advent Sunday? It is because here we are faced with two readings that focus on the wrath of God and only one that focusses on hope, and because I want to focus on God's wrath since it is only in understanding that, that we can understand the value of hope.

You see when we turn on the news, or read it online or in the newspapers, we have a choice. We can, if we want, simply change channels. We can put the paper down. We can click away to another site. When we read stories of homosexuals being thrown off tall buildings in so-called Islamic State, or of a young man and his girlfriend killing his step-sister for his own gratification, or of a government that seems hell-bent on making life a misery for the weak and the poor, or any number of other real-life horror stories we can turn away.

But if God is in all things, and if all things are in God, then God cannot turn away. 

God has to live with it all day every day, atrocity mounted upon atrocity; cruelty upon cruelty; lie upon lie, and because it is all happening within the universe within which God is fully present, God can't change the channel, click to another site or pick up a good book instead.

God gave us freedom of choice and placed us within a universe that has freedom to grow and develop, but in my faith I believe that God also is all-pervading, seeing, knowing, experiencing our choices. God cannot, will not, turn away.

People say to me, 'How can you suggest that a God of love can be a God of wrath?' but if you are a panentheist you find yourself thinking, 'If God is a God of love, how then can he not also be a God of wrath?' How could he not want to act?'  I can only imagine a supreme act of will power is staying his hand now for the sake of those who may yet turn to ask for forgiveness. God and the angels play the long game, but they have abiding memories.

Yet at the same time we fear what it might mean to us if he is angry with us. We are influenced by the memory of parental anger and so we fear the same thing might be coming to us from God. More than one Christian has explained to me how this talk of God being angry leaves them terrified of what might happen to them if they do just one thing wrong; that God is waiting to pounce.  However, I think that this is based on a fundamental misunderstanding; that we are equating anger and wrath when in reality they are two very different things. If we can disconnect anger from wrath and look instead at this wrath through panentheistic eyes, then perhaps we can better understand what is happening, and why we need not be living in fear.

Anger is a proper parental response to a wrong doing that needs correction. I'm not now talking about the loss of temper I mentioned at the beginning, but instead that controlled anger a parent uses which lets a child know, in no uncertain terms, that something that they did was unacceptable. As Christians we can expect that kind of correction from time to time because our behaviour will sometimes warrant it.

But wrath is different... 

...and wrath is not God losing God's temper

Wrath is the response to an onslaught of evil that will not respond to correction. If we are to live without fear we need to disconnect those two concepts in our experience of God as God's children.

When people have related the stories of their lives, of abuse within the home or family, I've felt a deep anger at the injustice of how one with power dominates the powerless, and so I find myself wondering at how it must seem to God, to dwell within each home, within the scope of the abuser and the abused, to know the pain first hand and to weep the tears of hopelessness in the darkness.  We often say, 'Why doesn't God do something?', and I suspect that God is also saying to us, 'Come on, take responsibility and you do something – I am treating you like adults, behave like them.' However, tonight's readings and the general theme give us a taste of what is coming; that there is a time coming when God's patience runs out, and what I called 'the long game' above is played out.

But what are we to do with the belief in God's wrath and how are we to live and preach a Gospel in the light of it? Let's have a very brief look at each of the readings to guide us.

Joel is a difficult prophet to preach about because we know so little of the context in which he preached. Even dating him can't get within much less that a 150 year period of time. The book as a whole seems to revolve around a plague of locusts that devastated the land but which Joel then used as a pictorial image to call the people back to God in repentance.  This particular passage, which is difficult to understand, nevertheless contains the shocking antithesis to the commonly used reading at Remembrance Sunday which talks of beating swords into ploughshares and spears into pruning hooks. But here the story is reversed; here we have the preparations for war against God's people with ordinary farm labourers making weapons out of their tools.  But the over-riding narrative is of judgement using the wine-press as an image of God's wrath, and this is the imagery that the book of Revelation picks up.

There we have a story of two harvests. The first is a reaping harvest, of bringing in that which is good from the earth. The second is one of wrath, of the objects of God's wrath as being like grapes that are trodden, and of the flowing of blood, a symbol of death and destruction. And yet even this is not the end of it, for it's declared that there are still seven angels with seven plagues of God's wrath.

Now to be honest it is not the in-depth study of these passages that is important. There is little way of knowing the minutiae of what is being described in either of them. But what is necessary is that we recognise both of them affirm the wrath of God as a reality, and we then have to decide what we do with that imagery.

What I want to suggest is that these two readings affirm the wrath flowing from God's justice, whilst the Gospel affirms God's mercy and our hope. Justice and mercy walk hand in hand. Humanity is offered both. Persistent abuse of power simply cannot be ignored by God because it takes place within the universe of which God is 100% aware. Nothing is missed. Indeed you or I may personally be called by the Spirit to be God's hands in bringing a cruelty to an end.

But where there is no turning away from the evil that one person brings on another, then there is a final judgement, which I believe to be a final destruction. I don't think hell is of an eternal torture – even in wrathful judgement I don't believe that to be within God's nature. But I do believe that God is willing to utterly destroy, without possibility of return, those who persist in their ill treatment of their fellow humans.  I therefore think that the story of hell is one of annihilation, of the end of hope for those who refuse mercy and forgiveness. Did you know, incidentally, that forgiveness is not a concept you'll find in all religions? It is given a prominent place in Christ's revelation of God's nature, but there are a lot of religions that have little or no concept of it.  But forgiveness requires a turning of one's back on the hurt that has been doled out to others. Where no space is left for mercy; where no sign of repentance or sorrow is seen, there is wrath and a final destruction.

So yes, when we look at or hear the horrific stories of what is taking place across the world, places where we seem powerless to be able to help, there is still a judgement to be faced, and a wrath that goes beyond anything we can imagine. [Just once, as a teenager, for a very brief moment I sensed something of God's holiness, and was terrified by the awesomeness of it.  It made me realise we have little idea, from a human perspective, of what facing God is like.]  But please do not mix divine wrath up with God's parental anger when his children need correcting; the two are very different indeed.

Never forget St. John's commentary on the coming of Christ that, ‘Indeed, God did not send the Son into the world to condemn the world, but in order that the world might be saved through him.' God offers mercy and forgiveness, something that Christ made clear for us.  The overarching story of Christianity is one of hope being offered to those who, in their own strength, could not stand before the naked power of God, and a Way being offered to those who would like to know as they are known.

I think that there is a fundamental difficulty at the heart of western Christianity which is a belief that God is an angry God at heart, waiting to pounce on us the moment we do something wrong. Many of my friends who have left the church, and others who struggle to stay within it, wrestle constantly with this. There is a sense that God feels affronted by our behaviour.  Yet I think that if we adopt this panentheistic view that God cannot turn away, then I think God's wrath stems not from what we do wrong, nor even from whether we ignore him or not; after all God doesn't need us. He loves us, but he doesn't need us. No, I think God's wrath towards humanity is birthed within our behaviour towards each other.

This also fundamentally alters our understanding of the cross. If you have an angry God who is angry against our sin, then you can justify God needing sacrifices to stem his anger, and ultimately needing the ultimate sacrifice of his own Son, because only then can his anger be channelled on to one eternal individual; Jesus as God's lightening conductor.

That model provides this image of God barely able to contain his rage; that sense of 'I am sooo angry I have to break something really valuable.' But that is a fundamental misunderstanding of the nature of God; that is to make God in our image, when it's surely the other way around. The Christian fundamentalists have this so very wrong.

Instead we have a God who offers his very self to us, to show the lengths to which he will go to draw us into his own family. We have a God who is not looking to burn with uncontrollable anger at anyone who dares cross him, but is instead unable to turn away from what we do to each other, and who assures us that, ultimately, there will be judgement for the wicked, the abusers, the power-hungry and all those who deliberately inflict pain on others.

I can't tell you, for example, how that means we should respond to so-called Islamic State and the atrocities they commit. I can't say whether my beliefs as a Christian mean we should go to war. But I can say this: I fear for the innocent on the ground who will simply be in the way of the war machine that we will probably inflict or at least aid. And I fear that war just keeps breeding more terrorists. Pouring petrol on a fire is rarely the best way to put it out. Maybe we are walking in to a trap, a hope that we will respond exactly like this and thus breed yet more terrorists.

But what I do know, as a panentheist and a Christian, is that God cannot turn away from the evil that is being done, either there or here. As I said on Remembrance Sunday, we should never think God is on our side, but neither should we be in any doubt about what is written throughout scripture, that God sees, and there will be a judgement, but judgement may fall just as hard on anyone who kills the innocent and robs their children of a future.

May we be for ever preserved in his mercy through Christ, and may we never cease to pray for our enemies.
[Postscript - for those who wish to pray about this there will be a vigil in the church on Sunday 6th Dec, this Sunday, from 4 until 5.]

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