I spend a lot of time trying to rehabilitate God in people’s eyes. People who have heard about this God character – but what they’ve heard about Him makes Him sound like an angry, judgmental psychopath. And they can’t imagine why anyone would want to hang around with somebody like that. I spend a lot of time trying to explain that that’s not the God I know. That the destructive anger of God in many parts of the Bible reflects human understandings, and our sinful tendency to assume God hates whom we hate. That the God I follow is slow to anger and abounding in steadfast love, as the Bible says over and over again. That the God I follow understands, accepts, forgives, comforts, heals. That God is love.
But you know what? Sometimes love gets angry. As a preacher, as a Christian, I have to take God’s anger seriously.
Our lectionary texts today show us an angry God. In the book of Exodus, the people Israel are on their long wilderness journey. Moses is up on a mountaintop, having an extended conversation with God. And the people get bored and impatient. This God that Moses keeps talking about is too big and powerful and mysterious to even see. They want gods they can see and touch. Like the golden statues of gods they saw in Egypt. So they beg Aaron, Moses’ brother, whom he left in charge: “Make a god for us!” And Aaron gives the people what they want. Aaron tries to fudge things a bit – maybe the golden calf just *represents* the real god? – but he knows what he’s doing. When Moses comes down the mountain and demands to know what he’s done, here’s his explanation, straight out of the New Revised Standard Version of the Bible:
Aaron said, ‘Do not let the anger of my lord burn hot; you know the people, that they are bent on evil. They said to me, “Make us gods, who shall go before us; as for this Moses, the man who brought us up out of the land of Egypt, we do not know what has become of him.” So I said to them, “Whoever has gold, take it off;” so they gave it to me, and I threw it into the fire, and out came this calf!’
It’s hard to recognize because we get the stories in bits & pieces, and because we have this assumption that the Bible is Very Serious, but there’s a lot of humor in the wilderness stories. I think they were campfire tales told to a lot of laughter, for many generations, before they were written down. One recurring gag is that Moses and God do a lot of Parents-On-A-Road-Trip stuff throughout these chapters. For example, notice in today’s text, God says, “Your people, whom you brought up out of the land of Egypt, have acted perversely…” And Moses comes right back with, “O Lord, why does your wrath burn hot against your people, whom you brought out of the land of Egypt with great power and with a mighty hand?” God is saying, YOUR CHILDREN are driving me CRAZY, And Moses says, YOUR CHILDREN are just HUNGRY, maybe if you’d stop at Burger King…!
But like the best funny stories, the humor in Exodus has a real point. And the point of this story is to highlight how eager humans are to decide the whole God business is really too complicated, too strange, too much trouble. The name for the sin of the golden calf is idolatry – putting something else, something made and controlled by humans, in the place of God. Substituting a relationship with a thing for a relationship with a Person. Relationships with things are predicable, safe; relationships with people are alive, dynamic, demanding, especially if the Person happens to be God. Idolatry is a fundamental theme in the Old Testament – Israel’s proclivity for it, and God’s anger and dismay about it.
I’ve been trying to think of how to explain the problem. It sounds like this is about God’s ego, God’s jealousy – God flips out if Israel even gets a text from another god, right? But listen, I think this is a fair analogy for what’s happening here: Imagine a six-year-old child. She’s dissatisfied with her actual parents, she feels like they’re too demanding and she doesn’t always understand why they want her to do certain things, and they’re not always as nice as she would like them to be. So she makes herself a new parent. She tells her human parents, “Thanks, but I’m done with you guys. My new parent here will always buy me ice cream, and let me wear whatever I want, and ride my bike in the street, and never clean my room or do homework.” That six-year-old would learn pretty quickly that the parent she made was an inadequate parent; it wouldn’t do anything she didn’t like for simple reason that it can’t do anything at all. The same would happen with the golden calf, to be sure. But somehow the unresponsiveness of our idols has never really made a dent in the impulse towards idolatry.
God is angry in this story because the people God has chosen, freed, and called, want to opt out of the relationship. They don’t have the gratitude or the patience or the discipline to commit to being God’s people and see how that forms them and blesses them. They’d really rather make their own parent, thanks.
And then there’s the Parable of the Banquet. I’ve been talking about how Matthew’s Gospel often adds a layer of violence, compared to similar texts in Luke and Mark. This is a text where that’s particularly evident. Matthew understands Jesus’ life and witness through the lens of the destruction of Jerusalem and the Great Temple by the Romans in AD 70, as part of the brutal suppression of a Jewish rebellion against Roman rule. Hundreds of thousands of people died.The author we call Matthew probably composed his version of the Gospel between 10 and 20 years later. The trauma, the violence and loss were very much still with him. In this parable, when the king sends an army to kill people and burn down a city – that’s Matthew working over what happened to Jerusalem.
This parable as told in Luke’s Gospel lacks the military images, and the perplexing attack on the inappropriately-dressed guest. Here’s the story as Luke tells it: Someone gave a great dinner, and invited many. When dinner was ready, he sent his slave to tell those who had been invited, “Come, everything is ready.” But they all began to make excuses. One said, “I’ve bought some land and I need to go see it; please accept my apologies.” Another said, “I just bought five yoke of oxen, and I am going to try them out; please accept my apologies.” Another said, “I just got married, so I can’t come.”
So the slave returned and reported this to his master. Then the owner of the house became angry and said to his slave, “Go out at once into the streets of the town and bring in the poor, the crippled, the blind, and the lame.” And the slave said, “Sir, what you ordered has been done, and there is still room in the banquet hall.” Then the master said to the slave, “Go out to the roads beyond the city, and make people come in, so that my house may be filled! For none of those who were invited shall taste my dinner.”
That’s a very different story, isn’t it? It’s a story about people who have been honored with an invitation, and have a delicious meal waiting for them – free! – but they can’t be bothered. They’ve got other stuff going on. But the host is determined to feed someone. So the host gathers in all the people who were seen as lowly and dirty and unimportant, to be guests at the banquet. It’s one of many parables and Gospel stories about how the people who think they’re close to God, the people who assume they’re on God’s guest list, don’t actually show up for God, while those in the streets, those at the margins, do. The host’s anger isn’t murderous military might, as in Matthew’s account. It’s frustrated hospitality. Thwarted grace. The host wants to celebrate with friends, and the friends don’t show.
God gets angry sometimes. We shouldn’t make God so warm and fuzzy that we forget that. But we also have to be really careful about distinguishing God’s anger from our anger. Humans like to think we know what God is angry about. I find it really upsetting – as a preacher, as a Christian – when I see people attributing terrible events to God’s anger. Earthquakes, hurricanes, wildfires, mass shootings: NOT GOD’S ANGER.
Look, how to make sense of that stuff is another whole sermon. Here’s the shortest possible version of how I understand it: Humanity is free and Creation is free. God couldn’t give us freedom and simultaneously protect us from the world and ourselves and each other – that’s not how freedom works. So bad stuff happens but God promises, promises, that God is with us in the bad stuff, and that the bad stuff is never the last word.
The destruction wrought by humans and nature is not God’s punishment. And when people with authority name it as such, people who’d like to believe in God, people who’ve tried to believe in God, are apt to get right off that train, because with a God like that, who needs enemies? And I can’t blame them. But I can blame those who blame God for human actions…!
If God’s anger doesn’t look like wildfire or a hurricane wiping a whole town off the map, then what does God’s anger look like? Thwarted grace. Frustrated love. A banquet table lovingly prepared, dishes overflowing – and nobody there to eat and celebrate. The common thread between the Golden Calf and the Banquet parable is that God is angry when people walk away from relationship. Choose something else instead. Spending some time with the Gospels and the Prophets will quickly show you some of the other things that really get God’s goat. God gets pretty mad about leaders who shirk their responsibilities to those under their care. God gets pretty mad about those who enrich themselves at the cost of the poor. God gets pretty mad at those who judge others harshly without taking an honest look at themselves.
You know, I looked ahead at these lessons probably a month ago, and thought, Wow, the obvious theme here is the anger of God. And then about a week ago, I finally put two and two together, and realized, Oh, we’re doing a baptism today! Divine rage – a classic subject for a baptismal sermon.
But you know, it’s actually true that our relationships with the children and young people whom we love are one of the best windows we have into God’s anger. The Bible and our liturgical texts name God as a parent Because God is a lot like a parent, or anyone who’s helping raise and teach and form a child. God doesn’t want us to do the right thing from fear of anger or punishment, but because we know what’s right and good, and we choose to do it. And God gets angry when God wants better for us, or from us.
Our fiercest loves give birth to our fiercest anger. And the angriest we get at the people we love is when they do something that puts them in danger, or when they do something that goes against our hopes for them, the person we believe them to be or want them to become. I remember that vividly from my own childhood; I see it in my own parenthood. And it helps me understand God.
Hear me: I’m not saying parental anger is pure and holy. Anger is important, powerful, and risky. Anger for good reason, expressed in healthy and constructive ways, can be a force for personal or public repentance, amendment of life, and movement towards justice and righteousness. But anger is often selfish or fearful as much as it is righteous, and we are, frankly, terrible at telling the difference. And anger can so easily become destructive, and have widespread and long-lasting consequences. Anger is like fire and water – necessary and life-giving, but also capable of terrible damage when misplaced or out of control.
Anger – or own or someone else’s – can be uncomfortable at best, and terrifying at worst. But we can’t simply say that anger is bad, is to be avoided. We can’t separate anger from hope, from justice, from love. Sometimes love gets angry.
And when we extend grace to a loved one and they don’t show up, when we seek relationship and the one we love turns away, the disappointment and frustration and grief we feel – the anger we feel – is a window into the loving, yearning, aching heart of God, the Parent of each of us and all of us.