“Sinners in the Hands of a ______________ God”
By Jason Micheli, who blogs at The Tamed Cynic.
Who is against us? Who will condemn us?
Who can separate us from the love of Christ?
For the Apostle Paul, they’re rhetorical questions.
They’re Paul’s way of implying that if you sense any ambiguity about the answer, if you feel any uncertainty about the conclusion, then you should go back to chapter 1, verse 1 and start over.
Reread his letter to the Romans-because Paul’s left you no room for qualification. There’s no grist for doubt or debate or indecision.
Don’t left the punctuation marks fool you because there’s only one possible way to answer the questions Paul’s laid out for you.
No one is against us.
No one will condemn us.
No one- no thing- nothing can separate us from Christ’s love.
Of course, as a preacher, I know first hand the danger in asking rhetorical questions is that there’s always one or two listeners in the audience who don’t realize that the question you’re asking has no answer but the obvious one.
The danger in asking rhetorical questions is that there’s always one or two people who mistakenly think the question might have a different answer.
For example, take this response to Paul’s rhetorical questions from Mark Driscoll: Play Clip from ‘God Hates You.’
I thought that would get your attention.
Or at least make you grateful I’m your pastor.
Just think, I make a single joke on my blog about Jesus farting and some of you write letters to the bishop; Mark Driscoll preaches an entire sermon about how ‘God hates you’ and thousands of people ‘like’ it on Facebook.
If you read my blog, then you know I feel about Mark Driscoll the same way I feel about Joel Osteen, Testicular Cancer and Verizon Wireless.
But he’s not an obscure, street-corner, fire-and-brimstone preacher.
He’s a best-selling author. He’s planted churches all over the world.
The church he founded in Seattle, Mars Hill, is one of the nation’s largest churches with a membership that is younger and more diverse than almost any other congregation.
Ten thousand listened to that sermon that Sunday.
And that Sunday ten thousand did NOT get up and walk out.
That Sunday ten thousand listened to the proclamation that ‘God hates you, God hates the you you really are, the person you are at your deepest level.’
And that Sunday at the end of that sermon somewhere near ten thousand people said ‘Amen.’
Which, of course, means ‘That’s true.’
Except it isn’t.
Maybe I shouldn’t be surprised.
After all, technically speaking, it’s a ‘good’ sermon. It’s visceral. It’s urgent. It’s confrontational and convicting.
It’s the kind of preaching that demands a response.
Technically speaking, I bet the sermon ‘worked.’
I bet it scared the hell out of people.
But what did it scare them into I wonder?
Because when it comes to Paul’s rhetorical questions, Mark Driscoll gets the response dead wrong. So dead wrong that anti-Christ is probably the most accurate term to describe it.
But you know that already.
I can tell from the grimace of disgust you had on your face while listening to him that you know that already.
You don’t need to be a pastor to know he’s wrong. And you don’t need to be a pastor to prove he’s wrong.
All you need are a handful of memory verses.
Memory verses like Colossians 1.15: ‘…Jesus Christ is the exact image of the invisible God…’
Which means: God is like Jesus.
And God doesn’t change.
Which means: God has always been like Jesus and God will always be like Jesus.
So no, God doesn’t hate you. God has never hated you and God would never hate you.
You don’t need to be pastor to prove he’s wrong; you just need to remember that John 3.16 does not say ‘God so loathed the world that he took Jesus’ life instead of yours.’
No, it says ‘God so loved…that he gave…’
You don’t need to be a pastor to know that God isn’t fed up with you. God isn’t sick and tired of you. God doesn’t hate the you in you because ‘God was in Christ reconciling all things- all things- to himself.’
In case you forgot, that’s 2 Corinthians 5.19.
It’s true that God is just and God is holy and anyone who reads the newspaper has got to think God’s entitled to a little anger, but you don’t have to be a pastor to know that none of those attributes trump the Paul’s Gospel summation that ‘while we were still sinners, God died for the ungodly, for us.’
God has not had it up to anywhere with you.
You don’t need to have gone to seminary to know that; you just need to have gone to church on June 30.
That’s when we heard Paul testify from his personal experience that no matter how much we sin, no matter how often we sin, no matter how we sin, no matter how much our sin abounds, God’s grace abounds all the more.
‘There is therefore now no condemnation…’
‘We have peace with God…’
Whatever needed to be set right, whatever needed to be forgiven, whatever needed to be paid, ‘it is finished.’
That’s in red letters in my bible. Jesus said it.
His cross, the Letter to the Hebrews says, was ‘a perfect sacrifice, once for all.’
So there’s nothing in your present, there’s nothing in your past, there’s nothing coming down the pike- and just in case you think you’re the exception let’s just say there’s nothing in all of creation– there’s nothing that can separate you from the love of God.
You don’t have to be a pastor to realize that you can say this a whole lot of different ways, but it all boils down to the same simple message:
God is for us.
Not against us.
But you know that.
Mark Driscoll may have 10K people in his church but I’d bet every last one of you would run him out of this church.
You would never sit through a sermon like. You would never tolerate a preacher like that- you barely tolerate me.
You would never participate in a church that had perverted the Gospel into that.God hates you. God’s fed up with you. God’s sick and tired of you. God’s suffered long enough with you.
God’s against you.
You would NEVER say that to someone else. Ever.
But here’s the thing- and maybe you do need to be a pastor know this:
There are plenty of you
who say things like that
all the time.
Not one of you would ever say things like that to someone else, but, consider it on the job knowledge, plenty of you say it to yourself every day.
Plenty of you ‘know’ Paul’s questions are rhetorical.
You know there’s only one possible answer, only one way to respond: God is for us.
When it comes to you and your life and what you’ve done and how God must feel about the person you see in the mirror, your inner monologue sounds a whole lot more like Mark Driscoll than it sounds like Paul.
You may know this, but as a pastor I definitely do.
Even though you’d never say it in a sermon, you tell yourself that surely God’s fed up with you for the mess you made of your marriage or the mistakes you made with your kids or the ways your life hasn’t measured up.
Even though you’d never dream of saying to someone else ‘there’s no God will forgive that’ that’s exactly what you tell yourself when it comes to the secret that God knows but your spouse doesn’t.
Even though there’s no way you’d ever consider saying it to someone else, you still tell yourself that there’s no way your faith is deep enough, commitment strong enough, beliefs firm enough to ever please God.
Even though it would never cross your mind to say to someone else ‘God must be angry with you for something…God must be punishing you…’ many of you can’t get that out of your mind when you receive a diagnosis or suffer the death of someone close to you.
God hates you. God’s fed up with you. God’s sick and tired of you. God’s suffered long enough with you.
I can’t think of one of you who would let a voice like Mark Driscoll’s into this pulpit on a Sunday morning.
And yet I can think of a whole lot of us who every day let a voice just like his into our heads.
So here’s my question: why?
I mean- we know Paul’s being rhetorical. We know it’s obvious. We know there’s only one possible response: God is for us.
Why do we persist in imagining that God is angry or impatient or wearied or judgmental or vindictive or ungracious or unforgiving?
If it’s obvious enough for a rhetorical question then why?
Why do we persist in imagining that God is like anything other than Jesus?
Is it because we tripped up on those bible verses that speak of God’s anger?
Is it because we’ve all heard preachers or we all know Christians who sound a little like Mark Driscoll?
Sure we have.
Is it because we’re convinced the sin in our lives is so great, so serious, that we’re the exception to Paul’s ironclad, gospel equation: God is for us?
Is it because we think we’re the exception?
Maybe for some of us.
But I wonder.
I wonder if we persist in imagining that God is angry and impatient and unforgiving and at the end of his rope- I wonder if we imagine God is like that because that’s what we’re like.
I wonder if we imagine God must be angry because we carry around so much anger with us?
I wonder if we imagine there are some things even God can’t forgive because there are things we won’t forgive?
I wonder if we imagine that God’s at the end of his rope because there are plenty of people with whom we’re at the end of ours?
I’ve been open with you in the past about my sometimes rocky sometimes resuscitated relationship with my Dad.
I’ve told you about how my dad and me- we have a history that started when I was about the age my youngest boy is now.
And I’ve told you about how even today our relationship is tense and complicated…sticky- the way it always is in a family when addiction and infidelity and abuse are part of a story that ends in separation.
As with any separation, all the relationships in the family got complicated. And as with many separations, what happens in childhood reverberates well into adulthood.
What I haven’t told you before is that I had a falling out, over a year ago, with my Mom.
The kind of falling out where you can no longer remember what or who started it or if it was even important.
The kind of rift that seemed to pull down every successive conversation like an undertow.
The kind of argument that starts out in anger and then slowly advances on both sides towards a stubborn refusal to forgive and eventually ages into a sad resignation that this is what the relationship is now, that this is what it will be, that this thing is between us now and is going to stay there.
We had that falling out quite a while ago, and I’ve let it fester simply because I didn’t have the energy to do the work I knew it would take to repair it.
And, to be honest, I didn’t have the faith to believe it could be repaired.
There’s no way I can say this without it sounding contrived and cliche.
There’s no way I can say this without it sounding exactly like the sort of sentimental BS you might expect in a sermon.
So I’ll just say it straight up and if it makes you want to vomit go ahead. I read Romans 8 late this week and it…convicted me.
And so I called my Mom.
‘We need to talk’ I said.
‘You really think so?’
I didn’t know how to answer.
It was a rhetorical question. There was only one possible answer: yes.
And so I began by telling her that I’d been reading a part of the bible and that I’d just noticed something I’d never noticed before.
I don’t know why I’d never noticed it before.
Romans 8.31-39 is, after all, one of the most popular scripture texts for funerals. I’ve preached on this scripture probably more than any other biblical text.
Yet preaching it for funerals, with death and eternity looming, I never noticed how this passage about how no one is against us, how no one will condemn us, how nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus- it comes at the end of Paul’s chapter on the Holy Spirit.
It comes as the conclusion to Paul talking about how we are to live according to the Spirit- according to Christ’s Spirit.
It comes as the conclusion to Paul talking about how we are the heirs of Christ’s ministry, about how that inheritance will involve certainly suffering but that the Spirit will help us in our weakness.
This ‘nothing shall separate us’ passage- it comes as the conclusion to Paul telling us how the Holy Spirit will work in our lives to conform us to Christ’s image so that we might live up to and in to calling.
In all the times I’ve turned to Romans 8 for a funeral sermon, I’ve never noticed before that, for Paul, it’s not about eternity.
It’s about living eternity now.
Who is against us? Who will condemn us?
Who can separate us from the love of Christ?
Paul’s questions might be rhetorical.
The answers might be obvious and certain.
But that doesn’t make them easy or simple.
I’d never noticed that for Paul here in Romans 8- it’s actually meant to be the kind of preaching that demands a response.
Because if you believe that God in Jesus Christ is unconditionally, no matter what, for us then you’ve also got to believe that you should not hold anything against someone else.
If you believe that God in Christ Jesus refuses- gratuitiously- to condemn your life, then you’ve got to at least believe that it should be ditto for the people in your life.
And if you believe that nothing can separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus, nothing in all creation, then you must also believe that because of the love of God in Christ Jesus then nothing, nothing, nothing can separate us.
From one another.