“Sinners in the Hands of an Angry Really Nice God”

Grown-up Bible Stories: Part 5

Isaiah 40:9-11; Luke 15:1-7

Rev. Phillip Blackburn

May 13, 2018

I would like to share with you a selection from a classic of American literature…

“The God that holds you over the Pit of Hell, much as one holds a Spider, or some loathsome Insect, over the Fire, abhors you, and is dreadfully provoked; his Wrath towards you burns like Fire; he looks upon you as worthy of nothing else, but to be cast into the Fire; he is of purer Eyes than to bear to have you in his Sight; you are ten thousand Times so abominable in his Eyes as the most hateful venomous Serpent is in ours.”

This is but a small sample of Jonathan Edwards 1741 classic sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.”  Edwards, I want to be clear, was not a bad guy, and if you read the entire text of this sermon, you will see that he does have a clear doctrine of grace.  And being of our own Reformed theological tradition, he did not think much of people.  Nor did he think that God thought much of people.  I do not know if you have ever considered yourself to be a “spider, or loathsome insect” before.  I, personally, have not.  And yet Edwards is all too happy to hold all of us there as insects, dangling over the fire of God’s wrath.

You suspect that he would have found some kindred spirits on this count with the Pharisees and Scribes, those righteous members of the elite religious class of Israel.  They knew the rules to follow to remain in God’s good graces, and so they followed them rigorously.  They were also hasty to point out the failures of those around them.  So when Jesus showed up and proclaimed that he was ushering in God’s Kingdom, they naturally would have assumed he would be coming to them first.  But alas, this was not the case.  Jesus turned his attention first to those seen as the lowly and the sinner in his midst.   And so as we find him in Luke 15 we find that these people had responded to him.  Luke tells us the sinners were “coming near to listen to him.”

For the Pharisees this was guilt by association.  In their minds, Jesus could not possibly be the person he claimed to be if he were so attractive to these sorts of unsavory people, these loathsome insects who, at that very moment, were but one flick of God’s wrist from the fires of hell!  Perceiving this, and hearing their grumbling, Jesus replied to them.  I have always read all three of the “lost” parables in Chapter 15 as a response to the Pharisees; as if they, not the sinners who were there and gathered, were his primary audience.  And he begins this series with the Parable of the Lost Sheep.

Now keep in mind here that the Pharisees likely viewed many of the people gathered around Jesus as the same lost cause as Edwards viewed some in his flock, but Jesus does not directly answer their charge; pointing around the crowd and speaking of the virtues of this person or that person.  Instead, he tells a story, as was his way. I suspect when we do finally meet him, and we ask him all the questions we have carried through this world, our queries will be met with a story; and at first we will be bitterly disappointed and we will quote the father of the great Scottish theologian John McLeod Campbell who once said to his son, “confound it man, can’t you answer anything plainly?!?” but then, after some thought, we will be pleased.

Jesus does not dispute that there are sinners aplenty in this world.  What he does dispute is that God sees these people as pitiful insects, lacking in value.  And so he tells them his story of the shepherd who, in Luke, abandons his flock of 99 rule-following sheep and goes in search of the 1 stray.  This is a powerful indication of what is going on here.  I do not for one minute believe that Jesus thought there were 99 people on earth who did not need repentance, but you can believe the Pharisees did think that, so hear that with some irony.  And in hearing that, understand something about how Jesus saw us.  We are all a lost sheep, wandering aimlessly as we pursue this thing or that, and all of us are in need of our shepherd to show up and bail us out.

We are valuable!  All of us!  Even the most abject sinner.  And this is where we must be very careful.  Edwards later said this in his sermon:

“And now you have an extraordinary Opportunity, a Day wherein Christ has flung the Door of Mercy wide open, and stands in the Door calling and crying with a loud Voice to poor Sinners; a Day wherein many are flocking to him, and pressing into the Kingdom of God; many are daily coming from the East, West, North and South; many that were very lately in the same miserable Condition that you are in, are in now a happy State, with their Hearts filled with Love to Him that has loved them and washed them for their Sins in his own Blood, and rejoicing in Hope of the Glory of God. How awful is it to be left behind at such a Day!”

We can see that Edwards was not unfamiliar with the Good Shepherd, the lost sheep.  He knew them well.  But he, like many around us today in American Christianity, has forgotten the value God places on humanity through Christ.  If anything, this passage, and the two which follow, muddy the waters of the name-it and claim-it crowd who believe that all but the unregenerate will inevitably fall into the fiery furnace of God’s wrath.  God does not desire our destruction, he desires our salvation.  God does not desire that we spend our lives lost.  He desires we be found.  And when we inevitably get lost in our lives, it is God through Christ who comes looking for us, all of us.

It would be wonderful if we could stand here and say how this all plays out in the story of God’s salvation, but that insight has not been given to us.  God decides who will be saved, not us.  But of this parable we can know one thing and know it well.  We, you and I and everybody, are precious to God.  We are valuable.  Even if we are lost.  Especially if we are lost!  We are not a loathsome insect; a spider dangling over the abyss.  We are a valued sheep whose shepherd at this moment is out seeking it.

Jesus ate with sinners.  He welcomed them.  Because he was looking for them!!!  Those who did not think themselves perfect; those who did not believe they were the most faithful or the most pious; those who had hurt others and hurt themselves; those who had tried to follow him and those who had failed, those are the people Jesus was seeking in this world.  The key is not that we consider our own righteousness; no, it is that we understand our need for the shepherd.  My friends, we and all people in this world are deeply loved, and whether our sins be great or modest, there is a God who seeks us yet.  Amen.