The Third Sunday before Lent, 9th February 2020
Picture Anemometer reading for the wind speed at the top of the Cathedral spire, 9th February
Preacher: Canon Robert Titley, Treasurer
Transforming Bible Study is the title of a book which has had quite an influence on my reading of the Bible. The author, who goes by the twinkly name of Walter Wink, wants us to engage both sides of our brains when we read the Bible – both cool analysis and the heat of emotion. In the book he gives examples, like the study group he led with students at an American seminary on anger in the Bible. Wink asks them to look at Jesus' words as described in the sermon on the mount:
You have heard it said, whoever kills is liable to judgment; but I say to you everyone who is angry with his brother shall be liable to judgment. (Matthew 5.21-24)
After a general question about the effect of being told never to be angry, Wink asks them, ‘What has been the effect in your own personal history?’ ‘I hold the anger in until I explode,’ says one; ‘I yell at my wife when what I'm really doing is displacing anger at someone at work,’ says another. ‘Ulcers,’ says a third. Wink then throws in a verse from our Ephesians passage, 'Be angry but do not sin'. ‘Be angry. It’s a command!’ says someone. Wink continues, ‘Isn't it curious how the church, with all the injunctions it has laid upon itself, has never seen this one, Be Angry? Notice how some other versions soften that to 'If you are angry [do not sin]'. What does that do?’ Answer: ‘That tells me [anger is] not an inevitable part of my humanity and even good at times. It treats it as a moral failure which must not be allowed to lead to sinning against others.’ ‘It's amazing,’ says Wink, ‘how poorly we Christians deal with anger…’
It may be then, that anger is neither good nor bad in itself. It depends on what you are angry about. Christians in China should be as irate as anyone about aspects of the authorities’ response to the coronavirus; and if you have ever felt the kind of outrage Amos expresses at the injustices of society, that might be one of the ways in which you are made in what Ephesians calls ‘the likeness of God’.
Which brings us to the wrath of God. In the days before we understood how weather works, it would have been understandable to see a storm like today’s as a sign that God was not happy with us. But what do you make of God’s wrath now? If God is love, as the Bible says, can God be angry?
Well, think of someone you love. If they persistently make the worst of themselves, it can make you so cross. ‘Why does s/he always do this?’ you splutter, and that gust of anger is a sign of love: it’s blowing in the direction of what you believe (rightly or wrongly) will be best for this person. Such is the wind of God’s love, blowing unceasingly towards fuller and deeper life for you and me and our world. And if we talk of God’s anger, we are describing how it feels when we set our faces against that relentless wind of love. The opposite of this anger is not kindness but indifference.
Someone who used both sides of his brain – the coolness and the passion – was the seventeenth-century priest and poet, John Donne. He saw God's wrath as a sign of God’s passion for humanity. ‘Be angry with me, O Lord,’ he says in a sermon, ‘lest I perish!’ In his poem 'Good Friday, 1613. Riding Westward' Donne finds himself on that solemn day not in church but on the road. He confesses he is ‘almost glad’ not to have to face Jesus on his cross, and relieved instead to have turned away on his journey. And he offers a syllabus for these weeks between the crib and the cross, when we turn away from Christmas and begin to look towards Good Friday and Easter, as he urges God (rather like a tough gym instructor) to get him in shape and remove what obscures God’s image in him. As he rides away, Donne senses God’s eyes on his back, and he ends with these words to his Maker and Redeemer:
O think mee worth thine anger, punish me,
Burne off my rusts, and my deformity,
Restore thine image, so much, by thy grace,
That thou may'st know mee; and I'll turn my face.
Notes Transforming Bible Study Walter Wink, SCM Press, 1981, pages 59-62
For the wind of God’s love, see J Neville Ward Friday Afternoon, Epworth Press, 1976, page 25.