Rev. Dr. Fritz Ritsch
October 11, 2020
Exodus 32: 1-14
In December of 2010, a Tunisian street vendor named Mohammed Boazizi, frustrated and furious over the way that police harassment and bribery and government disinterest kept him in the depths of poverty, set himself on fire in front of a Tunisian government building. When he died, his funeral was attended by thousands equally enraged by injustice, who swore to avenge him. Within a few days, the protests spread throughout the country leading to the resignation of the president ten days after Boazizi’s funeral. The movement spread beyond Tunisia’s borders and became what came to be called “The Arab Spring.”
Many researchers point to Boazizi’s act and its response as a classic illustration of the evolutionary purpose of blinding rage. “Rage acts as a signalling device,” one researcher says. One person’s act of rage may be harmful to that person, but “it has a galvanizing effect” on the larger society and is “an effective means of changing other people’s behavior.” An individual act of anger is very often actually quite harmful to that person, and we might wonder why they would do it. But evolution seems to have planned t that way—that sometimes an individual is so enraged she forgets self-interest and even self-preservation in a way that signals to society as a whole that something is wrong—something needs to be fixed. An act of individual anger, researchers say, “can spread and become communal or collective anger.” So, strangely, blinding, irrational rage is actually part of our internal, evolutionary corporate logic.
I find this fascinating because, of course, nearly all of us have a visceral reaction to rage, which is that it is both scary and irrational. And while we can point to examples of rage producing good results, we can also just as easily point to examples of rage emerging for the wrong reasons and creating pointless pain, terror, and havoc.
All this is worth noting because we are reading some passages of the Bible today which tell us about God’s rage. In Exodus 32 God is so blindingly angry at the Israelites for building the Golden Calf that God threatens to destroy them and start over. In Matthew 22, Jesus tells the parable of an “enraged” king who kills those who killed his servants. The king of course, is meant to represent God.
We don’t like to read about or hear about God being angry. Our instinct is immediately to explain it away with “Well, that’s a human view of what happened,” or “We know better about God today than they did back then.” A common assumption today is that God is loving and docile to the point that God comes across as a milquetoast. We Christians like to believe that we represent a more “enlightened” God than the one of the Old Testament. The God Jesus represents is loving and kind and so non-judgmental as to have no opinions at all. We forget or explain away the many times we see Jesus himself angry—as when he is frustrated with the short-sightedness of his disciples, as when he calls religious leaders “blind fools,” as when he overturns the tables at the Temple crying, “This temple should be a house of prayer, but you have made it a den of thieves!”
But our scriptures today challenge those assumptions. In the story of the Golden Calf, God is so furious that God engages in almost classic “rage” behavior. A furious God actually forgets God’s own self-interest and needs to be reminded of it. This is often a feature of blinding rage—engaging in self-damaging ways. In the Lord’s case, God is ready to wipe out the Israelites, whom God had been cultivating for hundreds of years from the time of Abraham and Sarah and create a new nation through Moses. Moses is by this point is over 80 years old and perhaps dreading all the hard work God would expect of him and his wife Zipporah to MAKE a new nation. But even more than that, Moses challenges God to be true to God’s own nature. You are supposed to be great and powerful God who loves Israel and treats her as a favored child, Moses argues. What will the world think if you then wipe them out? It’s not said, but what’s hinted is that the world might then think God is capricious, untrustworthy, even evil. Apparently, God takes the hint, and the Bible tells us that this argument “changed God’s mind.”
There is a wonderful Biblical assumption here that is worth noting. Our sophisticated modern theology maintains among other things that God is “unchangeable,” and that if God changes God’s mind that is a sign that God is capricious or really not in charge of the world and of history. Our Exodus story doesn’t care about that. For the Biblical storyteller, it is vitally important to illustrate that God can change God’s mind because it means there is always hope of redemption and salvation with the Lord. “God’s anger is for but a moment, God’s favor is for a lifetime,” Psalm 30: 5 tells us. This is the point. Anger doesn’t determine how God ultimately deals with us. When we read in Scripture that God “changed God’s mind,” it’s almost never in a negative way—it’s almost always in a positive way, where God changes from anger or disappointment or judgment to salvation and promise and grace. For the Biblical authors, the fact that God could change God’s mind was always a sign of hope—that no matter how bad we get, and how frustrated we make God, and how angry God may get with us, yet God can yet be persuaded to save.
But let’s return to the earlier point about the logic of rage. According to evolutionary scientists, rage sends a message to the larger society that something is wrong and needs to be fixed. God is apparently so angry with the behavior of the Israelites that God is nearly sacrifices the divine self-interest in having Israel as a Chosen People. That’s a pretty strong message that something needs to change. And it’s not the only time we see such a message in scripture. More than once God refers in frustration to God’s “stubborn and stiff-necked people.” The prophets portray God as a potter ready to destroy all God’s pottery. In more than one of Jesus’ parables, God is portrayed as angry. In our Gospel today, God is a king who wages war against a city of murderers who mistreat and kill his servants when they have come to invite them to a wedding banquet. There are many more like this.
This representation of the anger of God serves a number of purposes. At its most basic level God’s rage acts as a signalling device, challenging us to see what exactly is wrong with what we’re doing and that we better change it. At another level it reminds us that God is in fact and in reality the sovereign God and judge of the universe, and of each of us personally, and so to do things that displease God puts us in serious risk of judgment.
But at the highest level, God’s anger is a signal that we must change. And so, ironically, God’s anger is actually a sign of hope. If God wanted, God could just wipe us out—be done with us. Instead what God does is make it clear in no uncertain terms that what we’ve done is wrong, and that we better change or else. AND THAT IS A WORD OF HOPE. We still have a chance. And we see this over and over again in the Bible. God’s people cross the line, often pretty badly. God is furious, even depicted as in a blinding rage. And yet, somehow, the people are given another chance. No, it doesn’t happen all the time. Sometimes God follows through on God’s anger. But far, far more often, God gives us yet another chance—and another—and another.
For God’s anger is but for a moment;
God’s favor is for a lifetime.
Weeping may linger for the night,
but joy comes with the morning.
We of course don’t live in the world of the Bible, where it sometimes seems that it’s quite obvious whether we’ve offended God or not and where it seems like God or the prophets are always telling us clearly and unequivocally how God is feeling and what we need to do about. Things are just not always that clear in life. Today, for instance, we are dealing with a lot of blinding rage that has led to various movements for change. These movements call out injustices but often they are angry about entirely different and even opposite things. How we listen, and who we listen to, and what we choose to do about it, says less about them and more about us. It is not always clear to us what is the right thing to do or what it is that God most wants.
But here are some things to think about. First of all, we need to get over our fear of rage as such. People responding angrily and emotionally to something that affects them is a part of being human. In fact, based on what we see from Scripture, God in person can be subject to fits of abject, emotional rage. Rage in itself shouldn’t so terrify us that we refuse to listen to the message it’s trying to convey. Rage conveys the message that to those who are angry, things have gotten so unjust and unfair that an emotional response is all that’s left. To them, something needs to change and badly. Whether that feeling is justified or not, that’s how they feel. We need to try to understand the source of this and not allow our fear of their rage to overwhelm the larger message of justice or injustice.
Second of all, we need to understand that God is a judge. I think it’s pretty clear we don’t want to be on the wrong side of God. We know that God cares about injustice, and we have plenty of evidence from scripture that injustice itself can send God into a blinding rage. So let’s not dismiss frustrated cries for justice and fairness as outrageous. We have plenty of evidence that God has used outrage at injustice to provoke positive societal change. To make the wrong decision on such critical matters can put us on the wrong side of God, and we just don’t want to go there.
But let’s remember the final piece of the puzzle. One of my favorite quotes is from the Presbyterian Confession of 1967: “God’s love never changes. Against all who oppose God, God’s love is expressed in wrath.” This wrath is actually meant not to punish, but to cleanse. This wrath is meant to give us a chance to do the right thing. It is a critique of how we are living and what we are doing and what needs to change. But it’s also a sign of hope that we can change, we can grow, we can become better, that we continue to be loved and to love others better, and that God continues to love us, for God’s anger is for but a moment, but God’s favor is for a lifetime—for us, for our society, and for everyone.