Friday, January 24, 2003

In wrath, remember mercy.

Lord, I have heard the report about You and I fear. O Lord, revive Your work in the midst of the years, In the midst of the years make it known; In wrath remember mercy. (Habakkuk 3:2)

There are times when a teacher has the joy of changing a person's view of life. This happened to me a little over a year ago as I was teaching about Jeremiah. A young woman came up to me afterwards and said, "I have always pictured Jesus standing between me and the Father, such that the Father did not really see me, but saw Jesus instead. Now I see that I have access to the Father, because of what Jesus did for me." To this I replied, "You got it!" She moved from perceiving the Father as angry to seeing Him as a kind Father.

Because God hates sin, it is easy to imagine Him in a rage over our thoughts and actions. We fail to see His love and mercy. Nearly 15 years ago, I was listening to a song on a Christian radio station. The words went, "It's your kindness that leads us to repentance O Lord." And I thought to myself, much to my embarrassment today, that those words represented some watered down message that did not account for God's holiness. I was wrong, of course. Paul is the one who wrote, "Or do you think lightly of the riches of His kindness and tolerance and patience, not knowing that the kindness of God leads you to repentance?" (Romans 2:4)

And yet, there is such a thing as God's wrath. He brought on Noah's flood. He destroyed the cities of Sodom and Gomorrah. He overthrew Jerusalem and sent the people of Israel into exile. There is a hell and a future judgment. The book of Revelation describes the pouring out of God's wrath on the whole world. So, how do we square kindness, mercy, and wrath?

To begin with, lets look at the prelude to the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah:

And the Lord said, “The outcry of Sodom and Gomorrah is indeed great, and their sin is exceedingly grave. “I will go down now, and see if they have done entirely according to its outcry, which has come to Me; and if not, I will know.” Then the men turned away from there and went toward Sodom, while Abraham was still standing before the Lord.

Abraham came near and said, “Will You indeed sweep away the righteous with the wicked? “Suppose there are fifty righteous within the city; will You indeed sweep it away and not spare the place for the sake of the fifty righteous who are in it? “Far be it from You to do such a thing, to slay the righteous with the wicked, so that the righteous and the wicked are treated alike. Far be it from You! Shall not the Judge of all the earth deal justly?” So the Lord said, “If I find in Sodom fifty righteous within the city, then I will spare the whole place on their account.”

And Abraham replied, “Now behold, I have ventured to speak to the Lord, although I am but dust and ashes. “Suppose the fifty righteous are lacking five, will You destroy the whole city because of five?” And He said, “I will not destroy it if I find forty-five there.”

He spoke to Him yet again and said, “Suppose forty are found there?” And He said, “I will not do it on account of the forty.” Then he said, “Oh may the Lord not be angry, and I shall speak; suppose thirty are found there?” And He said, “I will not do it if I find thirty there.” And he said, “Now behold, I have ventured to speak to the Lord; suppose twenty are found there?” And He said, “I will not destroy it on account of the twenty.” Then he said, “Oh may the Lord not be angry, and I shall speak only this once; suppose ten are found there?” And He said, “I will not destroy it on account of the ten.” As soon as He had finished speaking to Abraham the Lord departed, and Abraham returned to his place. (Genesis 18:20-33)

In fact, there was only a single righteous family in the city, and the two angels got them out prior to its destruction. But notice the Lord's willingness to hold off wrath for the sake of the righteous. Sodom was a place where the kindness of God was no longer effective in leading anyone in the city to repentance. The city was violent and unsafe. We must see its destruction as an act of mercy to the surrounding cities and nations. If I have a finger full of gangrene, it must come off or the body will die.

Here is another example. The Lord asked Jeremiah to "'Roam to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem, And look now and take note. And seek in her open squares, If you can find a man, If there is one who does justice, who seeks truth, Then I will pardon her. And although they say, "As the Lord lives," Surely they swear falsely.' O Lord, do not Your eyes look for truth? You have smitten them, But they did not weaken; You have consumed them, But they refused to take correction. They have made their faces harder than rock; They have refused to repent." (Jeremiah 5:1-3) The Lord told Jeremiah that a single man in Jerusalem who did justice and sought truth would be enough to pardon the city. Apparently there was no such individual. There is not time to develop the hardness and the degree of faithlessness in the city of Jerusalem such that the Lord finally brought Nebuchadnezzar to tear down the city and deport its people, but it was there.

And the Lord's mercy was there as well. He had His prophet Jeremiah in the city to advise anyone who would listen that God's will was for them to leave the city and go over to the side of the Babylonians. No one had to suffer the famine and disease in the city. And consider the effect of the two earlier deportations. The first took the bright young men from Jerusalem who entered, like Daniel, into the upper reaches of Babylonian government and could buffer the brutality it might otherwise display. The second took the builders and craftsmen to Babylon where they built the communities that would finally receive the refugees from Jerusalem's fall. This, too, was mercy. There was sin beyond God's kindness in Jerusalem and she fell. Out of the fall came the remnant and they had a place to go and be received among friends.

Lamentations is a series of laments over Jerusalem's destruction. The author saw horrors beyond imagining during the siege. He descends in despair to the point where he says, "So I say, 'My strength has perished, And so has my hope from the Lord.'” (Lamentations 3:18) And yet, just a few verses later, he says, "This I recall to my mind, Therefore I have hope. The Lord’s lovingkindnesses indeed never cease, For His compassions never fail. They are new every morning; Great is Your faithfulness." (Lamentations 3:21-23) The author based his hopes on the fact that God's wrath is the anomaly, not His mercy. It is the Lord's mercy that is the norm, not His wrath.

And so we find, in the book of Revelation, these words, "Then the kings of the earth and the great men and the commanders and the rich and the strong and every slave and free man hid themselves in the caves and among the rocks of the mountains; and they said to the mountains and to the rocks, 'Fall on us and hide us from the presence of Him who sits on the throne, and from the wrath of the Lamb; for the great day of their wrath has come, and who is able to stand?'” (Revelation 6:15-17) The "wrath of the lamb?" You have got to be joking. Lambs are cute fluffy gentle creatures and are not usually associated with anger. But the imagery is clear. In wrath, the Lord is showing His face of mercy and offering, up to the very end, His salvation and grace. And, of course, the Lamb, whose wrath will be so feared, was slain as the very essence of God's mercy and kindness to us.

And so, God prefers to show mercy and His wrath works His mercy.

Grace and Peace to you all.

Monday: The Choosing and Training of the Twelve (1)

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