I preach each Sunday at a church similar to this in Adamsville, Texas. It is actually a Presbyterian church which was established in 1897. The building has been there since 1906. It is a long drive early each Sunday morning out there, but I enjoy it. It keeps me from being in the theoretical all week long. Sometimes you never know what you are going to hear out there. For instance, my first Sunday out there, they told me they always have a time of special music. I thought, that's great, somebody from the church gets up and sings. Then I found out that this is actually done by CD. My first Sunday Elvis was in the building singing "He Touched Me." Since then we've had everything from MercyMe to Scottish Bagpipes for "special music" time. As you might expect at a rural church, you hear things that sometimes make me wince or laugh to myself. My favorite was when we had a young boy out there and I mentioned HIV in a sermon. He says in a voice loud enough for me to hear, "Mom, it's not HIV, it's HIJKLMNOV!" Half of the 20 people who come are related in some way or another. However, this church will surprise you. One man, Mr. Perkins, is 90 years old. Last November, he set a world record in the shot put for people 85 and older. He also survived in a Japanese war camp for over 600 days. There is Judge Pru, an 87 year old man who might be the biggest patriot I've ever met. He's one of those guys people in my generation like to poke fun of his American pride. However, a few Sundays ago he described in tears how much this church meant to him. He described about how much they love each other, pray for each other during the week, and how proud he is that they give about 30% of their money to a children's home. There is Bob, who got all bent out of shape a couple weeks ago because the KJV Bible had "doest thou believe in the Son of God?" and the version I read said, "Do you believe in the Son of Man?" He didn't understand that these were the same terms. But Bob is one of those men who you can tell is in constant contact with the spirit. He is one of the most gentle and loving men I have ever been around. Bob encourages me in my preaching, and prays all week for the service that God may touch lives through the service of the church. I hear folk theology all the time out there, and I try to combat it in my sermons as gently as I can, but they have something that many intellectuals and serious students of the Bible do not: a community that loves each other, and a community, even though it is small, dedicated to spreading the love of Christ. We may not have the glamor and size of other churches, but the Spirit is there, and God is glorified just the same.
I hear a phrase every once in a while that makes me cringe a little bit, but is popular in some circles of Christianity, "To understand the mercy of God, we must understand the wrath of God." I don't hear it very often at Truett, but I do read it on blogs, hear it in sermons, and in popular Christian literature today. Partially, I agree with that statement, but where people go after that statement horrifies me. Most of the time, they then go on to present a god who is angry all the time and who just wants to deal out punishment to the wicked people of earth. It is a judicial presentation of a god sitting on a throne ready to zap those who do wrong. The only way people are then saved from this angry, lightning throwing god is that they have Jesus in some sense as their lawyer. Jesus then is almost presented as Johnny Cochran who always gets his defendants acquitted. The problem I have with this system of looking at God is that it is not the God encountered in the Bible. I agree, humans are totally deprived. We all have a sin nature and are in need of a Savior in Jesus Christ. God, however, is not sitting on his throne ready to zap us. That is not God, that is Zeus. What I am about to say is an idea taken from one of my seminary friends, Chris Doe. I am taking his initial idea, and then expounding upon it a little bit. God as he is presented in the Bible is a "Holy God," meaning that God is wholly other than his creation. As a result, we will never fully understand God. God time and time again is presented as a being of love. Over and over again the Old Testament says that God is gracious and compassionate, slow to anger and abiding in steadfast love (Psalm 145, Jonah 4, Exodus 34:6). So how do we understand his wrath? Since God is a Holy God, we do not understand the full implications of his wrath. However, my friend Chris has a good statement: "God's wrath is tied in with his love." It is a wrath born out of his love for his creation. Therefore, God's wrath is not ultimately just arbitrary against wicked people, but has a purpose of redemption and restoration. Take for instance the flood account. After the fall in chapter 3, Genesis presents a human society that grows more violent and wicked by the generation. By the time we arrive at chapter 6, all the human hearts are wicked and their thoughts evil, outside of Noah. So God is grieved. God is hurt and upset that humans are destroying the world he created and loves. The God presented here is a God who feels, who hears suffering, and who wants to restore his creation. God's wrath here is not to arbitrarily wipe out human society, but rather to recreate the world God loves. This is a story not of destruction, but one of salvation. Through God's love of the world, he saved the world from itself. That is the wrath of God, not a destroying wrath, but one of recreation. God's wrath is born out of his love for humans and his creation, and is in some way a representation of God's mercy.