Sermon by Kenneth Padley at St Michael’s church 15th September 2019
Readings: Exodus 32.7-14; I Timothy 1.12-17; Luke 15.1-10
The Strange Case of Dr Jekyll and Mr Hyde is a dystopian tale by the nineteenth-century novelist Robert Louis Stevenson. In it the author explores the propensity we all have for good and evil. Jekyll and Hyde are the same person, Hyde the murderous shadow-side of Jekyll, a kind and respected scientist. The title of the book has become synonymous with duplicity: it is sometimes said that a person has a ‘Jekyll and Hyde’ character.
Today’s readings invite us to explore whether there is a Jekyll and Hyde aspect to God himself, an unpredictable duality within the Almighty. In the first text we encountered a wrathful and vengeful deity. The people of Israel are wandering in the wilderness. Immediate needs are pressing, and they are tempted to abandon their loyalty to Yahweh. They mould and worship a golden calf. God is angered by this betrayal. Had he not rescued them from the hand of Pharaoh? And so, “9The Lord said to Moses, ‘I have seen this people, how stiff-necked they are. 10Now let me alone, so that my wrath may burn hot against them and I may consume them.’” [Ex 32.9-10]
This image of the vengeful God occurs again and again in the Old Testament. Angered by the sin of the Fall, God’s justice demands the expulsion of Adam and Eve from Eden. Angered by the immorality of the first humans, God plans a flood to wipe out most living creatures. Angered by the ambition of Babel, God confuses their speech into many languages. And so on. Anger is a quality that we often read about in the God of the Old Testament.
So when later we later encounter a persecutor of God’s people such as Paul of Tarsus, who, breathing threats and murder, obtained letters to imprison Christians from Damascus, we expect that God will be furious. But not a bit of it: in I Timothy 1.13-14 a writer purporting to be Paul told us that “…the grace of our Lord overflowed for me with the faith and love that are in Christ Jesus.” Paul had once been a blasphemer, a persecutor and a man of violence, but then received mercy from God for the purpose of winning over others to Jesus.
This picture of God’s mercy is also to the fore in those gospel parables about lost sheep and lost coin.
To summarise so far: across today’s three texts we’ve found a tension between the vengefulness of God in the Old Testament and the mercifulness of God in the New. How do we square the circle? Are we to conclude that God is indeed Jekyll and Hyde, or can we reconcile these dissonant images?
One time-honoured route is to ditch the Old Testament. We don’t really like those pictures of an angry God and we feel much more comfortable with the homely God who caresses her coin collection. So down the Christian ages there have been many who have soft-pedaled the Old Testament or ignored it entirely. For example, in the second century a chap called Marcion built a Bible solely from the letters of Paul and an abridged version of Luke’s gospel; Marcion had no time for the Old Testament whatsoever.
This path is well trodden but it is not without pitfalls. An exclusive focus on the God of mercy and the connected hope of heaven leads to disinterest in the world which we are told in the Old Testament is made by God. Thus Marcion believed in a ghostly Jesus without a real human body and incapable of making a saving sacrifice. Thus Erasmus, the Renaissance philosopher, in unpicked the two testaments found support for his anti-Semitism, castigating the Jews as part of the old world that is passing away. Thus some modern Christians are irresponsible towards the environment, viewing it as an aspect of the flawed universe which will be replaced by the perfection of heaven. Putting all this together I conclude that ditching the Old Testament creates bigger problems than it solves.
A second potential resolution between the God of justice and the God of mercy is to say that God changes his mind, that he really was cheesed off by the fickleness of the Israelites in the wilderness but then mellowed with time into the cuddly avuncular figure we read about in the New Testament. Indeed, did not Moses beg God in today’s first reading “‘Turn from your fierce wrath; change your mind and do not bring disaster on your people.’” 13
To say that God changes his mind would be a neat solution, were it not for the fact that I don’t believe that God can change his mind. If God is eternal then he does not vary with time. If God is perfect he cannot change because any change is a change away from perfection. The God who is described in our Timothy lesson as ‘immortal, invisible, the only God’, surely cannot be subject to alteration. So I want to say that the picture of God changing his mind in the book Exodus is anthropomorphic, a limited metaphor for one who is beyond our imagining.
God is very different from us. Today’s tension between God’s justice and mercy is a classic example of this. Deep down we know that God is not literally a shepherd looking for his flock, nor literally a numismatist hoarding her coin collection. However, we also know that there is truth to be mined from these earthly images. And so, I conclude, that biblical language about God changing his mind is us seeing things from a human point of view. And when we hear about God being angry and merciful we are seeing things from a human point of view.
That is why the Israelites, having made the golden calf, encounter a God who is angry, but why Paul, having been captivated by overflowing grace on the Damascus Road, knew that God was merciful. Both are equally true.
Let me illustrate this with a little local example. We have just held a gospel procession. We turned to face the story of Jesus broken open in our midst. But we each had a different perspective. Those of you in the Lady Chapel were privileged to look at my left ear, those in the north aisle at my right. There is not a contradiction here, nor is there a change; they are just different perspectives.
It is the same with us and our sins: we need the metaphors of God’s justice and mercy if we are to hold the full picture. We need to acknowledge God’s anger at wrong if we are to fully appreciate the magnitude of his mercy towards the repentant. And in order to achieve this, we need both old and new testaments to hear the completeness of God’s plan and purpose – because the Bible is one book and it tells one story.
William Cowper was the kind of eighteenth-century Calvinist who could recite these debates backwards. He encountered the God of justice and the God of mercy on a daily basis. And because he would nowadays be diagnosed with a bipolar disorder, he felt those truths with an intensity which most of us will not. This is Cowper packing my sermon into four short lines:
Judge not the Lord by feeble sense,
But trust him for his grace;
Behind a frowning providence
He hides a smiling face.