Romans Chapter 1 : 18 – 32
Today’s ministers are mealy-mouthed preachers. Have you heard a sermon on Hell recently? The Church of Scotland sells Public relations Christianity. Nothing too offensive, Nothing too near the bone. Nothing to upset anyone listening. As a student I remember hearing Christian musical group ‘The Heralds’ sing and preach in St George’s Tron Church Glasgow. I can still see the preacher – I think it was Ian Leitch - with his large black bendy Bible shouting to people who were walking out that were on the way to Hell. It made me feel uncomfortable. I didn’t like it. You may or may not agree with St Paul – but – you can’t deny this much – you know where he stands; you know what he thinks; he tells it like it is!
The wrath of God – one hundred years ago you might have heard this subject mentioned in Sunday morning worship in the Church of Scotland. Not now. The idea of an angry God is not something anyone likes to contemplate. The sense of shame, of moral conflict and of right and wrong has in some respects disappeared. The wrath of the tabloids has replaced the wrath of God. People in government and in public life seriously consider what the tabloids will make of their conduct. They may or may not consider what God makes of their conduct. God’s wrath was seen in personal, family, social and national misfortune. We have inherited this idea in the Scottish psyche. If something unfortunate has happened, we have often associated it with blame for bad conduct. Some people think illness can be explained in this way. The story of Job is of someone who is blameless suffering misfortune. The life of Jesus exemplifies the same thing. Innocent suffering. He was asked the question about the man born blind. “Who sinned Lord, this man or his parents that he was born blind?” Jesus replied “Neither this man nor his parents sinned”. The Bible does not say that illness is necessarily the result of blame.
The wrath of God appears in the Old Testament when the Chosen People disobeyed God’s commandments and when other nations oppressed the Chosen People. Does the wrath of God have any place in Christianity? Paul himself spoke of the wrath of God only three times in all his writings (Ephesians 5:6, Colossians 3:6 and here in Romans). Paul was saying, though, that if you go against God, you will receive the consequences. If you don’t build a house according to the architect’s plans, it will fall down. If you build a spaceship badly, it will blow up before reaching its target. We see the consequences of ignoring the delicate balances of the environment – we suffer as a result. In our personal life, exactly the same logic applies, says Paul. Have you noticed that there are no equivalent crusaders for personal lifestyle environmental awareness? We can live and so as we want as long as we look after the planet. It is staring us in the face and yet the blind lead the blind. God in Christ says Paul is there to save and help, but if human beings turn away and reject that relationship and that love, then undoubtedly they will bring upon themselves the consequences.
Paul actually appeals to an inner sense of God that is in every human being. Paul thinks that life itself, the world, the natural order, the heavens all give a profound sense of the being of God. So did John Calvin. He said, “There is not one blade of grass, there is no colour in this world that is not intended to make us rejoice.” Calvin was not the dour miserable figure of caricature. He was no ‘Holy Willie’. The Society of Friends commonly know as Quakers built their fellowship on the basis of the ‘inner light that lightens everyone’. The trouble with humans, Paul says, is that they take God for granted. For many people God is there if needed, but not to be taken seriously in daily life. Spiritual pride rises up in human beings and takes them away from devotion to and reverence for God. This leads them to false ideas, false religion, idolatry and moral and spiritual darkness. Just look at the entertainment industry today and you’ll see what Paul was getting at.
You have rap star Cardi B spending millions on multiple Lamborghinis and Bentleys. You see extravagance for its own sake. Some English Premier League footballers are on £300,000 a week. You see Beyonce spending without limit. Elton John liked to dress up ans Loius XVI Of France. Madonna faked Catholicism with her iconography. You see the justification of all sorts of unnatural behaviour and values and at the end of the show someone has the cheek to say “God bless”, as if everything was acceptable to our Maker.
Locally you see the progression towards deterioration of personal lives meant for much better, broken relationships, unemployment, alcohol, drugs, illness, early death. Even now, more than a few men and women in this area are killing themselves with alcohol and drugs. The poor are more to be pitied than the rich and famous. If life has not been good for them or to them, self-annihilation seems the only option. But – it is not meant to be so. And it is not necessary either. I remember seeing a near toothless man from Shettleston being interviewed by a BBC TV reporter. “Why do you think that life expectancy for men in Shettleston is only 53 years?” The man gave a toothless smile and replied “If you lived here you widnae want to live any longer”. Wonderful Glasgow gallows humour.
There is a large difference between those who do not live well and those who politically justify not living well. Who make the excuses. Who defend human bad conduct. We can have all the sympathy in the world for the former, but we disagree with the latter. The politicisation of wrong human behaviour is a feature of our time and it has not done anyone of us any good. God is left out of this and we are the losers, collectively and personally. We might not like to call this the wrath of God, but its effects are remarkably similar.
Paul says that once the human heart has rebelled against God it is on a bender. It no longer has God’s daily protection, saving power and grace to live by. We are given enough free will to choose what we want. If we go against God, God let’s us go. That is a sobering thought. It’s tied up with the commandment to honour God and not to test or try or tempt our Maker. We will get what we want – without God. Many good Christians have had a time of rebellion in their lives when they wandered far from God. Something brought them back to find forgiveness and peace for the rest of their lives - a crisis, a realisation that they were spiritually lost. A sense of failure and remorse. Something within that said “You were meant for something better than this – it’s time to go back now”.
Paul sees a progression of thought and conduct which leads not only away from God but to the justification of that life away from God. This is what we get in contemporary sexual politics, including homosexual and transgender politics. The actor Ian McKellan tore up the Bible in protest against this particular passage in Paul’s letter to the Romans on the streets of Edinburgh some years ago. Later he was given a knighthood. Paul says that at the end of this process what was once considered bad has now become considered good but, even more troubling, what was once good has now become bad. That is where we are in Scotland today. Not that we who think differently are old-fashioned relics form the past. But that society has left its Christianity behind and has not progressed to moral and spiritual nobility but is journeying towards death, disease, broken family life and much waste of human life and time on earth. It is a collective ethic of negation and of nihilism. And it is excused and even promoted by our politicians.
It is the justification of wrongdoing that is the final clue as to how far we have gone from Christian Faith and life. Christianity is not made up of morally perfect people. It is made up of people who confess their sins and seek God’s help in living better. Christianity is a new start, a new beginning, a way back, a way out, a way forward. Christians may well believe that the wrath of God is real and some may have known this in their own lives. But the true Christian will tell you that the wrath of God does not last long or forever. There comes the time of reconciliation, of peace and of restoration.
Paul denounces the culture of ancient Rome. The list could be applied to our own society today. Christianity always cuts across what we are inclined to accept all too easily. The way of Jesus is the counter culture of the day. It is the radical alternative. It is to swim against the tide. It is the narrow way. Christianity exposes our false defences. Christianity then says “Look – here is the way for you – start out on it and don’t look back”.
Jesus was not a judgemental person. His was a saving and redeeming lifestyle. He did have his barbed comments against some of the Jewish authorities, against the liberal Saducees and against the legalistic Pharisees. But his ministry was overwhelmingly compassionate, healing and redemptive. “Come to me ALL who are tired and weary and I will give you rest”.
Christianity – against all the odds, overcame the godless degenerate incestuous society of ancient Rome. It became a Christian city – it is where the Catholic Church still to this day has its headquarters. People did turn away from the collection of vices that made up their understanding of life. Christianity became the moral and spiritual light of the Roman Empire. It is for us today to offer the same way forward, the same way back. It is not complicated and it is not hard to understand. All it takes is for you and me to say “Right – that’s it – I’ve had enough of this self-destruction. I’m going to put my life right with God through Jesus Christ. I’m going to get my act together. I’m going to live for and serve Jesus Christ.” That is what the Church exists for – to save and help people to eternal salvation.
Jesus Christ is the Way, the Truth and the Life. He offers you his hand, His strength, His friendship His defeat of evil, His resurrection. There is no other power strong enough to deliver you. And he – a Living person – is there for you every day of your life.