Saturday, May 14, 2016

A Brimstone Beatnik

The only sermon ever studied in my public high school was “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God.” (Although I’m sure people were pushing for more.) For generations it has set on the curriculum as representation of the Great Awakening and colonial writing. The class read it in conjunction with The Scarlet Letter and The Crucible and learned that, man, those Puritans were hardcore. It’s the fire and brimstone sermon. It’s fear-driven and threatening, and I never understood why it was supposed to be effective. Who would go to church every Sunday to hear this? It was far, far from the sermons I was used to, extolling us to love Christ and love as Christ.

The culture shock wasn’t because of the 250-year gap. I didn’t go up in revival culture. There was no emotional manipulation; no praise band hitting the right chords or yelling pastors pleading for altar calls or Road to Damascus testimonies. Church was not a place of emotional highs and fear of hell; it was place of comfort. There was the regular community, the regular sacraments, the regular social justice work. We ebbed and flowed with the liturgical calendar. We never clapped. Both Edwards’ church and the one of my childhood were under the “Presbyterian/Reformed” banner, but the only thing they seemed to share was a 66-book canon. Edwards’ God sounded completely different to one I knew.

But as I sat in my old church recently, buffered by all the old familiarity, I felt that it could do with a little Edwards in the pulpit. I don’t like fire and brimstone; it’s foreign and it’s uncomfortable and feels manipulative. But it’s in the Bible, and it has its time and place. After hundreds of Sundays of listening about Christ’s love and tolerance and open table, one needs to be reminded that he also spoke of hell, of repenting, of coming with a sword.

Jesus is not a hippie or a socialist or just a good moral teacher. He’s not a guru or therapist. He makes demands. He sets conditions. He stops the men from stoning the adulteress, but he also tells the adulteress to stop sinning. “Go, and sin no more.” You are free to come as you are, but you shouldn’t leave the same way.

The more you get to know someone, the more dimensional they become. That nice guy has an angry streak and that office bitch has a big heart. People are beautifully multi-faceted and complex. Loving someone is more than a fuzzy feeling. It’s more than an open door policy. Love is a work. It takes effort to get to understand someone’s complexity, to see those facets harmonize into a unique creation, to desire the good of that individual. We have to make sure our image of Jesus isn’t one-dimensional, that we don’t make him a caricature of a violent warrior or a tolerant beatnik. Those who are threatened with hell need a message of comfort, and those who are comfortable need a message of hell. Both messages are of Christ, a complex, multi-faceted man. 

But ultimately, Christ’s message is secondary. It doesn’t matter so much what kind of man Jesus is, but that he is man at all. The scandal of the Incarnation is supreme. The Word became flesh and dwelt among us. Jesus is fully God and fully man. He might not be the kind of man we want him to be. He might not smite down the adulterer. He might not lead a political coup against Rome. He might not be financially frugal or clean-shaven or vegan. He might not support the troops or bless same-sex weddings. Instead, he is who is. Isn’t that enough? Isn’t that everything?

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