January 24, 2021*
By Pastor John Partridge
What does it mean when we say that we are in the hands of God?
Of course, we sometimes joke about being in God’s hands, or about the wrath of God, such as this exchange with the mayor of New York City in Ghostbusters where the Ghostbusters were trying to communicate the seriousness of the situation presented by the appearance of the god Zuul:
Dr Ray Stantz: What he means is Old Testament, Mr. Mayor, real wrath-of-God type stuff.
Dr. Peter Venkman: Exactly.
Dr Ray Stantz: Fire and brimstone coming down from the skies. Rivers and seas boiling.
Dr. Egon Spengler: Forty years of darkness. Earthquakes, volcanoes…
Winston Zeddemore: The dead rising from the grave.
Dr. Peter Venkman: Human sacrifice, dogs and cats living together – mass hysteria.
And, as a comedy, it was funny. We all laughed. But the real wrath of God is anything but funny.
The early church father Origen of Alexandria, who lived from 184 to 253 AD., once said:
“We speak, indeed, of the wrath of God. We do not, however, assert that it indicates any passion on His part, but that it is something which is assumed in order to discipline by stern means those sinners who have committed many and grievous sins.”
Origen says God’s wrath is an unfolding of discipline directed against those people, and nations, that have committed many and grievous sins.
John Calvin expanded on that by saying, “When God wants to judge a nation, He gives them wicked rulers.”
And, at the founding of our nation, George Washington shared that understanding when he urged his countrymen to build a nation that would remain in God’s good graces by saying:
“Let us raise a standard to which the wise and honest can repair; the rest is in the hands of God.”
It is worth pausing here to clarify that Washington wasn’t saying that our nation needed to fix something that was broken but was instead using a definition of repair that isn’t quite as common today than it was in the 1700’s. In this sentence, Washington isn’t saying that our nation is broken, but that we needed to set a standard for government toward which wise and honest people would want to go, or one around which such people would want to rally. It was Washington’s hope that this new nation would be, as Ronald Reagan described it, “A shining city on a hill,” and “A beacon of hope.”
But why does any of that matter? Why is that relevant?
It matters, because people and nations that wander far from God run the risk of falling out of God’s good graces. In the biblical story of Jonah, we hear the story of the city of Nineveh, and the nation of Assyria which had become almost entirely evil. And that evil caused God to warn them that, without repentance and change, he intended to destroy them. Of course, Assyria and Israel were enemies, so Jonah wanted God to destroy Nineveh, but once we get past the story of Jonah’s rebellion and the incident with the whale, Jonah obeys and carries God’s message to the people of Nineveh in Jonah 3:1-5, 10 where we hear this:
3:1 Then the word of the Lord came to Jonah a second time: 2 “Go to the great city of Nineveh and proclaim to it the message I give you.”
3 Jonah obeyed the word of the Lord and went to Nineveh. Now Nineveh was a very large city; it took three days to go through it. 4 Jonah began by going a day’s journey into the city, proclaiming, “Forty more days and Nineveh will be overthrown.” 5 The Ninevites believed God. A fast was proclaimed, and all of them, from the greatest to the least, put on sackcloth.
10 When God saw what they did and how they turned from their evil ways, he relented and did not bring on them the destruction he had threatened.
Nineveh was evil, but their repentance caused God to relent and did not bring upon them the destruction that he had threatened. At least not right away. In the end, Nineveh and Assyria returned to their wicked ways and the prophet Nahum declares that God intends to bring them to judgement, and not long afterwards, the Babylonian Empire wipes Nineveh off the face of the planet.
Oddly enough, the message carried by Jonah was almost the same message that we hear in Mark 1:14-20 as Jesus begins his ministry in Galilee.
14 After John was put in prison, Jesus went into Galilee, proclaiming the good news of God. 15 “The time has come,” he said. “The kingdom of God has come near. Repent and believe the good news!”
16 As Jesus walked beside the Sea of Galilee, he saw Simon and his brother Andrew casting a net into the lake, for they were fishermen. 17 “Come, follow me,” Jesus said, “and I will send you out to fish for people.” 18 At once they left their nets and followed him.
19 When he had gone a little farther, he saw James son of Zebedee and his brother John in a boat, preparing their nets. 20 Without delay he called them, and they left their father Zebedee in the boat with the hired men and followed him.
Rather than declare that God intended to destroy them in seven days, the message of Jesus was that the kingdom of God had come to earth just as God had promised. The time had come for God’s people to repent of their sins, believe the good news, and follow Jesus. And, while Jesus calls his disciples, and while many choose to follow Jesus, many in Jerusalem, and in the nation of Israel, do not. And less than forty years later, Rome levels Jerusalem to the ground, rebuilds it as a new Roman city named Aelia Capitolina with a temple of Jupiter in the place of the Jewish temple, and legally prohibits any Jew from living in Jerusalem for the next six or seven hundred years.
But what does that mean for us in the twenty first century?
Not surprisingly, the church in Corinth was asking a very similar question two thousand years ago and Paul explained it this way in 1 Corinthians 7:29-31.
29 What I mean, brothers and sisters, is that the time is short. From now on those who have wives should live as if they do not; 30 those who mourn, as if they did not; those who are happy, as if they were not; those who buy something, as if it were not theirs to keep; 31 those who use the things of the world, as if not engrossed in them. For this world in its present form is passing away.
Paul’s point, and the lesson from the previous stories of destruction, is that nothing in this world is truly permanent. “Stuff” isn’t permanent, family isn’t permanent, even cities and nations are not permanent. The only thing that lasts, is God. It isn’t that we cannot enjoy the things that this world has to offer, or that we shouldn’t love and cling to our families, or that we shouldn’t have some loyalty to the nations in which we live, it’s that we should always remember that these things need to be secondary to our relationship with God and to the things that last for eternity. If we want to be a part of something that lasts forever, we need to invest our time and our resources toward building that kingdom. If we want our families to last forever, then we need to do things that will guide them into God’s kingdom alongside of us. And if we want our nations to endure, then we need to do what we can to encourage our leaders, and steer them toward righteousness, so that our nations do not stray too far from God.
As we inaugurate a new president, we know that much will change. But we also know that every president, and every other elected official, has failings and shortcomings. None of us is perfect, and wandering from God’s path is, and always has been, entirely too easy. That is true for each of us as individuals and it is true of governments and nations. Nineveh repented and God spared them from destruction, until they once again wandered from the truth and did evil in the sight of God. Even Jerusalem and Israel were not spared when they rejected Jesus and wandered too far from the truth. God allowed his holy nation to be overcome by both the Babylonians and by the Roman Empire. If history and scripture teach us anything, it is that must always keep God in the center of everything that we do.
Let us take this time to recommit ourselves to godliness and to prayer. Let us remember to pray for all our elected officials. Let us pray that God would grant them the wisdom to lead well, and to lead us to a place of justice and righteousness before God. But let us also remember to keep the main thing, the main thing. To keep God in the center of our lives, in the center of our families, and in the center of our loyalties.
We are not, and never have been, divided by labels like Republican, Democrat, Libertarian, or even American, Canadian, European, or African. We are, instead, united under one banner, one nation, and one kingdom as the children of God and the followers of Jesus Christ.
You can find the video of this worship service here: https://youtu.be/QsrfZUR0C5o
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*You have been reading a message presented at Christ United Methodist Church on the date noted at the top of the first page. Rev. John Partridge is the pastor at Christ UMC in Alliance, Ohio. Duplication of this message is a part of our Media ministry, if you have received a blessing in this way, we would love to hear from you. Letters and donations in support of the Media ministry or any of our other projects may be sent to Christ United Methodist Church, 470 East Broadway Street, Alliance, Ohio 44601. These messages are available to any interested persons regardless of membership. You may subscribe to these messages, in print or electronic formats, by writing to the address noted, or by contacting us at secretary@CUMCAlliance.org. If you have questions, you can ask them in our discussion forum on Facebook (search for Pastor John Online). These messages can also be found online at https://pastorpartridge.wordpress.com/. All Scripture references are from the New International Version unless otherwise noted.