The Epistle St. James 1.17
Dearly beloved: Every good gift, and every perfect gift is from above, and cometh down from the Father of lights, with whom is no variableness, neither shadow of turning. Of his own will begat he us with the word of truth, that we should be a kind of first-fruits of his creatures. Wherefore, my beloved brethren, let every man be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath. For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God. Wherefore lay apart all filthiness, and superfluity of naughtiness, and receive with meekness the engrafted word, which is able to save your souls.
I have to confess that I am more than a little surprised and disappointed that any of us are here today. After all, in case you hadn’t heard, the Rapture took place on May 21st, 2011 at 11:00 A.M. The fact that any of us are here today must mean that Christ came down from Heaven and didn’t find any of us to be worthy to be taken back with him. This disturbed me more than a little as I chaired our last Vestry meeting; watching each member, just in case, you know.
Also, just so you know, after the time that this Rapture supposedly took place, the rest of us were supposed to have to endured some sort of tribulation for at least five months, at which time the world would come to an end. Of course, all this is assuming that some off-the-wall preacher in California, with an ordination certificate “validly” obtained right off the Internet, was right, and that the Mayan Indians were wrong when they said that the world would end in 2012.
Silliness; just plain and simple silliness. The type of which we are tempted to just ignore or pass off as the blathering of some ill-informed or misbegotten group of people. Kind of like those folks who claim to have seen the image of the Blessed Virgin in a taco shell. But what about those examples of silliness that move us to some greater emotion? What about those offenses that we witness in this “modern” world that provoke our passion? What about those things that cause us to invoke our wrath?
Anger. Outrage. Fury. How many times do each of us experience these emotions in the course of a given day or week? It may happen when we see or hear a story on the news that is particularly appalling. It may occur when we observe someone driving erratically. It may come upon us when a child acts up, or when a neighbor or acquaintance says something we deem offensive.
These same emotions come upon us when we are presented with the apostasy and the godless attitude of the society in which we live. We become angered when we see efforts to eliminate God from our schools. We are outraged when we hear about attempts to eradicate Christianity in other countries. And we are incited to fury when we learn of the various blasphemies committed in the name of “art”, or “freedom of speech”, or of the wholesale slaughter of innocents in the name of “choice”.
And we might think it well and good that we should feel these emotions, given the nature of the offenses that provoked them. We may feel that we are justified in the expression of our wrath. But here we tread on dangerous ground. Because these same emotions that we feel are right and just to experience in the face of such obvious evil, can also be our undoing. For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.
Anger, outrage, and fury; in the hands of Satan, these can be emotions that destroy. “Destroy what”, you may ask. Or perhaps you will ask instead, “destroy whom”? My answer to you is, “both”. These emotions may destroy the very cause for which you fight or defend, and it may destroy you as well. These emotions can become so all-consuming in our lives that we may forget the reason why we fight or defend, and become too focused instead on the emotions themselves. In other words, we can get so caught up in being angry, outraged and furious, that we completely forget that it is actually God who has been offended. For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God.
I call to your attention the definition of the word “wrath”; “vengeance or punishment as the consequence of anger”. This is the emotion that we fall into all to often when we see the atrocities in the world around us. After 9/11, how many of us were moved to demand immediate retaliation against those who had perpetrated the terrorist attacks? “Get them back! Teach them a lesson! KILL as many of them as we can! If they think that they can kill us with impunity, then we will show them, and WE WILL MAKE THEM PAY! They will learn what it’s like to feel OUR wrath”.
Now, let me give you another definition for the word “wrath”: “divine vengeance or retribution”. Anyone notice the difference here? Obviously, the first and most noticeable is the word “divine”. From the 12th chapter of Romans (v 18-20), “vengeance is mine; I will repay, saith the Lord”. In other words, “wrath” is reserved for God alone. When we seek vengeance or retribution for ourselves, we are usurping the Divine Prerogative. We are trying to play God.
The less obvious difference between the two definitions is what the second one lacks. Listen again to both of them; “vengeance or punishment as the consequence of anger”, “divine vengeance or retribution”. Did you hear it this time? That’s right; our wrath is driven by the negative emotions of anger, outrage, and fury. And the Divine wrath, God’s Wrath; It is the natural consequence of His Love. More specifically, it’s what happens when we reject His Love.
The Old Testament is full of such examples; how many times were the people of Israel enslaved and carried off into exile because they had rejected God? They wandered in the desert for forty years because they lacked faith in His Love for them. How often did they feel the Wrath of God?
Likewise, the enemies of God also felt His Wrath; as we recently read from the book of Exodus during Morning Prayer these past few weeks, we know that the Egyptians felt the Wrath of God. But the constant theme here is that it was God’s vengeance, God’s retribution, God’s Wrath that was carried out, not mans; because only God’s Wrath can work His righteousness.
Now this does not mean that we cannot act as instruments of God’s Wrath. We see this also in the Old Testament, in the 25th chapter of Ezekiel (V 13-15), “And I will lay my vengeance upon Edom by the hand of my people Israel: and they shall do in Edom according to mine anger and according to my fury; and they shall know my vengeance, saith the Lord God”. God may, and sometimes will, use us to meet out His Justice here on Earth. But it is always according to His plan, according to His will, and to punish those who have offended Him through their ungodly actions. And you could hardly be blamed if the name Usama bin-Laden just came to your mind.
But again, I must caution you all, that if we are to celebrate anything in the punishment of those who offend God, it should be that GOD’S WILL WAS DONE! We cannot, we must not feel that WE have been avenged; again, from the 12th chapter of Romans, “Dearly beloved, avenge not yourselves, but rather give place unto wrath”. “give place unto wrath”, “leave it to the Wrath of God”. We are neither wise enough nor good enough to punish the enemies of God. But we may rest assured that He will.
The danger to us for attempting to do otherwise, to succumb to the temptation to anger, outrage, and fury, to take it upon ourselves to show our wrath, is to risk a great fall into sin. As the Psalmist cautions us, “Leave off from wrath and let go displeasure: fret not thyself, else shalt thou be moved to do evil” (Ps. 37, V 8). Evil is what happens when man seeks to usurp the authority of God.
So how do we know the difference? How do we restrain our human tendency to those negative emotions of anger, outrage, and fury? How do we restrain our desire for vengeance and retribution, and “leave it to the Wrath of God”? Well, fortunately, the author of today’s Epistle has given us some helpful hints.
“be swift to hear”. This should be the easy part. Hearing is something that we are commanded to do all the time; “hear what Our Lord Jesus Christ saith”, “hear what comfortable words Our Savior Christ saith”, “if any man have ears, let him hear”, “blessed are they that hear the word of God, and keep it” (Luke, ch. 11, v 28). Yes, we must listen to the Word of God, but it is of even more importance to HEAR him. We must therefore be both patient and anxious to know the Will of God, and to do so, we must take every opportunity, beginning immediately, to discern His plan for us.
“slow to speak”. We must remember that Our Lord said “Not that which goeth into the mouth defileth a man; but that which cometh out of the mouth, this defileth a man” (Matthew, ch. 15, v 11). If we allow our anger, outrage, and fury to guide our thoughts and words, then that is how we will be known to the outside world. We will be branded as an angry and irrational people, and our Faith will be marginalized as a result. Spewing our rage defiles us, no matter how justified we may feel, because it is our rage, and not Gods.
“slow to wrath”. If you feel the desire to seek “vengeance or punishment as the consequence of anger”, then maybe its time to stop and think for a moment. Why do you feel the need for vengeance? Why do you think that someone deserves punishment, and for what offense? Do you seek retribution for some transgression committed against you or against your Church, your family, your neighbor, or your country? And are you taking upon yourself the responsibility, no, the authority, that rests with God alone? Are you taking upon yourself the attributes of “divine vengeance or retribution”; are you usurping the Wrath of God?
Over the years, I have read any number of the martyrologies of the Saints (as I’m sure some of you have as well), and one thing that has always struck me is the way in which many of the martyrs went to their death; they met their fate with great joy and peace, even in the face of the most cruel tortures. I believe that these people were able to be so brave, so constant, so serene because they knew, without a doubt, what God’s plan was for them.
They knew because they had listened and heard the Word of God. They knew because they had taken it upon themselves to speak only that which they could be assured would not defile them, or the Faith they proclaimed. And they knew that it was not up to them to pronounce wrath upon their tormentors, but rather that such Wrath was the responsibility and under the authority of God alone.
And so, my beloved brethren, as we live out our daily lives in this Vail of tears, it is all the more incumbent on us who have received such an example from those who have gone before us; to be swift to hear, slow to speak, slow to wrath. For the wrath of man worketh not the righteousness of God. Only God Himself can do that.