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Bishop Richard's Weekly Video Message - Transcript 10/03/2022

Hello everyone and welcome to this week’s video.

As we watch the unfolding wickedness in Ukraine we will be experiencing a range of emotions. There will be distress at the suffering, admiration at the courage and sacrifice of those caring for the besieged.  I’m sure there will be anger as well.  As we are confronted by such blatant evil, based as it is on a distorted mythic view of history, our frustration at being unable to change things inevitable produces a righteous indignation and demand that those responsible should be brought to justice.  Such injustices as those currently meted out in Ukraine are only different in scale to those we have seen in Chechnya, Yemen, Syria, Myanmar and Afghanistan over the last few years. I’m asking myself why these didn’t generate the same sort of emotional response in me. In most of the those there was some sense that the conflict did have two sides, either due to terrorism or interstate conflict. But here, even if Putin’s screwed up mythology was right, his artillery crews have a very odd way of expressing Slavic brotherhood as their shells rain down on innocent civilians. Perhaps it’s the shear wastefulness of it and blatant violation of international law and principle.

There would be something very wrong with us if we witnessed this daily diet of horrors and were not moved in some way by it. But for some reason many people struggle with the idea that God might be similarly moved. Yet, the scriptures are full of descriptions of God being moved by human suffering. The Old Testament describes God’s anger over the oppression of his people, and his heartbreak for the suffering they bring on themselves through the corruption of their society. Psalm 11: 6, those who delight in violence his soul abhors. Jesus was moved to tears over the death of Lazarus his friend. As he contemplated the destruction of Jerusalem after his death as a result of continuous political rebellion his voice is filled with emotion. He too shows anger at religious intransigence and oppression.

One word we seem to have a particular aversion to is wrath.  When its used in the Bible it doesn’t mean a petulant outburst, a foul temper or a lack of self-control.  It is God’s settled opposition to, and displeasure at evil. Paul in Romans 1, speaks of ‘the wrath of God being revealed from heaven against all the godlessness and wickedness of people who suppress the truth by their wickedness’. I would have a real problem with a God who wasn’t angry at Putin’s behaviour or the holocaust or the persecution of our fellow Christians around the world. A God who was indifferent to human suffering and the wickedness that caused it is the god of Greek philosophy, not the God of the scriptures.

There is a popular modern hymn by Stuart Townsend called in Christ alone.  Most of it is uncontroversial, but there is one stanza many don’t like. It goes, “and on the cross as Jesus died, the wrath of God was satisfied.” It sometimes replaced (illegally according to copyright) with “and on the cross as Jesus died, the love of God is magnified.” I can understand why people do it, but it does miss one of the main themes that Christians have always believed happens in Jesus death. Confronted with Putin’s behaviour we rightly think justice should be done. Someone should be punished and some sort of recompense made to the victims. An unavoidable theme in the New Testament is that in some way on the cross sin is actually punished and justice is done.  Lets be clear this is not a cosmic safeguarding issue in which an angry God metes out suffering on an innocent victim unjustly punishing him for the sins of other people. We are moved by Ukrainian families giving up their sons to fight against the Russians.  There is pain on both sides here – pain in the giving up and sacrifice in the offering. This is against the backdrop of a war going on in which there feels like there is little choice.  In the cross we are gazing into a cosmic mystery, where all metaphors ultimately fall short. This is the centre of the moral universe in which both justice and mercy can be present at the same time in the same person crucified between two thieves on the town rubbish dump. God is both the one who is angry at evil and at the same time receives the appropriate and just punishment for evil in himself.  The event is as ghastly as it is to be seen to be sufficient a punishment for any sins we humans commit. We are all invited to receive the benefits of this as gift. In the cross our sins are punished so we can be set free and forgiven.  

Jesus reveals to us that God is indeed angry at sin, but also deeply understanding of our human condition. This of course prompts the question, “if he’s angry at sin, then why doesn’t he intervene more directly to do something about it?” I’ll leave that question for next week’s video.

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