I Will Remove Its Hedge and It Will Be Devoured
How many times have you heard people describe their old pastors from their youth as “hellfire and brimstone” preachers or simply as people you “didn’t dare to disagree with?” I still hear comments like this, and more than a few times, I have even had people ask me, “Why did our Synod change?”
Well, today’s lessons from Isaiah and from Matthew today may provide us with some answers about why we, as a church, don’t spend as much time harping on the Law as we used to. I also hope that what you can take away from the message today is a better understanding of the need for the proclamation of God’s mercy too.
In each of these readings, we’re reminded of the fact that when God the Father returns to claim this world and His people for all time, His Son will be set in authority over all, and wrath will be in store for all who have abused and mistreated the Messiah’s love. This teaching certainly qualifies as “hellfire and brimstone,” and it presents God as a person “you just don’t disagree with,” but is it appropriate for us as readers and, more importantly perhaps, as true hearers of God’s Word, to call this message good, old-fashioned Law?
We probably remember Jonathan Edward’s American classic sermon, “Sinners in the Hands of an Angry God” from high school English class. He literally got people fainting and rolling around on the church floor with guilt and self-torture over their sinfulness by scaring his members with threats of God’s awful judgment against sin, but are God’s words to Isaiah and to Matthew today really intended to serve as scare tactics?
I think that God’s Word speaks for itself in regard to its true intent. In Isaiah, we don’t see God’s wrath meted out upon Israel, but rather we see God removing the “hedge of protection” that He had mercifully put around them to protect them.
The result of God’s decision to remove His love and providence from those who have rejected Him and gone their own way is indeed destruction and death, but it is not God’s anger or even His active disciplining of His people that result in the tragedy. Instead, what we have is a picture of what happens when the goodness and kindness of God is disdained, and men choose to live according to sin and death rather than embrace the way and the Lord of life. The same is true of the Gospel lesson today. The servants have multiple opportunities to choose obedience over sin and mercy over judgment, but each time, they choose instead to further condemn themselves by exercising wickedness and rebellion.
If we are seeing God clearly in both of these accounts of judgment, it is not God doing the judging, but rather it is the wicked who are judging God and rebelling against His righteousness. These are lessons about the need for repentance based on the fact of our own sinfulness, but they are NOT about God having a burning desire to destroy and condemn those who hate Him and His Son.
To maintain the Gospel focus that each of these readings are based upon without allowing them to turn us into judges of other people, we should focus on the imagery of the holy “hedge” that God puts up to protect us against our own sins and the sins of a broken world. As I heard one radio preacher say years ago, “Part of the problem Christians have with sin and with ingratitude is that we don’t appreciate just how dangerous life is without God’s constant vigilance on our behalf.” He even went so far as to say that if someone were to offer him $10million to go for one day without God’s protection over his thoughts, words, and deeds for one day, he wouldn’t do it. Even if he would have the guarantee that he would not die that day! He said, “I would never be so foolish as to take a bet like that because in my own sinful nature, I could never be sure that I would want God in my life again after I rejected His love for one day!”
Now THAT is the point of our lessons! We don’t need to worry about God’s wrath so much as we need to be concerned with the fact that our very sinful natures are constantly waging war against the only force and the only good that can save us and promises to never let us go! So-called “hellfire and brimstone” messages should never be understood to only be addressing the wayward sheep within a congregational flock—after all, how many of the wayward sheep are actually in the pews to hear that message?
No, the main audience for these messages was and always has been the repentant sinner who recognizes the awful consequences of sin, is motivated to confront it in their own lives out of thankfulness for what Jesus has done, and then wants to share the Good News of that salvation with others who are NOT within earshot of Jesus’ teachings. It doesn’t do a church any good to preach a message of judgment with the idea that that preaching can produce repentance that comes out of a knowledge of the love of God. But it is a blessing to hear God’s Word as a source of Love and Peace for us when we really know we’re as deserving of judgment as our non-church-going neighbors. The only difference between us and our non-churched neighbors is that we are supposed to recognize the value of God’s hedge of protection for our sake, and our neighbor is either taking God’s hedge for granted or is actively tearing God’s hedge down.
As faithful workers in the Lord’s vineyard, let us speak kindly to those who abuse God’s goodness and invite them to welcome the Son and all the Lord’s servants as He comes to claim what is rightly His—our lives, our possessions, and our eternities. We cannot take any of it with us. God knows best how to use all He gives us to create eternal treasures, and He alone possesses the perfect combination of mercy and unyielding righteousness. Accept as fact that God is fair in His judgment against sin, and every day in His gardens—every hour of labor in His vineyards—will be blessings of grace and hope to us and to those we free from God’s wrath by telling them about Jesus. Blessings as you do just that this week. Amen.