In one of the Lenten weekday readings (Wednesday the second week), the prophet Jeremiah says, Remember that I stood before you Oh Lord, to speak on their behalf, to turn away your wrath from them (Jer 18:20).
Jeremiah’s utterance also calls to mind the saying of Pope Gregory The Great who said, Anyone ordained a priest undertakes the task of preaching, that with a loud cry he may go on ahead of the terrible Judge who follows. (Pastoral Guide, Book 2:4).
Now statements like these have to be considered carefully. Descriptions of the wrath of God, and fearsome images of judgment, should not be taken as descriptions of a grouchy God or of a moody and irritable Jesus. Rather, the wrath of God describes the intrinsic conflict between God’s utter holiness and sin.
Consider for example that fire and water do not mix. They cannot be in the same place at the same time. The conflict between them is audible when, for example, we spill water on a hot stove top. We hear the hissing and popping. And this is wrath, this is the conflict.
For water and fire will not coexist in the same spot for long; one will displace the other. If there is a lot of water, and a little fire, out goes the fire. If there is but a little water and a lot of fire, the water immediately turns to steam and is blown away.
And this is how it is with God’s holiness in the presence of sin and injustice. There is a conflict that the Scriptures call wrath. Sin and injustice cannot endure the presence of God, and if they are in us, neither can we adore the presence of God.
It is necessary therefore that we be rendered holy prior to coming into the presence of God. Scripture says, in the book of Hebrews, that we are to strive for that holiness without which no one will see the Lord. (Heb 12:14). Of heaven, the book of Revelation says Nothing impure will ever enter it (Rev 21:27)
Now we live in times that tend to brush all of this teaching aside. Most moderns give little thought to their appointment with destiny, or their appearance before the judgment seat of Christ. Most simply think they can walk blithely into the presence of God. Not only is our sense of sin diminished, but even more so, our sense of God’s utter holiness is diminished.
Nevertheless, despite our modern conceptions, Scripture says over, and over, and over again that judgment is something to be taken very seriously and that many will be unable to enter the presence of God (eg. Luke 13:24, inter al).
In the end, it is only the Lord himself they can prepare us for the fateful day of our judgment. Scripture says that Jesus rescues us from the coming wrath (1 Thessalonians 1:10). The Letter to the Romans also says, we [shall] be safe from God’s wrath through him (Romans 5:9).
Yes, it is only the Lord who can save us and prepare us for judgement so as to avoid The wrath, which is the conflict between sin and God’s utter holiness.
But surely this means that we must be very serious then about prayer, receiving of the sacraments, growing in faith, and holiness by his grace, and staying within the saving ark which is the Church.
And while remains true that only God can save us, and is rich in mercy, it is also true as Augustine says, that he who made us without us will not save us without us (cf Sermon 169.13). Our cooperation and permission (by his grace) with his saving work is an essential aspect of being ready for the coming day of judgment.
Tragically, as the Lord warns, many refuse the pleas of God the Holy Spirit and harden their hearts. Remaining in repeated in unrepentant sin has, it would seem, a cumulative effect, and, as the Lord Jesus says the Day closes in like on them like a trap (Luke 21:34).
Given our propensity to procrastinate, and be presumptuous, especially in these modern days, we need to allow texts like the to increase our sobriety. God is clear, the Day of Judgment is something to be very sober and serious about.
We rightly trust in God’s mercy But we cannot simply neglect the responsibility that comes with freedom; a freedom in which God has constituted us so that we may love and freely choose him. We need to recover the understanding that our choice becomes cumulative over time.
We also need to better grasp that our judgment consists in a recognition by God of the choices we have made, it is a kind of respectful acknowledgment by God of what we have chosen. In this sense Judgement is more about our final choice, than simply a choice God makes to save or condemn.
Pray God that our choice is yes to God, and that we do not harden our hearts.
And even for those who die in friendship with God, it seems clear that for most of us, some finishing work is required in order that we enter into the full presence of God. For here too, we must remember that God is utterly holy and that nothing impure is able to endure His glorious presence for long.
Thus, God in his mercy, burns away our imperfections with a lesser fire, lest we endure the unmitigated fire of his utter Holiness, for again, the Scripture says, our God is a consuming fire (Heb 12:29).
Perhaps in this context, we do well to speculate that though Hell is hot, Heaven is hotter. For our God is a burning furnace of charity, a refining fire, an intensity of love. As Jesus one said, I have come to cast a fire on earth, and how I wish the blaze were already ignited! (Luke 12:49)
So, we must be ready to enter a glorious fire by already being on fire ourselves. It is no accident that the Lord kindled a fire by sending tongues of fire upon the early apostles, and upon all of us at our Confirmation. The only way to enter God’s fire is to already be fire ourselves, by his grace.
Yes fellow Christians there is a wrath. It is not a wrath as we commonly understand the term, but it is nevertheless something for which we must be ready. Let the Lord set you on fire with his love, to get you ready!