Point Pleasant Presbyterian Church
June 1, 2104; 7th Sunday of Easter, Year A
Psalm 68:1-10, 32-35; John 17:1-11
“…as wax melts before the fire, let the wicked perish before God.”
I’ve been thinking a lot, this past week, about the news out of California — how, near Santa Barbara on May 23, a young man named Elliot Rodger murdered his three roommates with knives, then loaded up his car with three handguns and 41 magazines of bullets. His stated purpose was to kill even more people: and he succeeded all too well. By the time his murderous rampage was over, 7 young adults lay dead (including himself, by suicide), and 13 were wounded. His reason? According to the fragmentary record he left behind, it was because he felt frustrated in his love life.
The media wasted no time in commenting. “We deplore this latest example of mass murder!” “We demand answers for why mental-health providers and police failed to cut this deluded young man out of the herd!”
Predictably, the gun-control debate — always simmering below the surface of our national life — broke forth into flame. “Pass laws restricting gun ownership!” cried one side. “Guns don’t kill people, people do!” cried the other — quickly adding it’s really Hollywood’s fault for making all those violent movies, and the mental health system’s fault for doing such a lousy job of screening cases.
The truth is, not even the most astute therapist or detective, given all the evidence, would have had an easy time predicting Elliot Rodger’s rampage. To claim otherwise is a case of 20/20 hindsight. Sure, there were warning signs of a troubled personality, but, remember, much of this young man’s anguish happened inside his own head. He didn’t want people to know what he was planning, because he didn’t want them to stop him.
How quick we are, in our society, to scramble for a complex explanation for moral atrocities, when the real answer’s right in front of our faces.
The answer is that Elliot Rodger was a wicked human being.
The word “wicked” has all but disappeared from our common speech — unless it’s to describe a caricatured villain like the evil witch in The Wizard of Oz. Strangely, “wicked” sometimes takes on a completely opposite meaning — as in a “wicked good” bottle of beer.
All this suggests to me that our culture is acutely uncomfortable with the whole concept of human wickedness. If someone does a clearly wicked thing — like going on a shooting rampage — everybody frantically goes searching for a mental-health explanation. Because — don’t you know? — nobody’s really wicked! Human beings are basically good! When there’s an exception to that rule that everyone today is so sure of, there must be an explanation — like having too much to drink, or suffering from an illness that messes with the functioning of the brain.
That, my friends, is not the view of the Bible. Wickedness is not some aberration. It is the human condition. The first verses of Psalm 68, that we read today, put it in stark terms:
“Let God rise up, let his enemies be scattered;
let those who hate him flee before him.
As smoke is driven away, so drive them away;
as wax melts before the fire, let the wicked perish before God.”
I was struck, reading that psalm, by the image of a lump of wax melting before a fire. The wicked, the psalmist is saying, are like that lump of wax. The moment they find themselves in the presence of God Almighty, the moment they feel the searing heat of divine justice, they begin to melt away.
In the first part of this psalm — “Let God rise up, let his enemies be scattered” — God sounds like a victorious general, leading the angelic armies of heaven on a war of retribution. In the second verse, the imagery shifts. The Lord has now become a fiery sun. What chance has a lump of wicked wax to survive, in the presence of such blazing goodness?
Notice that, in that second verse, God has no need of sword nor spear nor armies to vanquish the wicked. God’s very being, the fiery blaze of justice and goodness that is the Almighty, is quite enough to accomplish that work. This is not divine punishment. It’s spiritual chemistry. The light and heat of God’s goodness are simply incompatible with wickedness.
If you’re a fan of old movies, you may be thinking, now, of that scene in Stephen Spielberg’s Raiders of the Lost Ark, when the Nazi officer opens the lid of the Ark of the Covenant. At first, the box seems to be empty, but moments later there arises from it such a blaze of glory that the villain’s face literally melts away. It’s a cheesy, B-movie special effect, but it’s actually rather faithful to the biblical picture of what it’s like for a wicked person — like you or me — to come into God’s presence.
In the book of Exodus, the Lord gives Moses a special dispensation to draw near, because — without that special grace — anyone who looks upon the face of God will die. In the book of 1 Kings, when the Lord catches up with Elijah as he’s on the run, the prophet has to hide himself in the cleft of a rock as God passes by, shielding himself from the deadly tri-fecta of earthquake, wind and fire.
The point, here, is not so much to portray God as a frightening force of nature as to observe that, in the presence of divine justice and power, our paltry human aspirations to goodness are an act of self-delusion. Confronted with God’s glory, you and I are no better than a lump of wax — and will melt away just as quickly.
Which is why we need Jesus. Time and again, throughout all the centuries of their history, the people of Israel struggle to come to terms with the baffling reality of this divine being they worship, who is so utterly different from themselves and everything they have come to know. At the center of their Temple in Jerusalem is the Holy of Holies — a place, frankly, so dangerous that only their High Priest is allowed to enter, and then only on one day per year. That’s Yom Kippur, the Day of Atonement, when the High Priest makes intercession for the people’s sins, just as Moses did on Mount Sinai. The High Priest — the most righteous person in all the land — enters that place in fear and trembling, knowing that, beneath his gold-trimmed robes, his heart is just as wicked as any other person’s, and that he is just as subject to moral meltdown.
The author of the New Testament Letter to the Hebrews has a lot to say about the high priest of Israel, and how Christians no longer need him, because they have Jesus Christ:
“For it was fitting that we should have such a high priest, holy, blameless, undefiled, separated from sinners, and exalted above the heavens. Unlike the other high priests, he has no need to offer sacrifices day after day, first for his own sins, and then for those of the people; this he did once for all when he offered himself.” [Hebrews 8:26-27]
That’s basic Christian doctrine — no surprise there. The problem is, we twenty-first-century Christians have all but forgotten it. One survey taken, in the second year of this century, reported that 73% of Americans agree with the statement, “human beings are basically good.” It’s the triumph of “I’m OK, you’re OK,” as the title of the old pop-psychology bestseller puts it. There’s simply no room, in that system of thinking, for sin. There’s only illness — the consequence being that people who do wicked deeds aren’t themselves wicked at all. They’re just mentally ill. The solution to wickedness, therefore, is not salvation but psychotherapy; not repentance, but rehab.
The theologian H. Richard Niebuhr was there on the scene, in the 1950s, to catch the beginning of this turning tide. He complained, in those days, about an alternative religion that seemed to be rising up in the land. The essential teaching of this religion is this: “A God without wrath brought men without sin into a kingdom without judgment though the ministrations of a Christ without a cross.” Feelgood religion, in other words — displaying many of the outward trappings of Christianity, but none of the bite.
Even earlier, the poet T.S. Eliot — a devout Christian believer — marveled that modern people accept the classic teachings of the church at all, when it comes to matters of sin and righteousness:
“Why should men love the church? Why should they
Love her laws?
She tells them of Life and Death, and of all that they
She is tender where they would be hard, and hard
Where they like to be soft.
She tells them of Evil and sin, and other unpleasant
They constantly try to escape
From the darkness outside and within
By dreaming of systems so perfect that no one will
Need to be good.
But the man that is will shadow
The man that pretends to be.”
[Choruses from “The Rock”]
Another poet of our own time, Carol Wimmer, witnesses to her personal understanding of sin and grace. The poem’s called “When I Say I Am a Christian”:
When I say, “I am a Christian,” I’m not bragging of success
I’m admitting that I’ve failed and cannot ever pay the debt
When I say, “I am a Christian,” I don’t think I know it all
I submit to my confusion asking humbly to be taught
When I say, “I am a Christian,” I’m not claiming to be perfect
My flaws are far too visible but God believes I’m worth it
When I say, “I am a Christian,” I still feel the sting of pain
I have my share of heartache which is why I seek His name
When I say, “I am a Christian,” I do not wish to judge
I have no authority — I only know I’m loved.
So, what does God give us, as a remedy for human wickedness? What talisman does God offer, in lieu of the High Priest’s prayers of atonement, echoing in the stark emptiness of the Holy of Holies?
Only the simple gifts that are spread upon this table, offered to us without money and without price, by the one who is host at this banquet. “This is my body, broken for you. This is my blood, for the forgiveness of sins.” Accepting the gifts on this table is the only effectual solution to wickedness, which — admit it — is the normal state of us all. There is no therapist who can cure sin, no prison term that can suppress it. Only Christ can offer us a new, redeemed life that is free of it. He is here with us today, the host at this banquet — offering not the fiery glory that would melt us, but bread and wine that sustain us.
Come, join me — a wicked person, just like you — as we partake of the feast of mercy and of grace!