August 11, 2013 - Twelfth Sunday after Pentecost
I stepped on a rusty
nail. I was nine years old and climbing around on the boards left from an old
chicken coop behind my grandmother’s house. She warned me to stay away from
there, but I just figured she meant not go out there with no shoes. I learned
that an upturned nail goes pretty easily through the bottom of a pair of Keds.
We were a family of
nurses and there was great to-do and off we rushed to the small-town doctor for
a tetanus shot. On the way my great aunt old me more than I wanted to know
about puncture wounds and lock-jaw. Before they gave me the shot, the old
family doctor looked at the nail hole, injected some Novocain in the area, and cleaned
it out. I was brave and didn’t cry at all.
Then, the doctor said,
“Hello. What’s this?” “This” was another sore, between my first two toes, where
a stick jammed when I was playing by the creek a couple days before. “This looks
worse than the other,” he said, and began to poke around and clean that wound as
well. He forgot the Novocain didn’t quite reach there. I did cry then.
It wasn’t fair! I came in for the nail hole. I didn’t want him digging around somewhere
As C. S. Lewis points
out, going to God about our sins can be like that. You dig in, confess, let the
Lord clean up a bit of pride or envy. But then the Lord goes on digging around
in your heart asking “What about this? Or that?” That’s how I feel about the
sin of anger. I really don’t want to poke around in there too much. It makes me
Our spiritual physician,
Jesus, takes up anger as His first topic in the “antitheses” of the Sermon on
the Mount. Six times He says, “You have heard that it was said,” referring to
Old Testament law or common understanding of the law, then goes on to say, “But
I tell you …” Each time He makes the law more difficult. He pokes into a brand
new area of sin not really much addressed before. And he starts with anger.
Next is lust, which is next week.
We all feel anger. It happens,
like pain or pleasure, like an ache or an itch. You are feeling wonderful on a
sunny day. God is in heaven and all is right with the world. You drive down the
road and pull up to a stoplight. The light turns green, you take your foot off
the brake and begin to step on the gas. At the same time, the car facing you,
stopped in the other direction, jumps the gun and whips a left turn
right in front of you. Boom. Your pulse doubles and your hands clench on the
wheel, maybe you lean on the horn. “You jerk!” you yell. Forget zero to
sixty in six seconds. You went from happy to angry in three seconds.
It’s a deadly sin,
because anger is deadly dangerous. We have a term now for the anger we feel
behind the wheel, “road rage.” And unchecked, anger leads us down a horrible
path. Nathan Campbell may have been drinking before he drove down a boardwalk
in Venice, California knocking down pedestrians like bowling pins last week,
but it seems certain there was anger involved. Anger takes us down deadly
So one of the church
fathers, John Cassian, taught that a good Christian should strive to totally
eliminate anger from your soul. He was thinking in part of the verse we read
from Ephesians 4:31 this morning, “Put away from you all bitterness and wrath
and anger…” Anger is just too destructive, too divisive, too harmful to allow
it any role in our lives.
On the other hand, we
also read verse 26 in Ephesians 4, which tells us, “Be angry, but do not sin…”
The implication is that at least some forms of anger are not sinful. You
can be angry without sinning. We might hope so, because Jesus Himself got
angry. Mark 3:5 tells us Jesus got angry with Pharisees who did not want
Him to heal a man on the Sabbath.
It gets worse with
Jesus. What does He say will put you in danger of going to hell? Calling
someone a fool. But He Himself used that angry word. Turn to Matthew 23:17, and the first word in Greek is Jesus calling teachers of the law and Pharisees fools. Jesus got angry and said what He tells us not to say. You can
hear His anger all through Matthew 23.
Not all anger is sin.
There is a holy use for anger. It can spur us to right a wrong or even, if we
are angry with ourselves, to become better. Not even all name-calling is wrong.
There is such a thing as righteous anger. And a very few people really
deserve to be called fools. Like those Pharisees, they are people who fail to
appreciate God’s grace or who prevent other people from receiving it.
Our problem is that we
don’t usually know when and who. Most of our anger is unjustified, unrighteous.
Most of our anger is deadly. My friend who loves professional pool says that if
you are going to hit a shot really hard, you had better know what you’re doing,
had better be a pro. Otherwise the cue ball and maybe others will go flying off
the table. Unless you or I really know our cause is holy, our anger will send
things flying. Jesus warns us about anger because it’s not deadly just when you
pick up a weapon or ball up your fists. It’s deadly whenever it lashes out,
even in words. Anger makes us liable to God’s judgment.
At root, anger is a desire
for punishment, says Thomas Aquinas. You wish a cop were around to nail that
guy who turned in front of you. The essence of anger is wanting punishment for
wrong-doing. Our problem is wanting more than what’s deserved or even what’s not deserved. You wish that guy to get smashed to bits turning in front of someone.
So Jesus wants us to
realize how easily anger can turn into sin. Even the speaking of an unkind word
can be sin when it is undeserved. He is saying that not nearly so often as we
might imagine does another person deserve our anger or our verbal abuse. The
sin of anger does not begin when you commit physical violence. It begins when
you choose to continue in anger that is unjustified. The Lord wants us to
recognize the sin of anger for what it is: a deadly sin, a capital sin that
leads to more sin.
contrasted His warning about anger with what the commandment, “Do not murder.” In
many ways, murder is worse. But it is anger which leads to murder, it is anger
that is the root sin, the deadly sin. What happens first in your heart bears
evil fruit. Anger in your soul produces anger in your actions.
You might think verse
22 here gradually ups the judgment for anger and angry words. Unspoken anger is
judged; an insult might bring you to court; saying “fool” sends you to hell.
But the insult is literally “Raca,” which in Aramaic meant something like
“empty-head.” We might say “idiot.” There’s no real difference between calling
someone an “idiot” and calling her a “fool,” which in Greek is mwrov" (mõros), from which we get
It’s not that some
name-calling is worse. That’s true. But Jesus wants us to see the danger of
anger at every level. From inward seething to verbal expression to physical
violence, unjustified anger is a sin which God judges. Anything beyond true
justice is sin.
So in the rest of the
text, 23-26, Jesus calls us to leave off anger and seek reconciliation. When
anger arises, the right response is to be reconciled. Don’t just bite off angry
words, avoid saying them aloud, but carry them around inside. Verse 23 says you
cannot come to God carrying both anger and an offering. You must lay down one
of them to deal with the other. Go and be reconciled, says Jesus, and then bring
So Paul gives us that
excellent advice in Ephesians 4:26, “Do not let the sun go down while you are
still angry.” It’s an excellent rule for married couples. Although, Phyllis
Diller rephrases it as, “Never go to bed mad… Stay up and keep fighting.” Which
as we so often do, keeps the letter of Paul’s advice and totally misses the
Verses 25 and 26 are a
little parable about anger. You are on your way to court. Chris would tell you
what Jesus says here. It’s always better to settle before you get there. If you
put yourself in the hands of the court, it could very well cost you more.
Jesus isn’t offering
legal advice, though. He’s telling us that it’s always better to settle our
differences rather than to stand guilty before God of unjustified anger. Even
if we think we have righteous anger, it might turn out badly if God doesn’t see
it that way. So there’s another warning about hell, about eternal judgment, in
verse 26 in the form of a prison from which there’s no escape until every sin,
including anger, is paid for.
It’s a model of
relationship that Jesus repeated in Matthew 18 and which is understood in that
direction not to go to bed angry. Directly, one on one, set aside your anger,
offer forgiveness, and be reconciled to each other. It’s not easy. It’s takes
everything we’ve got and more. It only happens with the help and grace of God
who sets aside His own very justified anger and offers us forgiveness and
Jesus talks in verses
23 and 24 about being reconciled to a brother or sister. Reconciliation is to
be practiced especially in the church, in the Christian community of brothers
and sisters in Christ. We try to do it here.
Many years ago a
couple of women in our church came asked me to mediate for them, to listen to
their grievances against each other and decide who was right and who was wrong.
I asked them, “Have you talked to each other? Have just the two of you tried to
work this out?” They looked at each other and I could tell they hadn’t. So I
told them I wouldn’t talk to them any more until they did that. They got angry
at me. In fact, they got so mad at me that it united them against me. In the
end they became friends again.
In a much, much
greater way, Jesus ended up like I did. In order to reconcile us with each
other and even more, with God, Jesus let us turn all our human anger on Him as
He hung on the Cross. There, as Ephesians 2:16 says, He became our peace,
reconciling us to each other and to God by putting to death in His own body our
hostility, our anger. It’s only by trusting in the sacrificial grace of Jesus
that our anger can truly be healed.
Let me pause here to
tell you I don’t want anyone to think this call to set aside anger by the grace
of Christ means you must keep being abused. If you’ve been abused, if you are
being abused, you have a right to be angry. And we as God’s people should be
angry with you, angry whenever evil is done against people who do not deserve
it. You may have tried to reconcile, but were only abused more. Jesus isn’t
telling you to stay and keep being hurt. It’s time to get away and seek God’s
help and healing. If you are in that situation, I will certainly talk with you.
We will certainly help you escape someone else’s abusive anger.
For most of us though,
let us seek our Lord’s help to learn that difficult, but sacred art of
reconciliation. Walter Wangerin tells how he used to fight with his
wife. She would cry. He would talk. He would ask, “What is the matter?” She
would cry more. Then he would sigh. Then he would ask again, “What is the matter?” More crying. And he would ask again, stomp around the room, and
throw his hands up to heaven, and carry on until finally, all of a sudden, she
would stop crying. But then the floodgates would open and she would unleash on
him a complete and detailed list of all his sins against her, numbered and
Wangerin said he had
only one defense, one weapon left. He would jam his arms into his overcoat,
bolt down the stairs of their little apartment, and go out into the cold night,
slamming the door behind him. He would walk for three hours, trusting she was
feeling properly guilty and was worrying about him being mugged. “Take that,”
That is how
their fights went until one night when God brought a different ending to the
story. It was his birthday, but the fight had started. When she had finally
delivered the angry list of his wrongs, he grabbed his coat as usual and got
ready for the finale. He says,
Indeed, all went well, right
up to the jamming of my arms into the overcoat, the running downstairs, and
the dramatic leap into the night. But then God piddled on the affair.
When I slammed the front door, I caught my coat in
He quickly discovered
the door was locked and he had no key. He had two choices. He could remove the
coat and go out into the cold in his shirt sleeves. That had drama to it, but
the problem was that his wife would not know and so would not appreciate the
drama. Besides, it was below freezing. Or he could ring the doorbell.
After standing there
shivering for ten minutes, he rang the doorbell. His wife came down the steps.
She peeped out. She unlocked the door. “And what was she doing?” he asks. She
was laughing! “She laughed so hard the tears streamed down her face and she had
to put her hand on my shoulder, to hold her up.”
The grace of God was a
coat caught in a door. It was his cue to smile too, to chuckle, to take her
hand and apologize and accept the gift of God who was “arranging armistice,
staging reconciliation between a wife and her husband.”
“But,” he says, “what
did the dummy do? Well, he batted her hand away, cried ‘Hmph!’ and bolted away
to stalk the night out doors more grimly than before.” He gave up the gift of
God and clung desperately to his anger and his pride. It was a long while yet
before they learned to forgive each other and not let the sun go down while
they were angry.
How often are we like
that with God? Jesus gave His life to reconcile us to Him. He gave His
life to reconcile us with each other. Now He’s constantly reminding us of that
gift. Where in your life is God catching your coat in the door? How is He
inviting you to pause and lay down your anger and be reconciled to Him or to
Our Lord gives us
those blessed opportunities to settle things with each other now, on the way,
rather than at the end in His court of judgment. Let us recognize and accept
those opportunities of grace. If we refuse them, then maybe we really are
Yet the Lord loves us
even in our foolishness. Even in our anger. Romans 5:8 says, “While we were still sinners, Christ died for us.” While we are still fools, He reconciles us to
God. And His grace comes daily to us, bringing us forgiveness for our sin, even
the sin of anger, and bringing us reconciliation, even reconciliation with each
other. He is offering that grace to you. Don’t turn away. Stop, lay down your
anger, and receive His grace.
Valley Covenant Church
Copyright © 2013 by Stephen S. Bilynskyj