An interesting convergence of texts today, with the story of Noah and John the Baptist’s warning to “flee the coming wrath”. This is not an uncommon message for John in his public speaking career. He preached “Repent!” to the crowds that came to see him in the desert where he preached. He preached “Brood of vipers!” to the Pharisees and Sadducees who came to test him for orthodoxy, warning them that they would “burn with unquenchable fire”. Today, we call this “speaking truth to power”, and John both did it himself even to his own death (Matt. 14) and proclaimed Jesus coming to do the same.
The message of God’s wrath is always welcome when it is those on the other side of the issue who will face it. When it is spoken to us, we get angry, look for theological loopholes, and blame the messenger. Often it is a reason for people to leave a church, seeking a more “positive and encouraging” message. But from both of our readings today, we are forced to deal with the fact that God brings His wrath to bear on this world. How that wrath is manifested is different all the time, and identifying every “bad” thing that happens to us as God’s wrath isn’t helpful or correct. Sometimes God’s wrath is to leave us to our own decisions, and sometimes bad things that happen draw us closer to God and so aren’t “bad” things at all.
The consistent message in these two texts is that God will not stand for godless behavior especially among those who claim to be godly but aren’t. From the salvation of the righteous Noah (this is a story about salvation at its core) to the promise of punishment for the unrighteous Pharisees, John’s message is that all must repent (lit. “turn away”) from their sinfulness. Following Jesus doesn’t mean we are free from sinfulness but that we acknowledge that we cannot free ourselves and need someone to free us. From those who just ignore the message of repentance altogether to those who believe they can save themselves, God’s wrath is real and to be feared for those who ignore Jesus’ call to grow in righteousness by following Him with our whole lives.