A Sermon For Proper 21 Year CAfter hearing a Gospel reading like that, I bet I know what many people are thinking "Is he really serious about all of this eternal torment stuff?"
Copyright © 2007 Nathan L. Bostian
Based on 1 Timothy 6:11-19; Luke 16:19-31
Copyright © 2007 Nathan L. Bostian
Based on 1 Timothy 6:11-19; Luke 16:19-31
And it is not Jesus who we are talking about. Many of us assume that Jesus' "hell parables" are either over-exaggerations intended to make us behave, or simply deluded holdovers from a backwards world-view, that believes in eternal torment.
Now, since most of us want to make Jesus into the prototypical enlightened humanist, we prefer to say that he was not deluded. Instead, he was just exaggerating. His is giving us a carrot and a stick to make us into nice people. The carrot is heaven, and the stick is the threat of hell.
But we are enlightened, and educated, and anything but fundamentalist, so we don't need the stick of hell to make us nice people. So, lets get to the point: Be nice to people who are not as well off as you are. Pat them on the head, give them charity. That's the point, right?
So, the question on most people's mind becomes: Is the person preaching really serious about all that hell business?
So, let me ask you a question: If I was serious, would you listen? If I believe that Jesus is really pointing to torment after death, which is in some way based on what we did in this life, would you care?
Or, are you so convinced that because God is Love, hell must therefore be an outdated, arbitrary, barbarian concept suitable only for people who hijack planes, or advocate crusades?
There is a very popular, oft repeated line of logic that runs thus: If God loves us, God would want us happy. And hell is not a place of happiness. Therefore God does not send people to hell.
Furthermore, it is impossible to imagine God tormenting us with an eternal amount of punishment based on a limited amount of sin. Could God be such a sadist? And if so, would such a God be worthy of worship?
I don't know about you, but we had to read Jonathan Edward's sermon "Sinners in the hands of an Angry God" in my high school English class. And we all mocked it, and laughed at it.
Yet, it was a nervous laughter. Sometimes very nervous.
Because we still had to wonder... Don't you? I do.
I mean, the way I figure it, there are two major options that could happen when I die. Either I continue to exist personally, as a conscious subject who is able to identify myself as "me".
Or I don't. None of us do. We all cease to exist at death.
Now, this second view is rather popular. You can get to it by being a materialist who believes physical matter is all there is to reality, and our personalities are nothing but a phenomenon that radiates from the electrical impulses that course through the protein in our brains.
And when this protein computer is finally unplugged, we cease to be.
You can also get to it by believing that we are all part of an impersonal cosmic force, and when we die, the energy we know as our "self" is released from the illusion of being separate, and it returns to the force. We never again exist as "me" again, nor are conscious of what we were.
Now believing we cease to exist after death eliminates the need for hell, and the reality of heaven. It also makes Christ's teaching ridiculous, his resurrection impossible, and our being here right now comical.
And all of that is worthy of discussion. But not in this sermon. In this sermon, lets assume that Christ's teaching is accurate, his resurrection is real, and that we personally exist after we die.
If we assume all of this, then we begin to see that Jesus has actually walked through the "valley of the shadow of death", like we all will have to do some day. He has faced his own mortality. In fact, if you will believe it, He has literally been to hell and back.
Then He defeated death. He rose from the grave. And He imparted his own Spirit to guide his disciples in writing and recording the stories and teachings that we need to make the same journey he did.
So, I assume he has some authority on this matter which I need to listen to.
And his message might be unpacked like this: At death, our true self- our soul, our spirit, our ego, whatever term you want to use- that true self is stripped bare of all illusion to encounter the fullness of God's reality.
This means, on our side, we loose all of our "props", and face who we have become. No more masks. No more possessions to hide behind. No more people to blame. We stand as naked as we could possibly be before the Ultimate Reality of the Universe.
And, what is that Ultimate Reality? In our reading from First Timothy, we are told it is a God who dwells in "inapproachable light". Elsewhere in the Bible, we are told that this God IS light, and this God IS Love, and this God IS a consuming fire.
We will stand in the presence of a Being of such pure, unconditional, unquenchable, unselfish Love, that this God will radiate like an eternal fire, bringing light to every area of darkness in our lives.
And Jesus Himself says that "There is nothing concealed that will not be disclosed, or hidden that will not be made known."
And, if we start to understand death in those terms, I think the problem becomes obvious. It suddenly stops being a question of whether or not God will let you into heaven. It becomes a question of whether or not you will let Heaven into you.
It stops being a question of how a Loving God could make an eternal hell. It becomes a question of whether we will experience God's Love AS eternal hell.
Because one day, we will all come face to face with this Love that will not die, this Love that has loved us from eternity and will never stop Loving us. And on that Day, we will choose one of three things: Hate God, Hide from God, or Hold God.
Jesus says some people will choose to hate God with a burning hatred. They will resent that God would make claims on ME. I am the boss of ME. MY stuff is MY stuff. No one can tell me how to live MY life. I did it MY way, and damn it, no one, not even God, will tell ME otherwise.
This hatred burns with fury, and rages like fire. And in the face of such hatred, God's self-giving Love burns ever more brightly. And it is perhaps for this reason that in many of Jesus' parables hell is pictured as fire and flames and torment.
But Jesus also says that some will choose to hide from God. Some will stand before God's undying Love, and will be so ashamed of their selfishness and sin that they will refuse to allow Him to forgive them. They will flee inward, into the icy black darkness of their souls, naked and ashamed before the living God.
Their shame and inability to let go of their mistakes will cause them eternal loneliness. And it is perhaps for this reason that in many other parables, Jesus describes hell as darkness, loneliness, isolation, and weeping.
And then, some of us- hopefully all of us- will not choose hate nor hiding. Instead we will choose to hold on to God. To grasp His Love. To cling to Him as Healer. To embrace Him as Father.
We will let the Light of His Love drive out the remaining darkness within. We will let Him heal us and cleanse us and make us whole. We will surrender all of our little idols and subtle selfishnesses, and allow Him to burn them away.
But here is the catch to it all. This is the reason why Jesus always connected his hell parables to how we actually treat others in this life. This is the reason why Jesus aimed these parables almost exclusively at religious people like us, who knew all of the right answers about God in their heads:
It isn't enough to know it. We gotta DO it.
If we don't learn how to love, and give, and repent, and forgive, in THIS LIFE, then it will be next to impossible to do it on the other side of life.
If we make a repeated habit of bitterness, self-centeredness, entitlement, and apathy right here, right now, how will we be in any shape to receive the fullness of God on the other side?
When you were a kid, did your parents ever tell you not to make ugly faces, because your face might just stick like that? You can see it was true in my case [MAKE AN UGLY FACE].
But what if they were spiritually right? What if there is a real danger in making our soul ugly, because our soul might just stick like that?
CS Lewis puts it this way: "every time you make a choice you are turning the central part of you, the part of you that chooses, into something a little different from what it was before. And taking your life as a whole, with all your innumerable choices, all your life long you are slowly turning this central thing either into a heavenly creature or into a hellish creature:
"either into a creature that is in harmony with God, and with other creatures, and with itself, or else into one that is in a state of war and hatred with God, and with its fellow-creatures, and with itself. To be the one kind of creature is heaven: that is, it is joy and peace and knowledge and power. To be the other means madness, horror, idiocy, rage, impotence, and eternal loneliness. Each of us at each moment is progressing to the one state or the other."
The longer you practice something, the better you get at it. This goes for basketball and band, as well as for sin and saintliness.
We all know people who lie over and over until they become the lie. They cannot grasp the Truth because they can no longer tell what is truth or fabrication about themselves.
We all know people who will not forgive others. The longer they choose not to forgive, the more the bitterness and hatred becomes a hardened ball inside their soul... A cancer that destroys their lives.
We all know people who only think about themselves. And the longer they do it, the more narcissistic they become, until they cannot have a relationship with anyone without figuring a way to manipulate them to get what they want.
There is only one way to break the cycle and become a "heavenly creature"- Someone who is able to allow heaven inside themselves:
That way is the Way who is Jesus. That Way is to repent of all our lesser gods, and turn to Him and accept His forgiveness. That Way is to stop creating an ugly life, and to start imitating a beautiful life. And the most beautiful life is the Life of Jesus.
If we imitate Him long enough, maybe our face will starting looking like His.
I know it isn't easy, and we are bound to fail in many astounding acts of hypocrisy. But what is the alternative? Stop repenting and become the type of soul that is hell? Stop accepting forgiveness and become a black hole of guilt and denial?
But, if you are bold enough to follow Christ, there is a promise. Saint Paul, in the eight chapter of Romans, puts the promise this way:
"I consider that the sufferings of this present time are not worth comparing with the glory that is to be revealed in us. For the whole creation waits with eager longing for the revealing of the children of God."
Later on he says:
"In all these things we are more than conquerors through him who loved us. For I am sure that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord."
But, what about Lazarus and the impassible chasm that kept him from Heaven? What about all who have made their lives hell? Will they forever stay separated from God's Love by their own stubbornness?
I don't know for sure. I hope not. I serve a Risen Lord who crossed that un-crossable chasm of hell and death. I teach about a God who has put death to death, and made captivity his captive. I preach about a Creator who, according to His own promise in Colossians chapter one, will "reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, making peace by the blood of his cross".
But, I do know this for sure. If we start following Jesus right here, right now, and if we live our lives in a way that helps others follow Jesus too, we can know we are on the Way to heaven. We can know that we are letting heaven into us. We can know Him who IS heaven.
May we ALL make Him our Way, our Truth, and our Life. Amen+