Sunday, November 17, 2013

This Week's Sermon: "The Great Divorce"

John 12:44-50 

44 Jesus shouted, “Whoever believes in me doesn’t believe in me but in the one who sent me. 45 Whoever sees me sees the one who sent me. 46 I have come as a light into the world so that everyone who believes in me won’t live in darkness. 47 If people hear my words and don’t keep them, I don’t judge them. I didn’t come to judge the world but to save it. 48 Whoever rejects me and doesn’t receive my words will be judged at the last day by the word I have spoken. 49 I don’t speak on my own, but the Father who sent me commanded me regarding what I should speak and say. 50 I know that his commandment is eternal life. Therefore, whatever I say is just as the Father has said to me.” (Common English Bible)

“The Screwtape Sermons: Exploring Scripture With C.S. Lewis,” Week Four

The man sitting before the camera looked pretty much exactly like how you would expect a homeless, alcoholic army veteran to look: his hair was long and scraggly on the sides, a thick beard covered every nook and cranny of his chin, jawline, and neck, and his clothing looked well-worn and tired.  He looked like he had been rustled up straight out of central casting.

And then, over the course of the next several hours, everything changed: the camera filmed him getting a haircut and dye job, a beard trim, some makeup to put some color in his cheeks, and finally, a brand-spanking-new suit and tie, complete with a tie clip and a pocket square.  The big reveal then happened: they took a mirror and allowed this man to see what a gem had been lying underneath all that scruff, and he saw himself…and immediately leaped up, bounded over to the fellow who had just dressed him in that fine suit, and wrapped him up in a bear hug.

The video clip simply ended with a title card explaining what happened next: that was the catalyst.  This otherwise anonymous man, Jim, went and managed to find his own place, and he got sober by attending Alcoholics Anonymous meetings for the first time ever.  And after watching that video so many times, what has stuck with me is the cross that hung around Jim’s neck, made of two twisted nails and held together by a black cord, and I wonder what his pastor, if he had one, would say about this.  Because the choice he made was nothing short of saving.

It still sounds crazy to say, even though we are now firmly in mid-November: this will be the last sermon series before the holidays are upon us.  But yep, this is it—the last sermon series before we spend four weeks on Advent and two more on Christmas.  This is a series that I have wanted to do for a long time, but never quite found the right spot in the calendar until now.  And it’s a bit different than my usual series, which are often about a book of Scripture or a book by a contemporary author, or some other theme…this series is centered around a person: Clive Staples Lewis, the 20th century Christian writer and apologist who wrote a great many books you may have heard of: the Chronicles of Narnia, the Space Trilogy, and Mere Christianity.  He’s a popular fellow in a great many Christian circles, and so I decided to use him as the proverbial guinea pig in this new experiment of mine in taking a slightly different approach to a sermon series.  We began the series by touching on perhaps Lewis’s most famous work, “The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe,” which contained allegory about the most basic of Christian belief: Christ’s crucifixion and resurrection.  We then turned to not just belief, but practice, in Lewis’s 1942 book “The Screwtape Letters,” and last week we arrived at Lewis’s most famous nonfiction book, “Mere Christianity.”  This week we pivot from practice once more to otherworldly matters in Lewis’s 1946 book on the nature of heaven and hell, “The Great Divorce,” in which he writes:

There have been men before now who got so interested in proving the existence of God that they came to care nothing for God Himself…as if the good Lord had nothing to do but exist!  There have been some who were so occupied in spreading Christianity that they never gave a thought to Christ.  Man!  Ye see it in smaller matters.  Did ye never know a lover of books that with all his first editions and signed copies had lost the power to read them?  Or an organizer of charities that had lost all love for the poor?  It is the subtlest of all the snares…

But what of the poor Ghosts who never get into the omnibus at all?

Everyone who wishes it does.  Never fear.  There are only two kinds of people in the end: those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, in the end, “Thy will be done.”  All that are in Hell choose it.  Without that self-choice there could be no Hell.  No soul that seriously and constantly desires joy will ever miss it.  Those who seek find.  To those who knock, it is opened.

The Great Divorce is—full disclosure—probably my favorite of all Lewis’s books.  Part of that is because I think it follows the format of my favorite Dickensian story as a child, “A Christmas Carol,” in that a man is taken by a kindly spirit guide to watch and observe things that it all results in a revelation…except instead of Scrooge and Jacob Marley (who my mom, when she was reading the story to me as a child, always mixed up with Bob Marley…yah, mon), it’s an unknown narrator—possibly even Lewis himself—and he actually begins his life in hell.

Except he doesn’t call it that, and it isn’t anything we would recognize, because there is no fire.  There is no brimstone.  There is no devil with horns, hooves, and a pitchfork.  Instead, hell is nothing but gray dreariness.  Like the weather we experience six months out of the year, on steroids.  Until suddenly, a bus appears in the middle of this gray town, and Lewis boards it, and this bus, amazingly, drops him off at the outskirts of heaven, where everything is vibrant again.

And while touring heaven, presumably while wearing a fanny pack, pith helmet, and knee-high socks like he’s out on safari (“Observe the exotic angels in their native habitat.  Truly it is a treat to get to see them this up close in their natural state…”), Lewis wants to know why anyone could possibly prefer hell, and Lewis’s guide—not the Ghost of Christmas Present, but a Scottish minister named George MacDonald—explains that for many people, when hell is all they know, it is incredibly difficult to let go of…like someone who knows only how to argue for the existence of God, so much so that they forget to experience that wonderful existence.  But then he follows up with that great and reassuring quote: everyone who wishes to go to heaven does.

Now, yes, I know in my head that is reassuring.  But as many of y’all know in talking to me—heck, it was a big subject of discussion in this past Monday evening’s Bible study—in all actuality I struggle a lot sometimes with the notion that heaven exists for whoever wants it, because I look at people who are so evil in their actions that I cannot possibly fathom heaven existing for them as well.  And many of you have rightly said to me, “No, pastor, that is not supposed to be frustrating, that is supposed to be hopeful.”  And, of course, it really is.

Because I still get asked—more than I probably care to, if I’m honest—that question about if non-Christians or non-Disciples or “spiritual-but-not-religious” folks go to hell even if they are otherwise good, charitable, kind, loving people.  And when I get asked that question…well, I usually point the person who asks it in the direction of this passage from John 12.

Now, in some translations, this is billed as a “summary” of Jesus’ teaching, a final epilogue to Act One of John, because this is the end of chapter 12, and chapter 13 immediately begins with Maundy Thursday and the washing of the Apostles’ feet and so on.  But calling this passage a “summary” does not do it justice, because it contains within it a teaching I hold to be nothing short of revolutionary: Jesus came not to judge the world but to save the world, because there exists another judge—the Word, the Logos, is the judge, and that judgment is on the last day.

Despite the reassurance of the New Covenant—that in Jesus Christ, there is forgiveness for sin—we still are really good at judging people, to the point that we think we know better than God and can say who is in and who is out when the score is up.  I am just the same when I teach that there is no possible way a devil like Adolf Hitler or Osama bin Laden could possibly be in heaven.

But what Jesus teaches instead in this passage is, first of all, that I am not the judge, the Word is.  And second, that judgment does not occur on November 17, 2013, but at the end of time, so who knows what possibly has happened in the afterlife to folks.  Who knows how many of them have awoken in the gray town of hell and decided that this is not for them, who wished it and wanted it and desired it so much, they boarded a bus to take them elsewhere, to take them heavenward?

And perhaps this removes the urgency for hearing the Gospel in this lifetime, but I have to admit, it is immensely reassuring to hear Jesus say that those who die as unbelievers have a get-out-of-hell free card of sorts.  It’s reassuring because so often I hear other Christians say, “Hey, I don’t make the rules.  I’d like for my unbelieving parents or siblings or BFFs or pet goldfishes to go to heaven, but God says they won’t.”  And here I am, and I’m like, “Whut?  Yeah, um, God—through Jesus—said that people get judged at the end of time, so how would you know?  Has time stopped?  No?  Okay.  That settles that.  Now, who wants to go get a calzone?”

And really, if anything, instead of removing the urgency for hearing the Gospel in this lifetime, I feel like this passage should bolster our enthusiasm for hearing the Gospel in this lifetime.  To hear a Savior who existed on such a higher plane than us, who emptied Himself to become one of us, who allowed Himself to be killed by us, to reassure us that judgment happens in His time and not in ours, that is the very definition of Good News.

It is the Good News because it tells us that it is still not too late.  God’s grace does not operate on human timetables.  God’s grace is simply too big for that.  God’s grace is too sweeping and powerful to be placed in a box and tied up neatly with a bow.  It sure is tempting for us to try to present it that way, but as with all temptations, it is something we must resist.

And resist it we will.  Because, as C.S. Lewis writes, there will still be people whose hearts are so hardened that at some point God has to say to them, “Fine. Your will be done, not mine.”  And if our will is to resist the temptation to play God, I have to think that God will reward us.

Think of the homeless, alcoholic veteran who made a choice for himself to resist other forms of temptation: the illness of addiction.  Watch the video for yourself, and see his transformation from a grayed, fraying being into this vibrant, luminous man, and you will see someone who has boarded the bus from hell into heaven.  It is very much possible.  And in Christ, it always will be.

May it be so.  Amen.

Rev. Eric Atcheson
Longview, Washington
November 17, 2013

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