Dr. Jonathon Wylie: The Four Last Things: Hell

Sermon delivered on Sunday, Advent 4C, December 23, 2018 at St. Augustine’s Anglican Church, Westerville, OH.

There is no audio podcast for today’s sermon. Dr. Wylie has got to learn to be smarter than the recorder he uses.

Lectionary texts: Isaiah 5.1-7; Psalm 80.1-7; Ephesians 5.1-4; Matthew 13.24-30, 36-43.

Dear friends of Jesus Christ,

During the four weeks of Advent we have been focusing in our sermons on the traditional 4 last things: death, judgment, heaven, and hell. I guess it was 6-7 weeks ago that Fr Kevin asked me to give you hell, so here I am to give you hell. That’s actually not the task for myself at all. My task, rather, is to elevate your joy and to remind you that hell is not for you and that you are not for hell. Or at any rate, that hell doesn’t have to be for you.

For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption (Psalm 16.10).

You make known to me the path of life; in your presence there is fullness of joy; at your right hand are pleasures forevermore (Psalm 16.11)

We don’t much like to think about hell, do we? Why should we? In our minds, hell is the destination of the wicked, a place than which no worse can be imagined. We imagine a lake of fire, an eternal torture chamber, slithering worms and horn-headed demons, smells of sulfur and screeches of torment. Actually, this image owes more to Dante and Milton than to the Bible. Jesus does talk at a humber of points about a fiery judgment and a place where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. But these images usually appear in parables, and parables really aren’t meant to be interpreted literalistically. When the word “hell” appears in ETs, the word behind that translation is “Gehenna,” which was essentially a landfill on the south side of Jerusalem. When Jesus said people would go there, it isn’t clear that he meant people would spend eternity burning in a lake of fire.

But don’t for a second think that I am denying hell’s existence, or that it isn’t horrific. Because starting in Gen 12 and continuing throughout the OT, the NT, and all the way to the Glorious Return, God has been unwaveringly committed to setting the world right. And this must mean removing everything that pollutes and defiles his good creation. That’s why the OT andthe NT alike speak of God pronouncing (or promising to pronounce) judgment on wickedness. God must judge us, unless we conclude (and it would be wrong to do so) that he doesn’t care very much about sin or holiness. And judgment implies a set of dichotomous outcomes: guilty / not guilty, wicked / righteous, damnation / salvation. Not only that, we also know from Scripture and from our own experience that we live in a world of evil – of evil people and evil deeds. There is a force of evil in the world that cannot be denied.

Our readings this morning from Isaiah 5 and Matt 13 both emphasize that God created a good world and that he set it up to prosper with good fruit. According to Isa 5, God everything he could to make his vineyard produce good grapes: he cleared the ground and removed rocks, set up a watchtower and fence, dug out a vat, planted the choicest of vines. But Israel was overcome with wickedness, and failed to fulfill its purpose. And God’s response is judgment.

And now I will tell you what I will do to my vineyard. I will remove its hedge, and it shall be devoured; I will break down its wall, and it shall be trampled down. I will make it a waste; it shall not be pruned or hoed, and briers and thorns shall grow up; I will also command the clouds that they rain no rain upon it (Isaiah 5.5-6).

God is done. He’s washing his hands of this disaster. Everything God did to set it up for fruitfulness, he is taking away. This is an un-creation. Why?

For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting; and he looked for justice, but behold, bloodshed; for righteousness, but behold, an outcry (Isaiah 5.7)!

The Hebrew has a play on words to drive the point home: “He looked for justice (mishpat), but behold, bloodshed (mispach); for righteousness (tsedaqah), but behold, an outcry (tse‘aqah). The prophet sears the point into our minds with that wordplay.

Of course, the “love song” of the vineyard is an allegory –“For the vineyard of the LORD of hosts is the house of Israel, and the men of Judah are his pleasant planting” (v. 7a) – and it is an indictment of Israel and Judah for their failure to do what God had created it, ordained it, and prepared it to do. Judah was called to shine God’s light in the world, so that all peoples of the world might say to one another, “Come, let us walk in the light of the LORD” (Isa 2:1-5). The people of God were to be the image bearers of God, reflecting him out into the world. And in this they failed, overcome as they were with evil and injustice. And so God casts judgment, and in Isa 5, the verdict is to hand the vineyard over to the forces of chaos. If you choose to do the work of evil and chaos, then God will turn you over to evil and chaos in judgment.

Lest we think this is just an OT problem, the situation gets even bleaker, in some ways, in our Gospel reading because here we learn that even the Kingdom of Heaven has bad weeds growing in it. Once again, the parable begins by affirming the original purity of what was created: “The kingdom of Heaven may be compared to a man who sowed good seed in his field” (Matt 13:24). That man, we learn later in the chapter, is Jesus (13:27). But at an opportune time, in the middle of the night, the master’s enemy – whom Jesus later identifies as the devil – came and sowed poisonous weeds. Notice he didn’t sow the weeds in another field or next to the good seed or around the good seed. The devil sows his seed right here in the midst of the good seed. The devil’s seed sprouts up right up in the middle of the church. And as alarming as that is, it doesn’t surprise us when we think of the evils the church has sponsored and in some cases continues to sponsor – the Crusades, the Inquisition, witch hunts, schisms past and present, and all manner of calling what is evil good and what is good evil.

As with the vineyard, so with the weeds – they are destined for judgment: “Gather the wheat into bundles to be burned with fire.” God will remove evil from the world.

My point in all this is that while we tend to think of hell as some far off place where the wicked go when they die, the reaches of hell, the effects and curses of hell, are right here and right now. There is an evil empire on the earth, and it is run by an enemy, the devil. Of course there is! We can see it everywhere we look. The devil’s work is all over the place: in school shootings, car bombings, and other acts of violence; in acts of exploitation and abuse, greed, corruption; in acts of debauchery, idolatry, drunkenness; in racism, sexism, and all forms of injustice; in the grave evil of disease and decay and death. And here’s where it gets really bleak. The problem isn’t just that there are weeds in the world, or that there are weeds growing in the kingdom of heaven, or that there are weeds sitting next to me in church. The most unnerving problem is that there are weeds growing in me, and there are weeds growing in you. The devil’s work appears in my life, just as it appears in yours.

Apart from the cross of Christ, I and you and all the world would be weeds destined for judgment, to be burned in the fire. We are one life, one man, one cross, one empty tomb away from hopeless eternal corruption. For if Christ has not been raised, you are still dead in your sins.

What does all this have to do with Advent?

“The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it.” (John 1:5)

“A light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it!” And that light is Christ, the Savior of all, the Lamb of God, coming into the world to take away the sins of the world. Jesus was born to die. He is the offering from God, the offering for God, the offering who is God. He is the once and for all perfect sacrifice and oblation, and on him God has placed the sin of all the world. In him we are offered forgiveness, atonement, redemption, hope, salvation.

There’s more. In his life, death, and especially resurrection, Christ has brought the kingdom of heaven to earth and launched a New and Redeemed Creation. In his death he paid the penalty of sin; in his resurrection he broke the devil’s grip on the world and swallowed up the devil’s favorite weapon, which is death. The Devil is vanquished, death is defeated, hell is conquered, a New Creation is born. It is a kingdom of true shalom, in which everything is as it should be. There is peace, justice, righteousness, and human beings finally and fully live up to their calling to bear the image of God.

And this is the best news that has ever been preached to people who are weeds because weeds like you and me can lay claim to it, can enter in, can participate, if we become citizens of the New Creation through faith and baptism.

Are you baptized? Good news! You went down into the waters one thing and came up another. You went down a weed, you died a weed; you came up, resurrected as grain to be fruitful in the Kingdom of God. You died a weed and rose as wheat.

“If anyone is in Christ he/she is a new creation.” You are not just in the New Creation, you are a new creation! “The old has passed away; behold, the new has come. All this is from God, who through Christ reconciled us to himself and gave us the ministry of reconciliation; that is, in Christ God was reconciling the world to himself, not counting their trespasses against them” (2 Cor 5:17-19).

That all sounds good, but let’s be real. While all Christians would affirm the truth of what I have just said, we also know there are ways in which it is not true. Or maybe a better way to say it is that it isn’t fully actualized. God is putting all things right, and he will finish the task, but at the moment we aren’t fully there. However much we hope in the Resurrection, the fact is disease is  still widespread, our bodies decay, and people still die. Our little parish has felt the sting of death twice this week. The New Creation is now but not yet. Christ has died and Christ has risen. I believe that and so do you, I hope. I was baptized and so were you – or you could be. And that means that we are New Creatures. But, in fact, we’re actually not fully New Creatures, are we? “For I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing…. Wretched man that I am! Who will deliver me from this body of death?” (Rom 7). I’m certain that the New Creation flashes in us from time to time, maybe even often. But I’m just as certain that the the old creature still isn’t completely dead. We’re all a hybrid of weed and grain. Even we who are in Christ are in need of continual grace and transformation.

St. Paul acknowledges this throughout his letters. In Ephesians, immediately after stating that Christ loved us and gave himself for us, Paul urges the young church to have nothing to do with sexual immorality or impurity or covetousness, nothing to do with filthiness or foolish talk or crude joking, because these things are not proper for the people of God. But the fact that he urges them away from these things implies that it still needs to be said. “You used to be involved with all that nonsense,” Paul says, “for at one time you were darkness. But now, you are in the Lord! Walk as children of light!” Now that you set your hand to the plow, don’t look back. You are something new – or at least the seed of something new is in you – so be the new thing. Live up to it. Bear good fruit.

Meanwhile, the world remains full of evil doers who work against against God rather than with him, who oppose his mission, and refuse to bear his image in the world. We know that there are people who, rather than fulfill God’s command to steward the earth, destroy it and its resources. There are people who, rather than cultivate life, exploit fellow human beings and treat them as commodities. There are people who, rather than live in God’s world as peacemakers, foster strife and promote violence.

The war is won but the battle rages on. It’s not for nothing that Jesus urges us to pray for deliverance from evil.

Where does this leave us? It leaves us with hope. Advent is not only a time for remembering the birth of Christ, it is also a time for anticipating his return. We rejoice in the first coming; we hope in the second one. We have hope that Christ will return and that he will judge the earth. We have hope that there will be justice – the righteous will be vindicated and the wicked condemned. As Christians we pray “Come quickly Lord Jesus” because we want the world to be put right. We agree with God that evil must be rooted out. We want it rooted out of the world, and we want it rooted out of us.

This is one reason we gather every Sunday (or more) to re-enact the drama of the Eucharist. We don’t just re-enact it, actually, we renew our participation in the death and resurrection of Christ. We come in a weed, and we acknowledge that in the confession, the prayer of humble access, and elsewhere. Then, receiving the body and blood of Christ, we are renewed, we become one body with him and heirs of his eternal kingdom. To what end? To love him and serve him faithfully as his witnesses.

Dear friends, hell is not for you. God does not desire that any should perish but that all should come to eternal life. The road to eternal life goes through the cross of Christ. There is no life, no escape from judgment, that doesn’t go through the cross. Cling to Christ. Cling to him. And doing so, know that though you once were darkness, now you are light. Live in the light of Christ. Live in the joy of the first advent, and in hopeful anticipation of the second.

In the Name of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. Amen.