Deuteronomy 30.15-20, 1 Corinthians 3.1-9, Matthew 5.21-37
It was dusk, last Tuesday, and on the road out of Tavistock a car travelling towards us flashed us; we quickly realised that they'd done that to warn us that there was a hazard ahead.
We soon reached the hazard. It was a large vehicle at the side of the road, with thick smoke billowing from it. And as we approached, we realised that there were flames too - it was a tractor on fire. As we passed by we nearly ran over the young man who was haplessly dancing around the vehicle, cursing, crying, clearly agonised, and getting out of our car and running towards him in the darkness of the acrid smoke I realised that the tiny bottle of water which I had wasn't going to be enough to help him extinguish his burning engine, and no words I had for him would help him either, just then. It was a vision of hell, that burning tractor, it clearly felt like hell to the young man as he stood by helplessly watching the violent flames destroy not just his vehicle but his livelihood, causing him to cry out in torment at the roadside.
When we picture hell we often see it as an inferno, and some farmers who I told this story to, with their keen appreciation of the impact that fire would have had on the young man and his livelihood, said they thought that the young man had been through a sort of hell - the sort of terrible event which they wouldn't wish even on their enemy.
We wouldn't wish that hell even on our enemy - an interesting expression; we've all heard it and probably used it. It raises the question - what sort of hell would we wish on our enemy? And why would we, Christians, think about wishing hell on anyone at all?
It made me think that our ideas about hell are connected to our opinions of others, our desires for others. When you see a person as an innocent victim of circumstance then you wouldn't wish on them the hell they are in. But when you do want to judge, torture, or sacrifice them - then hell is where you send other people.
This is a very sober theme for my first sermon to you here, but today's readings insist that we give it our consideration.
And it is important that we do. Because however enlightened we might think we are these days, our beliefs about hell and judgement play a key part in the way we behave towards others. Hell in a violent world: it's still a very current topic, as it has been for ages: certainly since way before Jesus preached hell fire in his Sermon on the Mount, a passage better remembered for his words about peacemaking and love. In it he says,
'You have heard that it was said to those of ancient times, 'You shall not murder'; and 'whoever murders shall be liable to judgement.' But I say to you that if you are angry with a brother or sister, you will be liable to judgement; and if you insult a brother or sister, you will be liable to the council; and if you say, 'You fool,' you will be liable to the hell of fire.' (Matthew 5:21-22)Jesus goes on to mention hell a couple more times, even as he is talking about such incredibly anti-violent things like turning the other cheek and loving one's enemies. So what is he teaching us?
First, we must notice that Jesus never mentions God. He never says that God will be sending folks to hell on judgement day. He says simply, 'you will be liable to the hell of fire.' You will be liable. That sounds more like language of natural consequences, and of human responsibility. In other words, if we continue being violent towards others it only makes us liable to our own hell fires.
Second, we should notice that to describe hell Jesus uses the Greek word 'Gehenna', which was the name for the garbage dump outside Jerusalem during the time of Jesus, which was continually smouldering in the fires, burning the garbage. Jesus wants us to understand that if we carry on wishing hell on other people then we will end up in the fires of our own rubbish heaps.
But Gehenna had another significance. Long before the days of Jesus, the prophet Jeremiah described that valley outside Jerusalem as a place of child sacrifice. And sacrifice is putting someone else through hell so that you can save yourself.
Whether that is putting your enemy through hell - maybe cursing them, maybe making their life a misery, to make yourself feel better; or whether it is like the religious practice of putting an animal through the hell of slaughter to appease an angry or jealous God; or whether it is the rulers of a nation committing its people to war - a just war or an unjust war - where those who are asked to make the sacrifices are the soldiers and ordinary civilians put through hell for the sake of their governors: all these things illustrate that sacrifice is putting someone else through hell so that you can save yourself.
The ultimate example of this is the way that people like you and me, ordinary religious people, sacrificed Jesus to save themselves. To get rid of their troubles, their guilt, their anger and pain, they condemned him to hell. We wouldn't wish that sort of hell on even our worst enemy - but our forebears willed it on Jesus, who accepted it for His great purpose - so that that sort of sacrifice will never need to be made again, so that he can free us of the desire to wish hell on anyone else ever again.
Despite what we've been led to believe, hell does not begin with fire but with the coldest places in our hearts and souls that allows us to want to send other people to their hell. And the fire that Jesus sends us - the fire of his Spirit which first arrived at Pentecost - is a fire of love to begin to thaw and drive away those places in each of us.
The Christian counsellor Dennis Linn tells a story about how his mind was changed about God. He tells of Hilda coming into his office one day because her son had tried to commit suicide for the fourth time. She described how her son was involved in prostitution, drug dealing and murder and then ended her list of her son's 'big sins' with, 'What bothers me most is that my son says he wants nothing to do with God. What will happen to my son if he commits suicide without repenting and wanting nothing to do with God?'
Pastor Linn tells how he himself believed in the popular version of hell, but the counsellor in him didn't want to say so. Instead, he began by asking Hilda what she thought. But Hilda herself was still trapped in that same idea of hell. 'Well,' she replied, 'I think that when you die, you appear before the judgement seat of God. If you have lived a good life, God will send you to heaven. If you have lived a bad life, God will send you to hell.' Sadly, she concluded, 'Since my son has lived such a bad life, if he were to die without repenting, God would certainly send him to hell.'
Again, Pastor Linn didn't want to directly agree with her so he tried another indirect tactic. He had Hilda close her eyes and imagine herself sitting next to the judgement seat of God. He also had her imagine her son's arrival at the judgement seat with all his serious sins and without repenting. Then he asked her, 'Hilda, how does your son feel?' Hilda answered, 'My son feels so lonely and empty.' So Pastor Linn asked Hilda what she would do, to which she responded, 'I want to throw my arms around my son.' She lifted her arms and began to cry as she imagined herself holding her son tightly.
Finally, when she had stopped crying, Pastor Linn asked her to look into God's eyes and watch what God wanted to do. God stepped down from the throne, and just as Hilda did, embraced her son. And the three of them, Hilda, her son, and God, cried together and held one another.
Has hell vanished completely in this picture of Hilda and her son in God's embrace? Not exactly. Because it's still possible to imagine that Hilda's son would refuse to repent. There, in the embrace of God's loving forgiveness, Hilda's son could still refuse to repent of his sins and to open his heart, hardened by the coldness of his own deeds and despair, to God's love.
But let's take this out of the realm of imagination and take a candid look our own hearts. In what ways do we still wish - or do - violence on others? What parts of our lives are still hardened and cold to God's loving forgiveness in Jesus Christ? Do we still hold on to a view of hell as a place where God will someday endlessly torture our enemies? Does such a picture make us willing to wish hell on our enemies?
In a few moments time we will confess in the Apostle's Creed that we believe that Jesus 'descended into hell.' That terrible event happened just once - and for all time and eternity - and for our liberation. Jesus became our victim on the cross, descending into the hell of our making, and then ascended to the Father so that he might send his Spirit - which is the fire of his love, a fire to begin thawing those still cold places of violence in our hearts and our lives.
God's Fire of Love came into the still cold places of grief and hardheartedness in the apostles lives and began to warm them in God's loving forgiveness so that they might share with others the Good News in Jesus Christ, not threats of eternal punishment in the fires of hell.
Today, then, let us pray for this fire - to thaw out those coldest places in our hearts, a Fire of Love that will send us out to share it with others.
Exegesis extensively borrowed from, and Pastor Linn story directly and shamelessly lifted from Paul Neuchterlein, 'Fire of Love', Pentecost 2000 Sermon, from his ever-essential Girardian Reflections on the Lectionary website.