Sunday, April 25, 2021

Hell is Not Forever, and in the End, No One Will Freely Choose It. Why? Here's Why.

Since reading it over a week ago, I can’t let it go.  Its words haunt me.  They remind me how tragically broken our world continues to be.   Last week, Shawn McCreesh wrote an essay, remembering his very first friend, David.    Growing up, Shawn and David’s families had been so close that they each called the other cousin, and each other’s moms aunt.  Shawn had last talked with David last fall.  He called because he was writing an article about growing up in Hatboro, Pennsylvania, and how drugs had played so powerfully into their youth.

Now, when Shawn and David talked, it looked as if his friend, David had conquered his own problems with drugs.  He had almost two years of sobriety.  He had a wife and family with two young kids.  He had built a solid career as a lead technician for a HVAC company.  But even he knew how easily he could fall.   David put it to Shawn this way: “You cross the line, and you never know when or where it is. It’s cunning, and it’s baffling, but once you’re over that line, it’s a battle between you and you. You have to defeat yourself if you want to get out of it and not die. It’s almost good versus evil in your brain.”

And three days before Thanksgiving, Shawn learned that evil had won.   David, his oldest friend, had been found, slumped against a tree in the neighborhood where they had both grown up, another overdose.   His wife had become a widow.  His children would grow up without their dad.  His parents would carry a profound wound in their hearts for the rest of their lives.  And Shawn McCreesh had lost his oldest friend.    

Shawn went home to mourn with David’s mom, or as he called her, his Aunt Tammy.   As they gathered in the small family kitchen with other mourners, he realized that, just in that kitchen, five moms were standing there who had lost their children in the same way. 

And as I read the story, how the pastor who led the service was a recovering addict himself, I wondered.  What did that pastor say about where David was?   After all, by David’s own admission, evil had won.  He had chosen a drug over his wife, over his own children, over his friends and family.   How much more lost can you be than that?   

And if the traditional Christian understanding of hell were true, David’s torment in life could very well now be continuing forever in the agonies of hell.    But what if David’s journeying to hell could be the best news forever?  What if, only through that journey, could God free him for the joy of heaven.  What if only hell could provide the healing that did not come this side of heaven?  How can hell give you the freedom to finally choose what you most deeply wanted your entire life but for all sorts of tragic reasons you didn’t?  In these words from Jesus, God shows you the way, let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

John 8:31-36

Last week, I began sharing an understanding of hell that was commonly held among many Christians during the first five centuries of Christian faith.  These Christians, based on their reading of scripture like this one from I Corinthians: “for as all die in Adam, so all will be made alive in Christ.” had concluded.  Hell could not be forever.  They proclaimed. In the ultimate end of all things, God will bring everyone home.  All will be made alive in Christ.  But hold on a second. 

What if everyone doesn’t want to go home?  What if folks want to stay in Hell?  Is God going to force them into heaven, no matter what they want?   Don’t we have freedom to choose?   And here Jesus gives you a stunning answer.   Jesus tells you.  The only true freedom comes when a person finds the freedom to choose God.   And here’s the problem.  No one, no one this side of heaven, is completely free.

Think about it.  Does anyone believe that Shawn’s oldest friend, David, was completely free?  Would any person, in their right mind, leave behind the wife and sons they love, their own parents, their friends for a chemical high?   Yet, that’s exactly what David did.   No one pushed the drug into his veins.   No one even gave it to him for free.  At some point, he went and looked for it.  He used his own money to buy it.   Then he carefully prepared it, knowing in doing so, he was risking everything for the sake of a few hours of fleeting and false escape.   And yet he did it.  In fact, millions in our own nation are taking those same risks right now even as I speak.

But those addicted to drugs are just pointing to a problem every person has, the problem to which Jesus points.  Jesus says.  Every human being finds themselves trapped in a lie, a lie that keeps leading them to make wrong choice after wrong choice, a lie that leaves them caught up in fears and insecurities that wreck their lives, a lie that even wrecks the entire planet.   And how do you become free.  Jesus tells you.  The truth will make you free.   

But what the heck is the truth Jesus is talking about.  Sure, it’s nice to say.  The truth shall make you free.  But what is truth?   And here, if you look carefully, Jesus is telling you.  But before we can get there, we first need to understand what it truly means to be free. 

Freedom isn’t simply being able to do whatever you want to do.   And if you think about it, you’d see how that definition doesn’t really make any sense.   If that were true, then a fish should have the freedom to fly like a bird.  But fishes don’t want that freedom at all.  No what makes for freedom for that fish is having the freedom to be the fishiest fish possible.   freedom simply means having the power to become more fully who you truly are.  If you’re an oak seed, it means having the freedom to grow into the oakiest oak tree possible.   And if you are a human being, it means having the freedom to grow into the most human human being possible.     

And in the Bible, God tells you what that looks like.  For God created everyone in God’s image.  To be human is to be a mirror of God, to move deeper and deeper into reflecting in your life the wondrous beauty of God’s love and goodness.  Freedom means having the freedom to do just that.   

But here’s the problem, human beings look to find that beauty, that love, that goodness in all the wrong places.  It’s why the Scottish writer Bruce Marshall said.   “Every man who knocks on the door of a brothel is looking for God.”    Everyone yearns for the same thing.  Everyone yearns to live into who, in their deepest self, they truly want to be. 

But did Shawn’s friend, David, want to be a drug addict?  Is that who he truly wanted to be?  No.  Of course not. He wanted to love and be loved by his kids.  He wanted to love and be loved by his wife.  He wanted a life rich with friends, with work that blessed him and others, with all that makes for a rich and fulfilled life.

Everyone, whether they are conscious of it or not, is living life with that same goal in mind.  The problem lies in that we don’t know how to get there.  Evil continues to feed us the lie that we will find that fulfillment in a substance or success or the approval of others or whatever it might be.  And sure those things can be good.  But they cannot be the ultimate good.  In fact, not only do they not bring you the ultimate good. They hold you back from getting it.   And in the end, you don’t even end up owning whatever your particular desire might be.  In the end, the desire ends up owning you.   

Why?  They drive you.  And as they drive you, you live with the underlying fear that if you don’t fulfill this desire, then somehow your life will have failed at some deep level, you will never find the true fulfillment you really seek.   But this desire cannot ever give you that. It is a dead end.  It may be good.  But it’s not the ultimate good.  It’s just a means.  It’s not the end.

The desires can even be religious ones.  Jesus is, in fact, talking here to religious people who wanted to follow him.   But Jesus told them that they had a wrong desire that drove them too, that literally made them slaves.   He said.   Look, in a Roman household, a slave and a son can seem in many ways the same.  They live in the same house.  The head of the house provides for them.   They also work for and obey him.    But they are very different.   If the slave messes up, his status can change like that.  His status depends on what he does, and how well he does it.  And that makes it very uncertain.  But the status of the son never changes.   Whatever mistakes he makes he will always be a son, no matter what. 

Jesus is saying to these folks.   Yes, you follow God.  You even have a relationship with God, but your god isn’t even really God.  Your God only accepts you if you’ve done what He expects.   And if you don’t, then you’re cast out so that the desire that drives you is to get this God to accept you. And you live every day with the fear that maybe God doesn’t.   And that binds you up just as much as anyone driven by a desire for approval or success or money or whatever.    That’s how people can grow up in a religious environment, even a Christian one, and instead of finding freedom get guilt and anxiety.  They never experienced the truth that Jesus is talking about here, the only truth that can actually set you free. 

What is that truth?   Who you need is not this false God who comes to you as a boss that will boot you out of the house if you mess up.   No, the God that actually exists comes to you as a father, a loving parent, who loves you period; no matter how badly you mess up.   And the more you grasp that truth, the freer you become.  Why?  You know who you are, a beloved child, one whose place in her parents’ heart is always secure.   And in that knowledge, in that truth, you become free.  You become free to become the very being God created you to be, a being journeying deeper and deeper into the wondrous love and goodness of this God.   

And Jesus came to set you free from the lies, to not only tell you the truth, but to actually become that truth, that truth come in flesh and blood.   So, do you understand what that means?   No one freely chooses evil.   Evil has blinded them to the truth.   Evil has bound them up with a lie.  And they end up looking for the love they need in all the wrong places.  

And thus, hell exists to finally free people from those lies.  Hell exists to open their eyes to the truth.  Now that truth will at first bring pain, pain at all the false choices they’ve made, how much hurt and pain they caused themselves and others.   It will lead to weeping and gnashing of teeth.  It will lead to a conscience that will burn inside them, that will burn up the delusions and misplaced desires that so wrecked their lives, their very souls.   But in that burning, they will become free, free to become the very people they yearned to be all along.  The truth will have set them free.

And in that freedom, they will be free to go, to go where they always yearned go anyway, to return to the source of all being and life.  In fact, the very word in Hebrew for repent simply means that, return.   Everyone ultimately wants to return home, to their ultimate home in the beauty and love of God.  And God will not stop until God frees everyone to make that journey.  

That’s why in Jesus, God came.   Jesus gave up his freedom to give you freedom. Jesus gave up his home so you might have that home forever.    In Jesus, God gave up who God was so that you can become who you truly are. In Jesus, God descended into death so that he might raise you into life, the life you yearn to have.  And in the end, Jesus will use everything, even hell itself, to set you free.  For if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.  




Sunday, April 18, 2021

What Does Hell Mean? What If It's Not Forever? What if Hell Is Even for Healing?

Has it ever happened to you?   Have you ever found yourselves remembering something, and then you realized to yourself?   Hmm, I’m not exactly sure that ever happened or at least, that it ever happened to me.   Memory can be a tricky thing.

In fact, a couple of researchers in the 90s created a now famous experiment just to show you how tricky your memory can be.  They told the participants in the experiment that they were engaging in a study on memory.  Then they gave the participants four stories of events that had occurred to them when they were kids, stories that the participants’ older relatives had supplied them.   They asked them to study the stories, and then share their own memories of those same events.

Now here comes the twist.  One of the stories, a story of how they got lost in a mall when they were 5 or 6, never ever happened. Now, when they met with the participants, they asked them to recall what they remembered about those four events.   Then after the participants did so, they gave them the twist.  They told them.  One of these memories never happened.  They asked them. Can you pick which one is false?  And get this.  One out of four couldn’t do it.    They believed that memory of getting lost in the mall had actually happened.   That meant too that they believe that something that had actually happened to them had not happened at all!   

And get this, other researchers have repeated the experiment and created false memories about even more obscure things like taking a hot-air balloon ride or being hospitalized overnight or being nearly drowned but rescued by a lifeguard or being the victim of a vicious animal attack. 

Crazy, huh? Boy, your memory can be a tricky thing.  And that makes sense to me because of how many things people misremember about the Bible.   Like, the Bible says there were three wise men.  Nope it doesn’t.   Jonah got swallowed by a whole.  Nope – didn’t happen – big fish it says, which is not the same as a whale at all.   Or how about this great old memory verse – “This too shall pass.” Oops, except that’s not anywhere in the Bible. 

 So why am I talking about fake memories?  It’s because when I started looking more closely at what the Bible says about hell, I realized I had a fair number of those.   What do I mean?  Not one of Paul’s letters (which are like half the books in the New Testament) ever mentions the word hell or talks about in any direct way (judgment yes, death yes, but not hell).  When I first read that, I thought.  That can’t be true.  But go figure, it is.  In fact, lots of what I thought I knew about hell from the Bible isn’t really there.  And what is there paints a far more complicated picture than I realized.   In fact, the more I looked at what the Bible actually does tell you, the more I discovered just what a beautiful picture of God’s love, hell can be.  How can that be?  Here, in these words, God shows you the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say. 

 1 Timothy 2:3-61 Corinthians 3:11-15

 How in the hell (pun intended) can hell be a sign of God’s love?  To even get at understanding that, you need to see a truth that scripture gives you again and again.  What is that truth?  It’s this. Hell isn’t the end of the story.  It’s not the end of the story for anyone.  In fact, hell exists for only one reason - to get everyone, and I mean, everyone, ready for heaven.

Did you notice that first passage that I read?   I picked that one because well I just like the way Paul puts it there.  But I could have picked any number of other ones like 1 Corinthians 15:22 or Romans 11:32 or Titus 2:11 or 2 Corinthians 5:19 or Colossians 1:27-28.   Or if I got tired of Paul, I could go to John 12:32 or Hebrews 2:9 or John 4:42 or 2 Peter 3:9.  You get the idea.  When you start paying attention, you find the same point pretty much everywhere.  And what point is that?   In the end, everybody gets saved.  That’s God’s plan.  God is going to bring everybody home.   

You see, that’s what that passage from I Timothy is telling you.   Paul is writing to his student pastor, Timothy, urging him to pray for everyone, including all the rulers and authorities.  Why does Paul urge that sort of prayer?  Because Paul says: In the end, God wants them saved too.  Here’s how Paul puts exactly.   Paul writes: This is right and is acceptable in the sight of God our Savior, who desires everyone to be saved, and to come to the full knowledge of the truth.”   And if you were going to look at any one of those other scripture passages that I threw out there, you’d find the same thing lifted up.   In the end, God wants everybody to get in.   In fact, a lot of those passages get more explicit than that.  They simply say.  “All will be saved.”   In other words, God desires everyone to get saved, and what God desires, God ultimately gets.         

And when you think about it, this makes some sense. Let’s say I’m having an interview with God.  Let me introduce my guest tonight, God, the ground of all reality, the source of all being, the creator of time and space.  So, God, inquiring minds want to know.”  Do you save everybody?  Well, I want to sue.  I was even able to get a lot of folks on board, but not everyone.  How many did you miss God?  Well, to be honest, billions.  They just could not get on board with the whole God thing, couldn’t even get them to believe I exist.  So I put them over there in Hell”  So, let me get this clear, God.  “You are the Lord of all time and space, source of all reality,with infinite power?..”Yep that’s me”   Except for this area called Hell, with billions living there, who you couldn’t win over.  You wanted too, but you just could not get it done.”  Is that true, God?  “Basically.”  “Gotta be honest, that’s a bit lame.”    And God goes, “Well, that’s sort of a blasphemous way to put it, but I get your point.”  Now I’m making light of it a bit.  But seriously, does that make any sense?  

Now if you’re thinking.  Hold on, a second, Kennedy!  What about my freedom?   Don’t I get to choose?  Yes, but it gets a bit more complicated than that.  So, next Sunday, I’m going to dig into that particular little conundrum.   Right now, you just need to understand that scripture makes it pretty clear in a lot of places, that in the end, everybody gets in. 

Ok, then, so what about hell?  Does hell exist?  Of course it does.  The Bible mentions it a fair amount.   But here’s the point.  If you don’t understand the end goal, you can’t see what Hell actually means.   And when you get that, then you understand.  Hell isn’t focused on punishing anyone at all.   Hell, as the Bible describes it, is focused on the opposite.  Hell is focused on healing you, on freeing you from the worst parts of yourself.   Hell exists for one reason only.  Hell exists to get you ready to experience heaven. 

And that’s where that passage from Paul’s letter to the church at Corinth comes in, which is pretty much the nearest allusion to Hell that Paul ever gives you.  Now, what Paul describes there doesn’t seem pleasant at all, but when you think about it, healing never is.

As you might know, about six weeks ago, my dad woke up, and could no longer see.  Needless to say, he was terrified.   My sister, Anna, and brother-in-law, Kenny, rushed him to the hospital. There he had the first of what would turn out to be three surgeries.  And after all those surgeries, the doctors believe his vision will, in about six months, almost fully return.  But every week since the last surgery, my dad has had to go in.  Why? So the surgeon can stick a needle into his eye to drain out the excess fluid.   My dad has told me.  That needle in his eye, it hurts, well, it hurts like hell.   But if that’s what it takes for him to see, my dad is more than willing to face that pain.   In fact, he is grateful for this surgeon, who has been so committed to helping him see again. 

When the Bible talks about hell, it is not talking about punishment or revenge.  That would hardly fit with a God who the Bible describes as a God of steadfast love, abounding in mercy and loving kindness. No, hell is about healing.  Now what might this healing look like? 

Every day, I make it a practice to spend ten minutes in silence, a form of prayer called centering prayer.  No spiritual practice has brought more healing or strength into my life than this one.  But every time, every time, I do it, it is painful.  Why?  Once, my mind somewhat settles, and I sense myself opening more to the intimate presence of God, all sorts of deep, painful emotions well up within me, grief, sadness, regret.   Those emotions, they’ve always been there.  I just spent a lot of energy avoiding them.  But God’s love, in that silence, draws them out.  And why?  So, I can be healed, so that God’s love can comfort and restore me, can break me free from what I fear, from pain I too often flee or cover up. 

Maybe God’s love in hell will draw near like that, to draw out all the brokenness and ugliness and pain, so that everyone can be healed.   Or maybe it will be a bit like when my mom helped me run away from home. 

I don’t remember what I had become upset about, but I remember what I wanted to do about it.  I wanted to get out of that house, to leave that family behind forever.   I told my mom that, in no uncertain terms.  And my mom, to my shock, said ok.   If I remember it correctly, she even packed me a lunch to take with me.   I think I made it about ¾’s of a mile before I decided. Maybe running away wasn’t the best option after all.   And when I came home, embarrassed, a bit humbled, even willing to admit that I might have been wrong, my mom was there.  And she forgave me and welcomed me with open arms. 

Now, let me make it clear, I don’t want to sentimentalize this too much.  The journey that is hell, as the Bible describes it, will be one profoundly dark and lonely, where, as Jesus puts it, there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.  But in that darkness, God will find a way to bring those lost in the darkness to the light.   Or as the Bible describes hell here, it might become like a refining fire, burning out people’s idols and delusions, every useless thing that blinds them from the truth.   But in that fire, God will refine and free and restore and heal.

Now, sadly, Christianity has largely lost touch with what a good many of the early Christians saw more clearly than we do.  We have forgotten what we once knew.   But look at the scriptures for yourself or set up a time for further conversation or pray about it, or heck do all those things. And see if this early Christian belief makes sense to you. 

And I pray that all of us, as we reflect on these things, will grow closer to God’s heart, a God who yearns for everyone to know God’s love, to be healed and restored, to experience the abundant life that God intended for us all. 

In fact, God desired that so much, God gave up everything for it.  One of my favorite scripture passages comes from Hebrews 12.  There it says that Jesus. “for the sake of the joy that was set before him endured the cross, disregarding its shame.”   But what was the joy set before Jesus, the joy for which he endured the cross.  You were that joy.  You are that joy.   Jesus became wounded so that you could be healed.  Jesus became rejected so that you would never be.   Jesus became shut out so that you might be brought in.   And Jesus died so that you might live, so that you might become all that God dreamed for you to be.  And Jesus will not stop in that love, even if it means going to hell and beyond.


Sunday, April 11, 2021

How Do God's Love and Hell Go Together? They Do but Not the Way You Think.

Every time it happens, I struggle with how to handle it.   After all, I’ve just met the family.    And the funeral home did reach out to me so that I could give them some comfort in their time of grief.  So, I ask things like.  “What did your mom or sister believe?”   Or “What church did they attend growing up?”   “Tell me a little bit more about their connection to God.”   Sometimes, they look at each other, trying to find some answer that will help me see this person believed in something.   And sure, they usually come up with something.   And it helps.  It helps me know them better, but it also gives me a little wiggle room.  

The great Presbyterian writer, Kathleen Norris put it well.  “A relationship with God is like a marriage.  The only two people who really know what is going on are the two people in the relationship.”  So, I always give that relationship the benefit of the doubt.    But every now and then, it becomes uncomfortably clear that, when it came to God at least, this person didn’t have any relationship at all, even loudly proclaimed that fact.   Maybe their spouse did or their kids, and that’s why they call me.  Sure, the person had many good qualities.   But for whatever reason, they acknowledged no connection to God, maybe didn’t believe such a being as God existed at all.     So, what do you do then?   I usually say something like, “Now, George or Mary knows the love of God as they didn’t know it here.  Then I launch into a little moment to urge those present to not wait until death to know that love, but to know it right then and there.”   After all, at a funeral, folks can be open to the good news of God’s love in a way they normally aren’t.  So, I always throw a little gospel pass down the field, hoping someone will catch it.    But here’s what I don’t do.  

I don’t ever say something like, “Well, we don’t know where George or Mary is right now, but they could be burning in the eternal flames of hell.  After all, they refused a relationship with God, and now God has honored their choice with separation from God forever.   I pray that you don’t make the same mistake.”   But should I?  After all, that’s what the Bible teaches.  Or does it?

Maybe you have a friend or a family member for whom this is true.  They don’t believe in God at all.   Or maybe they simply don’t believe in Jesus.   So, what happens to them if they kick the bucket?   Is that it?  Are they done, cut off from any hope of connection with God forever more?  How can you know?  In these words, God begins to show the way.   Let’s listen and hear what God has to say. 

Matthew 7:9-11, Ephesians 3:14-15

So, if you’re not a believer, what happens after you die?   What does the Bible tell you?  Starting today, and over the next several blog posts, we’re going to go deep into that question.  I’m telling you that because if you expect me to answer all the questions you might have in this one, I won’t.   But hold on.  Over the next weeks, hopefully, I will.  In the meantime, don’t hesitate to reach out to me with your questions or comments or concerns by emailing me here:

But today, I want to take a look at the bigger picture first, to look at this question from the image of God that Jesus used again and again, of God as a parent, most particularly a Father, as in the very prayer we pray each week.  

Every time, I put tabasco sauce on something (which is a lot – I love tabasco sauce), I remember the story, and I feel sad.   It’s weird.  Sometimes, a little detail of something horrific can stick in your mind for years, even decades.   That’s how it’s with tabasco sauce and me.  As a child, I saw that detail in a news story, one of the first news stories I remember catching my young eye.  A young child had died after brutal abuse at the hands of his own parents.  And this article detailed the awfulness this little boy experienced.  And in those details, the tabasco sauce stuck with me.  You see.   His parents, as a punishment, had regularly forced him to chug a bottle of tabasco.   That terrified me.  I could imagine, the fear, the terror, the agony of that, not simply the pain of the tabasco, but knowing it was the people you looked to for love, for care who were torturing you like that.  I tried to Google the story.  That made it worse.  I discovered, to my horror, that this punishment is kind of a thing, what’s called “hot saucing” the kids.   

And yes, child abuse happens all the time, likely even more so, in the distanced days of this pandemic.  Who knows what tragic horrors have occurred behind closed doors?  But boy the stories of it trouble me.   For a parent to betray their child like that, to destroy their trust, to wound their body and soul, I find it almost more than I can bear.   

When my son was born, I remember realizing.  That kid looked to me and my wife for everything.  We were his whole world.  And because of that, he was so very vulnerable.  So, I wanted to make his world as safe and loving and secure as I could, as any loving parent would.  To know that parents exist who choose to make their children’s world instead a place of pain and terror, I can hardly grasp.      

So, it’s strange to me that Jesus picks this image for God.  To see God as a Father presumes big expectations of God, of love, of protection, of faithfulness.   But Jesus tells us, again and again, that’s who God is, that God loves us as a father loves a child.   And when you talk about God, you’re talking about a love that goes beyond what any mortal parent can provide, a love that goes on literally without end.   And if Jesus tells you that’s who God is, a God who loves you with a tenacity, with a faithfulness, with a compassion that goes even beyond that of the most dedicated father or mother, then that’s who God is.  

But do you see what this means?  

Even since I can remember, I’ve loved movies.  And this time of year, when the award nominations come out, I try to watch more movies than ever, especially those nominated as the best.   That’s how I ended up watching the film, Judas and the Black Messiah a few months ago.  The nominations hadn’t come out, but I knew.  When they did, this film would be there.  So, I wanted to check it out.  

If you don’t know, the film tells the story of Fred Hampton, one of the leaders of the Black Panther party in the sixties (he’s the black messiah in the title), and of how, one of his closest colleagues (the Judas) ended up betraying him and getting him killed.    The story has all sorts of tragic complexities within it, but one hit me more like no other.  

In the film, one of the members of the Black Panthers, a 19-year-old named Jake Winters, gets chased by the police.  He ends up disarming one of them and putting him on the ground.  The officer looks up, hands spread, begging for mercy.  You see Winters staring down. Then you see it happen.  You see him make a decision.  And he fires the gun.  And you know.  He has crossed a line.  He is no longer just a political revolutionary.  He has become a murderer.  And moments later, Winters is gunned down himself.  

Then the scene changes to a neat, white kitchen.  And you realize. Fred Hampton is visiting Jake Winter’s grieving mom.  And as they sit and talk, she reminisces about her boy.  She talks about how loving he was as a child, how gentle and kind.   And you see what’s happening. She is telling Fred.   That’s who my boy was.   Yes, in that moment, he made a terrible mistake.  He ended a man’s life, but she knows too.  Her son was more than that.    

And that scene haunts me.  Why? It speaks to a great fear that every parent has.  G.K. Chesterton spoke truth when he said this about love.  He said: “Love is not blind; that is the last thing it is.  Love is bound; and the more it is bound the less it is blind.”    When you love someone, you see the truth.  You see their strengths, their weaknesses.  You see their faults even as you see their gifts.   And you yearn to see the gifts win out, to see this person you love become their best self.   But you know.  It can go the other way.  Every child, as they grow up, can make fateful choices, choices that lead to worst choices, choices that hurt them and others. And you yearn, you work, for that not to happen, but you know.  As much as you try, in the end, it lies out of your control.   Things could go wrong, tragically wrong with this beautiful child you love.    But if they do, you know. You are still bound to them.  Yes, you see the ugliness that has led them to a dark place.   But you see the goodness that remains even in the midst of all that mess. 

For, you may not always like your kid, but you will never stop loving them.  You will love them no matter what.    That’s what a loving parent does, what a loving dad does.   And if this is who Jesus tells you God is again and again; if you read in Ephesians that God is not just a father to those who follow Jesus but is a Father to everyone, then that forces a question, a question that has to be asked.

Would any loving father, any loving parent, as an act of love, consign any one of their children, no matter how broken or twisted, to agony without end, to torture and suffering that will last forever?  Does that make sense?  Sure, God exists far beyond our limited understanding.  You can’t limit God to the image of just a Father.  He’s a judge too, a God of righteousness and truth.  But if Jesus calls God a loving Father, then that analogy, as limited as it is, still has to be true.     

So, how do Christians reconcile a loving heavenly Father with the idea of a God who subjects millions and millions of his children to agonizing brutality that goes on forever and ever and ever?  To be honest, most Christians just don’t.   They believe in hell when it’s convenient, like for maybe Hitler.  But they don’t really believe in it for Uncle Bob or Aunt Sue or their kind atheist neighbor down the street.   Yet here’s the problem.  If you read the Bible, you can’t ignore Hell.   You find images of it all over the place, including in Jesus’ own words.  So, what do you do?

You realize.   The problem doesn’t lie in hell.  The problem lies in people thinking they know what hell is.   The problem lies in thinking you know what the Bible tells you about it.   That’s why next week, we’re going to look at what the Bible does tell you.  And as you do you will find.  Who Jesus tells you God is, this loving Father, is profoundly, beautifully true.  God does love you in the same way and even more so, that if you’re a parent, you love your kids.   

More than that, hell, at least hell as the Bible actually portrays it, affirms that truth.  You discover hell is not a terrifying, brutal place where God lets his children be tortured forever.  No, Hell is a profoundly beautiful act of God’s love.  And in that love, you will not find a God of endless torture, but a God of unrelenting faithfulness.  You will find a God who never, ever gives up on any of his children.  You will find a God whose love cannot, in the end, be resisted.  You will find, a God whose love will, before all is done, bring all of God’s children home.  

So, if you want to know who God is, you have to start by listening to what Jesus tells you about his father.  But you don’t stop there.  No, you look at who Jesus shows you God to be.   And what does Jesus show you?  Jesus shows you a God who became one of you.  Why? To save you.  Jesus shows you a God who even as you killed him, loved you, even prayed for you.  And what word did Jesus use when he prayed?  He used Father.   “Father, forgive them for they know not what they do.” 

And as God and Jesus are one, then God the Father was praying that prayer too, so you know it was answered. For, on your worst days, you have a God who will never quit you.  You have a God whose love will never walk away.  You have a God who is bound to you as tightly as a mother to her child, as unwaveringly committed to you as a dad to his kids, and even more so.   And in the face of that love, not even death, not even hell itself, stands a chance.  

Sunday, April 4, 2021

Timing Matters, Not Only in Baseball but in Life, and Easter Gives You That Timing Like Nothing Else. Find out How.

Every time I see one drive by, I think to myself.   If only, if only ten years ago you would have bought just a little bit.  Heck, if just a year ago, I had only bought a little bit.    When the car company Tesla first went public ten years ago, you could buy a share for 17 bucks.   And today?  Well, it’s gone up a bit.  How much?

Let’s say you spent around 200 bucks on Tesla stock ten years ago.  Today you’d have around 7500 bucks.   In other words, you’d have enough money for well…a down payment on a Tesla.   Now, if you’d spent around 2,000 ten years ago, you’d have enough money to actually buy one, maybe even have some change afterwards!   Not bad huh.

And forget Tesla, look at Zoom.  Just two years ago, if you’d bought $200 bucks of that stock, you’d be sitting on 2 grand.  But of course, all that talking is coulda, woulda, shoulda right?  Unless of course you did buy Tesla or Zoom stock back then, and if you did, then we’ll be happy to have your Easter gift this year!   Thank you very much.

Now why am I talking about stock prices on Easter?  Is this Easter service sponsored by CNBC?  No, it just reminds you that in life, timing matters.  Timing matters a lot.  What’s the difference between being a hall of fame hitter in baseball and striking out like all the time?  Folks have measured it.  It’s about 4 tenths of a second.   But forget baseball or stocks.  Timing matters way more than that.   Think about timing when it comes to your kids or your relationships, when it comes to your health or your habits.   Timing matters.

It’s why the Greeks realized that time means more than what you got on your watch, what they called Chronos time.   They knew. Chronos time doesn’t matter that much most of the time.  But the other time they called Kairos.  And Kairos time matters a lot.  You see. You don’t check your watch for Kairos time.  You check your gut.   Kairos means that moment of opportunity.  It’s that timing a great hitter has when a ball gets pitched.  That’s Kairos time.  Kairos time is when you look at someone you love, and you know it’s time to hold them close.  And you know that not because you checked your watch.  No, it’s because you checked your heart.   

So, you can miss what time it is on your watches.  But if you’ve lost touch with what time it is in your body or in your relationships or in your life, that’s a problem.  During this pandemic, losing touch with that time could kill you.  If you didn’t know it was “wear-a-mask time, then the next mask you could be wearing was the oxygen one.

And on this day, on Easter, like no other day, God gives you the time, not the Chronos time.  God gives you the Kairos time.  And when you know that time, it changes everything.  It changes how you see the world.  It changes how you see the news.  It changes how you see others. It changes how you see yourself.  And how do you know that time?  Here God shows you the way.  Let’s listen and hear what God has to say.

I Corinthians 15:3-6,20-22, 54-58

If you don’t know what time it is, what time it is in your life, in your relationships, in this world, you miss so much of what matters.  You miss all the wonder, all the possibility, all the hope that this world holds.  And today, like no other day, God tells you what time it truly is. 

And let’s make it clear.   God in this story of the empty tomb, isn’t just giving you some inspirational story about how love triumphs over death.  God is telling you something profoundly, objectively, irrefutably true.  God is giving you news, the best news ever.   

Why do you think Paul makes a point of telling you about these witnesses, over 500 of them?  Paul is saying.  I’m not giving you a fable.  I’m giving you a fact.  This ain’t fake news. It’s the real deal.  Look at how Paul writes. “I handed on to you, as of first importance, what I in turn had received.”   He is saying. I have personally researched this.  I have spoken to these witnesses, heard their stories with my own ears.  

That’s why Christians have that weird little call and response on Easter.  Christ is risen.   And folks respond.  Christ is risen indeed!    Don’t you see what we’re saying? We’re proclaiming. “Christ is risen in fact.”   This actually happened, and it has changed everything.

And deep inside, you know you yearn for this change.  You can tell yourself death is natural, simply the way of the world.  But why do human beings spend countless amounts of money trying to stop it from happening?  During this past year, our whole nation, our whole world has rallied to stop this virus.  And why?  We know this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.  So many have fought, even risked their own lives to stop the death of others, even the oldest and most vulnerable among us. Why?  We know this isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.  When we hear of the loss of half a million in our nation, and millions more around the world, we sense. Something has gone horribly wrong.  And why?  Because something has.  We know.  This isn’t the way it’s supposed to be.  

And if that’s true, if something has gone horribly wrong, it can be made right.  The world can return to what God intended the world to be, a world where death doesn’t have the last word.  No, Instead, God’s love does. 

And when Jesus rises again, that’s what God is doing.  God is starting the restoration of everything.   In that empty tomb, God is overturning the old order of things.  God is changing it forever.   And once that revolution has begun, nothing stops it, not even death.

Heck, Jesus was doing that even before Easter Sunday began.  Think about it.   What was Jesus doing on that Saturday before Sunday. Was he just laying around the tomb, checking the time? Is it Sunday yet?  I did tell them three days.   No, Jesus was doing prison ministry. 

In the letter that his disciple, Peter wrote to the churches, he tells us.  Jesus was making a proclamation to the spirits in prison.  And what prison does Peter mean?  He is talking about the prison house of death.   Jesus was doing a massive jailbreak.   Lots of ancient churches have pictures of it, even, like this one.  

On Saturday, Jesus went down to Hell, to Hades, the place of the dead, whatever terms you wanna use.   And Jesus said.   Hand me the keys.   Death, those keys belong to me not you.  And I’m using those keys not to hold people in.   I’m using those keys to let them out.  I have defeated and destroyed death forever.   You see, that’s what going on in that picture.  Jesus is bringing out the prisoners, doing the biggest jailbreak in the universe, the one that overturns death itself. 

And by the way, you might wonder.  How do we even know?  Well, since Peter tells it, we know.  Jesus must have told him.  One day, after the resurrection, Peter must have asked.  What were you doing in that tomb before Sunday?  And Jesus told him.   I was breaking everyone out.     

That’s what God means when Paul talks about the first fruits.  God is saying. On Easter, I began a revolution, and Jesus is just the beginning.   And I will not stop until every broken place is healed, every lost person found, every evil overthrown, until even death is no more.  And when you know that, when you know that not even death can defy God’s love for you, God’s love for this world, then you know that with God, with that love, everything becomes possible. 

It has taken me so long, but I think I might actually get it done this year.   You see, back in the 50s, a novelist named Shelby Foot began writing a history of the Civil War.  Before he finished, 20 years later he had written almost, 3 volumes, 3,000 pages, 1.2 million words.   I started reading it decades ago, but I couldn’t make it through.  I stopped in Volume 3.   But now I’m back, now almost to page 700.  So, I think it’s going to happen. 

I gotta tell you.   The history is riveting.   You don’t know which side will win this particular battle; who will get the upper hand.  But of course, if you didn’t know the end of the story, you’d find it terrifying.  But you do know.  In the end, the good guys win.  Our nation defeats the defenders of a great evil.  We finally overthrow a system that had enslaved people for centuries.  And yet just reading about it wears me out.

It makes me wonder.  How did the citizens who actually won that war make it through?  More crucially, how did the millions of enslaved people, enslaved generation after generation make it through?  How did great leaders like Frederick Douglass and Harriet Tubman not lose hope when they fought year after year to stop this evil?  They knew.   Even when things looked darkest, they knew.  They knew what time it was.   They knew. This great evil would not stand.   It would fall.  As the Battle Hymn of the Republic sings it;

He has sounded forth the trumpet that shall never call retreat
He is sifting out the hearts of men before His judgment-seat
Oh, be swift, my soul to answer, oh be jubilant, my feet
His truth is marching on.

And for that same reason, Jesus is still moving forward, to make that truth real, to bring justice where there is injustice, to bring healing where there is sickness and death, to bring love where there is hate, to bring hope where hope has died.  And Jesus shall never call retreat until all is made right.    

And Jesus is calling you and I to be right there with him, sharing the love, fighting for the justice, and like Paul proclaims.  We can be steadfast.  We can be immovable.  We can excel in the work of the Lord.   We can know our labor is not in vain.  Why?  We know what time it is.

It’s not the world is coming to an end time.    No, it’s God is winning the victory time.   It’s not no change is coming time.  It is God is changing everything time.  It’s not injustice has the upper hand time.  It’s justice is rolling down like mighty waters time.   It’s not death has the last word time.  It’s where O death is your sting time.    It is not despair time.  It’s hope time.   It is not fear time.  It is going forth in faith time.  It’s not death time.   No, what time is it?  It’s resurrection time. 

In resurrection time, you can stand steadfast no matter what you face.  After all, you know what time it is.  It isn’t Jesus is dead and gone time.  It’s Jesus is alive and on the move time.   It isn’t stop and cower time.  It’s get up and go boldly time.    It’s not fear has the last word time.  It’s love has the last word time.  It’s not despair time.  It’s hope time.  It’s not death time.  What time is it?  It’s resurrection time. The empty tomb proclaims the time.  It’s resurrection time.  It’s God has the victory time.   And nothing, not even death itself, can change that.