Summary: Hell has gotten a bad rap these days. Dante wrote about its amusement park, but that’s fallen into disrepair. It’s no longer on the list of any popular tourist destinations.
Sermon: Hell Takes a Dive
Occasion: Trinity I
Who: Mark Woolsey
Where: Providence Reformed Episcopal Church
When: Sunday, June 14th, 2009
May the words of my mouth and the meditation of my heart be acceptable in Thy sight, O Lord, my strength and my redeemer. In the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
Hell has gotten a bad rap these days. Dante wrote about its amusement park, but that’s fallen into disrepair. It’s no longer on the list of any popular tourist destinations. No TV sitcom is set there. It does appear in one "reality show", and the food’s pretty good, but the chef is something of a potty mouth. In times medieval it showed up in quite a few paintings, but now it has hit hard times. It’s either banished altogether, or at best ignored in polite company. In fact, there’s only one time in modern society that it’s proper to mention it at all. Here’s an example:
Do you believe in eternal punishment in a burning lake of fire?
Fortunately for us our modern culture has forbidden God from sending anybody there except perhaps Hitler, Stalin, and either Barak Obama or George Bush, depending upon your party affiliation.
Hell, you might say, has taken a dive, or as the parable we read today has it, Dives.
II. Sine Qua Non
What is the "sine qua non" of theology today? That is, if you strip modern theology down to its essence, when you just can’t take anything more away and still call it theology, what do you have left? God is love. And Jesus is the highest expression of God’s love. Guess who had the most by far to say about Hell in Scripture? Jesus. A significant portion of His teaching touched this subject.
III. Common Theme
There is a common theme of all the scriptures our lectionary gives us today. In the Jeremiah passage God starts off with some questions that are designed to chastise the hearers’ understanding of Himself:
"Am I a God near at hand," says the Lord,
"And not a God afar off?
Can anyone hide himself in secret places,
So I shall not see him?" says the Lord. (Jer 23:23-24)
God then judges those who mishandle His word:
How long will this be in the heart of the prophets who prophesy lies? Indeed they are prophets of the deceit of their own heart, who try to make My people forget My name by their dreams which everyone tells his neighbor, as their fathers forgot My name for Baal. (v26-27)
And finally God turns up the heat:
"Is not My word like a fire?" says the Lord,
"And like a hammer that breaks the rock in pieces?" (v29)
A fire. A hammer. Ominous indeed.
Well, at least the gospel of Matthew from Morning Prayer will give us some good news:
Enter by the narrow gate; for wide is the gate and broad is the way that leads to destruction, and there are many who go in by it. Because narrow is the gate and difficult is the way which leads to life, and there are few who find it. (Mat 7:13-14)
Not everyone who says to Me, ’Lord, Lord,’ shall enter the kingdom of heaven, but he who does the will of My Father in heaven. Many will say to Me in that day, ’Lord, Lord, have we not prophesied in Your name, cast out demons in Your name, and done many wonders in Your name?’ and then I will declare to them, ’I never knew you; depart from Me, you who practice lawlessness!’ (v21-23)
Then our Lord continues His discourse, describing the fate of those who build beautiful houses, but on foundations of sand. Their end is destruction:
And great was its fall. (v27)
Good news indeed.
And, of course, it gets even more disturbing when we get to the main gospel passage for the day.
IV. Heaven & Hell’s Occupants
Ok, hell is not a wonderful place, filled with wonder and grace. But the rich guy who’s in there is a pagan at least, right? He’s a Greek, and unbeliever. Someone far removed from us. Well, no. He’s in the church. Note the way he addresses Abraham:
Father Abraham (Luke 16:24)
Abe doesn’t deny the connection, but even affirms it when he calls the rich man, "Son". So here’s someone who was in the church, but now in Hell.
It’s interesting to note the names used in this parable. In all of Jesus’ parables, only one person is ever named. It’s Lazarus, and it’s in this parable. The person Jesus made most real to us by naming him, who in a sense He raised above all others in His stories, was a poor, wretched beggar. Even more interesting is the Latin word for rich. Can you guess what it is? It’s basically "dives", and that’s the name the church has given the rich man. Dives. Hell really has taken a dive, or as I said earlier, Dives.