I remember the voice more than I can distinguish the man’s features as I look back into my college career. (It’s getting farther and farther away, you know!) He would appear in the spring, when the weather was warm enough that college students start to dress for the beach, and the library lawn would be littered with people sunbathing, reading, eating lunch, and chatting.
I don’t know what his name was, but I know that there are people like him in every city, in every community, that I’ve ever lived in.
This man showed up, in his forties or fifties, and shouted at the college students who dared cross his path, “Repent! You’re all going to hell!”
Before I go on, let me be clear –
I believe hell exists because I believe God gives us the choice to love him or not. Hell is the option for ‘not God’.
Repentance is necessary. Now, Advent is a season of repentance in the church – we should always be looking at our lives and examining who we are and what we’re doing – but I think that our seasonal visitor to the college campus missed the point.
But here come the caveats that I wished I had the fortitude to brace myself as a teenager and speak back to this man who set Christianity on my campus back every time he shouted.
None of us can know by looking at someone else whether they are going to hell or not. That’s between God and that person. We might identify their “fruits” but God alone knows their hearts.
“Everyone” is not going to hell and it’s possible no one will. Whether no one goes to hell or not doesn’t determine whether it exists, but it does show us something about God.
While the word hell is credited to Jesus in the neighborhood of a dozen times, I find myself recognizing that there’s a different kind of ‘hell’ that Jesus seems to highlight.
There’s the hell that the prodigal son finds himself in that causes him to run back to the father.
There’s the hell of the vineyard owner’s son when the people maintaining the vineyard decide to kill him and take over.
There’s the hell of the traveler, beaten and left for dead, who the Samaritan befriends, nurses, and cares for.
This Advent, I’m very aware that hell is real. I read about it when I see stories about human trafficking, when I hear about kids who don’t have enough to eat, when I recognize that people don’t have homes to live in – whether they are American veterans or foreign refugees. Hell is real – I’m sure of it.
At those moments, people feel far from God – they feel like they are alone, rejected, and hurt. But those are the moments when God longs to wrap them up in his arms and remind them that they’re not alone, that they are important, and that they are loved.
And God wants to use us to do it.
In our parable today from Luke 15:1-7, Jesus speaks to his audience, a mix of the best of the best and the worst of the worst as far as society was concerned. He has tax collectors (glorified government thieves) and ‘sinners’ on one side and the rich, powerful, educated, and self-righteous religious teachers on the other. Here’s Jesus minding his own business, and the Pharisees and teachers of the law complain that he is eating with sinners and welcoming them.
Here’s Jesus with ‘the world’ and he’s being most agreeable toward them – and the power, the ‘church’, rejects the outsiders and Jesus.
Sometimes, I wonder if we – the Church – don’t put ourselves out when we start discussing what ‘the world’ is doing. Sometimes, I wonder if we haven’t made ourselves far from the heart of God.
Consider Jesus’ parable again: He tells us to imagine we own a hundred sheep and we lose one. Recognizing that the ninety-nine are “safe,” would you not go to seek the lost sheep?
Maybe you would and maybe you wouldn’t. Maybe the ‘sheep in hand’ would be more than enough to let you neglect the ‘sheep in the bush.’ But consider this, the shepherd knows each sheep by name…
I’m no animal person. I like some, tolerate others, and have owned a few. But I remember when a parishioner who hunted bought a litter of dogs to raise as hunting dogs. At first they were kept separate from his pets, and he told his wife not to name them. These were tools to go hunting with – not pets. There would be no emotional attachment!
You know where this is going, right? Merely weeks later, I received a text that they would be late. Because one of the dogs – who was by then named – had run away and they had to return to the woods to find the dog. They had a dozen other dogs – all of whom were named – but this dog was missing and they had to find it!
Many of you have that kind of feeling about your dogs or cats. Many of you feel that way about your children!
But in Jesus’ parable, the set up is between those who are ‘found’ and those who are ‘lost.’ Everyone could be one or the other, but the movement is from lost to found and it is God’s desire in the kingdom of God that all would be found.
All means all, right?
While the media screams about what is wrong with the world, while other Christians complain about “that generation” or “those people,” let’s be countercultural. Let’s be like Jesus.
Let’s see each person as the individual creation of the God of the universe;
Let’s see each opportunity as a moment where truth, love, hope, joy, and peace can be proclaimed;
Let’s see problems as possibilities and troubles as testing for growth;
Let’s remember that the message of the angels shouted loudly to the shepherds below was good news of peace for all humankind.
IT’S ADVENT BUT CHRISTMAS IS COMING.
REPENT. TAKE HEART. GOD IS SEEKING YOU.