11th Sunday After Pentecost
11th SA Pentecost 11.22 “A Couple Things About Hell…” Is. 66: 18ff; Luke 13:22-30
A couple things about hell… that are interesting and perhaps surprising even to many veteran church-goers can be gleaned from our OT and Gospel readings for today. Well, some can be gleaned only because I made the vicar throw in the last verse of Isaiah’s book that the editors of our lectionary cut out. It’s a good thing Revelation was flagged by the early church and Lutheran fathers as apocryphal (not canonical scripture) because I think it has some harsh words at the end about those who take away from the prophecies of Scripture—like they lose their share in the tree of life and the holy city? A warning which makes me think more highly of the Apocalypse of John…
Anyway, here’s one of the first things about hell from today’s readings we might profitably ponder—why are the compilers of the lectionary cutting out the last verse of Isaiah’s prophecy about the heavenly city, a verse which is really the denouement (pardon my French!) of Isaiah’s last chapter—and in some ways of the entire book?! The church’s historic lectionary, BTW, is something that’s been passed on from the early church and been tweaked and modified along the way by the church, most recently and radically by the second Vatican council of the Roman church in the early 1960’s, going from a 1 year to a 3 year lectionary, which lectionary got tweaked by the National Council of Churches USA, that our Synod has tweaked some more and used in our last two hymnals, LW and LSB).
So, why would this august, ecumenical committee of modern scholars and pastors cut out the punchline of Isaiah? Is hell something we can’t talk about? I mean, God talks about hell, for Christ’s sake; why can’t we? Should we edit Jesus, hmmm? Well, I think it’s not hard to guess why: Isaiah is painting a picture of the heavenly city, the redeemed all gathered before God in adoration, worshiping the Triune God with the greatest delight, and the last verse adds that when we saunter out of the heavenly temple, we’ll have a gander at Gehenna (the garbage dump of Jerusalem where the trash burned 24/7) and look on the corpses (zombies?) of the rebels against God, swimming the lake of fire, unsuccessfully dodging the flesh eating worm, an abhorrence to all flesh, or as the NIV has it “a really gnarly sight, dude!”
Now maybe, that’s a little but of a bummer on which to end our reading? I suppose the modern fashion is to leave us with happy thoughts, sugar plum fairies dancing, rather than zombies frying? But zombies are delightful—to some of us: “the only thing about the Zombie Apocalypse, when it comes, that will be difficult for me is pretending that I’m not excited.” That there will be zombies, lots of them! that we can see from Heaven’s Holy Mountain, just getting toasted in hell below and that we can watch and mock, and maybe even take a shot or two at them ourselves? (better than a skeet range and who doesn’t like shooting zombies, er, skeet?) It seems like an awesome feature, to me; but I realize many may view it as a regrettable bug in the heavenly set up (see what I did there? View it as a bug, view the corpses mauled by fire and flesh eating worms? OK, nevermind).
And I feel you on this, I really do. It is a highly athletic picture Isaiah paints of Heaven’s delights; and we modern people, since the 19th century, have been taught that Heaven’s pleasures will be very restrained and indoors and sedentary—lotta harp music, lotta choir practice, not so much skeet, or many monsters to shoot, few extreme sports of any kind, or lakes of fire, flesh eating worms chewing on zombies for our viewing pleasure. I was taught the same thing and worried a lot as a child (and still as an adult) that Heaven sounds kinda boring—so why am I so keen to go, exactly?
And then I did this strange thing (well, I was forced to, honestly, as a theology major and divinity student): I started reading the actual holy scriptures instead of just hearing what the modern church bureaucrats and fashionable authors said about what the Bible says. And I was blown away. There’s a lotta killin’ in it, especially the OT! and neither God nor the faithful seem too fussed about it! The only difficult thing with the Lake of Fire (for the faithful) is pretending that it’s not exciting. The prophets and apostles didn’t even feel a need to pretend. Shoot, James and John are eager to call down fire from Heaven on the Samaritans who don’t want to hang with Jesus and are obviously disappointed when Jesus says: “No. Not yet. Wait for it…” I bet I know where I can find James and John in Heaven… the Gehenna overlook, just outside the temple, “Oooh, look, John! Our old 8th grade teacher from Lutheran School didn’t make it, just like we thought she wouldn’t. And mom said we were shameful for suggesting it!” Well, you know where to find me—if you want to catch up in Heaven, if you haven’t had your fill of me here on earth…
So the compilers of the lectionary cut out this (as well as many other!) athletic parts of scripture. Because they are not excited about the Zombie Apocalypse and getting to just blast away to our heart’s content at the zombies. They seem to think such sport and delight is unworthy of the redeemed. But when I found out about this (on my own 😉 it made me very excited to be a Christian. A big reason I went into this whole pastor line of work is to share this (peculiar?) joy with others…
Which is the 2nd thing we learn about hell: it’s pretty full and the faithful few are just fine with that—the right crowd and no crowding in Heaven! And the faithful view all God’s deeds,—including the torching of nasty, old zombies—with delight. Our definition of Good is not what we like or what benefits us, personally, but if God does it, it’s Good, and so we love it!
Which is the 3rd thing about hell we learn today: if we find ourselves swimming the lake of fire, dodging the flesh eating worms, we will not whine or complain but go “Cool! I so deserved this; but hey, it’s not boring! It’s an extreme sport! Kind of fun!” Our love of God will be so free of all self-interest that we’d praise him even from hell. Luther said this “resignation to damnation” (if that be God’s will) is the highest degree of faith and such a person could never be in hell; for us, the lake of fire is just another cool feature displaying gloriously the awesome might of God.
In our Gospel, Jesus tells us the 4th and maybe most important thing about hell: people go to hell not because they don’t know Jesus, but because Jesus does’t know them! And he doesn’t know them—5th thing about hell—because they are workers of evil. “Good” for them is what’s good for them. Their made-up good works of prissy piety have fooled lots of people, but the proof is really the lake of fire: if you look on that and say “Cool!” then you are pleased with whatever God does simply because he does it—which is Good.
And how does Jesus know you? Well, in the words instituting the Lord’s Supper, Jesus says, literally: “Do this into my remembrance.” Here’s the real knowing!
6th thing about hell: some of the last and least likely miscreants will be first row Heaven; and many we thought first in piety will be cast out. So, 7th: God grant—in this race—we all finish last. In Jesus’ Name. Amen.