Friday, 24 September 2010

Hell is yourself

Sartre famously wrote that 'Hell is other people'. For the existentialist, at the centre of reality, the other person is hell: they are an affront to my independence and to my autonomy. Why should the rich man in this story not do what he wishes? Why should he show any compassion to Lazarus? Lazarus is an inconvenience, an irrelevance.

The problem for Sartre is that life, as we experience it, is full of other people. And Jesus, through this story, teaches the complete opposite of Sartre's aphorism. Hell is not other people. Hell is when we live blind to God and blind to others, alive only to self. Hell is yourself.

In this story, we have a rich man. He thought that he was at the top of the world. He dressed in the best clothes; he ate the best food. He had the good things in life. But he dies. And then we get the first shock of this story. He goes to the place of torment, to hell.

Why? Because he was rich? Certainly Jesus has warned those who are rich, and well fed, and who have high status (Luke 6:24-26)? But is that the criteria for whether people go to heaven or hell? On that basis most of us in this society are heading for hell.

And we are not told that he was a bad person, or had done something particularly wicked. All we are told of him is that he was rich, and that at his gate was a poor man who longed to rummage through his wheelie bin and eat what he could find.

Why does he go to hell?

There are hints in the story.

It is often pointed out that although we know Lazarus’ name, the rich man in the story is nameless. As far as Jesus is concerned he has no name. His sin was that he had ignored God and lived for himself and, no doubt, the extension of himself: his family and friends. The world rotated around him. The world existed for him. He had built his identity on himself. Oh, he probably satisfied the external requirements of his religion (like going to church, maybe even giving to church), but even though it was done in the name of God, it was self-serving. He did it for himself – to gain respectability or his place in society or peace of mind.    

The passage talks about how he is in torment. It talks about flames. The picture that most people had at the time of hell was the picture of a place called Gehenna, which was the municipal rubbish tip outside Jerusalem, where the rubbish would be brought and then set on fire. But the fire of hell is not created by some external Dante-esque torturer who is adding fuel to the furnace. The fire of hell is chosen.

It is like addiction. The addict gets what they want, but what they want ends up destroying them.

We are all addicts, not necessarily to a particular substance (although it can be), but to self. I build my worth, my identity on me: whether that is my good works, or my toughness, or my family, or my business, on my speaking ability, on being a religious person. So, for instance, if I build my identity on my toughness, and someone comes along who is tougher than me, my addiction drives me to prove that I am tougher than them. Or if I have built my identity on the fact that I am a successful business woman or man, and my business starts to fail, then I need to work harder and harder, and sacrifice more and more, in order to try and preserve my self-identity. Or maybe I build my identity on the fact that I am a good person or a religious person or a sufficiently penitent person. And then things go badly for me. And so I feel let down badly by God. ‘Why should he let this happen to me when I have been so good, when I have made so many sacrifices for him?’ And we become angry and bitter.

Elisabeth Elliott tells a story of Jesus and his disciples. It is not in the bible. It is made up. One morning Jesus tells each of his disciples to pick up and carry a stone. Peter thinks, 'he didn’t tell me what size stone to pick up', so he picks up a very small stone and carries it. At lunchtime, Jesus turns their stones into bread. Peter has only a small piece of bread. After lunch, Jesus tells them to pick up another stone and carry it. This time Peter picks up a massive stone and lugs it around with him all afternoon. At suppertime, Jesus says to them. ‘OK. Now throw your stone into the river’.

The key question we need to ask is not what are we doing, but why are we doing what we are doing?’ Do we do it as a response to his love for us, or out of self-interest.

We do not realise that our addiction to self-interest is actually destroying us. It is making us like a rather stupid spider who weaves a tighter and tighter web around itself, until it is completely trapped.

The dreadful thing about hell is that people are there by their own choice. . CS Lewis speaks of the insanity of hell. It lies in the fact that the doors of hell are locked not on the outside, but on the inside. We could open them and come out, but we choose not to.

And notice that, even though the rich man is talking with Abraham, he does not actually ask to come out of Hell. In fact, rather than asking to come out of hell, he asks Abraham to send Lazarus into hell, so that Lazarus can be his servant in hell. He would rather be at the centre of his own little world, even if it means being in torment in hell. He cannot even consider centering his life and his identity on God, even if it is a God who loves him and has shown the extent of his love by dying for him.

When we talk about this, people sometimes laugh and say that they will repent on their deathbed. It is no joke. If we are not prepared to repent now, to turn to God now, we will probably be in no position to repent then.

There comes a point, and for most of us it is the point of death, when the decisions that we make in this world become fixed in our hearts for eternity. We become colder and harder and colder and harder, and even if someone rose from the dead and begged us to repent, we have become so fixed that we would never choose to do so. Again, quoting CS Lewis, there comes a point when, if we will not say to God, ‘Thy will be done’, He will say to us, ‘Thy will be done: You have chosen to live without me, to build your identity and your security without me, even though I have told you, and shown you, time and time again that it is destroying you – but you still will not come to me. So be it. I call you my child. I weep for you but I treat you as an adult and I accept your decision’.

Is there no hope? Are we condemned to being addicts to self, now and for eternity?

The glorious answer is no. There is a way out. Jesus offers us freedom. Of course, like an addict we cannot escape ourselves (although again, our addiction to self makes us believe that we can pull ourselves up by our bootlaces), but like an addict – the first thing we need to do is to realise that we are an addict to self and that we need help. That is what repentance is. It is a turning to God and asking him for help to release us from being self-centred to being God-centred.

Several years ago we travelled to stay with some friends in Nepal. They lived on a mountain. Mt Shrinigar. It was a big mountain: two times higher than Ben Nevis. We climbed to the top of their mountain. As we looked out it felt as if we were at the top of the world. It was all there in front of us. The valleys, the hills, the fields, the rivers, the villages, the town in which they lived. We were masters of all that we saw.

And then we turned round, and everything changed. Behind us, towering above us, were the Himalayas. And compared to them our little mountain was nothing. It was there because of them. They were what was really significant. They were the mountains which had shaped the landscape, which controlled the weather for the region and the flow of the rivers, the wildlife, where people were able to live and what they were able to do.

Repentance is about turning around. It is about getting real. It is about discovering that the universe does not revolve around me. It is about recognising that God is God. We need to stop kidding ourselves, turn around, and discover a bit of perspective in life. There is another world. We might not see it. There were many times when we did not see the Himalayas: there was a cloud of fog which prevented us. But just because we couldn’t see them, it didn’t mean that they were not there. And – visible or invisible - they were the mountains which really mattered. 

The rich man was so taken up in himself that he simply did not see God. He may well have been open to religion, because religion gave him status in this world, but he was blind to God and deaf to the words of God. 

And because he was so taken up in himself that he just did not see Lazarus. He took him for granted. ‘Another beggar’. While we focus in on ourselves, we either ignore other people, or we look after them if it is in our interest to do so, or if it makes us feel good.

And one of the consequences of repentance is that we will begin to see Lazarus.

And a person who is turning to God and seeking his help will be someone who begins to feed the hungry, to clothe the naked, to visit the sick and the imprisoned (Matthew 25:31-46). Not in order to make themselves feel good; not to try and earn brownie points with God; not because they feel guilty about the wealth that they have; not even to save the planet. They will begin to do it out of an immense gratitude to the God who loved us, who gives us life, this world and everything in it, and who gave himself totally for us. They will do it because the Spirit of God helps us to see Lazarus, and gives us a love for the people who we are serving. 

What do we need to bring us to the point of repentance?

This rich man in hell speaks of his family. ‘Tell them’, he says. ‘Send Lazarus to them’. Again, he is so wrapped up in self that he cannot see Lazarus as anything but a servant. ‘Warn them of the consequences of living for self, of becoming wrapped up in self. Warn them of what it is doing to them now, and what it will do to them in the future’.

And Abraham replies, ‘They’ve got Moses and the prophets. If they will not listen to them, they will not listen to Lazarus – even a Lazarus who comes back from the dead’.

God in his mercy does raise a Lazarus from the dead. Luke doesn’t tell us that, but John in his account of the life of Jesus, tells us that Jesus raises Lazarus, the brother of Martha and Mary (John 11). But Jesus is proved right. The religious people, even then, will not listen to Lazarus. In fact they want to kill him. They are so wrapped up in themselves that not even a dead man coming out of the tomb is going to shake them out of their self-centredness.

And of course, God in his mercy, raises someone else from the dead. Whereas Lazarus was going to die again, Jesus defeated death once and for all.

I would love to be able to say that if we saw a great miracle then it would shake us out of our self-centredness. But it won’t. Indeed it can just feed it. ‘I was so lucky. I was there. I saw it. I can tell you about it’.

What makes an addict realise that they are an addict?

What makes a sinner realise that they are a sinner?

For each person it will be different.
·        Sometimes God has to bring us so low, to such a point of desperation, that we begin to realise we are absolutely powerless - that there is nothing we can do to bring us to the point of repentance, and in that realisation we begin to turn to him
·        Sometimes God opens our eyes to see the wonder of what Jesus has done for us in order to rescue us. After all Jesus lived a totally God-centred life, filled with love for God and with love for people. If the only way I could be saved was by the death of Jesus, then it must have meant that I was in a pretty bad state.
·        Sometimes God deals very gently with us, gradually helping us to realise how much he loves us, how much we need him and how we can trust ourselves to him, and put him in the centre.

May I urge you, if you are beginning to become aware of your helplessness, of your addiction to self, to open up yourself to his voice, to respond. Recognise his love for you; and receive the gift of a new God-centred, God-focussed life that he longs to give you. 

Monday, 13 September 2010

The lost sheep and lost coin: Jesus challenges the good people

Luke 15:1-10

In this chapter, Jesus tells us three stories.

The first is about a shepherd who goes to search for a lost sheep. He finds the sheep and rejoices.
The second is about a woman who searches for a lost coin. She finds the coin and she rejoices.
The third (which we didn’t have read today, but is known as the story of the Prodigal son) is about a father who does not go to search for his lost son, but he does wait for his son to return. And when his son returns, he rejoices.

But in this story there is also an older son. This older son has stayed at home. He has played by the rules. And when he sees his father welcoming back his younger brother – after all that his younger brother has done, he is furious. It seems that all his work at home has been pointless. And now the Father does go searching. He goes outside to his older son; he pleads with him; and he begs him to come in.

[There is, as elsewhere in Luke’s gospel, a hint of Trinity here. The Father, the Son (the shepherd), and the lady with the lamp, the Holy Spirit]

But these three stories are about the God who comes to save those who are lost, and about the joy that there is in heaven when someone who is lost is found, when someone repents.

Luke 15:7, “I tell you that in the same way there will be more rejoicing in heaven over one sinner who repents than over ninety-nine righteous persons who do not need to repent”.

Luke 15:10, “In the same way, I tell you, there is rejoicing in the presence of the angels of God over one sinner who repents."

In the two stories we heard read today, the word ‘joy’ or ‘rejoice’ is repeated 5 times.

The shepherd rejoices when the sheep is found. The woman rejoices when the coin is found. Heaven delights when someone – who was created to be a child of heaven – is found.

What do these stories tell us?

1. They tell us that each one of us is unique for Jesus: that we are the lost sheep, the lost coin, the lost son. That if we were the only person lost he would still have come for us.

And of course that is true. They tell us that each one of us is uniquely and personally precious to Jesus.

This is not a business for him. I mean losing only 1 is not bad. You are still left with 99 sheep. But God is not prepared to settle with 99. He wants them all, every single one. The 100th matters. And so here is a shepherd who has a 100 sheep. He counts them. He counts them again. He looks around. ‘It’s Sian. Where’s Sian?’ So he leaves the 99 and goes off to look for Sian. He searches everywhere. He is really worried. And he finds Sian. And he picks Sian up, and he goes into the village.

You really do matter to God. And you are lost. Some people know that they are lost. Others think that they have life sussed, but they too are lost. And at great cost, God sent his Son into this world to seek for you. And when you do respond to that love of God, God delights. When you say ‘yes’ to him, when you receive Jesus, everything becomes worth it for God.

In Hebrews we are told that ‘Jesus endured the shame of the cross, for the joy set before him’.

What was that joy? The joy of being with his Father in heaven? Yes.
But also the joy of knowing you, of having a relationship with you, of having you with him now and in heaven. That is why, when a single sinner repents, heaven parties. Because each person counts. Because you really do matter.

2. But these stories are also a rebuke.

Look at why Jesus tells them: Luke 15:1-2: “Now the tax collectors and "sinners" were all gathering around to hear him. But the Pharisees and the teachers of the law muttered, "This man welcomes sinners and eats with them." And the passage continues, ‘So, he told them a parable’.

Jesus tells these stories to challenge the muttering of the Pharisees.

People can be divided into two types.

There is the majority. These are the Pharisees, the older brother, what Tim Keller calls the older sibling type. I would put myself solidly in this category. We are the 99 righteous people, the sensible ones, the conformists, who play by the rules. We are the decent, hard-working, responsible, moral citizens. We’ve discovered that keeping the rules helps us get on. By following the rules we gain acceptance and status and identity in this world.

And then there is the minority. The younger sibling types. These are the ones who reject the rules, who reject authority and who look for acceptance, status and identity through radical non-conformism. For them, life is about self-exploration, the discovery of complete personal freedom. Why should I do what someone else tells me to do? What really matters in this world is me, and I am going to be different and do what I choose to do.

Of course, there is a bit of both type in each of us, and over time we change. Conformists become non-conformists; and more often than not non-conformists become conformists.

Jesus tells these stories to challenge the conformists (there are plenty of places in scripture where the non conformists are challenged).

Conformists think that salvation is gained by what we do; that it is all about following rules and keeping standards; that it is all about the quality of our good works, the correctness of our thinking, the discipline of our spiritual life and the intensity of our acts of devotion. We think that basically we get what we deserve.

So Pharisees get dreadfully upset when they see people who have break the rules being rewarded. We say, ‘it is not fair’. Why should they know intimacy with Jesus, discover a joy in him, and have such a sense of forgiveness and assurance. And we dismiss them as shallow or glib

But we have got it wrong. In fact our good works, our right thinking, our disciplined spiritual life, our acts of devotion do not in themselves give us a relationship with God. They can, in fact, take us away from God. They can make us rely on ourselves and not on him.

I remember a man telling me quite proudly about all the prayers that he said every evening. He said, I can't go to sleep until I have said them'. I could not but think that he had imposed onto himself a dreadful burden, and that he had not actually met the God to whom the prayers he recited were addressed.

When we put our trust in ourselves, in what we do, and not in God, we are actually in as significant act of rebellion against God as someone who rebels against society and who breaks all the rules.

And Jesus, by welcoming and eating with sinners, with non-conformists, with people who have chosen to rebel against the norms of society, shows us that living Christianity is not about us and what we do. It is not a reward for good behaviour.

And through the story of the lost sheep and the lost coin, Jesus tells us it is not about us and what we do. Salvation, friendship with God, forgiveness, the Holy Spirit, heaven is not a reward for good behaviour.

Instead he is saying that it is all about God’s love for us, and what he has done.

As conformists, all through our life we have heard that if we are good we will be worthy; if we follow the rules we will be loved.

Jesus comes to us with the radical message that we are beloved already; that he has come to find us; that he has died for us. All we have to do is to believe him, to receive that truth and to trust him.

The lost sheep does absolutely nothing in this story apart from get lost. The coin does even less!

Please listen because this is so important. In order to allow God to find you, you do not need to do, or try to do, all the ‘right’ things – or even religious things. All you have to do to allow yourself to be found by Jesus, is to recognise that you are lost. All you have to do is to stop trying to earn God's pleasure and delight, and to rest on him and what he has done.

The French Reformed Church use this statement at the baptism of a child:
‘Little child, for you Jesus Christ has come, he has fought, he has suffered. For you he entered into the shadows of Gethsemane and the terror of Calvary; for you he uttered the cry 'it is finished.' For you he rose from the dead and ascended into heaven, and there for you he intercedes. For you, even though you do not yet know it, little child, but in this way the Word of the Gospel is made true, "We love him because he first loved us."’

This is what grace is.

I remember talking with one lady and she just couldn’t get it. She kept on saying, ‘I’m trying to live a ‘Christian’ (by which she meant ‘moral’) life, but I don’t think I’m good enough for God’.

The Christian life is not about – not in the first place - morality. It is not about putting our trust in what we have done, but in putting our trust in what God has done. It is about a relationship with Jesus Christ, the Son of God, and through him, with our Father God in heaven.

Now don’t get me wrong. I am not suggesting that we all become self-centred hedonists who care for nobody but ourselves. In fact when we begin to understand that it is all about God, and what God has done, and that it is not about what I do; when I begin to understand that it is all about putting my trust in God, and receiving from him; when I repent of my self-reliance – then I will begin to live in a third way, the way of Jesus Christ.

It is not the way of the moralist older sibling, of conforming to the rules of society in order to make people like me and to get on;
It is not the way of the self-centred rebellious younger sibling, rejecting everything that society says;

It is the way of intimate relationship with God, led by the Spirit, dependent on divine mercy, on the forgiveness that is offered to each one of us by Jesus from the cross, beginning to learn how much God loves us and how much he loves each person.

And because of that, when a person lives this way, we delight, and I mean delight, when people come into that relationship with Jesus, whoever they are (tax collector or Pharisee, ‘sinner’ or ‘righteous’, older sibling or younger sibling, conformist or rebel) whatever they have been or done.

We may disagree with them politically, we may still be embarrassed by them socially, but they - like us - were lost, they were outside, they were strangers; now they have been brought inside, they have been found, they are family.