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Have One Hell Of A Christmas

I wonder why so many of my fellow preachers seem more interested in scaring the hell out of people rather than telling them about the good news about the life humanity has been offered through Jesus.

I’m not saying there is no such thing as hell.  I just wonder about those folks who seem to talk about hell with such detail and even glee.

I heard a guy once preach for 45 minutes describing the landscape and torment of hell.  He would have made Dante proud.  In fact, the content of what he said was more from Dante’s “Inferno” than anything in the Bible. When I left the event where he was preaching, I couldn’t help but think he had just returned from hell on a round-trip ticket.

As I muse about this topic, a friend sent me a post reminding me of a story by James Joyce titled:  “Portrait of the Artist as a Young Man.”   In this story, the author talks about hell to an absurd extreme.  But it is bigger than just a description of hell that is so absurd.   In the story, Joyce also illustrates the absurdity of both sin and religion as sources for finding meaning in life.

Of course, you’d expect me to agree with the absurdity of using sin to find meaning in life. We clergy tend to speak against sin.   

What folks might not expect is for a member of the clergy to speak out against religion.   Well, let me tell you that I don’t like religion – not one bit.  The word religion means to bind up. That doesn’t sound good to me. Jesus didn’t like it either. Jesus was all about freedom from religion.  That’s what got him in so much trouble with the religious people of his day.

Jesus was not about the business of religion.  He was about making a way for us to have relationship with God.  How does this happen?  To answer that, we have to remember something about the nature of God.  The great ancient confessions of the church affirm that God is a Trinity –  Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. This doctrine has some practical implications related to community, love, and self-sufficiency of the God-head.

Bottom line: God needs nothing.   That said, the triune God wants to share with us all the experiences God enjoys as a triune being.  That’s the LOVE part that is at the root of God’s DNA (1 John 4:7-8)

How does God share this LOVE with us?  By brining us into the life of the Trinity.  In a prior blog, I offered this thought from theologian Baxter Kruger.

Over 40 times, John tells us in his gospel that Jesus Christ was sent by God the Father. John saw that the coming of Jesus Christ, his death on the cross, flowed out of the endless love of the Father for us and out of his unyielding determination that His purpose for us would be fulfilled. The death of Jesus Christ is the revelation of the fact that the Father has never abandoned us, never forsaken us, that He refuses to go back on his dream to include us in the circle of life. Jesus death is a part of the fulfillment of the eternal purpose of God, part of the seamless movement designed to lay hold of the human race and lift us up into the Trinitarian life of God.

What Baxter, the early church fathers, and the scriptures testify to is that Jesus, the SON, came to live among us as one of us in flesh (John 1:1). The aim is to redeem humanity from the curse of sin and death in ADAM (Romans 5).  His purpose was to create in himself a NEW humanity, adopting us into fellowship with GOD (Ephesians 2).

This is not religion, but relationship. This is not law, but love. This message makes hell obsolete.  This makes heaven a present reality for any who want to experience it by faith in what Jesus has done.

The ancient church Father’s called this joyful relationship perichoresis.  Roughly translated, this word refers to the “Divine Dance” that exists between Father, Son, and Spirit. Jesus came so that humanity might be included in this dance.

The hunger for “the dance” is in our DNA.  To illustrate this, my friend Steve McVey commented about how children, when they hear music, instinctively want to dance.  What happens with many people throughout life is that they move from dance-partner to the next.  They move from one sin to another; from one religion to another; from one moral code to another.  All of this is to find a substitute for the dance.

The Gospel (good news) that Christianity declares is that God has come to us in Christ.  That’s what this thing called “Incarnation” is all about.  It’s the message of Advent and the celebration of Christmas.  It’s the connection, too, between the creche and the cross.  God comes among us as one of us to bring all us into fellowship with the Father and the Spirit.  The old humanity (in Adam) is put to death.  The new humanity (In Christ) has come.  Now, through Christ, we can enter and enjoy the dance.

Not doing so!  Well that might mean hell – now and in the life to come.

Hell?

There may well be such a place after death. That said, the after death “hell” is not nearly as much a reality as is the “hell” people experience while they standing outside the dance hall.  That’s the story illustrated in Luke 15. 

In the story, the Father (representing the Godhead) throws a party for the lost and wandering younger son who comes home.  The older son, upset and jealous over the Father’s “acceptance” of his brother, stands outside the party and sulks.  The party was for him, too.  The Father’s love was for him, too.  But he decided to stand outside.  He decided to avoid the party.  For him, the idea of the Father’s love and grace was hell.  The party was hell in the here and now – and the risk was that it might continue into the next life if he continued to refuse the invitation to the party and participation in the dance.

At its core, plain and simple, hell is the experience of feeling separation from God.  This is not something God does to us.  It is something we choose whenever we reject God’s acceptance and the Gospel truth that in Christ we are a part of a new humanity.

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