Sermon Details

Hell? No!

June 25, 2023
Wabash Avenue Presbyterian Church in Crawfordsville, IN invites you to join us every week for Sunday morning worship. Today's 12th Sunday in Ordinary Time worship service will be led by Pastor John Van Nuys and Liturgist Alex Thomas. Pastor John's sermon title is "Hell? No!". Hymn accompaniment, prelude and postlude will be performed by Alan White and Jim Heinzman. Thank you for joining us remotely.
(19) God opened Hagar’s eyes and she saw a well of water. She went, and filled her waterskin, and gave her son Ishmael a drink.
– Genesis 21:19:

Welcome to the first divorce. Elderly Abraham to whom God had promised an heir was tired of waiting. So, with his elderly, barren wife Sarah’s approval, Abraham impregnated their Egyptian slave Hagar – who then taunted her childless mistress – who then mistreated her pregnant slave. Who, in time, gave birth to Ishmael. But, Sarah in time gave birth to Isaac. But what doubled in Abraham’s family was not joy, but trouble.

Wanting to eliminate her son’s rival –and hers – Sarah demanded that Hagar and Ishmael be banished. And Abraham acquiesced, criminally casting off Hagar and his son Ishmael with only a skin of water, which didn’t last long. Wandering in the wilderness without water, they were soon at death’s door. So, Hagar left the listless Ishmael under a bush and walked away so she wouldn’t hear his dying cry. But God did. Abraham forsook his son, but God did not. God will make a great nation of Ishmael as promised. Suddenly, the dying, hopeless Hagar is given sight to find a well, which saved her and Ishmael, who grew strong because the Lord was with him.

This story and everyone in it is a big, hot mess. Except for God. Why didn’t God perform some miraculous marriage counseling so that everyone could’ve been one, big happy family? One commentator wisely said, “God probably did what God did because God saw that this was the only way forward for this family.”

All of us whose families have been touched by divorce know the pain of this story because it’s our story, too. God knows the pain of this story because it is God’s story as well. We think God is above us, floating on a cloud, untouched by anything. But the Bible tells us that God is with us, working with us and our often messy lives – because that’s what Love does.

God is Love, who loves us when we are unlovable; who forgives us when we are unforgiveable; and who saves us when nothing seems salvageable; when we seem forever trapped in hell.

A friend wisely said: The Bible is just one, big story about a dysfunctional family – and the God who loves them – and us – despite it all.

What’s your darkest deed? Or worst failure? What’s your broken dream? Or deepest worry? What’s your most fervent prayer? Or most primal fear? While God can be described in creeds and preached about in sermons, God mostly shows up in divorce decrees and chemotherapy; when we lose our jobs and when loved ones make decisions that wreck their lives – and ours.

God is found in those hellish times not because God is punishing us or because God is causing us to suffer. No. We find God in the hospital and at funerals and in the worst times of our lives because that’s when we need God the most. Yes, God is with us in good times. But God is certainly with us, too, when we suffer.

If God is Trinity and if Jesus is the face of God, then we have a God who suffers. Who knows what it’s like to love friends who betray him; who knows the crosses we carry because he carried one, too. Who knows what it is like to die without hope, howling “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me (Mark 15:34)?” And we also have a God who knows what it’s like to rise. Who knows a way out of hell. And who helps us out of hell. Who doesn’t passively watch us suffer, but who actively helps us through suffering so that we, too, may rise.

The Risen Christ still has his wounds. And so do we. We often arise scarred. But those scars and broken, dark places are, as Leonard Cohen says, how the light gets in. As we work with God to reassemble our broken hearts, we often find that our wounded hearts are somehow bigger: More capable of compassion. Gentler because they’ve been humbled. More loving because they’ve been broken – and because they’ve been filled with a grace we never thought would come and with a love that is so much bigger than just our own.

When in second grade, I messed up the drawing I was creating and asked for a new, sheet of paper, my art teacher said, “No. You can make something out of that.” I protested, but she simply said, “I want you to try. I know you can.”

I think God is like my art teacher. We want an unblemished, beautiful life. We want to undo past mistakes. We want to erase ugliness. We want a clean slate – which God gives us. Our sins are forgiven. We are free – and not just from guilt. We’re free to work with God to co-create our lives anew. Not to recover perfection, which was never ours to begin with, but to rediscover purpose, meaning, and beauty – not despite the darkness in our life, but because of it – as we live our way through it. Working with God to heal and to find goodness on the other side of failure, pain, grief, and death.

After all, isn’t that what Easter is? An unexpected irruption of life after what we thought was permanent death. A God-birthed rising after we thought hope was forever lost.

Don’t count God out. Hang in there. As Winston Churchill said, “When you’re going through hell, keep going!” In time, like Hagar, you too will discover a God-given well of grace, which will keep you alive and help you find a way forward to the blessing and life God seeks to give you.

Easter is the promise that that shall be so. Easter is the reality in which we all shall stand – with our scars, but also with our Savior.

In reading this, your heart may be stirred. What you’re feeling is the Holy Spirit drawing you to Christ. To begin or renew a relationship with Jesus, just pray:

“Lord, help me receive your love. I regret the wrong I’ve done. Forgive me. Jesus, I believe you are God’s Son and the Savior of the world. Be my Savior. Save me from myself. Save me for yourself. Enter my heart. Fill me with your Holy Spirit. Help me to serve you faithfully and well. Help me to love as you love. Lead me in your Way, Truth, and Life now and forever. Continue to show me who you are and who I am in you. Amen.”

If you pray this prayer, contact a pastor. They’ll show you how to live for Christ with purpose, peace, and joy. Jesus says: “Behold, I make all things new.” That definitely includes YOU!