The Wasted Life
Scriptures: Mark 9:42-48, I Corinthians 3:10-15
Introduction to scripture reading:
During the summer in our church services we are answering questions of faith submitted by people in the congregation. I think it is good sometimes for pastors to address difficult topics related to our Christian faith. However, when I planned this series of sermons, I did not take into account the Sundays of family worship. Which means I did not fully realize until this week that on a family worship Sunday I would be preaching about hell. But that is this week’s question of faith: What is hell? So let’s jump in and see what we can learn.
[Read Mark 9:42-48]
On my trip to Israel this spring I took this picture [Slide1] of a valley just south of the wall around Jerusalem. It is a pleasant looking valley, but it does not seem particularly striking or significant, until you know its name. This is the Valley of Hinnom. [Slide 2] In Aramaic, the language Jesus used, it is called Gehenna. [Slide 3] This, ladies and gentlemen, is hell, or at least the place Jesus uses to describe hell.
Here is another view of the same valley. [Slide 4] It doesn’t look that bad. Evil often does not look that bad in its early stages. For centuries this was an ordinary valley. It seemed like a nice place. But about 1000 B. C.—about 10 centuries before Jesus—dark things began to happen in this valley. People in this valley began setting up images and altars to gods other than the Lord. They were worshiping gods like Baal, which was an ancient god of military power. Or they worshiped gods like Ashtoreth, a goddess of fertility, the god of sex and prosperity. In this valley they built altars and offered sacrifices to these gods, and when they did not get what they wanted from these gods, when their sacrifices did not produce the power or the security or the prosperity they wanted, then they started making bigger and more elaborate sacrifices, until eventually they were offering their own children as sacrifices on altars built here in the Valley of Hinnom, what Jesus calls Gehenna. [Slide 5: Blank]
It is kind of like Hitler in Nazi Germany. Why did so many people follower Hitler? Think about it. He offered power, security, and prosperity. He was the gods Baal and Ashtoreth rolled into one. So people followed him and made sacrifices for him, sacrificing their freedom, their humanity, and eventually even their own children for the sake of his ambitious plan to take over Europe.
That’s what the people of Israel did in the Valley of Hinnom, in the place Jesus called Gehenna. They sacrificed their humanity and even their children to the gods of power, security, and prosperity.
Then it all fell apart. In 587 B. C. the Babylonian army conquered Jerusalem and destroyed the city, including the altars built in the valley of Hinnon. Gehenna became a wasteland.
Later, when the Israelites returned, they rebuilt the city of Jerusalem, but they left the valley of Hinnom as a wasteland. In the time of Jesus it was landfill—the Jerusalem garbage dump. Hence Jesus describes it as a place “where the worm never dies and the fire is never quenched.” If you have ever been to a garbage dump, you know that a garbage dump produces two things: maggots and methane, and if the methane catches fire it can burn for a long time.
So what does this mean? Hell, as Jesus’ talks about it, is not a cauldron of burning oil into which God tosses people; it is the garbage dump of wasted lives. It is the end product of people who devote their lives and sacrifice their families to false gods, who devote their lives and sacrifice their families to the gods of wealth or status or sex or substance abuse or anything else that might substitute for the God who created us and called us to love one another. A life devoted to any other god will end up on the trash heap of history. It will end up wasted.
That’s why Jesus talks about not putting a “stumbling block” in the way of little ones. Don’t devote yourself to false gods or false ambitions that will put a barrier in the way of your children or anyone else from coming to know God’s love. That, according to Jesus, is a good way to waste your life.
At the same time don’t allow things in your own life to cause you to stumble, to keep you from the life God wants for you and your family. Power, wealth, status, sex, drugs, alcohol, even your own limbs are not worth keeping, Jesus says, if they cause you to stumble, if they keep you from the life of meaning and love that God wants for us all.
But here is the good news: the life we live for God, the things we do to share God’s love with others, these things will not end up on the trash heap of history. They will in fact be incorporated into God’s eternal kingdom.
Recall our first scripture reading. Paul talks about Jesus being the foundation of our lives. But then he says, “Each builder must choose with care how to build on it.” He goes on to talk about building materials. We can build on it with gold, silver, and precious stones, or with wood, hay and straw. This is symbolic, of course. The gold and silver represent a life reflecting God’s grace and sharing God’s love. The hay and straw represent a life lived for lesser things, like pride, greed, or control—the gods of Baal and Ashtoreth. The good news is that the gold, silver, and precious stones will last. They will not end up in Gehenna, the trash heap of history. The things we do to show God’s love—even the smallest, the most feeble, even the imperfect things we do to show God’s love—will be built into the structure of God’s eternal kingdom, where they will be treasured and celebrated forever.
That’s the opposite of hell. If hell is a wasted life, then heaven is a life fulfilled, a life whose purpose and meaning is realized in unexpected ways.
For me, that is the greatest hope of a parent or grandparent. Because when it comes to our children and grandchildren, there are so many things beyond our control. We can bring our children for baptism, but there are so many influences on them and things that can happen to them that we can’t shape. We have to trust them to God every day. But the promise is that the things we do to show God’s love to them—the things we do to help them love God and love other people—these things will not be wasted, ever. They may not be fulfilled in our lifetime, but in God’s kingdom they will reappear as part of God’s amazing construction project, shaping lives in ways we never anticipated.
That’s the opposite of hell. If hell is a wasted life, then heaven is a life fulfilled, a life for which it is worth sacrificing our pride, our self-centeredness, even our bodies; a life that will be treasured and celebrated forever.