Hell Or High Water, Week One — The “What The?” Sermon Rewind

Last Sunday night (July 30), I couldn’t wait to get up the next morning.


Because I knew I could start going over my first Hell Or High Water sermon, and I knew that I really liked it.

The message led to an invitation to say YES to Jesus — an invitation that we altered for the 11:30 gathering, leading to an overwhelming response.

The message ALSO incorporated something one of my Sunday morning pray-ers prayed as he lifted me up before the message:  Somebody’s going to die for your sins — you’d rather it be Jesus than you.  Whew!

So here it is: the What The? sermon rewind with a message that lands at this bottom line:

Hell is that realm in which too late comes too early.


So one thing I have noticed about HELL is the more we mention it, the less seriously we take it.  Have you ever thought of it that way?  Think of all the ways we incorporate that word into our language – either as an ALMOST profanity or to convey emotion and passion.  And once it is in the common language, it loses its impact and its ability to evoke any kind of fear or terror.  So we’ve got phrases like living hell, we’ve got war is hell, we’ve got the fact that in August around here it is hotter than hell.

            And then our musicians get into the act.  Pink Floyd told us to run like hell, AC/DC boasted about the highway to hell, ultimately deciding that it’s not such a bad place to be, and then MY band, the Eagles, said hell would freeze over if they ever got back together.  Well, they DID but we’ll have to wait to see if IT DID.  But all in all, all that language does to our conception of hell sort of parallels what studies show us violent video games do to our comprehension of actual 3D violence: it desensitizes us.  And just when we think we couldn’t do a better job of talking about it more so that we take it seriously less, along comes the Weekly World News – the original Fake News, I guess – with a claim that Soviet engineers found hell while drilling for oil in Siberia.  Apparently our collusion with Russian goes back a LONG way!  And according to the WWN, the Soviets sealed hell off after smelling smoke and hearing the wails of the damned.  Yep, the more it’s mentioned, the less seriously we take it.

            Well, I want to do something quite different over the next several weeks in this series.  Because we’re going to talk about it, we’re going to weigh some logical & biblical evidence for its existence, and ultimately I believe we’re going to treat it like a bat out of & conquer it with some high, high water.

            Before I get there, thought, we have to admit something else.  One of the reasons that hell is more common as a WORD but rarely thought of as a PLACE is that the church has been kinda silent about it.  Embarrassed by it.  As if it gives God a major league PR problem.  I suspect that silence is in part because a good many of my peers either secretly or not so secretly don’t believe in it.  It goes against logic, it goes against love, it goes against … Jesus.  I know of some RED LETTER XNS, people who very much love the words of Jesus and based their beliefs on them, who don’t believe in hell because its existence would seem to betray the spirit of the words in those red letters.  Almost as if hell is a reflection of the mean god of the OT instead of the nice Savior revealed in the New.

            Except. Instead.  HOWEVER.  The one person within the biblical library who spoke more often about hell than anyone else was … Jesus.  Meek, mild, peace-loving & granola-eating Jesus is the author of most of the bible’s thinking about hell.  We’re going to look at three of those places, starting with this in Matthew 8:10-12, where just AFTER healing a man with leprosy, an act that demonstrates his power and his love, and while speaking to an affirming crowd in the afterglow of all that with people feeling good, he says this in the RED LETTERS: 


10 When Jesus heard this, he was amazed and said to those following him, “Truly I tell you, I have not found anyone in Israel with such great faith. 11 I say to you that many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac and Jacob in the kingdom of heaven. 12 But the subjects of the kingdom will be thrown outside, into the darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

By subjects of the kingdom there he means those who have chosen the values & allegiances of this world (even good ones!) over him & look at the chilling result:  OUTSIDE, DARKNESS, & then WEEPING & GNASHING TEETH.  Circle that, because we’ll come back to it.

            Like, right now.  Look at Matthew 13:40-42 at the end of a parable all about wheat & weeds:  


40 “As the weeds are pulled up and burned in the fire, so it will be at the end of the age. 41 The Son of Man will send out his angels, and they will weed out of his kingdom everything that causes sin and all who do evil. 42 They will throw them into the blazing furnace, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.


There it is again:  weeping & gnashing teeth.  Would you like to know the kind of impact Jesus’ words would have had on those who first heard it?  See in NT times, Jerusalem, along with all large cities, had an enormous stone wall that protected it from invaders and from lions who back then roamed the Palestinian countryside.  So, living behind those wall, guess what residents did with their garbage?  The dumped it over the walls to the outside of the city (not green, btw).  Garbage built up along the base of the wall & that garbage included unused food and at night the lions would show up to ransack the trash and look for food.  Teeth. Would. Gnash.

            Well, there’s more.  When people were accused of crimes, the authorities came up with a … devious? Diabolical? Creative?  Sadistic! … way of determining guilt or innocence.  They’d tie the suspected criminal with rope and lower him OUTSIDE the wall to the BASE of the wall during the darkest hours of night – right in the middle of where the lions roamed every night.  Now not only would teeth gnash but before they did, you KNOW the suspected criminal would have plenty of weeping & screaming.  If the authorities found the guy alive in the morning, he was judged innocent.  Now insane, but innocent.  If he was eaten up, it mean he was guilty.  Can we hear an amen for due process?!  So now you know just how awful, how dark, how outside was the agony & suffering of weeping and gnashing of teeth.  All from the mouth of sweet Jesus.

            Then Luke 12:4-5:


“I tell you, my friends, do not be afraid of those who kill the body and after that can do no more. But I will show you whom you should fear: Fear him who, after your body has been killed, has authority to throw you into hell. Yes, I tell you, fear him.


Woah.  There is a YOU that transcends bodily existence, there is a YOU who will live forever, there is a hell – actually Gehenna, or that garbage dump I just spoke about – and you can be thrown into it, like, well, you throw stuff into garbage.  So there is a you who will be conscious forever & meek and mild Jesus can throw you into foreverly conscious suffering.  It is clear through these three and many others that there is a post-death realm call hell and that it is forever, final, and awful.  It is a place where evil will be punished definitely and evildoers will be separated from the presence of God.  The images of this awful, final, forever place involve a garbage dump, fire, darkness, and, maybe more than anything, OUTSIDE.  Unprotected.  And all in all, it’s clear that Jesus (and as we’ll see in coming weeks, Paul & Peter as well) shares the information in part to scare hell out of us

            And the warnings Jesus gives go disproportionally to insiders, to the religious, and it’s as if he uses hell less to get us thinking about all those people we know who are going there and more to get us to take a long look at ourselves.  Because throughout the NT, you’ll see an emphasis on those who will be surprised to wake up on the other side of death and find themselves there (a la Rich Fool).  So I put all those pieces together and here is what I want you to know:  Hell is that realm in which too late comes too early.  Evil is not corrected; it is punished.  And it is a realm of everlasting suffering and regret and even an acknowledgment: the one I rejected is the one who resurrected.  The one I denied is the one who is Lord.  Hell is that realm in which too late comes too early. 

            Because I do believe, in contrast to my red letter friends, that Jesus actually believed in this thing he talked about and he wanted passionately to warn us of its danger.  I believe with Luke 12 that he is the judge of who dwells there.  He’s not hell’s manager. But he is its booking agent.  And anytime I bump up against myself and want to eliminate hell from my beliefs and my vocabulary (as even the most ardent hell believers among you have wanted to do) you know what I run directly into?  Not just the red letters of Jesus but the deeds of Jesus.  Specifically, the cross.

            See, denying hell diminishes the cross.  Think about it with me. If there was and is no hell, then the cross was a giant hoax perpetrated by the Father on the Son.  If we didn’t really need to be ransomed, rescued, and restored and if everyone goes to heaven anyway, then the cross was a great trick done at Jesus’ expense.  The cross moves from the place where Jesus was the VICTOR to where is the VICTIM … worse yet, the victim of the Father! 

            And nope, I’m not willing to believe that about the Father, the Son, or what happened on Calvary.  We’ve got a cross up here for a reason and the reason is not to mock what Jesus endured that he didn’t really have to.  We believe that on the cross, Jesus endured all the OUTSIDE, all the torment, all the weeping, and all the gnashing, all the fire, all of it in a moment and in your place.  What does he ask the Father?  My God, my God why have your forsaken me?  What clearer evidence could there be that he endured hell on earth so we don’t have to go to hell after earth.  He was cut off from God, placed in the deepest pit, living through the most painful furnace, all in the mystery of divine substitution so we don’t have to.  So we’ll know Hell is that realm in which too late comes too early. 

            Listen, all you who doubt me on this, religious or not, church or not, Christian or not.  It’s OK.  Just hear me.  Would you get on a jet that had a 10% chance of going down?  Fly CLT to NYC and JetBlue or whomever says, “This plane has a 90% chance of making it there safely.  That’s an A in school, so what’s your worry?”  I bet even the most experienced flyers among you wouldn’t take those odds.  Hey – in the same way, doubters and skeptics, even if there’s only a 10% chance I’m right?  Wanna risk it?  And with the words of Jesus piled on with the cross of Jesus punctuated with the resurrection of Jesus … I’ll tell you what:  this stuff is true.  Even when I wish it wasn’t, it is.  REFRAIN and I genuinely truthfully, whether you are young or old, rich or poor, I don’t want too late to come way too early for you. It’s real, it’s awful, it’s the one thing from which there is no recovery, and yeah, I am a UMC preacher and I want to scare it out of you.

Because you know, don’t you, what you get when you cross Frank Sinatra (AV) with AC/DC (AV)?  You get My Way To Hell.  And that’s what it is.  Don’t go there.  Go his way to glory …

            Because the good news is this:  the only force more powerful than the wrath of God is the love of God.  The only thing that triumphs over the judgment of God is the grace of God.  Run to that. Pursue that.  God’s decision are right, they are just, they are UNfair (in our favor), and his heart beats that all would be saved.  His heart breaks when they aren’t.  Run to that. Not your goodness.  His grace.


            Invitation to salvation