Rev’d Jonathan Gale
14For many are called, but few are chosen.’
It sounds like jury duty. They call up about 60 people and you sit there thinking, “Pick me! Pick me!” because by now you’ve made peace with the fact that your work flow is going to be disrupted for two weeks, the nature of the trial has you as curious as anything, and all you want to do is get in there and find that person either guilty or not guilty.
The only problem is for some reason they don’t pick you, and you think, “What’s wrong with me?” You look across at the rag-tag bunch they have chosen and you think “Humph! I know why they’ve chosen that lot. They look as gullible as anything. It’s because the lawyers instinctively know they won’t be able to pull the wool over my eyes. Yes that’s it. What else could it be!?”
You ever experienced that? I have. You think you’re God’s gift to the legal system for a fortnight of your life. No one is as honest, as objective or as smart as you. You’d be an ideal juror. Really? I have often made the mistake of mistaking keenness for ability. On a mountain bike it can be lethal.
How many times have you watched a group of children in a knot on a sports field picking two teams to play against each other in a friendly game of soccer? All the obvious talent gets picked first. Then there’s one place left and two slightly less than athletic boys looking on eagerly. “Yes, yes, yes!” says one with his hand up. “Okay, c’mon,” says the captain.
The little bloke who wasn’t chosen looks mortified and slopes off. The one who was chosen eagerly takes his place in the make-shift goals, where he’s been sent to stay out of the way. What do you think happens when a young version of Bobby Charlton comes storming up to the goals? Yes, you’re right. Mr Eager Beaver trips over his own two feet and the ball whooshes past him. Now he’s not so sure anymore that he wants to be in the team.
We’re not always sure of what we would like. All my life I had wanted one of those old Citroens with the big mudguards and doors that opened backwards. Eventually I bought one. A 1948 Traction Avant. And man was it a disaster! It broke down at least 50% of the time we took it out and the children were so ashamed of driving in an ancient car that they would lie down on the back seat.
I’m going to say something now that is going to surprise you. Not everyone is suited to heaven. Not everyone would want to live a life with God for eternity. If they were forced into heaven they’d be as miserable as … yes, you’ve got it … as miserable as hell.
One of the Existentialist philosophers (Jean Paul Sartre) said, “Hell is other people.” For some people society is restrictive, especially a certain kind of society. Let me say, that heaven consists of other people, and some people, just don’t like other people.
I have great respect for Bishop Jim but we don’t always see eye to eye theologically. In a lecture at St John’s once he said to me, “I have to admit. The one thing that bothers me about the idea that everyone will go to heaven is, what about the people who don’t want to be there?” Exactly. God is not going to force someone into heaven against their will.
The idea that we know better than God what is best, is at the root of our misunderstanding of the authority and sovereignty of God.
Probably one of the most misunderstood concepts in the theology of the New Testament is predestination: the idea that some are chosen and others not. It’s an idea that flies in the face of our Western sense of self-importance. It’s like me thinking I should have been chosen to serve on that jury because I think I’m the most suitable person to do so.
You see I actually stayed on for the first day of that trial and I discovered very quickly that the accused was as guilty as anything and a barefaced liar. Do you think I would have been happy sitting there for two weeks, listening to his web of lies and waiting to vote that he was guilty? I’d watched too many TV dramas of exciting trials where everything was on a knife-edge until the last moment when one clear-sighted juror manages to convince the rest that the accused is guilty.
I heaved a sigh of relief, went back to work, picked up where I had been two days prior and waited to read the newspaper that confirmed that the man was a drug manufacturer. In fact the trial went on for well over two weeks before he was declared guilty. Thank goodness I’d not had to sit through all that!
Part of the problem we have about the idea of hell is a legacy of Medieval ideas on the topic. Medieval miracle plays were used to scare people. It was popular entertainment. The idea of hell was used to try and scare people into faith and so a great deal of emotion grew up around the topic.
The concept of hell and burning grew out of the fact that outside the city walls of Jerusalem was a valley called Ge Hinnom where the rubbish was burned. It had been a notorious place of child sacrifice to the god Moloch so the Jews used it as a waste disposal area. It was simply a place outside the city walls – not in God’s city – but more importantly not in the domain of God – where God’s ways prevailed. Hell is simply where God is not acknowledged as Lord.
Have you noticed that people live very happily outside allegiance to God when they are alive, but suggest that when they die they might continue in that state and suddenly they’re up in arms.
When the king’s slaves in Jesus’ parable went out into the streets to invite all in sundry to the prince’s wedding banquet, we read that they gathered all whom they found, both good and bad.
When the king comes back and chucks out the one without a wedding garment, why are we surprised? He was at a wedding. If he had no wedding garment he wasn’t suited to being at a wedding. “O my goodness! Surely Jesus is not going to send some people to hell?” Well, yes he is! Why? Because most are living there right now. They’ll simply continue to do so. If someone was really concerned about hell they’d do something about it now.
But is there a way back after death, you ask? Well, Hebrews 9: 7 says, … people are destined to die once, and after that to face judgment, however, what would happen if one were provided?
C.S. Lewis has written a great little book called, The Great Divorce. In it the dead go to a kind of Purgatory. Purgatory is a kind of halfway house between heaven and hell. In the book the “Ghosts”, who are really in hell called Grey Town (nothing to do with the Wairarapa) set out on a bus trip. They arrive at a beautiful river where they get off the bus and are met by “Spirits” who try and persuade them to come with them towards some mountains in the distance.
Most of the Ghosts don’t want to and get back on the bus. This is Lewis’s way of saying that not everybody wants to go to heaven. In fact, if I remember correctly, later on it becomes apparent that as time goes on it becomes physically impossible for them to make the transition; because they are so unsuited to doing so.
Many get on the bus, but few leave it for the mountains. 14For many are called, but few are chosen.’
As some wise man said, if you’re concerned about going to hell (which is simply where God is not) you’re more than likely not headed there. Only those who couldn’t give a fig are going to end up there. And let’s remind ourselves what “there” is: it’s where God is not Lord.
Besides, God is always open to discuss the matter. In our Old Testament reading he was about to wipe the slate clean and begin again when Moses persuaded him to take a more lenient approach to things. 14And the Lord changed his mind about the disaster that he planned to bring on his people.
If hell consists of other people (as Sartre said) so does heaven. That’s why Paul says we need to get on with each other. In the Epistle we read 2 I urge Euodia and I urge Syntyche to be of the same mind in the Lord. 3Yes, and I ask you also, my loyal companion,* help these women, for they have struggled beside me in the work of the gospel, together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers, whose names are in the book of life.
Notice all the togetherness here:
- be of the same mind in the Lord
- my loyal companion
- struggled beside me in the work of the gospel
- together with Clement and the rest of my co-workers
and the sentence ends whose names are in the book of life.
So here’s the thing about heaven and hell:
- if you don’t like God and your fellow human beings, God is not going to be so silly as to sentence you to heaven.
- if you do like God and your fellow human beings, you’re like the people who were wearing wedding garments – called and chosen.
But listen to this: even those who are best suited to hell: heaven waits for them if they will just slip out and put on the right garment.
I conclude with a quote from 2 Peter 3: 9:
The Lord is not slow in keeping his promise, as some understand slowness. Instead he is patient with you, not wanting anyone to perish, but everyone to come to repentance
So let’s remember that we don’t always have a clear idea as to what we will like. But one person does and that is God. For that reason he sent his Son to die for our sins. That should give us a clear hint that hell is not going to be a pleasant place.
The Good News does need responding to. In our parable, we see that we do need wedding garments. Thankfully God has made that possible for all who would willingly embrace his goodness in Jesus.
Exodus 32: 1 – 14
Philippians 4: 1 – 9
Matthew 22: 1 – 14