Last Sunday after church [Sheriff of Austin County] Jack Brandes asked me a very good question, "Does God give warning tickets?" "You know, pastor," Jack said, "we issue a lot of warning tickets. Does God give warnings?"
Jack, of course was referencing my sermon last week about the reasons we follow Christ’s commands and God’s laws. My initial response was, "Yes, God does issue warning tickets." And I stand by that. This might seem like a rather odd topic for Mother’s Day, but bear with me. I’m trying to be faithful to the biblical texts appointed for the day and answer a really good question brought forth by one of our members.
The Old Testament is full of references of God sending warnings to His people who were disobeying the law. All one need do is read through the prophets. When the people sinned, God repeatedly sent men of faith who called Israel to repentance. "Stop worshiping false gods," they would cry out, "lest God bring forth punishment." "Thus says the Lord, stop your pious festivals because what I really desire is for you to do justice, love kindness, and walk humbly with your God. Do this, or there will be consequences."
Warning tickets. Such things are issued to get you to think about what you are doing wrong and turn around to do the right things. But what about the New Testament? Are such warnings found after Jesus’ death and resurrection? I think there are.
Let us look once again at our second lesson this morning from the book of Revelation chapter 22. This is the very end of John’s vision, and in this vision, John is being shown around heaven. John paints the picture of this reality several times in this final book of the Bible including in these last few verses, "12 ‘See, I am coming soon; my reward is with me, to repay according to everyone’s work. 13I am the Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.’ 14 Blessed are those who wash their robes, so that they will have the right to the tree of life and may enter the city by the gates. 15Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood."
"15Outside are the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood." A warning ticket. Now, those of you who read my blog know this verse was omitted by those who were choosing today’s Bible passages for some reason or another. I wasn’t happy about its exclusion, so I made sure it was printed in the bulletin. We need to see what is in scripture and be allowed to think about it, wrestle with it, and ask tough questions about it. Like, why would God keep people outside of heaven?
Now, this might not be a troubling question for some. I mean, there are many Christians who willingly accept the Christian doctrine of hell, but there are a good chunk of people who find this problematic. How could a loving God destine people to eternal punishment?
Well, let’s start with the fact that God does not destine anyone to hell. God does not destine anyone to eternal punishment. God doesn’t condemn people. They condemn themselves.
Now, that might sound harsh, but let’s go through this step by step. First off, remember that you don’t have the power to come to belief in God on your own. Some people have trouble with this concept. Some folks believe you have to consciously make a decision to believe in God and follow Jesus Christ. I respectfully disagree as Scripture is very clear. St. Paul writes that no one can say Jesus is Lord except by the power of the Holy Spirit. For those of you who want verse references, it’s 1 Corinthians 12:3. If you have an argument with me about this, you will first have to argue with St. Paul. Martin Luther, namesake of the Lutheran Church picked up on this in his explanation to the third article of the Apostles’ Creed when he wrote, "I cannot by my own reason or strength believe in Jesus Christ or come to Him, but it is the Holy Spirit that calls me through the Gospel, enlightens me with His gifts and sanctifies and preserves me in the true faith." And now, if Andrew Newberg’s brain research is correct, we know that we are actually hard-wired for belief in God. The brain is wired for belief! In my book, that means God has predestined each and every one of us to believe in Him and have salvation.
So, why hell then? Why people sitting outside heaven? Well, because God gives us the choice to walk away. We can freely stay in a relationship with Him, or we can walk away from it. We have free will.
"But why does God give us this free will. If He loves us so much and wants us to be with Him, why does He allow us to walk away?"
Well, let’s think about that a moment. If He didn’t give us free will, then we would simply be puppets on a string. God would control us. That’s not exactly a relationship now, is it? True relationships, relationships which are built upon love and trust require freedom. They require people having the ability to say yes to each other or no to each other. It’s that simple, really. There must be a choice involved when it comes to our relationship with God, and that choice remains squarely with you and me as to whether or not we stay in that relationship. God doesn’t waver in His resolve toward us. He wants us to be with Him, and He will do everything in His power to make that relationship work. It is we who choose to walk away.
Which brings us back to those sitting outside of heaven: the dogs and sorcerers and fornicators and murderers and idolaters, and everyone who loves and practices falsehood. How do we reconcile such things with grace? How do we reconcile those sitting on the outside with the knowledge that it is not by our actions that we are saved but purely by God’s love? Doesn’t God love even those who are outside the gate?
Of course. In fact, God loves them so much that He gives them their heart’s desire.
Verses 16 and 17 read, "16 ‘It is I, Jesus, who sent my angel to you with this testimony for the churches. I am the root and the descendant of David, the bright morning star.’ 17 The Spirit and the bride say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who hears say, ‘Come.’ And let everyone who is thirsty come. Let anyone who wishes take the water of life as a gift."
Stop and think a moment about your heart’s desire. Stop and think a moment about what is at the center of your life and what your life revolves around. Consider for a moment that your heart’s desire is your thirst. Consider for a moment that your life revolves around what you believe will quench that thirst. And consider that God wants to give you your heart’s desire. God will allow you to pursue your heart’s desire for eternity. And consider now, that if your heart’s desire isn’t God, that desire will never be quenched. Yeah, that would be hell.
Now, consider the fact that the only desire that can be quenched completely when we enter into eternity, is our thirst for God. "Let everyone who is thirsty come. Drink the gift of the water of life. Be satisfied. Be filled. Enter into the peace that passes all understanding." Heaven.
What is your heart’s desire? Do we need a warning ticket? I sincerely hope not. Amen.