Week 3 of the sermon series based on ideas in the book, Love Wins, by Rob Bell. Page numbers are cited when referenced or quoted.
‘Take care that you do not despise one of these little ones; for, I tell you, in heaven their angels continually see the face of my Father in heaven.* 12What do you think? If a shepherd has a hundred sheep, and one of them has gone astray, does he not leave the ninety-nine on the mountains and go in search of the one that went astray? 13And if he finds it, truly I tell you, he rejoices over it more than over the ninety-nine that never went astray. 14So it is not the will of your* Father in heaven that one of these little ones should be lost.
Imagine you are a young person who has never been in church, but you have started to ask questions about God, and you finally get online to search for a church. You begin to look at church websites for churches in your area, and come across their belief statements- many start with their beliefs about God, Jesus, the Bible, what their church is about, etc. Then you might run into something like this: “The unsaved will be separated forever from God in hell.” Or “Those who don’t believe in Jesus will be sent to eternal punishment in hell,” or this: “The unsaved dead will be committed to an eternal conscious punishment.” These are from actual church websites! If you were the young person looking for a church, what would you think about this? I don’t know about you, but I would either turn off the computer or keep looking, but for a church that affirms the welcoming presence of a God who creates and love us, and who offers grace and mercy to God’s people!
What’s strange about these church websites that condemn unbelievers to hell is that in the same section, they proclaim that God is mighty, powerful, loving, full of grace and mercy, compassionate, creator of all, a God through whom “all things are possible.” A God who is great and mighty, who can overcome…but if this God cannot save God’s own people from eternal torment or if one believes God sends people to hell, how great is God, really? Do we believe that God is great? Not totally great? Sort of great? A little great? (98). If we believe that God has a purpose and hope for the world and for God’s people, then we must believe that God wants more for us than eternal punishment. We open the Bible and read texts such as this from 1 Timothy 2: “God wants all people to be saved and to come to a knowledge of the truth.” So the question that we will explore this morning is this: Does God get what God wants? If God wants all people to come to know God and love God and worship God and be partners with God in bringing the kingdom to earth, does God get what God wants? “Will all people be saved? Or will God not get what God wants? Does this magnificent, mighty, marvelous God fail in the end?” (98).
When we open our scriptures and read the stories of God and God’s people, we see a constant theme: that God wants to have a relationship with humanity- our stories and God’s story are constantly intertwined, constantly evolving, changing, having ups and downs, ins and outs- we read stories of creation, hope, loss, God calling people out to do miraculous things, of people straying from God, yet God calling them back home, seeking them out, sending Jesus to walk among us. Our God is a God who does not give up on those whom he created and loves. Psalm 24 reminds us that “The earth is the Lord’s, and everything in it, the world, and all who live in it.” Did you catch that word, “all”? God’s story is one that reminds us again and again that we are all part of the same family, regardless of our differences, where we come from, what language we speak, what color our skin is, where we live, what we believe. We are all one in God as God’s creation- and this is why God wants all people to be saved- why God wants all people to be reconciled unto him through Jesus Christ. This is the story of the Gospel- the good news- as Rob Bell puts it: “this insistence that God will be united and reconciled with all people is a theme the writers and prophets return to again and again. They are very specific in their beliefs about who God is and what God is doing in the world, constantly affirming the simple fact that God will not fail” (100).
Does God get what God wants? That each person will be saved? Or does God actually fail to do this? To answer this question, let’s look at the scripture for this morning, which I believe reveals the true nature and character of a God who does not fails us. In this, Jesus asks a question of his hearers- that if a shepherd has 100 sheep and one has gone astray, does he not leave the 99 and go in search of the one who is lost? The answer, of course, is yes. And if he finds it, there will be more rejoicing over that one that was lost- more so than over the 99 who never went astray! In Luke, Jesus tells a similar story, but this time the question is not IF the shepherd finds the lost, sheep, but WHEN he finds it, he takes it upon his shoulders and carries him home. The question of God is not IF God finds the lost sheep, but WHEN God finds the lost sheep, there will be much rejoicing. Our God is the shepherd who risks it all to seek and find each and every one of us. Our God is the woman who tears apart her house looking for the lost coin, the shepherd who risks leaving the 99 sheep in search of just one who has been lost, the father who has lost a wayward son and longs for his return, and celebrates his homecoming with great rejoicing. “The God that Jesus teaches us about doesn’t give up until everything that was lost is found. This God simply doesn’t give up. Ever” (101).
One of my all-time favorite movies is What Dreams May Come. Robin Williams plays Chris, a husband and father who in a tragic turn of events loses his children to a car accident, and shortly thereafter, loses his own life in an accident. He dies and finds himself in his own private heaven with a spiritual guide who helps him get adjusted to his new afterlife. In the midst of this, his wife, left tragically without her husband and her children, decides to end her own life, and finds herself in hell. When Chris, in his heaven, discovers this, he decides to travel to hell himself in order to rescue her, even though he is told that this is impossible. In order for him to be with her, he will have to decide whether to stay in hell himself where they will not know one another and will forever be separated from any goodness that they knew together in their life on earth. But he decides to take this chance because his love for her is so great. He journeys to hell in order to rescue her. When he finds her, she does not know him and becomes angry, and tries to send him away. No matter what he does, she will not turn to him. Chris has only a few minutes with her before he will have the opportunity to escape back to heaven, or he will remain in hell for eternity. At the crucial moment when time runs out, he steps out and tells his guide, who is revealed to actually be his deceased son, that he will choose to remain in hell with his wife rather than return to heaven. He would rather be with his wife in hell than in heaven without her, even if it means that they would even know one another in a matter of minutes.
While I disagree with this idea that people who end their own life go to any kind of hell, the whole point of the movie is the unfailing, unrelenting, all-consuming love that Chris has for his wife. That here is a person who loves someone so much that they would leave heaven and seek to the ends of the earth, putting their well-being in jeopardy, setting aside heaven, forsaking all that they have in order to save someone else, and if they can’t save them, then to sit and be with them anyway, even if it means sitting with them in hell. Even if it means leaving his other loved ones, such as his children, in heaven, in order to seek the one who is lost. In this beautiful story, I believe that in Chris, we catch another glimpse of the God who always seeks us, who is willing to leave the 99 behind in order to go and find even one who has become lost. Even if it means that we need to be rescued from the depths of our own depravity, even if it means that we need to be pulled out of our worst sins, even if it means that we need to be rescued from the depths of our own personal hells- God will drop everything and find us there, seek us out, and bring us home. God’s love is that powerful, that mighty, that all-encompassing- a love that overcomes even hell itself. And in case you’re wondering, the movie has a happy ending. It turns out that hell itself had never seen an act of love so divine, so great as to bring someone out of the depths of hell into heaven. When Chris made the decision and sacrifice of staying in hell with his wife rather than leave her for heaven, both of them are released from their hell. The movie ends with both of them in heaven, reunited with their children, and rejoicing in the fact that love was strong enough to break the chains of despair and hell- love was what brought her home- love was what won out in the end.
It is the same way with God’s love for us- that even when we want to choose our own hell, even when we may not make the choice to follow what God wants for us, God is still there, seeking and longing for us. In United Methodism, we call this prevenient grace- the love and grace of God that goes before us before we even know it or acknowledge it for ourselves. Prevenient grace is the seeking love of God, and that love is constant, waiting for us to grab ahold of it. Prevenient grace is the persistent love of God that does not give up and will not fail us.
But in the end, the choice is still ours to make. God’s perfect love must demand freedom- it is our choice to choose to return the love that God has for each of us. If anyone believes that God does not get what God wants, it is because we are given the freedom to choose God or not. If someone doesn’t choose God, does that mean that they are lost…and for eternity? Even in this question I am reminded of God’s unfailing, ever seeking love for us- that God will not give up, even after death- God is a God of second, third…100… chances and will pursue us as long as it takes. The story of the Gospel is a story of reconciliation and restoration of God and God’s people here, now, and in the future. We read in Colossians (1) that “through Christ, God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether things on earth or things in heaven.” The thought of millions of people suffering forever does not bring God glory- “restoration brings God glory…reconciliation brings God glory; endless anguish doesn’t. Renewal and return cause God’s greatness to shine through the universe; never ending punishment doesn’t” (108).
If we believe that God wants all to be reconciled to him and one another, we must have faith that God’s love can melt even the hardest of hearts through God’s unrelenting, infinite, and expansive love. After all, what is more powerful? The hardness of the human heart, or this magnificent love of God? God’s love wins every time! For so long, many people have found Jesus compelling and God’s story drawing them in, but have been scared away from Christianity because of the talk about hell and torment for those who do not believe- why would they want to be a part of a faith that believes that? Somewhere along the way they were taught that the only option about the Christian faith is to be clear about who goes to heaven- who will pass the “test,” and who will not- and a supposedly loving God decides this at death, and that’s it- no chance for a change of heart or for grace. The good news is that not all Christians believe this, and you don’t have to believe this to be a Christian. Our faith is wide enough and diverse enough to handle a wide range of perspectives (110).
And finally, we have been asking this question, “Does God get what God wants?” but perhaps the real question to ask is, “Do we get what we want?” The answer is yes- we get what we want. After all, we are the ones who are constantly being pursued by God, but it is up to us to respond and choose God for our lives in return. Last week we talked about how some people choose their own hells through the choices that they make- we see this happen all the time- when given the option to do the good and right thing, someone may choose to do harm to themselves or someone else. When this happens, they choose their own hell. “If we want isolation, despair, and the right to be our own god, God graciously grants us that option. If we want nothing to do with light, hope, love, grace, and peace, God respects that desire on our part, and we are given a life free from any of those realities” (117). On the other hand, if we “crave light, we’re drawn to truth, we’re desperate for grace, we’ve come to the end of our plots and schemes and we want someone else’s path, God gives us what we want” (117). If we have the sense that we are lost and alone in the world and don’t know where to go, God is there, standing in the open door with arms open, ready to welcome us home. If we are the lost sheep that has gone astray, God is the shepherd who will wander the wilderness until we are brought home, safe and sound- but sometimes this starts with wanting to be found. Sometimes this desire to be found starts small, or it could be that questioning of the heart, a sense that we are missing out on something, the feeling that there is something more- these feelings might come in the most unexpected of ways, “arising out of our need for something we know we do not have, for someone we know we are not” (118).
And to that desire, that longing, God says yes. Yes, there is food for the journey, a home for the lost, light for the darkness. “If we want hell, or if we want heaven, they are ours. That’s how love works. It can’t be forced, manipulated, or coerced. It always leaves room for the other to decide. God says yes, we can have what we want, because love wins” (119).