Advent IV – Year A
The Rev’d Charles Everson
St. Mary’s Episcopal Church
December 18, 2022
Isaiah 7:10-17 and Matthew 11:18-25
Many of our Protestant cousins mark the four Sundays of Advent respectively by thinking about love, hope, joy, and peace. Not so at St. Mary’s. Since at least the 15th century, Advent sermons have been marked by the Four Last Things: death, judgment, and heaven, which we’ve already heard about.
Hell is this week’s topic, and frankly, hell is not something I’ve thought a lot about since becoming an Episcopalian. It’s not because I don’t think there is a state or place called hell – the Bible is clear that there is – it’s because hell was regularly used as a weapon of fear by the leaders in my evangelical past. “Do this, and you’ll go to hell.” “Be like them and you’ll go to hell.”…and so on.
While the Bible may be clear about hell being a thing, it isn’t clear at all about what precisely hell is.
Hell – sheol in Hebrew – is vague in the Old Testament. It is the place where the dead go, and is sometimes translated as the grave, death, destruction, the pit, and sometimes hell, all of which have very different meanings in English. In the New Testament, the two Greek words most often translated as hell are hades and Gehenna. In short, hades is the Hebrew sheol - the place of the unseen spirits – the realm of the dead – while Gehenna is place of fiery punishment after death.
In our first reading from Isaiah, Sheol and heaven seem to be at the opposite ends of the extremes of the universe: “[as] deep as Sheol or as high as heaven.” You’ve heard me talk about heaven kissing earth in the Sacraments of the Church, especially in the waters of baptism and the bread and wine of Holy Communion Quoting the book of Genesis, we sing this verse when a new church is consecrated by the bishop: “this is none other than the house of God, and this is the gate of heaven.” Our burial liturgy speaks of Holy Communion as “the foretaste of that heavenly banquet.” If we experience heaven, even impartially, in our world today, might it be true that hell manifests itself in this world?
I just read a heartbreaking news story detailing the horrors of what’s happening behind the scenes in Ukraine. Mass shootings abound in this country. Women are arrested for not covering up their entire bodies except for small openings for the eyes in Afghanistan and other places. In the East African nations of Kenya, Somalia, and Ethiopia, the is such an extreme drought that food shortages are likely to cause one death every 36 seconds between now and the end of the year.
We may be deluded into thinking hell on earth is having to park a 10-minute walk away from our destination, or having to deal with supply chain shortages when ordering new appliances like dishwashers. But one doesn’t have to look to the most horrible atrocities on the planet to see hell right in front of our face. Beyond the obvious tragedies of the loss of loved ones at too young an age, the ravaging of cancer, and so on, we only must look at even the smallest effects of human sin, particularly in the mirror. You and I know full well how we are complicit in making hell known by our own sin. No matter what hell is in the afterlife, there is no doubt that hell is a very real thing that we experience and even contribute to in big and small ways here and now. We are desperate for a sign of hope in the midst of our warfare and strife.
Seen in this light, I’m not sur that it is helpful to speculate who, if any, comprise the population of hell. Hell is not a place we assign those with whom we disagree, but is rather a place where it seems that God is not. It’s hard to see where God is at the bombed hospital in Kiev, or with those who will be sleeping in the -10 degrees weather expected this Thursday night. It’s also hard to imagine that a God of love would subject anyone to an eternity of fiery punishment, but it’s impossible, for me at least, to believe that God doesn’t love enough to give us a choice whether to accept him or reject him. I’m what you might call a hopeful universalist. We don’t know with any certainty the final destiny of any human being, and while none of us will escape the Day of Judgment that we talked about three weeks ago, God’s mercy is so great that it is unfathomable to our feeble minds.
Isaiah’s promise of a sign – a son born of a virgin named Immanuel – gives hope to the house of David in a time of warfare between Israel and her neighbors. This passage was quoted by St. Matthew in our gospel lesson, leading to a lasting Christian connection between the child promised by Isaiah to the son of Mary and adopted son of Joseph of the house of David hundreds of years later.
As Advent makes its turn toward Christmas, we hear the end result of when heaven kissed earth for the first time at the Annunciation when the angel announced to Mary that she would bear this Immanuel in her womb. Rather than focusing our imagination on what hell will be like – who is in and who is out, how long it lasts, how precisely separation from God will be experienced – let us set our sights and our hopes on this child, this Immanuel, God with us, who is coming to rescue us from the hell we’re in now. Let us look to the babe in the manager who will bring the love and grace of heaven to this lost and broken world. Immanuel, God with us, even in the midst of hell on earth.
“Come thou long expected Jesus, born to set thy people free! From our fears and sins release us, let us find our rest in thee.”
 Isaiah 7:11.
 Gen. 28:17.
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