A sermon delivered by Joel Snider, Pastor, First Baptist Church, Rome, Ga., on August 7, 2011.
The horror of life without God has lost its place in our imagination.
—William Willimon in Who Will Be Saved?
I saw a movie several months ago that gave me a new appreciation for fear of the dark. The movie is Kill Bill Volume 2. Some of you have seen it, but if you have not, don’t worry. I am not recommending the movie nor can I summarize the plot because it is, indeed, twisted but I can provide a description of the scene that I am talking about.
Uma Thurman is the beautiful and lethal heroine. She has had an encounter with her ex-husband’s brother. In a fight that ensues, he gets the upper hand and promises to bury her alive. He has her on the ground. She is resisting, and he stands over her. In one hand he has a can of mace, and in the other hand he has a flashlight. He says, “If you keep fighting me, I am going to spray this in your face and you are going to go into that coffin blind. But if you are good, I am going to give you this flashlight. Which will it be?” She nods at the flashlight. He gives it to her, and he and his accomplice place her in the coffin.
If you have not seen the movie, it is an image that you can easily imagine. The base of the coffin and the lid of the coffin leave just a rectangle of light around her. As they begin to drive the nails in, the rectangle of light begins to diminish until, finally, in the last corner the last nail is driven in and it is pitch black. It is not simply the darkness. It is Uma Thurman’s whimpering, and then finally when she begins to hyperventilate in that pitch blackness, she turns on the flashlight and bangs it against the lid. It knocks the flashlight again. She whimpers again. You can tell she is afraid she has broken the flashlight and her light is gone. It almost sounds like an animal. As she struggles with the flashlight, the light comes back on. You can hear the relief in her breathing. She looks around. She is afraid the battery will go out. She turns it off.
The darkness starts to overcome her again. She hyperventilates again. She whimpers again. The light goes on again. Off and on. Do I leave the light on so I can see or do I turn it off and conserve it so it will last as long as possible?
In the end, she gets out. How she gets out, you would not believe. I don’t want you to have that hanging in the back of your mind for the rest of the message, but the important part is that scene of the pitch blackness, the suffocating darkness, and the isolation. It is absolutely overpowering.
Three times in Matthew’s Gospel, he records Jesus telling some group that he has encountered that there will be some who will be cast into outer darkness where there is weeping and gnashing of teeth. Jesus praises the centurion because he has faith and he says, “Many will come from the east and the west, and will take their places at the feast with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. But those who should inherit the kingdom have been too busy and really have no concern for the message that I teach, and will be cast into outer darkness.”
We are fortunate that we live in a world of light. There is so much light around us, even at night. We have night lights, flood lights, and neon lights. If you go out at night, there is plenty of light to see. If you drive in from Cartersville on Highway 411, there comes a place where you can begin to see the glow in the sky. It is the glow in the sky of all the lights of Rome together reflecting off the atmosphere.
Somewhere within the city, if you look up, you can see the brightest of the starts, but if you actually go out in the country or go out west somewhere where there are no city lights whatsoever, and you look up, you realize how many stars there are in the sky that you have never been able to see before because the light of the city is reflecting off the atmosphere.
After the tornadoes and storms of the spring when we were all without power for hours and days on end, I heard several people talk about walking into a room and flipping the light switch. “Oh, no light,” and they would turn the switch back down. A few minutes later, they would walk into another room and flip the switch. “Oh, I should remember this. There is no electricity.” People told me that they did that three or four times before they finally realized, “Oops! No light.” We live in a world with light and perhaps we take it for granted. Maybe the First Century world, the world in which Jesus encounters the centurion, understood better than we do. No electricity, no bright lights for camels to use at night when they are out on the road. Maybe they understood pitch black better than we do. Therefore, maybe they could comprehend the idea of eternal darkness better than we.
If you look at what different students of this passage say, there is a big argument as to whether or not Jesus is using outer darkness as a way to describe hell. It really doesn’t matter to me. I don’t want to be there. I do not want to be in that outer darkness.
What do we think about this? What do we think about this outer darkness and the idea that there were four people who could have responded to God but they were too busy, too preoccupied, not that kind of person, or did not like the way Jesus was proclaiming his message. What we understand here is that this is the natural progression for people who don’t want any part of Christ.
C. S. Lewis, I think, said it best. He said there are two kinds of people: Those who say to God, “Thy will be done,” and those to whom God says, “Thy will be done.” If you don’t want any part of me, I will let you have it. I will let you go ahead and move down that logical progression of your life away from me. They move away, away, and away until it is dark. They get what they wanted eternally and completely—the complete absence of God in their lives. Perhaps we should look at this not necessarily as punishment but as permission. OK. Go. See where it takes you.
Have we ever thought what a world utterly and completely without God would be like? I did some research for this sermon and it was amazing to me how many different writings I came across where people thought that would be a good thing. No more moral taboos. No more religious guilt. No more religious fanaticism and war.
It would also mean that in those moments of great gladness when we are overwhelmed by the goodness that has been bestowed upon us, there is absolutely no one to say thank you to. If there is no God behind it, we could say we were happy or lucky, but why would we say we were thankful? There is no one to be thankful to.
Have you ever held a newborn child—maybe your child, a grandchild, a sister’s child? If you take a newborn into your hands and there is no God, then your only choice would be to think, This is a marvelous coincidence of genes to produce this child.
If you are in a twelve-step group, there is no higher power. If you don’t pray much, but you do pray in those moments of deepest need, why bother? There is no prayer in a world without God.
At Christmas, we talk about Emmanuel, God with us. What are the other things we talk about? We talk about love, joy, hope, and peace. If we are in a world without God, love is probably defined by pornography. Where would peace be? Hope would simply be luck. Where would the joy be?
In the meditation text for today, William Willimon says we have lost the imagination to conceive what a world without God would be like. Maybe we can thank Uma Thurman in her acting to remind us of this total and complete darkness and project it out to eternity and think that would be the complete and eternal result of our wish to live in a world without God.
Remember, this is not just for atheists, unbelievers, and people who practice the wrong religion. This is for us. Jesus’ astonishment at the centurion was the fact that he found that kind of response among someone who wasn’t supposed to believe. The people who should believe would find themselves cast into outer darkness because they had not taken the time, had not taken it seriously, and had not followed him.
What is it? Is God, as revealed through Jesus Christ, something that is vital in each of our lives, something that is like breathing air for us, drinking water, eating food, the bread of life that we need so desperately or is it simply an accessory, like a scarf or tie, something we can wear today to make the ensemble a little more stylish but we can leave God at home tomorrow simply because he doesn’t fit. Do we really love God with all of our hearts or are we just simply committed in bursts of convenience? It is convenient to be committed today, but I don’t know. Maybe tomorrow I am busy. I will have to think about it.
If you noticed the bulletin cover today, it says, “Getting Serious.” This is a little bit of a head fake. Most people think less humorous when they think somebody is getting serious. I am a serious person—less humorous. Think about it in this context. Think about it in the context of someone falling in love. If you are work and someone says, “I have been out with him four times now.”
And you say, “Oh, is it serious?”
You talk to your sister on the phone and she says, “I think for Thanksgiving, I am going to bring Bill home with me.”
And you say, “It must be serious.”
What are we saying? Are we saying that love is deepening, that the relationship is maturing? What we are asking is, is there something now exclusive about this? Has the relationship come to the deep and mature place where you think, I am focusing here. I am not looking anywhere else. Oh, it’s serious.
Over the next several months, we will think about our faith and our relationship to God in this way. Oh, is it serious? Is it deepening? Is it maturing? Is it exclusive? Is it what we love above all things? If you are not sure, or if you think, Well, I’m just not that kind of person. I just really don’t get all that fired up about religion. I’m not ready for that. I am not ready to get that serious about God. What you are really saying is that you are walking the path where it is like the shadows of August. Have you noticed that they have begun to get longer and the light is dimmer a little earlier? That is that path.
If our hearts are athirst for God, we feel as if something is missing in our lives, and we are seeking after God. We long to be with God as we worship with other Christians, as we pray, and other things that we do throughout the week. If that is the case, then we are walking a different path. We are walking a path toward the dawn of the rising sun in which the light becomes brighter and brighter.
It is said that the last words of the German philosopher Goethe were, “Light, light, more light.” I wonder what he meant? I wonder which way he was headed?
Joel Snider is a coach for the Center for Healthy Churches.