Sermon for Sunday, September 23rd, 2018
On the Southwest side of the old city of Jerusalem, just down from Mount Zion is a little valley with a very dark past.
While the entire city of Jerusalem has seen more death and destruction than any of us could possibly imagine; even in Jesus’s time, this one particular valley just outside the city walls was synonymous with death; its very name had become a euphemism for a place of death. Not just death though; this was a place where the wicked dead would be punished.
It’s called the Valley of Hinnom or Gehenna. Now that name may not be very familiar to you, but you have heard Jesus talk about this place quite a few times. Whenever Jesus uses this name though, our bible translators substitute a name that you are more familiar with: Hell. When Jesus talks about Hell, he uses the word Gehenna. That little valley had been for so long associated with death and suffering and wickedness, that in Jesus’s time it’s very name was used to symbolize the place that is the exact opposite of the Kingdom of Heaven.
Now why? Why was this place considered so cursed?
We find the answer in the book of the prophet Jeremiah. In our passage today, Jeremiah is speaking to himself and to God and he is lamenting the evil deeds of his people, but what are those evil deeds? To find the answer you must look back a few chapters to chapter 7. Jeremiah famously storms into the Temple and excoriates the people gathered there for worshiping their God in word but not in deed. They break all of his commandments and then come to make offerings to God like nothing ever happened. Jeremiah asks the question: “Has this house, which is called by my name, become a den of robbers in your sight?” Words which Jesus himself would echo many years later when he entered the Temple and drove the money-changers out.
Jeremiah is angry at many things that he has witnessed, but one of the things that troubles him the most, is what he has seen going on down in the valley, within view of God’s temple. There, in Gehenna, the Valley of Hinnom, the Judeans had built another altar to a different God. Not the God of Israel that had saved them from slavery, but a foreign God, the God of Baal. And what was being offered on that altar? Children. Sons and daughters were literally being burned as an offering. They were being used to appease some foreign God. This was not what the God of Israel had commanded. This was the opposite of what God had commanded. That is why Jeremiah is so upset. And henceforth, the name Gehenna becomes synonymous with the opposite of the Kingdom of Heaven; it becomes the name and the image of Hell.
In the gospels Jesus uses the name Gehenna, Hell, repeatedly to indicate the place, or the state of being that is the opposite of being united to God. Last week we heard James use the word in his Epistle when he warns us about the dangers of our tongue; he says it is a world of iniquity that is itself set on fire by Gehenna, Hell. Next week, Jesus will use the word in the Gospel when he advises us that if our eye, or hand, or foot causes us to stumble, that we should remove them, rather than have two eyes, hands or feet and be thrown into Hell, Gehenna.
Hell is the opposite of Heaven. The Valley of Hinnom, where Baal is worshiped, is the opposite of Mount Zion, where the God of Israel is worshiped. Gehenna is the opposite of the Kingdom of God. But opposites can be useful sometimes when we want to see or understand something more clearly. Maybe it is by taking a close look at Hell, that we can really appreciate what Heaven is supposed to be. James tells us in his epistle to resist the devil and draw near to God, but first we must be able to tell them apart. What is Gehenna (or Hell) like?
In Gehenna, the weak are sacrificed to serve the needs of the strong. In Gehenna, a child is a sacrificed to serve the needs of the parent. In Gehenna, man’s life is sacrificed to serve the needs of God.
Well if that is Hell, then what must Heaven be like? Jesus helps us see the contrast in today’s gospel:
In Heaven, the greatest are willing to serve the needs of the least. In Heaven, children are so precious that to welcome a child is like welcoming God himself. In Heaven, God sacrifices his own life to serve the needs of man. The Kingdom of Heaven is the opposite of Gehenna, and we need to be able to recognize the difference.
There is a scene in the movie Schindler’s List, where some Jewish children are being pulled by a Nazi officer from the long lines headed into the work camps, and being forced onto a separate line and onto a separate train. A train that we know is headed directly to a death camp and to the gas chambers and the ovens. And in the midst of this disturbing scene, Oskar Schindler, a German industrialist, a munitions manufacturer and a member of the Nazi Party, steps forward and stops the officer from loading the children onto the train bound for certain death.
He grabs a little girl’s hand, holds it up in front of the officer’s face and says: “This is a skilled munitions worker. Do you see these fingers? How else am I supposed to polish the inside of a 45mm shell casing? These children are essential.” The Nazi officer relents, and Mr. Schindler is allowed to take the children back with him to his factory. Mr. Schindler pretends to be using these children as his slaves to further the war effort, but we know that what he is actually doing is saving their lives. He is actually serving them.
In that brief moment in the film I think you get a glimpse of the Kingdom of Heaven and Gehenna at the same time; side-by-side as polar opposites. The Nazi officer sees the girl as a sacrifice; someone whose life is to be offered and used to serve his needs. Schindler sees the girl as a child of God, someone whose life he must protect, even if it means risking his own.
A dramatic movie, yes, but so much more than that, because we know that the story is true. The little girl that Schindler saved is still alive. Her name is Eva Lavi and she still talks about that moment when Schindler confronted the officer and saved her life.
In later years, after the war when Schindler was struggling and bankrupt, it was some of these very children that would support and save him. The first become last and the last become first. When Schindler died he was buried in Jerusalem; in a cemetery that is just opposite the Valley of Hinnom, opposite from Gehenna, but Schindler’s body is planted on Mount Zion.
Only God knows what became of that Nazi officer.