One of my favorite things to do as the weather warms up is to get outside and play some disc golf.
A week and a half ago – before winter decided to come back and pay us another visit – I was able to play my first round of the year at Jones Park in Cedar Rapids.
We always begin our rounds at Jones on tee 15. The parking is better by the hill top pavilion, and there are convenient bathrooms there for when you are waiting for other friends to arrive.
That’s where I found myself on that Wednesday afternoon. The sun was shining, the air was warm, and as I waited for a friend to join me, I sat on the grass and soaked in the warmth for the first time of 2011.
Looking out from that hill, you can pretty much see the whole park. The pond, the golf course, the playground and the pool, and oh yeah, just over the tree tops, Mount Trashmore.
For a while, I thought Mount Trashmore was simply the name my friends and I affectionately called this heap of trash. But apparently, the city’s former mayor coined the term decades ago and “Mount Trashmore” has remained as this landfill’s unofficial name.
It is located on the southwest side of town, and was officially closed in 2006 as work was being done to cap off the heap of waste… allowing green grass and vegetation to grow over it. But all of that changed in 2008 when flooding necessitated the use of the landfill for all of that flood debris.
Three years later, dump trucks are still making their way around the landfill and it keeps growing and growing and growing, high above the city’s treeline.
That heap of garbage reminds me of another dump – one mentioned in our scriptures for today.
Unfortunately, due to some poor translating, most of us don’t know about this lovely little waste pile that was once located on the southwest side of Jerusalem….
Will you pray with me?
Today, we begin to look at the third section of the sermon on the mount contained in Matthew. Here, Jesus moves from our attitudes and our witness to the world, and he dives into some teaching about how we behave – how we act – and in particular, how we treat one another.
This whole section actually contains Matthew 5:17-48. Jesus talks about what we should teach one another, talks about anger, and adultery, divorce, promises, revenge, and how we should treat enemies. And we are going to get to the meat of that text – the relationships – next week.
Before we get there, however, I think we need to spend some time with a certain four letter word.
In most of our English translations of the New Testament three greek words are translated into one English word – Hell. These three are hades, which refers to the greek place of the dead, tartaroo – which shows up only once in 2 Peter 2:4 and refers to a dark abyss within Hades where the supremely wicked are punished (again from Greek thought), and gehenna – a word used 11 times by Jesus throughout three of the gospels and once in the book of James.
That word, gehenna, shows up three times in Matthew chapter 5 alone.
Each and every single time it shows up, Jesus warns us that unless we change our ways, unless we do something, we are going to end up there.
So – before we look at those relationships in our lives, I want us to think about what “there” is…
The greek word gehenna is actually made up of two Hebrew words… one meaning valley or son (as in child) and the other is a proper name. So this word gehenna means either the son of Hinnom, or the valley of Hinnom.
The Valley of Hinnom is a real place just on the southwest side of Jerusalem. It is mentioned multiple times in the Old Testament – both in the setting of borders for the tribes of Israel and also in describing the religious practices that took place there. The Valley of Hinnom was in most cases the site of despicable actions. Pagans and even some of Israel’s kings had made child sacrifices there in the valley by offering them up in fire. As time went on, the Valley of Hinnom became not much more than a garbage dump on the edge of town.
That is presumably what it was at the time of Jesus. A place of trash and waste. A place to throw unwanted things. Continual fires burned there in the dump to consume the garbage and to prevent pestilence. In John Wesley’s notes on the Matthew 5, he reminds us that if any criminals were burnt alive as punishment, it was there, in that horrible place.
As I researched this valley, this place called Gehenna, I read that some think the poor, the unwanted and criminals were actually buried here, rather than in nice and expensive tombs that a good burial would have entailed.
Gehenna is a place for garbage. It is a place for that which is unwanted. It is a place to destroy waste and filth.
Let’s forget, for just a moment, that for two thousand years we have translated this greek word Gehenna into little tiny four letter word like hell. Let’s instead put ourselves in the shoes of the first century Jews who might have been sitting on the hillside listening to Jesus teach – as he does here in Matthew.
Let’s, for the sake of argument, pretend that they can see that valley of garbage, gehenna, somewhere off in the distance… much like I could see Mount Trashmore from the hill top in Jones Park.
Maybe it is just the rising smoke from the smouldering fires. Maybe it is just the faint smell of burning garbage that lingers on the air. Maybe you can actually see the heaps of trash, even from far off, just outside the gate of Jerusalem.
Imagine you are there… and then hear again these words from Jesus.
21“You have heard that it was said to those who lived long ago, You shouldn’t commit murder, k and all who commit murder will be in danger of judgment. 22 But I say to you that everyone who is angry with their brother or sister will be in danger of judgment. If they say to their brother or sister, ‘You idiot,’ they will be in danger of being condemned by the governing council. And if they say, ‘You fool,’ they will be in danger of gehenna (fiery hell). 23
…And if your right eye causes you to fall into sin, tear it out and throw it away. It’s better that you lose a part of your body than that your whole body be thrown into [gehenna]. 30 And if your right hand causes you to fall into sin, chop it off and throw it away. It’s better that you lose a part of your body than that your whole body go into [gehenna].
Do you hear those passages differently, knowing about this burning garbage heap just outside of Jerusalem?
As Jesus used this word, gehenna, with his followers, their minds immediately drifted to this valley where the waste of their world was destroyed.
Time and time again, Jesus uses everyday and common things to help the people understand some ultimate truth about God. He talks about flowers and yeast, seeds and vineyards, buildings and rocks and even garbage.
Each of those common, everyday things used in his parables are more than what they seem.
And so when we hear about this continually burning garbage dump… we put a word to it – hell.
But before we add layer upon layer of meaning – before we take two thousand years of church tradition and meaning and pile it all up on that little four letter word, let’s look at what Jesus is using it for right here.
First, Jesus never says that those who break the commandments go to hell. He doesn’t even refer to it anywhere in Matthew 5 as a place of punishment.
No, Jesus is talking about garbage, waste, unwanted things. Useless things.
Jesus starts by talking about our attitudes and continues on with the witness we bear forth in the world and then Jesus starts talking about the law and the kingdom of God.
As he speaks, he tells us: As long as heaven and earth exist, neither the smallest letter nor even the smallest stroke of a pen will be erased from the Law until everything there becomes a reality… unless your righteousness is greater than the righteousness of the legal experts and the Pharisees, you will never enter the kingdom of heaven.
All of it is about the kingdom. Kingdom attitudes, Kingdom witness, Kingdom behavior.
In this whole next section, Jesus is talking about what is useless, unwanted, cast out of the Kingdom of heaven…
Not about eternal punishment in some fiery place… but about what cannot, will not, be a part of the kingdom.
He’s talking about the garbage that has to be cleared out of our lives in order for us to be a part of the kingdom.
He’s talking about the trash that gets in the way of us truly living like Kingdom people.
He’s telling us that unless we are willing to throw those behaviors and attitudes and feelings away, unless we are willing to clean house and transform our lives… we might as well just throw our whole selves out there on the garbage dump – because we are useless to him. We are useless to God. We are useless to the kingdom of heaven.
If we are not honest about our failings and our missteps then we are throwing ourselves out with the trash. By refusing to examine our lives, we live out there in the dump all of our own free choosing.
What does it take to live differently? What does it take to be a part of the Kingdom of God?
You have to be willing to let go of that thing which is holding you back from God’s transformative grace and love. Cut it off, throw it out, put it where it belongs… on the trash heap, out with the garbage, never to be seen again.
God wants you to be a part of the Kingdom.
Not the garbage of your past that you cling to.
Fully redeemed, made clean and whole by his love and grace.
Are you going to hold on so fast to the sin of your life so that you can’t enter?
Will you let it hinder you?
Or will you throw it out where it belongs?
On the southwest side of town there is a garbage heap… take out your sin and leave it there… and come join us in the Kingdom of God.