If you’ve been attending Henderson Community Church for some time and listening to my messages, you’ve probably recognized that I appreciate the stories of the Bible and I especially appreciate the different methods the writers use to craft those stories. Sometimes, to illustrate these biblical stories, I compare them to movies or TV shows. As you’ve also probably realized—we seem to have different tastes in entertainment. It seems like every time I reference a movie as an illustration, I get back a bunch of blank stares. So, I finally came up with a way to ensure that at least some of you have seen the movie I reference; hence our outing yesterday afternoon to go see the movie The Shack! Seeing The Shack wasn’t entirely for the purposes of this message, we are beginning a study group meetings Wednesdays at 7 pm based off the book to which all are welcome (study guides may be purchased online), but going to see the movie did provide a convenient way for me to use the movie as an illustration for a sermon.
For those who have not seen the movie or read the book, The Shack is a story set in the American Northwest about a man named Mackenzie, a married father of three, called “Mack” by his family and friends. Four years prior to the main events of the story, Mack takes his three children on a camping trip to a lake. Two of his children are out in a canoe when it flips and one nearly drowns. Mack is able to save his son, but unintentionally leaves his youngest daughter Missy alone at their campsite. After Mack returns, she is nowhere to be found. The police are called, and the family discovers that Missy has been abducted and murdered by a serial killer. The police find an abandoned shack in the woods with her bloodied clothing, but her body is never found. After this tragedy Mack sinks into what he calls “The Great Sadness.”
One winter day, Mack receives a note in his mailbox from “Papa,” saying that he would like to meet with Mack that coming weekend at the shack. Mack is puzzled by the note—he has had no relationship with his abusive father since he left home at age 13. He suspects that the note may be from God, whom his wife refers to as “Papa.” Mack’s family leaves to visit relatives and he goes alone to the shack, unsure of what he will find. Initially upon arrival he finds nothing, but as he is leaving, the shack and its surroundings are transformed from snow and cold into a lush garden scene. He enters the shack and encounters the three persons of the Trinity, with God embodied as an African American woman who calls herself Elousia and Papa; Jesus Christ as a Middle-Eastern carpenter; and the Holy Spirit as an Asian woman named Sarayu. From there the story centers on Mack’s conversations with these three as he is forced to grapple with the deep pain and sadness in his life over the loss of his daughter, ultimately finding healing from his pain.
At the end of his visit, Mack goes on a hike with Papa, who shows him where Missy’s body was left in a cave. After spending the weekend at the shack, Mack leaves for home and is nearly killed in an automobile accident. After his recovery, he realizes that he did not in fact spend the weekend at the shack, but that his accident occurred on the same day that he arrived at the shack. But thanks to his experience, Mack is able to begin the healing process and reconcile with his family.
The Shack is a powerful story about the hurt and pain and sadness many of us face in our lives and how that darkness often envelops us, nearly suffocating us from living the full life God has for us. I think it is a wonderful illustration for the Bible story we read today about Jesus and Nicodemus, a story many of us are familiar with and a story which contains perhaps the most well-known Bible verse, John 3:16. “For God so loved the world that he gave his only begotten son, that whoever believes in him should not perish but have everlasting life.” It’s a verse many of us know and love.
The story also contains an odd-phrase perhaps many of us have heard, that of being “born again” or “born from above” in some translations. Beginning in the 1960’s some Christians began referring to themselves as “born-again,” referencing their encounter and experience with Jesus as a spiritual re-birth of sorts. As the years went by, more and more Christians began labeling themselves similarly—and demanding that all others do the same—or else not be considered “true” Christians. Ironically, a passage which specifically says God does not condemn, was instead used to condemn wide swatches of Christians.
But this passage is so much more than that. One of the reasons I like utilizing books and movies to illustrate the Bible is that the more I learn about and understand the Bible, the more I see the artistry and skill of the biblical authors to tell a story in much the same way modern story tellers do. The book of John, was written by a guy named John to tell the story of Jesus. It wasn’t meant to be a play-by-play account of his life, it was meant to tell who Jesus was and what made him so incredible. And one of the key themes John uses in his book to tell his story is that of darkness and light. John 1 says
In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was with God in the beginning. Through him all things were made; without him nothing was made that has been made. In him was life, and that life was the light of all mankind. The light shines in the darkness, and the darkness has not overcome it… The true light that gives light to everyone was coming into the world.
It’s not by accident that here in chapter 3 we have the story of Nicodemus coming to see Jesus under the cover of darkness—and Jesus then tries to explain to Nicodemus how God’s light has come into the world, yet many choose to reject that light and stay in the midst of their own darkness. And this is the point I want to make today; verses 16-19 read:
For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because they have not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son. This is the verdict: Light has come into the world, but people loved darkness instead of light because their deeds were evil.
For too long these verses, in which Jesus explicitly says God does not judge or condemn, have been used to judge or condemn people—when that’s not at all what’s happening in this story. Nicodemus comes to Jesus in darkness and Jesus shines some light into that darkness, offering him a way out—but in offering that way out Jesus cautions Nicodemus that in stepping into the light he will be changed forever—almost as if he had been re-born.
It’s much the same as the story of The Shack, how into Mack’s deep darkness, God shines a light and offers Mack a way out. Having accepted the invitation, Mack joins God at that cabin and experiences a re-birth of sorts, a new life of wholeness and healing, and his life is never the same. God does not condemn Mack for his darkness and despair, God seeks to shine light into Mack’s darkness and rescue him from it. This is what God does—God sees the deep darkness and burdens many of us carry and seeks to save us from it. Literally, Jesus seeks to bring us healing and wholeness in the midst of our darkness and suffering.
If we’re honest with ourselves, we all have some measure of darkness within us, darkness we carry around, darkness we hide in. Maybe it’s some deep grief or pain like Mack, maybe it’s some shame or regret, maybe it’s some guilt or mistake, maybe it’s some insecurity or self-doubt, maybe it’s something we want to keep hidden—whatever it is, it’s killing us—killing our joy, killing our spirit, killing our liveliness, taking from us the fullness of life that God intends for us. And we know that, we know, deep down, that its hurting us, even killing us, we don’t need God to judge us, we know deep down in our hearts that the darkness is eating away at our souls—but maybe we don’t know what to do differently, maybe we don’t know how to change it, maybe we’re scared to change it.
And this is where God says, “I didn’t send Jesus into the world to rub your guilt in your face, I didn’t send Jesus into the world to tell you you’re a horrible person, I sent Jesus into the world because I love you, because I want to rescue you from your darkness, because I want to bring wholeness and healing to the parts of your life that are broken and hurting and in darkness.” I as your pastor want to be clear that depression, anxiety, and mental illness are not a sin. For too long and in too many churches, depression and mental illness has been treated as such. For those suffering from depression or mental illness, God shining light into our darkness might be a guiding light that leads us to our doctor or medical professional.
Let me tell you, it’s not easy. Whether its dealing with our own hurt and pain or admitting our need for professional help, starring deep into the abyss of our own hearts and souls, honestly examining our own hurt, and pain, and sinful mistakes can be a terrifying thing, much as Mack experiences in The Shack—but in the end, wow is it worth it! The life afterward is a life unimaginable, a life we might call out of this world, a life of the eternal, it’s almost as if we’ve been reborn. God loves the world in this way, that he sent us Jesus to shine light into our darkness, so that our darkness might not overtake us, and that we might experience, healing, wholeness, renewal, even new-life through him.
The truth of the good news of Jesus is this. God loves us deeply and beyond our wildest imagination. God sent Jesus to shine light into our deepest darkness, in order that we might see the healing and wholeness available in him, and walking in that light, we will find life beyond our wildest imagination.