Just when you want to preach a sweet sermon about the joys of vacation bible school, Jesus shows up and says, Well now, the Son of Man will send his angels, and they will collect out of his kingdom all causes of sin and all evildoers, and they will throw them into the furnace of fire, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth. I don’t remember those words as a child. I remember church marquees telling folks to go to church else the devil would get you, but I don’t remember a single person telling me much at all about the furnace of fire.
I grew up Episcopalian. And since I’m still Episcopalian, I’d much rather aim us toward our first lesson today: the story of Jacob dreaming about angels ascending and descending on a ladder between heaven and earth. At least there the angels of God arrive in a dream instead of hurled at you like threats from the mouth of Jesus.
So, let’s turn our back on the furnace of hell for a bit and cling to the hope of climbing Jacob’s ladder. In the rational worldview of our day and time, that ladder has become more metaphor than anything. It’s a pretty safe bet, isn’t it, to think it has no more reach than your own step ladder?
Maybe God—or rather, keeping things rational, maybe some part of Jacob — is only telling Jacob, Hey now, quit your worrying. Yeah you stole your brother’s birthright, and yeah you’re on the run now, all alone out on the road, but you’ve got what it takes to win big in the end. So believe in yourself. That’s what really matters.
Trouble is Jacob sees the ladder while he’s sleeping. Both eyes closed. He’s resting on the earth with his head pillowed by a stone, and when you sleep it isn’t usually the rational mind that speaks to you. Nor is it usually your own rationalizing point of view asserting itself. When you sleep, you lose your usual defenses. It’s as if other eyes are watching after you and sending news to you from a Great Beyond.
And remember: this is an ancient man dreaming. Not one of us rational types. This man trusts what he sees in a dream. And is so thoroughly changed by the vision of angels ascending and descending between heaven and earth, he makes an altar of the stone under his head. It marks the place where he closed his eyes enough to see God. It marks the location of something more, something exceeding and confounding his own ideas about life.
Nobel prize-winning poet Czeslaw Milosz wrote a poem before he died called Second Space. In it he mourned the idea that second spaces like Heaven and Hell are no longer in fashion. In the rational worldview of our day and time, there is no heaven. And there is no hell. There is only here.
Admit it: you’ve never seen heaven or hell. You may experience some moments as hellish or heavenly, but those ancient second spaces are more promises than anything, at least to those who believe in them.
And then again, to those who believe in those second spaces, they’re as much a threat as a promise. You hear that in our Gospel today when the whole idea of sowing seed must reckon with the whole trouble with weeds, that is, the whole trouble with evil.
Czeslaw Milosz knew the inadequacy of thinking we ourselves would ever get rid of the weeds, could ever get rid of evil. He knew we’d have to wait for a day more glorious than this day. He knew evil for an abiding force among us, between us, sometimes within us. And knew the forces that promise to eradicate evil here and now often land on the side of evil itself.
Milosz served in the Polish Resistance to Hitler’s Nazi Movement. He knew the terrors of Stalin that followed those, knew the evils still with us today. He knew firsthand the inadequacy of any worldview that lacks second space, the inadequacy of any vision that says this is all there is.
He wrote: Have we really lost faith in that other space? Have they vanished forever, both Heaven and Hell? Without unearthly meadows, how will we welcome salvation? And where will the damned find suitable quarters? Let us weep, lament the enormity of the loss. Let us smear our faces with coal, loosen our hair. Let us implore that it be returned to us, that second space. 
His words confirm my need, and I hope yours, too: our need for second space, our need for something more than here and now, however beautiful it may be. At the same time, his words confirm how fragile that need has become in our day and time. The rational mind dismisses the dream and has little use for tawdry angelic ladders.
When I was a child, there was a ladder made of royal blue construction paper taped to the wall of my Sunday School room. It ran from floor to ceiling where it abruptly ended. The teacher had taped angels alongside it. Some of them on their way up, others on their way down. The paper faded from one Sunday to another and sometimes needed fresh tape to stay up. I knew it then for a flimsy idea that made me happy, like pinning a paper tail on a paper donkey. But today I feel most of all my need for that ladder.
Eternal space is central to the Christian faith. And no, it’s not enough to say eternity is woven into what you know and experience here and now. It is. But it’s also a mysterious reality beyond anything you’ve ever known or experienced. Its promised necessity is something more. And Lord, how we need it.
God in Christ came down from heaven to be made one of us. And God in Christ ascended into heaven to give us hope for something more.
And like it or not, we need hell, too.
As I said, I grew up Episcopalian, and mostly we laughed at hell. I remember sitting with my parents in church and hearing a priest named Fr. Kennedy tell us how one day he was officiating in an inner-city church surrounded by tenement housing. Said he came to the place where it was time to say, Here what comfortable words our Savior Christ saith, when a woman from a nearby apartment was heard to holler, Get the hell in here!
My parents laughed. I did, too. But today it strikes me how even naming the fiery furnace of hell, Jesus is speaking words of comfort. Hell marks the hope of justice. God’s justice. Hell marks the righteous purpose of our humanity by naming (by housing) our failures. We need hell because we need what Jacob needed when his head lay on the stone. We need to know God has an eye on us. God knows what we’re up to; and what we do has moral consequence.
The angels of God ascend and descend among us, asking us to follow Jesus. I never thought I’d preach a sermon lifting up the need of hell. I don’t like it. I mostly think of it as a place of purification and ultimate penance. But the longer I live, the less I laugh at it. As Milosz puts it, Whoever considers [it normal to believe] the strong triumph and the weak fail, and life ends with death, [that person] accepts the devil’s rule. 
Not God’s rule.
Today Jacob’s ladder and the words of Jesus are here to comfort you. They tell you God sees you, God watches after you, and God means you to live a just and righteous life.
- Czeslaw Milosz, “Second Space,” Second Space: New Poems, translated by Robert Hass and Czeslaw Milosz, Ecco Harper Collins, New York: 2005, 3.
- Czeslaw Milosz, “You Who Were Born,” Second Space: New Poems, translated by Robert Hass and Czeslaw Milosz, Ecco Harper Collins, New York: 2005, 57.