I’m no movie buff (that would be David Kavanaugh), but you don’t have to be a film-school geek to know that the story of the year in the world of cinema is Christopher Nolan’s Inception. If you haven’t heard about it, it’s a movie about a man who makes his living, with his associates, going into other people’s dreams in order to steal information from their minds—or in this case, to plant an idea in someone’s mind—with dreams within dreams that have a powerful effect on events in the real world.
Or is it? There are those who argue that in fact, none of it is real, that what seems to be the real world in the movie is actually just another dream. After all, when you’re playing with the whole question of dream vs. reality, and when you have someone with the ability to create realities within the world of dreams, how can you tell when the playing stops? And does it matter? If this is what you perceive as reality, if it’s real for you, is it really important if that perception doesn’t exist outside your own head?
This all reminds me of the big news in film eleven years ago: The Matrix. This was another movie that played with the question of whether the real world is actually real, though from a very different angle and in a very different way. At the time, people were calling the Wachowskis geniuses, and I’m not sure the movie’s stood the test of time quite that well—partly because the sequels disappointed people—but even if nothing else endures, I think people will long remember the scene where Laurence Fishburne as Morpheus stands before Neo, played by Keanu Reeves, and offers him the choice between the red pill and the blue pill. “You take the blue pill,” Morpheus says, “the story ends, you wake up in your bed and believe whatever you want to believe. You take the red pill—you stay in Wonderland and I show you how deep the rabbit-hole goes.” Of course, if Neo takes the blue pill, no movie, so he takes the red pill and wakes up to find out that the world he thought was real is actually a virtual reality created by machines that have enslaved the human race to power themselves. As you can see, it’s not exactly a lighthearted comedy. But the idea that there’s a deeper reality behind what we see resonated with many, many people.
Of course, it wasn’t a new idea; as Professor Kirke said more than once in the Chronicles of Narnia, “It’s all in Plato, all in Plato,” and not just in Plato, either. It’s an intuition rooted deep in the human soul—and for good reason, because the world we see is not all there is. Of course, as we’ve noted, human beings tend to overreact and overcorrect, and so you get the Buddhist idea that this world is just an illusion, and you get the old heresy of Gnosticism that says that only spirit is important, that our bodies and what we do with them don’t matter; that’s going way too far. The Scriptures tell us that everything matters because God made it, and made us as part of it, and so nothing about this world is to be put down or disregarded as unimportant. But there is a greater reality than what we can perceive with our senses, for which God is preparing us, toward which we’re being led—which is, ultimately, the full experience of the presence of God, who is the source of all reality and the maker of all that is. There are greater joys and greater goods than this world can give us, and greater possibilities than we can imagine; in God, the future is not limited by the past, and what can be is more than what has been.
This is profoundly good, not least because it means that in God, this is true of us as well; God has more for us than just more of the same. He’s at work in us making us new, from the inside-out. But that means that this thing that we’re on about with God, and that God’s on about with us, is a lot bigger than most people think. A lot of people like religion, and many who don’t will tell you that they like spirituality instead, and if you ask them why and what they mean by that, they’ll talk about finding meaning and purpose and significance, about becoming better people, about satisfaction and comfort, about wisdom for life and coping in hard times, and other ideas of that sort; you’ll get a laundry list of ways in which religion is just like Coke—things go better with it. These are good things, and blessings God does give us; but they aren’t what gospel religion is about. They aren’t the purpose, they aren’t the point. Any religion that’s focused on blessings and winning us benefits isn’t God’s thing—it’s too small for God. It’s a shadow religion, and God is calling us beyond that to something better, deeper, more true.
As we come to the end of this long central section of Hebrews—as the author wraps up his argument for the superiority of Christ and his priesthood over the high priests in Jerusalem, and thus for the superiority of Jesus-worship and Jesus-religion over Judaism—this is the truth he’s underscoring. He’s not saying anything new in this section, just summarizing the points he’s made so far: animal sacrifices could never be enough, could never bring salvation; the best the priests could do was only temporary, and so had to be repeated over and over and over; the law was just a shadow and a copy, not the reality; God wants to change our hearts, not just control our behavior; a greater sacrifice was necessary, one that could purify our hearts, not just our bodies, and thus make true salvation possible; Christ offered that sacrifice once and for all. These are all things we’ve talked about as we’ve gone through the last three chapters. But in pulling them together in this way, the author makes the fundamental appeal clear: the law is the shadow; Jesus is the reality. Come to the reality. Come be made new.
Come be made new. That really is the bottom line; that’s what God’s on about, and nothing less. Even the law, which was given by God to prepare the way for the coming of Christ, is by itself only a shadow, not able to accomplish God’s full purpose; and if that’s the case, how much more must we say this about any religion that isn’t all about Jesus? We all want life to go better—we want things like long, happy marriages and children who turn out well and healing when we’re sick and successful careers and prosperous retirements, and there’s nothing wrong with any of those, nothing wrong with asking God for them; they’re all blessings that he may give us if we serve him and follow him faithfully. But they aren’t why God saved us. He didn’t send Jesus to be tortured to death so that we could live happy, comfortable lives protected from the agony of the world. He’s on about something a lot bigger—and a lot better, in the end.
And so James declares, “Consider it all joy, my brothers and sisters, when you encounter various trials, knowing that the testing of your faith produces endurance”; and if you were here last fall, you know what was going on the morning I preached on that passage. You remember the agony of the Sonntags as someone appeared to be stalking them and threatening their lives, and it turned out Joel had made up the whole thing. Consider that all joy? And the pain of the world marches on. I gave Tom Abbitt a hug yesterday after Cathy’s memorial service, and I grieve with him; it is deeply wrong that she’s dead of cancer at 49, with their youngest still in high school. We don’t want that, we want to avoid it—we want a god who offers us a road around the valley of the shadow of death; and so there are no end of religions promising that sort of god. But in the end, that god and that road are illusions, and we all know that valley, all too well.
This world is deeply wrong, it’s broken at the core, and God does not and will not shield us from the pain; and shadow religion can’t deal with that. It has no answer for pain, except to insist that those who suffer must have brought it on themselves—they didn’t obey well enough, or they didn’t have enough faith. Shadow religion can’t deal with our sin, except to tell us to just work harder. It can’t deal with the fact that the world is wrong, because it has no power to make things new. Only Christ can do that, and only his gospel can give us hope. Only he can say to us, “Your sins are forgiven”; only he can tell us that our pain and our sorrow are not for nothing, and are not forever. He doesn’t lead us around the valley of the shadow of death, but he does lead us through it, walking with us every step of the way—and assuring us with every step that he knows where he’s going, because he’s been this way before, and this is the way that leads home.