Learning From Las Vegas


TEXTS: Romans 5:1-5 and John 16:12-15

[Jesus said:] “I still have many things to say to you, but you cannot bear them now. When the Spirit of truth comes, he will guide you into all the truth; for he will not speak on his own, but will speak whatever he hears, and he will declare to you the things that are to come. He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you. All that the Father has is mine. For this reason I said that he will take what is mine and declare it to you.” (John 6:12-15)

OnTrinity Sunday, the Revised Common Lectionary serves us up the words of Jesus and the words of Paul. Both passages speak about the Holy Spirit, and both refer us to Christ.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus tells his disciples that the Spirit who will come will guide them into truth. More than that, Jesus says, “He will glorify me, because he will take what is mine and declare it to you.”

The Spirit comes to bring us the things of Christ. And if we aren’t sure quite what that means, the apostle makes it clear to us. Writing to the Christians at Rome, he says: “… since we are justified by faith, we have peace with God through our Lord Jesus Christ, through whom we have obtained access to this grace in which we stand … and hope does not disappoint us, because God’s love has been poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit that has been given to us” (Rom. 5:1-5).

The things of Christ are declared to us: “this grace in which we stand … God’s love … poured into our hearts through the Holy Spirit.”

Before I go any further, I want to ask you a question: have you ever seen the movie, Leaving Las Vegas? If you haven’t seen it, I suggest you consider renting it.* Nicholas Cage won an Academy Award for Best Actor for his performance in that film in 1996, and Elizabeth Shue was nominated for Best Actress.

Now, as I’m recommending it to you, I have to warn you that it has an “R” rating. And it got its “R” rating the old-fashioned way—it earned it! Still, it’s one of the most powerful films I’ve ever seen, for reasons I’ll make clearer shortly. For now, I’ll just tell you that it’s a film about—among other things—unconditional acceptance.

That’s a theological term, by the way. Unconditional acceptance. It was a favourite theme of the great theologian Paul Tillich, who sought to outline the gospel of Jesus Christ for a post-religious age. Writing from just after World War Two through the tumultuous Sixties, Tillich aimed to translate Biblical concepts into the language of a world whose faith in God had been shaken to its very foundations. In one of his great, ringing passages, Paul Tillich preached the following: “Sometimes a light breaks into our darkness, and it is as though a voice were saying: ‘You are accepted. You are accepted by that which is greater than yourself and the name of which you do not know. Do not try to do anything now; perhaps later you will do much. Do not seek anything; do not intend anything; do not perform anything. Simply accept the fact that you are accepted’.”

In the writings of Paul Tillich, the interchangeable terms “acceptance” and “unconditional love” appear over and over again. He specifically used the term “unconditional love” as a modern translation—a new synonym—for the Biblical term grace. “Unconditional love” means “the grace of God.”

Grace is the undeserved, unearned, unmerited love that the children of God receive from their Creator. Grace is the love of the father who keeps the candle flame of love burning for his wayward, prodigal son. Grace is the care of the Good Shepherd who leaves the 99 members of his flock on the hillside pasture and goes out searching for the one lost sheep. Grace is the Lord Jesus Christ nailed to a heavy, rough wooden cross, managing to say with virtually his dying breath, “Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing.” (Luke 23:34)

You and I depend upon the grace of God in the same way a skydiver depends upon his backup parachute. Grace is the forgiveness of our sins. Grace is the assumption of our debts.  Grace is the mending of our brokenness.  Grace is the affirmation of our identities. Grace is the restoration of our relationships. And the modern way of saying “grace” is “unconditional love.”

I think Paul Tillich would have been intrigued by the promotional blurb for the movie. It reads: “From the moment Ben and Sera (the two main characters) connect, they form a unique bond based on unconditional acceptance and mutual respect that will change each of them forever.”

What does our culture mean by “unconditional acceptance”? This motion picture provides us with some vivid insights about how we have come to understand that term.

Leaving Las Vegas is, quite simply, a portrait of two individuals in hell. Ben is a successful executive for a Hollywood film company, and he has it all—the BMW, the split-level home with a swimming pool, the gorgeous blonde wife and the terrific son. Or at least, he had these blessings until he drank them away. When we first meet him, Ben is being fired from his job because of his alcoholism. His wife has already left him, and has taken their child with her.

We don’t know any of Ben’s reasons for wasting his opportunities, and we are not let in on them as the story unfolds. And that’s a good thing, really, for every man who has ever drained away his future at the bottom of a bottle has done so with all the most plausible excuses in the world. All we know about Ben is that he has lost his will to live, and he has made up his mind to move to Las Vegas and drink himself to death. There in the glittering city of the night, he meets Sera, a young prostitute who has seen it all—at least twice. He hires her—not to have sex, but just to talk. And this is how their relationship begins.

By and by, Sera’s pimp meets with a violent death—and so she becomes her own boss. At the same time, her affection for Ben grows to the point where she invites him to move in with her. They are a very odd couple indeed, with Ben drinking himself into total oblivion every day and Sera going out to walk the streets every night. Her customers range from polite-seeming, well-dressed men to vicious creeps, and she comes out much the worse for wear.

At one point early in their cohabitation, Ben spells out his condition for staying with Sera: “You must never, never ask me to stop drinking.” In her turn, Sera expects Ben to not interfere with her performance of her chosen career.

What binds them together is their shared, desperate sense of loneliness. Some claim that a primary motive of alcoholics is to distance themselves from other people. Likewise, selling sex is a way to de-personalize this most holy of our physical gifts from God. Both Ben and Sera have made up their minds that—as far as the rest of the human race is concerned—they’re simply going to “check out”.

As tough as it is to watch, Leaving Las Vegas is a film with a heart. Before long, you care about these people. You want them to turn their lives around. You really believe that they love each other—and some of their tender moments together are achingly romantic. Yet the story is too realistic to have a sugary happy ending pasted onto it. The sad truth is that most people who set out to destroy themselves eventually succeed.

What happens? After a month of steady binge drinking, Ben finally defeats his body’s ability to absorb massive quantities of alcohol. Binge drinkers usually die either from acute liver failure or from aneurysms of the esophagus or the stomach, literally drowning in their own blood. Sera is there when Ben dies, after he mutters something about “putting us asunder”—a tragic echo of Jesus’ words so familiar to us from the church’s marriage ceremony.

We hear Sera’s perspective on her relationship with Ben through vignettes of her speaking to a therapist. These are her last lines: “I think the thing is, we both realized that we didn’t have that much time, and I accepted him for who he was. And I didn’t expect him to change. And I think he felt that for me, too. I liked his drama. And he needed me. I loved him.”

And that, my friends, is what our culture means by “unconditional acceptance”—to accept someone for who they are, and never expect them to change.

Mark my words: this is not—repeat—this is not grace. This is not the love God gives us, and it is not the love God calls us to have for one another.

The untold story of Leaving Las Vegas is all the other people like Ben and Sera. I think most of us would be shocked to learn how many real lives are careening out of their orbits. Not just in Las Vegas, but right here in our own pleasant neighbourhoods, people are perishing from loneliness and the hopelessness of thinking that no one really knows them—and that if they did know them, they wouldn’t like them.

Feeling so vulnerable—feeling so desperate for companionship—too many of us expect too little of others, just as we expect too little of ourselves. God loves real people who are sinking into the muck just like Ben and Sera.

The grace of God is the love of a parent who wants the very best for his or her beloved child. Can a loving parent stand by dully while his or her children let the promise of life slip through their fingers? No way!

To be sure, 1 Corinthians 13 tells us that love “bears all things, believes all things, hopes all things, endures all things” (v. 7). But does love not care about such things? Of course it does. Love cares about what happens!

Our culture has an expression that perfectly describes the commitment level of too many modern relationships: “I’ll always be there for you.” That’s great. But there is more to love than just being in the room when a loved one manages to commit suicide. Love also must be willing to intervene for the sake of the loved one.

Here is the crux of what the apostle Paul was getting at: “while we were still weak, at the right time Christ died for the ungodly … God proves his love for us in that while we still were sinners Christ died for us.” (Rom. 5:6, 8)

This is love’s intervention into the destructive pattern of sin. Through Jesus Christ we have been given emergency access to the grace of God. Simply being there for his children was not enough for the God of infinite love. God has always been—and always will be—there for us. God loves us as we are; that’s a given. But in his boundless compassion, God saw that our persistence in sinning required a more dramatic, more effective action on his part. And so God intervened.

Can we learn something from movies like Leaving Las Vegas? You bet we can! The number one lesson we can learn is how lost we are without the love of God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.

But the good news is that this loving God is capable of turning any life around—no matter how messed up it is—through the transforming power of unconditional love. And that’s what it really means.



* “Leaving Las Vegas” is apparently unavailable on Netflix Canada. However, if you’re an Amazon Prime member, you should be able to view it there: https://www.amazon.ca/Leaving-Las-Vegas-Nicolas-Cage/dp/0792838068


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