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He descended to the dead

February 22nd, 2009 by isaac · 3 Comments

If you want to see me preach this sermon, follow this link to Park View Mennonite

Title: “He descended to the dead…”
Date: February 22, 2009
Texts: Psalm 88; Mark 9:2-10; John 20:24-28
Place: Park View Mennonite (Harrisonburg, VA)

“If I ever become a saint, I will surely be one of darkness.”

~ Mother Teresa

I used to live in a house of hospitality in Durham NC called The Rutba House. As we got to know our neighbors, we decided to invite them over for a weekly Bible study. One evening Michael joined us. He was new to the neighborhood. We settled into our chairs in the living room. I can’t remember what Bible passage we were studying that day. But I do remember that someone got us started talking about hell. It wasn’t me, that’s for sure. If I had it my way, we’d never talk about such things.

Michael had been quiet most of the time, sitting there while the rest of us argued about hell. Finally he leaned forward in his chair and spoke up. “Hey, I’ve been there.” We all looked at him curiously. He saw the questions on our faces and continued: “That’s where I grew up… hell. You don’t know nothing about hell. I’ll tell you about this place of weeping and gnashing of teeth.”

Michael went on to tell us about what it was like to grow up in a house of prostitution, an urban brothel. We heard the sounds and sights of hell echo through his memories of childhood: the gnashing teeth of an addict’s withdrawals, and the cries of weeping women. Weeping and gnashing of teeth.

He told us about the terror of, as a child, waking up from a nap and seeing a dead man lying on the floor. The victim of a drug overdose. “That’s hell,” Michael told us. That day I learned that the flames of hell flicker among the land of the living. For many, hell is a place on earth.

I thought Jesus was supposed to save us from this kind of living hell. I thought the resurrection wiped away the pain and agony of the cross. Evil is supposed to be conquered, right? I thought Easter made Good Friday irrelevant—just a phase to pass through, yesterday’s news. As some preachers like to put it, “It’s Friday, but it’s alright, Sunday’s a coming.” Don’t worry. Sure, it’s bad. But all of this is of no consequence, no lasting effects, it doesn’t matter. All will be forgotten, erased, flushed down the toilet of history.

That’s how we want the story to go. We like an ending that makes all the bad stuff go away so we don’t have to think about it any more. But Jesus won’t let us do that. Look at what happens in our story of John 20, when the resurrected Jesus appears to the disciples. I’ll read verses 26 and 27 again:

Although the doors were shut, Jesus came and stood among them and said, ‘Peace be with you.’ Then he said to Thomas, ‘Put your finger here and see my hands. Reach out your hand and put it into my side. Do not doubt, but believe.’

Ok. Something strange is going on here: Jesus invites Thomas to put his hand into the wound in Jesus’ side! That sounds like a bad idea, a little too uncomfortable. When I was a kid, I was trying to whittle a piece of wood with my new pocketknife and I ended up sticking the knife right through the palm of my hand. The last thing in the world I wanted was for my mom to stick her finger in there. It was bad enough that she tried to clean out the hole with hydrogen peroxide.

Anyhow, when there’s something strange and confusing going on in the text, I usually fumble around with my Greek New Testament and pretend I know what it says. So, I did that. And guess what I found? The Greek word for “into” really means “into.” Good thing I checked.

Apparently the resurrected Jesus still has a hole in his side, not to mention his hands. The resurrected body of Jesus still bears the marks of his torture and death. Nothing is forgotten. His very body remembers the agony of the cross. Resurrection doesn’t erase the pain of the past. Easter doesn’t make Good Friday go away. The wounds are there. The body of Jesus still bears wounds, open wounds, deep wounds, painful wounds. Blaise Pascal once wrote, “Christ is in agony until the end of the world.” He must get that insight from this story.

We would be happier with the transfigured Jesus from Mark 9—a shiny Jesus, spectacular, exciting, dazzling, a delightful feast for the eyes. Peter is awestruck. And he does what we would want to do. He wants to hang out up on the mountain with the shiny Jesus. “Peter said to Jesus, ‘Rabbi, it is good for us to be here. Let us put up three shelters—one for you, one for Moses and one for Elijah’” (Mark 9:6). It’s good to be here, Peter says. Let’s build a shack! We can hang out, just us, talk about important stuff—the nature of God, the problem of evil, enjoy some fellowship, maybe even bake some scones.

You have to remember what happens right before the Transfiguration. Jesus tells Peter and the others that the cross looms on the horizon. That sounds like bad news to Peter. So he takes Jesus aside and suggests some other possibilities, a way to bypass suffering and the cross. And how does Jesus respond? He looks at Peter and say, “Get behind me Satan!”

But Peter doesn’t learn. He again tries to keep Jesus from his journey of suffering and death. Hanging out in the shack sounds like a much better plan. That’s where Jesus really belongs—in transfigured glory, up on a mountain, a holy place, a retreat center, away from all the mess down below. Wrong again, Peter. But we can’t blame him. We want the same things. Peter speaks for us, and our religious sensibilities.

I should say, Peter speaks for me. I’m a pastor after all; I work for the church. My vocation depends on setting up a shack where people can hang out with Jesus. Every week I say the same sort of thing as Peter: “Jesus, it is very good that we are here, let me set things up so we can stick around for a while.” At Chapel Hill Mennonite Fellowship, we have a very comfortable religious experience—nice wooden pews with comfortable padding, candles, good singing. We don’t have scones, but we do have cookies sometimes after our worship service. You all are more than welcome to join us anytime you want, just a 4 hour drive south.

But Jesus doesn’t stay up on the mountain. Peter doesn’t get a chance to build his shacks. The transfigured and glorified Jesus heads down, down the mountain, on a pilgrimage to the cross, a journey into darkness, a descent to the dead. “…he descended to the dead.”

That’s one of the lines of the Apostle’s Creed. We just confessed it together a few moments ago. The Creed has its problems; all good Mennonites know that. The biggest problem for us is that it leaves out the life of Jesus. It goes from “he was born of the virgin Mary” to “he suffered under Pontius Pilate,” and there’s a tiny comma where the life of Jesus should be. That’s too bad.

But the Creed also highlights important parts of God’s story, key moments in the drama of how God saves us. He descended to the dead. That’s one of those key moments, one that we don’t talk about too much. Most of the time we talk about the death of Jesus as something that happens for our sins. But what about Jesus’ journey into the furthest depths, the dark recesses of the dead?—what Hamlet called, “the undiscovered country, from whose bourn no traveller returns.”

Jesus dies. He descended to the dead. For three days he abides with the dead. “My God, my God, why hast thou forsaken me?” Jesus says from the cross. Forsaken, yet a display of God’s love. Abandoned by God, yet always praying to God—“my God,” he says. He descended to the death.

Psalm 88 is also a prayer from the dead, a prayer that Jesus could easily pray: “I am counted among those who go down to the pit, I am…like those forsaken among the dead…. Friend and neighbor shun me; my companions?—darkness.” The end. The Psalmist takes us into the darkness and leaves us there. Michael’s voice comes back to me at this point: “I’ve been there. That’s where I grew up… in hell.” And I also hear the voice of Jesus, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?”

He descended to the dead. That’s good news; even if it sounds a little strange. Jesus is familiar with abandonment. Jesus intimately knows the darkness. Jesus knows the cold companionship of darkness. The furthest reaches of despair are not foreign to God. Christ has traveled to the far country, the ends of the earth, into the depths of the graves. Christ has gone to hell, to be with my friend Michael. In Jesus, God has drawn near to those whom the world has abandoned. He descended to the dead.

Now, what does this mean for us? To some of you, this is good news because you are in darkness; you are familiar with agony and pain; you know abandonment. Maybe you’ve seen too many friends die, and now you are alone. Maybe you feel the agony of an estranged relationship, a companion who has left you in darkness. Maybe it’s been a while since you’ve felt God’s presence.

Well, the good news is that God is in the darkness too—in the silence, in the darkness. Nothing shall separate us from the love of God, no height nor depth. God’s love goes all the way down: he descended to the dead. The temptation is to run. When you feel empty, the temptation is to fill yourself with whatever you can—a quick fix. But that only leads to more trouble.

Learn to wait, practice patience, be where you are, talk to the first person who crosses your path. Let go of what you thought God looks like, and instead see what turns up at your doorstep. Give up your desperate search for what you thought would make you happy, and instead take a second look at the boring stuff and the normal people. God can show up just about anywhere; Christ is known to show up in unexpected places and with unexpected people, even among the dead, even in the darkness, even with the abandoned.

Let me tell you a story about Mother Teresa. In an interview many years ago, Dan Rather asked Teresa about her prayer life. He said, “Mother Teresa, you are a woman of prayer; what is it that you say to God when you pray?” She answered: “Well, I don’t say anything; I just listen.” Dan Rather followed with another question: “What is it that God says to you during prayer?” Teresa thought for a moment: “He doesn’t say anything. He just listens.”

Teresa and God, sitting together in silence, enjoying each other’s presence… communion in the dark.

He descended to the dead. I have to take you one more step into this good news, and this is because we’re Mennonites. We believe that Jesus’ life is an invitation. Not only does Christ display God’s love for the world, but Jesus also shows us the life that is truly life. Through the power of the Holy Spirit, we follow in the way of Jesus. But what might it mean to follow Jesus’ pilgrimage to the dead? He descended to the dead. But do we have to?

The best way I can talk about what it means to descend to the dead is to tell a story, another story about Mother Teresa. It goes something like this. Many years ago a reporter was interviewing Teresa. The reporter asked her how she found the strength and hope to work day after day in the middle of so much suffering, so much death, so much darkness. Mother Teresa thought for a moment and said,

One day a woman was brought to us in Calcutta. She had a very bad case of leprosy. Her body was covered with sores. So, I sat with her and started to clean her. I began with her arms. I worked my way down to her hands. And when I reached her hand, I saw a terrible sore in the middle of her hand. It looked like it went all the way through. I stopped and thought to myself, My Lord has holes in his hands. Then I prayed, “Lord, is this you?”

You see, Mother Teresa followed the way of Jesus. She descended to the dead. And what did she find? She found Jesus. Among the dying, among the poor, among the abandoned, she discovered the wounded Christ, bodies with open wounds. Remember what we learned from the resurrection story in John’s Gospel: When Jesus appeared to the disciples, he invited Thomas to put his hand into the wound in Jesus’ side.

He descended to the dead, and Teresa followed him. Where is your Calcutta? Where do the dead live in Harrisonburg? Does hell have an address here in town? Today, this week, Jesus offers you the same invitation he offered Thomas, the same invitation he offered Teresa: touch his wounds and you will find true life, abundant live, overflowing life, eternal life. The body of Christ, broken for you. The love of God, poured out for the world.

When you descend to the dead, you may find our resurrected Savior. And you shall know him by his wounds. Just like Thomas did. Then with Thomas you can say, “My Lord and my God!”

Prayer, Hymnal # 676:

O God, you withdraw from our sight that you may be known by our love. Help us to enter the cloud where you are hidden and surrender all our certainty to the darkness of faith in Jesus Christ. Amen.

Tags: sermons

3 responses so far ↓

  • 1 rommel // Apr 11, 2009 at 9:29 pm

    beautiful message

  • 2 Bazwaldina // Oct 3, 2010 at 11:29 pm

    Wonderful message! God bless you!

  • 3 isaac // Oct 5, 2010 at 5:43 am

    Bazwaldina and Rommel, thanks for reading my sermon.