Harrowing Of Hell
August 23, 2020

Binding and Loosing

The Rev. Doyt L. Conn, Jr.

I probably thought more about Maxwell Smart while on vacation this summer than I should have. You may remember Maxwell Smart, secret agent, who worked for CONTROL, to keep KAOS at bay. He was the secret agent played by Don Adams in the 1960’s TV show GET SMART; and it was his mission to thwart various plots spun by KAOS…an international organization of evil, who sought world destruction or, alternatively, world domination, depending on the week. 

The Yellowstone River is the link between me and Maxwell Smart, and I suppose most importantly, KAOS & chaos: his was spelled “kaos;” mine “chaos.” It was chaos that sat center of mind as we paddle boarded down the Yellowstone River. And I suppose it was chaos that was center of mind for Jesus as he sat with his disciples at the head waters of the river Jordan in Caesarea Philippi. That is where we find them in the Gospel of Matthew today, but we’ll get to them in a minute.

First, to Yellowstone River and chaos. Here is the connection: while paddle boarding down the Yellowstone River is beautiful and serene and challenging; it is also dangerous. And the interesting thing is that the danger is not most dangerous in the places that look dangerous, but actually, at the edges, in places that look serene.

The Yellowstone has some pretty tricky rapids that we love trying to master standing on our paddle boards. It is sort of a competition to see who doesn’t wipe out. And you can bet I love being in the mix with my son and my nieces and nephews. But I also seek to stay standing on my board as the sentry calling out the eddies, I see lurking at the edges of the rapids and riffles.

It is the eddies, so calm and even, that my brother Charlie, who has been a fishing guide on the Yellowstone River 25 years, calls the boat sinkers. He has seen it happen and has known more than one person who has lost their lives in these watery sinkholes.

And so, as the Dad, floating down the river I am highly vigilant about these pools that sit at the edges of the rapids. And I sound like a broken record (I am told) as I am shouting out, “See the eddy on the left, see the eddy on the right … “ and I have to shout, because these eddies live near where the river speeds up or changes direction, and that is when it gets loud, and quick, and you have to be on your toes. 

Chaos loves that. It doesn’t show up when things are laconic and predictable, it shows up when things are moving fast, and changing. Chaos sits, purring at the edge, seductive. Next to the rocks and rapids, the eddy looks like the safe water. But it is not. In fact, my injunction to the paddle boarders is always stay in the fast-moving water…it is safer than the eddies.

C. S. Lewis in his book The Screwtape Letters, warned that chaos is the devil’s playground, it is the antechamber to hell, or as Jesus calls it the gates of Hades. In chapter six Screwtape, the name Lewis uses for the devil, counsels his nephew Wormwood, to keep the patient, that is the soul they are trying to win for hell, in a maximum state of uncertainty at all times. 

Continuously sowing seeds of doubt in an innocuous, maybe even innocent, way…in a way that looks more like a calm pool, than a rushing rapid. Doubt doesn’t try to defend itself; to be what it is all doubt needs to do is knock you off balance, like a rock below the water line, or the calm surface of a sink hole.

I’ll give you an example I heard over the radio the other day: In response to a reporter who said: “There’s no evidence of widespread voter fraud,” an official replied, “There is no evidence that there is not either.”

It was the perfect Screwtape reply… uncertainty, doubt, confusion, chaos… it is shifting sands, to which we are inured because we Christians have a sure foundation. A rock. The person of Jesus Christ. He empowers us by reminding us that we have the keys to the kingdom of heaven, and because we possess these keys, we have the power to bind the bad and loose the good.

What are those keys? The life of Jesus; knowing his life; pattern matching your life to his life. Jesus is the key, and the first keyhole you should seek to unlock is your own heart. And when your heart is opened to the reality that this is God’s world, God made it, God is trustworthy, then the bad is so obvious, it is so self-centered; and the good is so obvious, it is that which blesses the other.

We are agents of Jesus. We have the keys to the kingdom, and that empowers us to hold closed the gates of hell.

We find Jesus in the Gospel today finishing up his vacation in Caesarea Philippi, north of Galilee, in what we know today as Syria. Caesarea Philippi was a city that sat at the foot of Mount Hermon, the tallest mountain in that part of the world, and at the time a spiritual center for Greco-Roman culture. There was a large cave there in the side of a mountain, from which, at least during Jesus’ time, a tributary of the Jordan River issued forth.

When Jesus and the disciples visited in the city it was under construction. Herod Philippi, one of King Herod’s sons, was building a massive palace and had recently completed a temple to Pan,the Greek god of the forest and the underworld, Hades.

So there Jesus is sitting with his disciples in the midst of pagan shrines,

next to a river, probably with some eddies in it, and here he does what he often does when he is teaching his disciples; he uses the context in which they are placed to support the point he is trying to make.

Imagine Jesus pointing to Mount Hermon and saying to Peter: “You are the ‘rock.’”  Imagine Jesus pointing to the cave where water was bubbling up from the underworld, and then spilling out into a river, with eddies lulling at the edge of rapids waiting to suck something innocent into the abyss below. With that as the background Jesus says: “I will build my church on you, and against it the gates of Hell will not prevail.” 

Imagine how real that felt to the disciples…The power of Hell, the realm of Pan, the rising water, the swirling eddies, the chaos… and Jesus’ words, “These will not prevail against you!” And he continues: “Here is why -because I have given you the keys to the kingdom of heaven, you have the power to  bind the bad and loose the good.

Those keys Jesus gave the disciples have been passed down to you and me. And so, I ask you today, what do you need to bind that is bad? Do you need to walk away from an unhealthy relationship? Do you need to consume less media? Do you need to name a seemingly innocuous pool of chaos in your life?

And what do you need to loose that is good? Your voice? Your children to be adults? Your wealth to be Christ’s agent in the world?

We live in fast-moving waters; and at the edges chaos lurks. At the edges of peaceful marches, windows are broken. At the edges of the day, as night sets in, chaos unfolds her wings, and people are hurt. Police are hurt, protesters are hurt. Chaos is friends of the anarchist and, in some cases, the politician as well.

Chaos is the answer when ideas are weak. Chaos is the response, when the point is personal power and not communal well-being. Chaos is the answer when the gates of hell don’t budge from the inside, so chaos lobs uncertainty, doubt, and confusion over the iron bars that keep her at bey.

And it is our duty as agents of Jesus to stand, to keep our balance, to shout out warnings, directions, and safe harbors, because we are people who are providentially placed in the world right now to bind the bad and loose the good.

Here is how I want you to prepare so as to loose the good. Practice your Christianity. I know it seems sort of passive in the face of chaos and violence. But make no mistake about it, it is your worship of God, it is your daily prayers, it is the discipline of your religious practices that make you powerful and capable of standing on the rock and holding closed the gate of hell.

If you want something specific, then join me in saying the Daily Office every morning. We are going to start this practice intentionally on September 27th and practice together until Nov. 1st, the Feast of All Saints.  Be on the lookout for more information on how you can be involved. It is one way to loose the good.

Here is one way to bind the bad. Crush isolation. Chaos loves isolation. I am not just talking about the isolation that comes through the plague COVID; I am talking about the isolation that keeps us mute from wondering out loud about something that troubles our mind. Chaos loves uncertainty and insecurity that ties our tongue. This is how chaos keeps the kingdom keys from the keyhole of our hearts.

If you have a thought or a worry or a concern; if there is something troubling your spirit, or is causing you consternation; if you have a sense of how something should be, or if you were told something should be some way, and it isn’t, then talk to a person of faith, a spiritual friend; and not in a way that seeks to convince, or reinforce your opinion, or shift someone else’s thinking to your preferred pattern of thought, but in earnest wondering as to why that which troubles your spirit is doing so in earnest wondering about what God wants.

Chaos hates authentic, honest, conversation, about the state of our hearts. We are in fast-moving waters. There is pandemic, and social reckoning, and now a wildly divisive political environment. It may seem like there are sinkholes all around us, but stay in the fast moving waters of the Gospel… and keep your eyes on Jesus.

You are not alone. You were made for this moment. Stand upon the rock; you have the balance ability because Jesus is your center of gravity. He is the keys you hold in your hands, And while these keys may feel heavy and awkward, like a giant jingling ring on your belt loop, they give you the power, the clarity, the conviction, and grace to bind the bad and loose the good. That is your destiny in the world right now. God has entrusted you with this task.