Harrowing Of Hell
March 29, 2024

Come, Kneel, and Allow Jesus to take the Burden

The Rev. Lex Breckinridge

To watch the sermon click here.

Lord Jesus Christ, you stretched out your arms of love on 

the hard wood of the cross that everyone might come within 

the reach of your saving embrace:  So clothe us in your Spirit 

that we, reaching forth our hands in love, may bring those 

who do not know you to the knowledge and love of you; for 

the honor of your Name.  Amen. 

On this night, we encounter a great mystery of our faith. How is it that the killing of one man two thousand years ago becomes the event through which you and I might be delivered from the power of sin and death? How is it that this one man hanging on a cross in a remote part of the Roman Empire two thousand years ago becomes the lens through which we have a glimpse of life with God, both in this age and in the age to come? How was the power of God so at work in this man’s life and in his death that through our trust in him we might be carried along with him back to the heart of God? All of which is to ask, “What is God up to on this night?” 

To get a clue, we might go back to the beginning of John’s gospel where he tells another Creation story. “In the beginning,” it goes. Sound familiar?  

 In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God. He was in the beginning with God. All things came into being through him, and without him not one thing came into being. John 1:1-2. 

This Creation story is the story of the Word made flesh, the Divine Logos, which is Greek for “Word”, giving birth to the World.  God speaks the world into being. For John, this is the decisive event in history. The twenty-five-cent word for this is “incarnation,” meaning enfleshment. God doesn’t stand outside and apart from the world. God is in the World; God is in every nook and cranny of everything. Everywhere we look, there is God. 

What’s your image of God? As children, we might have thought of God as being an old man with a white beard sitting up on a cloud or high on a mountain hurling thunderbolts and generally just being ticked off. Of course, that’s not the God of the Bible. That’s Zeus, the head god of Greek mythology. Or we might think of God as a kind of divine Santa Claus. You know, he’s making a list and checking it twice; he’s gonna find out who’s been naughty and nice! God as the ultimate reward/punisher. A God who demands obedience as the price of love. But that’s not Biblical either. Or we might instead think of God as a purely abstract concept, out there somewhere in the ether, an invisible hand to whom we might occasionally direct a prayer when we need something but who otherwise pretty much leaves us alone. That’s also not Biblical. On the other hand, straight from the Bible in the conclusion of John’s Creation story is an image of God we can hang onto. 

And the Word became flesh and lived among us, and we have seen his glory, the glory as of a father’s only son, full of grace and truth…From his fullness we have all received, grace upon grace. The law indeed was given through Moses; grace and truth came through Jesus Christ. No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. John 1:14; 16-17. 

 Want to see God? Look at Jesus. Look at his humble birth, his life and ministry, his sacrificial death, his resurrection in power, his ascension in glory. He was a teacher of wisdom, a bearer of mercy and compassion. He rejected power and was instead a humble servant. He offered hospitality and welcome to the poor, the sick, the stranger, to the ones whom polite society rejected and despised. He held up a mirror to the powerful insiders and invited them to move from the head of the table to the foot where they might learn humility and vulnerability and thereby move a little closer to God. And Jesus experienced the full range of human emotion. He ate and drank and celebrated with friends and strangers at table. He went to weddings and funerals. He greeted people in their homes and in the market. He told stories called parables that were poignant and penetrating and often humorous. He grieved and wept at the death of his friend, Lazarus. He acted out in righteous anger when he found corruption and greed in the Temple. He worried over the fate of his beloved Jerusalem because of this corruption and greed. On his final night on the planet, the prayers he said were both filled with fear and courage. “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” And in his final moments of life, he knew the most profound feeling of loneliness and abandonment. On Golgotha, he cried, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” 

All of which is to say, that Jesus of Nazareth was a full and complete human being. And in his full and complete humanity, he makes God known to us. What a concept, right? God is not an abstraction “out there” somewhere. God is as close to us as the fully human Jesus. God knows our human pain, God knows our joy, our sadness, our loneliness, our heartbreak. God knows, to the depths of God’s own heart, what it means to be fully alive. And God knows what it means to one day die. Jesus, the Word incarnate, binds God to the everydayness of human life. 

I want to go back for a moment to the prayer that Jesus prayed that night in the Garden just before he was betrayed by his friend, Judas. He knew what was coming. He knew that his work was such a threat to the powers of the world that it would be the death of him. And knowing that, he prays, “Father, if it be possible, let this cup pass from me.” He shares with God the deepest desire of his heart. I don’t want to die! He offers all this up to God… and then lets it go. “But not my will, yours be done,” he says. In this perfect surrender, in this perfect sacrifice, he perfectly aligns his will with God’s will. To my mind, this is the most profound prayer that has ever been prayed. 

What happens next is equally extraordinary. We know that the two primal responses to danger and conflict are fight or flight. As Judas and the authorities come for him, Jesus could easily have said to himself, “My work is too important for it to be cut short. I’ll run away from this and carry on another day.” Or, he could have fought for his life. That’s what Peter, the always impetuous Peter, did. He drew his sword and sliced off Malchus’s ear. Jesus wasn’t having that either. In fact, he rebuked Peter and healed Malchus’s ear. Instead of fleeing or fighting, Jesus embraced the conflict. With complete trust in his Father’s will, in complete trust that there was a divine purpose underneath all of this, a purpose which perhaps he couldn’t even see, he allowed himself to be arrested, taken before the Roman Governor, tried and convicted and the nailed, as our opening prayer said, to the hard wood of the cross. 

Can we know the divine purpose that’s at work here? Here’s what I think is happening that day on that cross. Jesus, with his arms spread wide open, is taking all the evil and sin and hatred and brokenness and sadness in the world into himself. And as we will see the day after tomorrow, all that sin and evil and hatred and brokenness and sadness will be transformed and redeemed in the power of the Resurrection. Because this is what God does. Remember back to the Creation story at the beginning of John’s gospel?  

No one has ever seen God. It is God the only Son, who is close to the Father’s heart, who has made him known. 

This is what God does. God takes all the world’s pain and evil and sin and transforms and redeems it through the power of love. That is, if we permit it. We have a role to play too. 

Let’s bring it down to the personal level. Doyt preached a fine sermon on Palm Sunday in which he identified the great human dilemma. We do the things we don’t want to do, and we don’t do the things we know we ought to do. We can’t help ourselves, as mightily as we might try. The Apostle Paul also identified this profound dilemma. In his letter to the Romans he confessed: 

For I know that nothing good dwells within me, that is, in my flesh. I can will what is right, but I cannot do it. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I do. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I that do it, but sin that dwells within me.  

So I find it to be a law that when I want to do what is good, evil lies close at hand. For I delight in the law of God in my inmost self, but I see in my members another law at war with the law of my mind, making me captive to the law of sin that dwells in my members. Wretched man that I am! Who will rescue me from this body of death? Thanks be to God through Jesus Christ our Lord! Romans 7:18-25 

What’s the way through this dilemma, asked Doyt? Fall to your knees and pray. Surrender. Give it up to God. It’s too big for us to handle. We alone can’t fix our failings, our brokenness, our anxieties.  Paul recognized this. The Law, as important as it is, isn’t sufficient to save us from ourselves and from all our worst instincts and impulses and base desires. Nor is the Law sufficient to contain our pain and our suffering and our fears. We need something larger than ourselves, something outside ourselves. We need Jesus. In tonight’s reading from the Letter to the Hebrews, we are assured that in Jesus we have a “great high priest” who knows us better than we know ourselves. 

For we do not have a high priest who is unable to sympathize with our weaknesses, but we have one who in every respect has been tested as we are, yet without sin. Let us therefore approach the throne of grace with boldness, so that we may receive mercy and find grace to help in time of need. Hebrews 4:14-16 

What a friend we have in Jesus, as the old hymn puts it. 

My dear mother-in-law was a devoted French Roman Catholic. In times of pain or stress or uncertainty she would say, “I’m offering it up to the Dear Lord.” I loved that. Offering it up. Making an offering to God of our troubles, our fears, our suffering, our pain. Making an offering to God of the things we despise in ourselves. Making an offering to God of the hurts and resentments that have been placed on us by others. Making an offering of all of this to the One who knows us better than we know ourselves. And let me tell you how important it is that we offer our pain and suffering and bitterness and hurts to God. Because it is a fundamental truth of human life that if our pain is not transformed, we will inevitably transmit it. Let me say that again. If we do not allow God to transform our pain, we will inevitably transmit it. Our pain is too great for us to bear so we will inevitably project it outside ourselves onto others. This is simply the human condition. 

In a few moments, the cross will be brought in and set before us. Make time and make space to contemplate this great sign of God’s love for the world and for you. Imagine the arms of Jesus opened wide to take in all the hurt and pain and sin and evil in the world. What is it in you that needs healing on this night? What is it in you that’s causing pain and anguish or fear or worry? Is it a broken relationship, the loss of a loved one or a friend, a conflict in the family or at work? Is it an addiction to alcohol or drugs or sex or shopping or toxic relationships? Are you feeling lost or without purpose, wandering in the wilderness, not sure where or even how to take the next step? My dear friends, whatever it is that’s troubling you on this night, offer it up. Surrender it. Let it go. Bring it to the foot of the cross. Come and kneel before the cross in devotion and prayer and allow Jesus to take the burden from you.  

The day after tomorrow, we will witness that the pain and suffering Jesus experienced on the cross has been transformed in the power of the resurrection into healing and new life. When we bring our own pain and suffering and lay it at the foot of the cross, we will begin the process of God transforming that, and us, in the power of the Resurrection, into new life. This is the work of salvation. The Latin root word for salvation is “salvus.” It means health, healing, wholeness. And health, healing and wholeness are here tonight for each of us, right now, at the foot of the cross, waiting for you. This is what Jesus is offering you. So now is the time. Now is the place. Bring all your hurts, all your fears, all that needs to be healed, and offer it up. Offer it up to the One whose arms of love are stretched out on the hard wood of the cross.