Harrowing Of Hell
December 23, 2012

In the Name of Jesus

Preacher: The Rev Doyt Conn

I’d like to stand up here this morning and inspire the congregation around issues pertaining to gun control.  I’d like to stand up here this morning and galvanize our common will to serve people who suffer with mental illness. These are topics on our collective mind after all. Because they were two forces that added to the nightmare that took place at Sandy Hook Elementary school in Newtown, Connecticut, a week ago Friday.  Certainly these two things were at play.  And as people of action, and power, and compassion we seek the cause of this horrible crime, to point at it, to pull the string and snip it short, so something like this never happens again.  This is our common prayer.

But it may happen again.  We suspect as much, because the overarching cause was not as simple as an illness that skewed a mind, or an automatic weapon lying around the house. The problem is evil.  Evil visited Sandy Hook Elementary school in the shadowy, ambiguous form of a man lost to himself.  Not simply because of his disease, but because of many, many little things, and many encounters that happened and didn’t happen along the way.

That is where evil lives, in the shadows, in the ambiguity, in the grey waiting to hijack the souls of those who do not know who they are or whose they are.

Christianity confronts evil.

We have a time tested and sturdy theological construction through which to do this.  It is dense, so track with me. You’ll hear words like theodicy, atonement, resurrection, freedom, and redemption.  So stick with me as we tour the house of Christianity.

We begin with the question, “If we have an almighty God why do bad things happen to good people?”  This is the question of theodicy. To get our minds around theodicy we need to approach it from a perspective other than our own.  The challenge it presents us is to see the world from God’s point of view.

There are three keys concepts that help us do this. First, we are God’s children, known and loved.  Second, each one of us has a unique, particular, and specific relationship with God.  And third, we are eternal beings.

The Christian construct that we use to fight evil is built on our belovedness, our primary relationship with God, and our eternity.

We practice this divine perspective through the relationships God has set us in.  In other words, God gives us each to the other so we can know God.  We are, after all, made in the image of God.  So we come to church to practice divine perspective in and with the help of community.  And when our souls are in pain or our perspective unclear this is where we gather.

We did so last Sunday.  We gathered in the Great Hall to hear an answer to the question “Why would an almighty God let such a thing occur?”  But the question wasn’t answered. Something else happened.  Instead, we drew lines connecting our souls to the souls of those in Newtown, CT.  We placed our stories in the context of their stories.  We asked, “How do all of these stories fit into God’s story?”

This is where we come to ask that question, and that question matters. We don’t go to the symphony to ask it or to a club or the gym.  We bring the question here. Here, over time, we ask again and again.  We wrestle with the issue of theodicy.  We learn together, little by little to begin to see from God’s point of view.  And this insight gives us the courage to confront evil.  I’ll say more about that in a minute.

First let me say this, it is a hard thing to understand God’s perspective.  We are small and limited in our facility.  God is enormous beyond the stretch of my hands, beyond anything my mind can imagine.  That is the nature of God. God is capable of having individual relationship with each one of us, and all the billions who live and have lived and will live.  God can do that, but we cannot.  So God comes into the world as a child, as a particular person, who knows life as we know it, and experiences it like we experience it.  Then God teaches us how to live it.  That is what Jesus does. And he does this by always honoring his primary relationship with God, and never denying us the freedom to have or not to have a primary relationship with God.

I’ll give you an example. Jesus is traveling outside the Jewish province of Galilee, in the region of Syria, going to Tyre and Sidon.  A woman recognizes him as a healer and calls out, “Teacher, my daughter has a demon. Cast it out!”  His disciples intervene saying, “No, Jesus, you have come to save the Jews.” Jesus relays this context to the women, who responds, “Even the dogs eat the crumbs under the masters table.”  In that moment Jesus says, “The demon has left your daughter.  She is well.”

Without leaving the path, or changing his disciples’ minds, or denying the woman, Jesus hears and does the will of God.  He acts without inhibiting anyone else’s freedom.  Now this leads him, as we know, to the cross.  Jesus does not deny Judas his freedom, or Herod his freedom, or Pilate his freedom.

And yet in the end, he does something that frees all of us, not just Christians, but every single person that has ever lived.  He smashes death to the ground.   That is the power of the resurrection.  And that is the theology of the atonement.  Jesus gives us access to our truest selves, heart and soul, consolidated beyond the life of our body into something that is bigger and more enduring – our eternal life.

We are made for eternity.  Nothing can separate us from the love of God, not even death.  And this gives us courage to act against evil. That is not to say we will not experience the pangs of grief caused by evil.  We know grief.  What happened at Sandy Hook breaks our hearts.  And we would have given our lives to save just one of those children.

I think of my own life. What if my son were to dash out in front of a bus?  I would dive to save him. I would reach to grab him, giving my life without hesitation.

And if he were to die I would turn my rage on God, as Job did.  I would shake my fist and have knock down drag out brawl with my creator!  God can handle this because God is God.  Grief would break my heart, and God would weep with me, and our primary relationship would endure.

Here is what I know that is even greater.  The primary relationship between God and my son would endure as well. God never for a moment loses connection with his beloved children.  Eternity continues.  And I know at some point when my life steps beyond this bag of flesh, I will see my son again.  That I can be sure of and in the meantime as I move through the grief I would wander toward redemption.  We have seen it over and over again.  Redemption scatters demons and puts evil to flight.

Here is a powerful story to make the point.

It is the story of the young woman in South Africa.  You may have heard it.  She was there doing relief work, living in the community, running a health clinic, teaching people to read.   She was the only child from a family in Indiana.   One night she was murdered.  It broke her parents’ hearts.  They brought her body home and buried her.

And as they sat in grief with their friends in Indiana thoughts of redemption came to mind.  For them redemption meant something particular.  They sold their house and all of their belongings, quit their jobs, and moved to South Africa.  They picked up the work their daughter left unfinished. They carried on and along the way met the man who killed their daughter. They got to know him as he lived behind bars.  Grace appeared and evil fled.

The baby born in the manger, named Jesus, grew to be a man.  John the Baptist baptized him in the river Jordon and then he went out into the desert to fight Satan.  There Jesus defeated Satan.  To use imagery from the Gospel of Mark, Jesus broke into the strong man’s house and bound him up.  Jesus divided Satan’s house so it could not stand.  And when Jesus did Satan’s foot soldiers scattered and one took up resident in the life of a young man in Newtown, CT.

As Jesus followers, we are trained to stamp out remnants of evil. We bring light to darkness. We bring clarity to ambiguity.  And what is that clarity?  What is that light which guides us in the darkness?  It is our belovedness, our particular relationship with God, and our eternity.

We know the end game, which gives us courage to confront evil wherever we find it.

For some of us it may be confronted through guns laws, for others of us by better attending to the needs of the mentally ill.  But whatever your path of redemption, step into that space, and do so with courage and conviction, as a beacon of light, and do so in the name of Jesus.  This is something we are too often afraid to say, but it is utter power in the face of evil – the name of Jesus.  It is the light that casts out the darkness, and makes the demon run.  It is his name, his particular name that represents our particular, powerful relationship with God!

Do what you do in the name of Jesus.  For our relationship with God is what brings joy and delight into our other relationships.  Our relationships with spouses, children, family, friends, and with all people you meet along the way. Do what you do and say what you say in the name of Jesus.  For it may have the power to help a person like poor Adam remember who he is and whose he is.

Maybe millions of such shootings have been thwarted because people like you acted as Christians knowing the end game, knowing we are beloved, knowing we have a particular relationship with God, knowing our eternity.

Have no fear of being broken hearted, for we will be broken hearted again and God still reigns.  And know that those that pass beyond our temporal sightlines are never outside the love of God.  Let that give you the courage, and strength, and conviction to be people who redeem the world.