Harrowing Of Hell
June 7, 2015

Looking at What We Cannot See

Preacher: Charissa Bradstreet

I’m a little weird. I have a really colorful imagination, but instead of imagining wonderful things like a dream vacation, I’ll, out of nowhere, imagine an awful scenario like having all my teeth fall out, or getting attacked by a madman with a machete. And then I’ll get really creative and add more and more detail, creating this very involved nightmare of my own imagination.

This bad habit really flared up after I met my husband. I was so in love—this was unlike anything I had ever experienced before, and that’s when I started imagining being separated by death.

One day I was driving in Madrona, and I suddenly had a daydream about being in a car crash. In my imagination I am lying on the pavement, bloody and surrounded by broken glass and a mangled car. And I know that I have to get word to Ben to let him know that he must go on and that even though other important people in his life have died, my death must not throw him over the edge. He must have faith and trust that someday he will recover from this loss. And so I grab a lipstick, with the last strength I have left and I try to write something on the road that will communicate this important message to him—but in three words or less, because I’m going to die at any minute.

My fears are immensely creative.

Fear seems to be part of the human condition, and one of the things that humans do when they are gripped by fear is to clamp down and to look for ways to control circumstances. We start looking for absolutes, concrete actions, and things to put our faith in, and we avoid uncertainty like the plague.

And the difficult thing about God is that it seems like God is always inviting us into places full of uncertainty. We are invited into mystery, and mystery is just not very concrete.

For example, in today’s reading from 1 Samuel, we see Israel demanding a king. They recognized that Samuel’s sons, who had been made judges over them, were greedy and prone to perverting justice. This made the people anxious for their future and so they looked for a plan that would make things less uncertain. They asked to have a king to govern them, like other nations.

And we see the disappointment of God. It was God’s desire to be their king, to care for and lead them. But the people struggled to put their faith in a king they couldn’t see.

Follow God, you can almost hear them say, and you end up packing up all your belongings in the middle of the night—to follow a man with a staff into the wilderness while fierce chariots, and chariot drivers, come chasing after you. But a king, the people decide, will go before us and fight our battles. A king is what other countries have and it is what we should have—that is the way to resolve our fears.

So God and Samuel tried to warn the people that the thing that kings tend to do is to amass wealth, steal from the people they govern, and turn them into slaves.

God invites us into mystery, and mystery is just not very concrete. We’d rather come up with a plan and develop constructs of control.

Israel did have some good kings, kings they were very proud of. But they also had a whole bunch of really corrupt and greedy kings who lived up to the warnings. It turned out that kings also feel fear and in their fear of losing power, they tend to try to control their subjects, build more and more personal wealth, and lead their people into war. Kings don’t like mystery very much either.

Then, after many years, Jesus arrives on the scene, a very different kind of king. He forgives people of their sins, he casts demons out of people, he heals people of leprosy and many other diseases, he teaches insightfully, and he talks kindly to people.

Here is a God you can see and hear and touch. Here is a God who demonstrates love and care for those who are struggling. At last mystery has become more concrete.

However, when mystery appeared in the form of Jesus and started moving about the land committing acts of love, those in control became preoccupied with all the rules Jesus was breaking. “Why does he eat with tax collectors and sinners? Why don’t his disciples fast like other disciples do? Why do they feed themselves on the Sabbath? Why is he forgiving people?”

Meanwhile fisherman, and lepers, and tax collectors, and prostitutes, and people struggling with demons, and people longing for words of forgiveness were drawn to Jesus.

They experienced healing; they were changed in their encounters with mystery.

But mystery can make others feel like they are losing control, and so we see a group of scribes come down from Jerusalem and declare that Jesus is possessed. They decide that it is a force of evil that has given Jesus power to cast out other demons. They are afraid, and like me their fears are immensely creative.

And what is it that this most unlikely king of kings wants to do with his power? It seems that he wants to be in relationship with those who are afraid, who understand their weakness and vulnerability, and who long to know that they are not alone.

He wants us to know that we are part of his family. He wants to be in relationship with us, and he wants to enable us to be in better relationships with each other.

And better relationships seems to start with stepping outside of rigid boundary lines that separate people from each other.

When people come to Jesus and tell him that his mother and brothers are outside asking for him, he turns to those who are sitting around him, and declares, “Here are my mother and my brothers! Whoever does the will of God is my brother and sister and mother.” The familial ties he refers to come not from the concreteness of DNA and a biological tree. Our brothers and sisters and mothers are those who do the will of God. It casts the net very wide. Entering into this sense of family is entering into mystery.

Mystery over and over again seems to invite us to step away from patterns of fear and habits of control. Yet, strangely, the thought of giving up fear seems to stir up more fear. Because fear is so familiar and so pervasive. We may find ourselves asking, “Who will I be in the absence of my fear? How will I cope without control?”

Mystery asks us to forgo our wild and creative fears to pursue a wild and creative hope, a hope that looks not at what can be seen but at what cannot be seen. It is a tremendous undertaking.

I’ve told this story here once before, but I only told half the story. A couple years ago I was planning my wedding and I was consumed by anxiety about how everything was going to get done. Driving to work one day I felt the familiar churning of my stomach and I recognized that part of myself that I refer to as the “grim-faced pioneer woman” the woman who buckles down, takes control and makes things happen. She’s very effective, but also very lonely. And then it hit me that I was getting married, which meant that I am not actually alone. And then I reflected that not only was I getting married, I was getting married to a man who prays and that meant that we were not alone as a couple. I had Ben and God, and God had both of us. We were going to be okay, and the grim-faced pioneer woman no longer had to carry the weight of it all.

I began to cry with relief. And that’s where I often stop when telling this story. That was a powerful moment all by itself.

What followed was huge. As a gesture of releasing fear and control, so I could welcome help from Ben and God, I physically held out my hand. And yet, I could see that my hand was still in the shape of a fist. For a moment, the tears of relief changed to tears of fear because I saw that it actually felt painful to relax the vice grip that had become so strangely comfortable. I will never forget that intense moment of choosing the unseen and, bit by bit, finally letting go.

Over and over again in my marriage, I seem to rediscover that letting go brings freedom and deepens relationship.

Mystery asks us to look at what we cannot see. It invites us into uncertainty and discomfort—and it offers us freedom and relationship. Where is freedom and relationship calling you?