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The lectionary reading this morning, the fifth Sunday after Epiphany, comes from the Gospel according to Mark, chapter 1, verses 29 – 39.
If you haven’t read the whole Gospel of Mark yet, I highly recommend it to you. In one afternoon it has the potential to blow apart the traditional, safe image of Jesus so many of us in the liberal churches carry around in our heads. Perhaps, Mark was written for people who believe Jesus was the Messiah because he was really, really nice, and performed perfect miracles, and taught people to love one another. Because reading Mark complicates that version of the Good News. Jesus, in Mark, is not a jolly miracle worker. He’s a tortured figure whose true identity can’t be understood in mere miracles, but must be understood in facing suffering – all the way to the cross. At first, in Mark’s gospel no one seems to really understand this, to really know who Jesus is except for Jesus himself – and the demons. Let us now hear the Word of God:
Upon leaving the synagogue, Jesus entered Simon and Andrew's house with James and John. Simon's mother-in-law lay ill with a fever, and immediately they told Jesus about her.
Jesus went over to her, took her by the hand and helped her up, and the fever left her. Then she went about her work.
After sunset, as evening drew on, they brought to Jesus all who were ill and possessed by demons. Everyone in the town crowded around the door. Jesus healed many who were sick with different diseases, and cast out many demons. But Jesus would not permit the demons to speak, for they knew who Jesus was.
Rising early the next morning, Jesus went off to a lonely place in the desert and prayed there. Simon and some companions managed to find Jesus and said, "Everybody is looking for you!"
Jesus said to them, "Let us move on to the neighboring villages so that I may proclaim the Good News there also. That is what I have come to do." So Jesus went into their synagogues proclaiming the Good News and expelling demons throughout the whole of Galilee.
IN THE BEGINNING WAS THE WORD
AND THE WORD WAS WITH GOD
Will you please pray with me? May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable unto you, O God, our Rock and our Redeemer. AMEN.
“Go to Hell.” It’s not the nicest thing to hear from your pastor on Sunday morning. But I assure you, I’m not telling you off. Yes! We’re going there this morning!
This week we’re tackling another congregant-submitted question, this time from our own Toni Snow – Do UCCers believe in the Devil? Perhaps for you, like for Toni, the Devil and Hell were important and ominous features of your childhood religion – used to frighten, intimidate, and punish you into believing and behaving properly. When Toni found First Church she was pleasantly surprised that she was threatened neither with hellfire nor damnation. But one Sunday in worship we were asked to draw pictures of hell and that got Toni wondering. What the heck do we believe about hell anyway? So, this morning I’m going to try to draw a picture of hell – and invite you on a trip down to the underworld.
I’ve always thought that Jesus’ command to us to feed the hungry, clothe the naked, heal the sick, and visit the prisoners is essentially a command to go to hell – to be unafraid to go where the suffering is worst and to serve those imprisoned there. We typically think of hell as being a place that you go only after you die and that you never return from. But many of our spiritual forebears didn’t see the Underworld, the World, and Heaven as being so separated. These realms were connected.
In the Old Testament the most common Hebrew name for the underworld was Sheol. Not all the descriptions of Sheol agree, but what is clear is that Sheol is where the dead go when they die – all of them – the pious and the wicked alike. Being dead in Sheol isn’t very exciting – there’s no punishment, no fire, no torture. Nor is there any reward, you’re sort of just stuck there a silent shadow of your former self. But Sheol is not cut off from the world. Sometimes the living could be swallowed up by the Earth and go down to Sheol before death. Sometimes earth-shattering news could trickle down to Sheol so that even the shades could rejoice there. And the Medium of Endor called the Prophet Samuel’s shade out of Sheol, and Samuel told King Saul about the battle that he would lose the next day. Perhaps the underworld is closer than we think.
And perhaps the devil is too. There’s never any mention of an underworld god or demon or ruler of any sort down in Sheol. In fact, in the Book of Job – one of the few places Satan appears in the Hebrew Scriptures – he doesn’t live in Hell at all, but hangs out with God up in the heavenly court and then comes down to earth to do divinely appointed mischief.
Lasciate ogne speranza, voi ch'intrate. “Abandon All Hope, Ye who Enter Here.” These famous words are inscribed over the gates of hell in Dante’s Inferno. But faith in God is a commitment never to give up hope. Sheol is not the domain of Satan, but belongs to God as much as Heaven and Earth. As the King James Version of the bible translates Psalm 139, “Whither shall I go from thy spirit? or whither shall I flee from thy presence? If I ascend up into heaven, thou art there: if I make my bed in hell, behold, thou art there.”
Over the years, Jewish concepts of Satan and Hell evolved. And by the time we get to the writing of the Gospels – when we hear a reading like we heard this morning – it seems to me that Jesus intimately understands the concept of “hell on earth.” Because when you read the Gospel of Mark it seems as though Jesus is doing spiritual warfare with demons and unclean spirits on a daily basis – demons who have taken up residence inside the bodies of the poor and the afflicted causing pain, disease, mental illness, and suffering.
Jesus faces these demons down. But always at a cost. Jesus isn’t omnipotent in Mark’s Gospel. In our reading, Jesus needs to escape for a while – to rest and pray. And Jesus’ healings in Mark are not perfect – they work, but sometimes they’re a little sloppy. Jesus struggles intimately with these demons who know who he is, who know his destiny and his calling, who know where he is truly headed. Battling hell isn’t easy.
Can you imagine what it would be like to be so intimately known by a demon – from the inside out? Perhaps you can. Perhaps there are some demons in your life who know your name. Demons you are battling at great cost to you. Every encounter with them is like an encounter with hell. We know these demons who know us – the demons of racism and the hell of demonizing unarmed black men in this country, the demons of addiction and the hell of heroin overdoses in MA being higher now than when the state of emergency was declared last year, the demons of oil dependence and the hell of global warming and environmental catastrophe that threatens to swallow us, the demons of depression and the hell of mourning, the demons of Ebola indifference and the Hell of an outbreak in Africa that more than one year later is nowhere near contained – that is still getting worse in some places.
Hell on Earth. Even the word Jesus uses that we translate as hell – the word Gehenna – was actually a place on Earth. Gehenna means the Valley of Hinnom and it was a very famous place just outside the walls of Jerusalem. In terms of geography the valley is the lowest point in Jerusalem. It may have served as a drainage ditch. Possibly people dumped their trash there. Certainly, the valley was used as a cemetery and for tombs. It was a low, dirty, death-filled place. It’s possible that when Jesus talks about going to Gehenna he just means going to the grave instead of going to Hell since he refers to Gehenna not as the opposite of Heaven but the opposite of Life.
But Jesus does refer to fire in Gehenna. It’s been suggested over and over that trash or bodies were burned in Hinnom Valley, but there’s no archeological or historical evidence that this is the case. It’s more likely that the fire was a part of Jesus’ imagination of Gehenna because he knew the stories in the Books of Kings and Chronicles about King Ahaz. King Ahaz of Jerusalem sacrificed some of his children to the foreign god Moloch – possibly a god of the underworld introduced to him through his Assyrian political connections. He sacrificed his children in Valley of Hinnom by burning them alive. Maybe it’s not surprising that Jesus is preoccupied with thoughts of execution and child sacrifice as he presses forward to Jerusalem and to the cross.
Beloved, what if hell isn’t our punishment after life, but our calling in this life? In cultures on every continent there are stories of mortals and gods who go down into the underworld to do battle against the forces of hell and death arrayed there and who return to the earth with powerful gifts. Many of them are female – The Sumerian Goddess Inanna who has the first recorded myth of this type, the famous Greek myth of Persephone and the cause of the seasons, and one of my favorites – the story of Buddhist Bodhisattva Kwan Yin.
Kwan Yin – Goddess of Compassion – was reincarnated into the body of a princess. Her father, the king, wanted her to marry a rich man, but she refused. Out of anger her father killed his daughter. But Kwan Yin, recognizing the suffering that her father was experiencing, forgave him as he strangled her and offered to take on his own karmic debt for her murder. Because of this Kwan Yin was transported to one of the hell realms. Upon her arrival she was overwhelmed with compassion for the suffering souls there. She shone light into the darkness from her lantern, she played music for them, and flowers bloomed wherever she went. She released all the good karma she had accumulated over many lifetimes and freed many of the souls trapped in hell. Hell was becoming like a paradise in her presence. So, Yama, the lord of the underworld, out of fear his realm would be destroyed, released Kwan Yin. But some people say that the Bodhisattva Goddess has vowed never to rest in her work until all souls are freed from suffering, and that she returns to hell often to offer her compassion to those stuck there.
We don’t recite the ancient Christian creeds in our Congregational tradition out of the sound belief that there should be no compulsory tests of faith. But every Sunday millions of Christians around the world recite the fourth century creed called the Apostle’s Creed. If you grew up Catholic, you probably still know it by heart. The Apostle’s Creed says, that Jesus “was crucified, died and was buried; he descended into hell; on the third day he rose again from the dead.” Though there’s nothing about this descent, called the harrowing of hell in the Bible, it was an important belief in the early Christian churches. What did Jesus do down there? I imagine he did what he had always done when he met suffering and death and demons. He preached, and performed exorcisms, and he healed. In Eastern Orthodox icons depicting Jesus’ descent, the gates of Hell have been broken open and knocked down, Jesus walks over the great doors, leading the people trapped there out by the arms.
I think hell is real. Maybe there’s a little bit of hell on earth and a little bit of hell out there in some spiritual realm just as the Kingdom of Heaven is said to be out there, but also right here within us. Maybe that’s why Jesus battled hell in both life and death. Here’s what I believe. Whichever side of the gates of hell we find ourselves on – whether we are suffering on the inside or wondering what we can do from the outside – the gates of Hell are not closed. They have been kicked open, knocked down, and trampled on. Christ has led the way in and out. Are you willing to follow? Amen.
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Jesus the Imagination
Thoughts and dreams, musings and meditations