WILL THE DEAD RISE UP AND PRAISE YOU?
A Sermon based on Psalm 88
By Nathan L. Bostian
A Sermon based on Psalm 88
By Nathan L. Bostian
Let us pray: Come Lord Jesus: Fill us with your Spirit, and drive far from this place anything that would distract us from you. Let your Word transform our mind, reform our heart, and conform our will: That we may know you more clearly, and love you more dearly, and follow you more nearly: So others may see your light shining through us, and they too may share in the abundant life of our God. Amen+
This is the week after Easter. The week after the event that changed history forever: When a dead and discredited Messiah defeated death itself and declared the dominion of a Love that cannot die! Jesus has triumphed over the grave! Let the whole Earth rejoice! The old has passed away, behold all things are new! Halleluiah!
Except… of course… for those who DON'T see all things new… Because, let's be honest, Christ's victory over the grave doesn't seem like such a victory for everyone. In fact, even if someone believes in the historical reality of Christ's bodily resurrection (like I do), the event itself raises legitimate, heart-breaking, questions for two types of people:
First, there are those who are still living with the reality that reality inside their soul has not changed. Jesus is risen, but they are still dead inside. If the resurrection is such a victory, how come they are not feeling the love?
Our Psalm today speaks of such people. Those who cry out from the depths of their soul to God: "I am counted among those who go down to the pit; I am like a man without strength… Your wrath lies heavily upon me; you have overwhelmed me with all your waves."
The Psalmist goes on: "Why, O LORD, do you reject me and hide your face from me? From my youth I have been afflicted and close to death; I have suffered your terrors and am in despair. Your wrath has swept over me; your terrors have destroyed me. All day long they surround me like a flood; they have completely engulfed me."
Can you relate? Have you ever been surrounded with the flood of your own sorrow? Have you ever felt the wrath of God laying on your back, crushing your bones with guilt? Have you ever been in a place where God's love and Christ's victory seem distant and remote… a parody of the hell you are living in, here and now?
Second, there are those who have lost loved ones who died without knowing this Jesus and His resurrection. In fact, they may have died actively denying Christ, Christianity, and even the whole "God-business" all together. Is Christ's resurrection a victory for them too? Or, has God just given up on them, thrown in the towel, and left them for dead? Even worse, is God torturing them in Hell as we speak, forever, without end?
Our Psalm cries out with these people as well: "You have taken my companions and loved ones from me; darkness is my closest friend!"
Then he launches into a series of questions that cut right to the heart of those who BOTH care about the fate of the lost, AND who also believe that Christ's resurrection is our only hope after death: "Do you show your wonders to the dead? Do those who are dead rise up and praise you? Is your love declared in the grave, your faithfulness in Destruction? Are your wonders known in the place of darkness, or your righteous deeds in the land of oblivion?"
Let me put these questions in post-resurrection terms: "God, your Word says that you are Love. Does that mean you are unconditional love that keeps on seeking your beloved, even past the grave? Or does that mean you are conditional love, that gives up on people who don't meet your expectations?"
"Jesus, you rose from the dead. Will those who died apart from you fail to see the wonder of your resurrection? Can death ultimately separate us from the Love of God that is found in you?"
Holy Spirit, your Word says we can't flee your presence even in the grave, and that you are able to take a heart of stone and make it live again. Can you make EVEN the dead rise up and praise God?"
Or, is the resurrection just "bad news" in disguise for those who are in the "out crowd"? Did God design a certain group, class, or race of people to be exempt from hope, who are too lost, too hopeless, to stubborn, too deceived, too damaged for God to reach and heal?
When all is said and done, does the Creator's Love heal His creature's corruption, or does our corruption defeat God's Love?
Have you ever cried out to God with such questions? Have you wanted to ask God, but were too afraid? Not afraid of God… but of yourself? Of your own doubt? Were you ever afraid that if you voiced such questions- even in the depths of your heart- that it would lead you to a strange and alien land far away from the God you hold so dear?
Then welcome. You are in good company.
Because doubts and questions are not the enemy of faith, but an ally. It is our doubts that lead us to ask questions. It is our questions that drive us to study and pray. And it is our study and prayer that lead us to deeper faith.
The enemy of faith is not doubt, but fear. Fear that our God- or, perhaps, the idol we have confused for God- is too little to withstand our questions, our doubts, and the cries of our heart. Fear stops growth. Fear quenches faith. Fear leads us to grasp our little pile of certainties with a death-grip, and firmly refuse to leave them and travel on a journey with Jesus to a place we never dreamed.
So, I ask you to tame your fears. Throw out your idols. Grab your questions and doubts, and let's take them to Jesus.
Because, I got news for you: It was Jesus' doubts and questions that led him on a messy, excruciating, wonderful, incredible journey that ended in an empty tomb. It started with his doubts right before he was arrested. He prayed "Father, if you are willing, take this cup from me. Yet, not my will but yours be done".
"Father, I am not so sure about this. Dad, I have doubts. Seriously, this plan seems really flawed. And to be honest, I don't think I can go through with it. Come on. Does it have to be this way? I don't know what to think here, but I am trusting you…"
Then, on the cross Jesus asked His final question "My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?"
And this was not just his question. It is the question of the man who looses his wife, of the parent who lost her child, of the drug addict that lost his freedom, and of anyone who lost their faith and their will to live: "My God, my God! Why have you forsaken me?"
This doubt and this question: Where did it lead Jesus? It led him to the empty tomb. It led him to victory. It led him to real life. And I will confess that I truly believe that if we follow Jesus and we are honest with our doubts, and sincere with our questions, it will lead us to real life, victory, and an empty tomb as well.
Yet, our questions and doubts will lead us through the valley of death first. Without death, there is no resurrection. Our certainties will die. Our idols will be smashed. Our confidence will be shaken. But Jesus will hold on to us the whole time, even if we don’t feel Him.
But this leads us back to the question at hand: What does God do with those who are separated from His Love, either by death, by willful rebellion, or by both? The answer of the Hebrew prophets is that such people go down to the grave, which is also called "destruction" and "the pit", and it is usually pictured as a land of darkness, longing, and regret.
Jesus and the writers after Him enlarge this concept to become what we know of as hell, which is pictured by several metaphors: Consuming fire, darkness, isolation, weeping, gnashing of teeth, regret, wrath, and "the worm that does not die". If we believe the resurrection story, as I do, we have to assume that Jesus knew what he was talking about, since He descended there and conquered it by His resurrection.
What we simply CANNOT DO in dealing with our doubts and questions is simply "wish away" hell as if it does not exist: as if it is not a real option for people to choose. After all, Jesus talks about Hell more than anyone else, and he knows what He is talking about.
And, I would go further and say, along with CS Lewis, that neither hell nor heaven is something that is solely on the other side of death. They are rooted in this life and grow here and now, as we practice becoming more hellish, or more heavenly.
We can see this in our own souls, and in our communities, can't we? After all, can you envision Hitler and Stalin- if they stayed the same people they were when they died- standing along side Mother Theresa and Martin Luther King Jr. on the other side of death?
They couldn’t stand together before God in the same heaven, not because God would cast Hitler and Stalin out, but because the Love and Selflessness and Justice that made God's presence heavenly for Theresa and Martin would be hellish for Adolf and Joseph.
Heaven is not so much a place, as a Person: Being directly in the presence of the God who is pure Love shared forever among the Father, Son, and Spirit. And God wants perfectly healthy, perfectly loving, perfectly whole children to share in His dance of Love forever. In fact, He will not give up until we are wholly holy and able to fully share in His Love, as mature persons made in His image.
But God will not force His Love on anyone. And for those who will not say to God "Thy will be done", God will say to them "Thy will be done", and He will let them flee His presence and His Love. This is because, for those who are committed to their own selfishness and sin, heaven is simply hell for them.
So, we see why hell is necessary. If there is no quarantine for the infection of evil, heaven would simply become hell, as all of the social cancers of Earth were transposed and allowed to grow into eternity on the other side of death.
Those who are committed to being something less than what God has made them to be- who long to grasp a bit of their selfishness or a keep a touch of their sickness- simply cannot share in God's dance.
They are too weak and clumsy to dance the strong dance of perfect love. And if you have ever had to sit on the outside and watch others dance, while you sit ashamed of your two left feet, you know what it feels like: It is hell.
And that brings us back to the question and the doubt: Does God keep them outside of the dance forever? Have they missed out on the beauty of heaven for eternity? Is there no hope?
Here is where you must make your own journey with Jesus. Because if I gave you some dogmatic definition about the ultimate fate of the lost, it would short circuit your growth. And if I gave you five easy steps to gain God's Love, I would be guilty of giving you an idol of efficiency, instead of the living God.
But I can give you some questions to ask along your journey:
First of all, if God is as good, gracious, and loving as He appears to be in Christ, why would God keep sinners alive in hell if not for a redemptive purpose? Why would he keep you alive right now, if he is not bringing something beautiful out of you?
Second, Scripture says that hell is eternal. "Eternal" is as long as we can possibly imagine. But, how long can someone possibly imagine being without God's love? How long could someone resist the health and wholeness found in Christ, now or after death?
Finally, some Scriptures say that nothing in creation- not even death- can separate us from God's Love in Christ. They say that God wills to save all, that God can save all, and that God eventually will reconcile all things to Himself in Christ. Yet, other Scriptures speak of some being lost in hell, and being cast out of God's presence. Which group of texts will be used to interpret the others? Will texts of damnation and despair be used to interpret texts of hope and love, or the other way around? Which fits best with the God revealed in Christ's resurrection?
Perhaps the eternal "flames" of hell the same as the relentless "consuming fire" of God's love, which burns away layers of selfishness and sickness until the soul finally "opens" and receives Christ… like a seed that eventually opens after being incubated by the Son's heat.
Perhaps we will all come to see the glory of the Lord, even if we have to go through hell to get there.
And perhaps, after every death, Christ Himself brings resurrection.
This Easter, may all of your questions and doubts lead you to share in Christ's death, that you may also partake in His resurrection, and live in His Love, now and forever. Amen+