Sermon for the First Sunday of Lent

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We read in 1 Peter that Jesus was put to death in the flesh but made alive in the spirit. Here is the unique part. This is the only place in the Bible where you will find anything like this, and I quote: " which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison, who in former times did not obey." From that, the Apostles' Creed -- which is read every day at both Morning and Evening Prayer, and which we say every time there is a baptism--makes the awkward statement that often is hard to say aloud, "He descended into hell." Here is the biblical warrant for such a credal statement. According to 1 Peter, Jesus, having died, descended into the place of departed spirits to make a proclamation before he rose again from the dead. He descended into hell, the eternal place of torment.

If you happen to go there, some will say you will find fire and some say you will find ice. The Bible says you will find Jesus--in hell. You will find Jesus and his proclamation. But the church has not talked much about that. The church has painted a picture of hell that is totally devoid of God's presence--a hell based more on Dante and Milton than on the Bible. In the Psalms it says, "If I go up to heaven, thou art there. If I go down to hell, thou art there also." And here in 1 Peter, we realize that even in hell, God is searching for us. Even in hell, the proclamation is made. Even in hell, the door is held open. Now, that's good news.

The church has not talked much about this, just painted a picture of hell that is truly hellacious. But when we look at hell through the prism of the overarching sweep of Holy Scripture, we see a radically different picture. In the light of the totality of the biblical witness, we find that nothing can separate us from the love of God. Nothing. Not even hell. Jesus is there and he is making a proclamation about the purposes and the love of God.

Behind the proclamation that is mentioned in 1 Peter is the familiar story of Noah from the book of Genesis. What is the proclamation there? God has made a covenant. God has made a pact, a deal with every living creature of all flesh that is on the earth. The metaphor is lively. God has taken his weapon, his bow, and turned that bow into a rainbow, has taken that weapon and placed it in the sky so that never again will there be any reason for a human being to say that God has lifted a weapon against him or her. God's weapon is put aside. You can see it in the skies. God's anger is put aside. Retribution is not of God; therefore, if there is still--and there will be--death and destruction and darkness, if Satan and wild beasts are in our wilderness, these things are not rooted in the anger of God. In fact, the Gospel narratives state that Jesus, too, has been in the wilderness fighting against Satan and the wild beasts. So if you find yourself in hell, God did not put you there. You are there for some other reason than that. But you are joined there by Jesus, the Christ of God.

Jesus enters into hell, into the place of the departed spirits, the place of the spirits in prison, and says to the spirits in prison, "You are welcomed into God's presence, all of you." There is no sign at the door of heaven that says, "No dogs allowed." There's no sign at the gate of heaven that says, "No sinners allowed." The doors are open, and the proclamation is extended to the living and to the dead. So when you go to hell, you will find Jesus inviting you out of hell.

Many good and loving people join Jesus in the hells of this world and proclaim his love and his kingdom in those places. They are found, often anonymously, in the ghettos and poverty-stricken areas of our teaming and filthy cities, in the desert wastes of Africa, and in the parts of our world--too many parts of our world--which are overwhelmed by war and violence and inconceivable suffering. Most of us know such hells only by hearsay, and the hells in which we find ourselves can hardly be compared to them. Nonetheless, in the midst of our bounty, in the midst of our comforts, many of us will suddenly find ourselves in a spiritual hell, in a torment that at times becomes unbearable. Americans are prone to a particularly deeply pathological wilderness, our own version of hell, and that is this: We are a people who are very well off and we are constantly griping about it. We have more material goods and more opportunities for spiritual growth than anyone else on earth or anyone else in history, and yet we live within a culture of complaint. We live within a culture of mistrust, and we are consistently angry and complaining and on edge.

Bishop Festo Kivengere from Uganda, who died a few years ago, was visiting in America, and some of us asked him to outline for us the main differences between the church in Africa and the church in America. And we were expecting him to say that the church in Africa is very poor and the church in America is very wealthy. And he did say that. But he said the primary difference between the church in Africa and the church in America is that the church in Africa is made up of happy people and the church in America is made up of miserable people. And he chided us. He said, "You asked the question, 'Is the glass half full or is the glass half empty?'" He said, "Your glass is overflowing and you're miserable and you're complaining all the time. What is this?" He said, "I will walk into the most dismal of refugee settlements, comprised of the people you'll see in National Geographic, who are dirty and dusty and wearing only loin cloths, and I will find them to be happy people. But I come to America and find people at restaurants--the likes of which you would never find in Africa--and all they are doing is complaining about this, that, or the other thing."

I must tell you when I get phone calls from parishioners who are calling for some other reason than to talk about their spiritual life, nine out of 10 of those phone calls are complaining about something--complaining about something not very important, as if the real reason to have a pastor is to have someone to gripe to.

I am no different. The other day I was on an airplane. Picture this: I'm in a tube, a metal tube, five miles up, being propelled at 500 miles an hour, heading straight for a destination hundreds of miles away. How in the world they can do this, I don't know. Every time one of those planes gets off the ground, I say, "This is some kind of a miracle." So, here I am in this metal tube, going 500 miles an hour, straight for some city hundreds of miles away, and what am I doing? Am I thanking God for this, praising God? No, I'm complaining that the coffee isn't hot enough. The chair is too narrow. I've seen the movie before.

The Noah story again. God has put away anger. We don't seem to be able to do that. We are in hell. And in the midst of that hell, there is the proclamation again and again. There is always another chance, an indicative that carries with it a very pertinent imperative. The indicative: God's anger--and the Bible is filled with stories of God's anger--is not God's final word. God does not act out of anger. God turns anger into renewal. God turns anger into edification, a building up again. The indicative: We are made in the image and likeness of God, and, therefore, we are capable of imitating God. Those of us who are baptized are called to imitate God. And if we are griping and complaining rather than renewing and edifying, we are violating the image of God; we are, in essence, sinning. The imperative: to follow the way of God, to walk in God's paths.

This is the first Sunday in Lent, the season in which we focus on our own weaknesses so that we can put our trust in God's strength. And I'd like to suggest that perhaps our homework this week should be to take Psalm 25 and read it over and over again until the words of an ancient Hebrew poet finally become for us the Word of God. "Show me your ways, O Lord, and teach me your paths. Lead me in your truth and teach me, for you are the God of my salvation." And wouldn't it be wonderful at the close of the day that I would be able to say truly, "In you have I trusted all the day long. Remember, O Lord, your compassion and love, for they are from everlasting. Remember not the sins of my youth and my transgressions." And may I remember to live in compassion and love, not focusing on the sins of myself and others. "Remember me according to your love and for the sake of your goodness, O Lord. Gracious and upright is the Lord, therefore, he teaches sinners--me--in his way. He guides the humble in doing right and teaches his ways to the lowly. All the paths of the Lord are love and faithfulness to those who keep his covenant and his testimonies."

He has made his covenant with Noah and with all flesh, all creatures. He has made his covenant with you and with me. All the paths of the Lord are love and faithfulness to those who keep his covenant and his testimonies.

This is the First Sunday in Lent. May we learn to follow his paths.

Let us pray.

Almighty God, whose blessed Son was led by the Spirit to be tempted by Satan, come quickly to help us who are assaulted by many temptations. And as you know the weaknesses of each of us, let each one find you mighty to save, through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.

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