Sunday, May 17, 2009

hope and holy saturday

Hope and Holy Saturday
a sermon by Troy Cady

We’ve recounted the events of Maundy Thursday and Good Friday through the lens of hope. We are looking forward to Easter Sunday, but let’s not forget what happened about 2,000 years ago on this day that Christians have come to call Holy Saturday.

In the Scriptural narrative we only have clues as to what was happening with the disciples on Holy Saturday. We can take an educated guess that the disciples were in hiding because there is a reference in the Easter Sunday narrative that that is what they had been doing. We suppose they were in hiding because they feared for their own lives, attempting to avoid the same crucifixion that had just killed their Master.

In terms of our theme of hope, Saturday was likely the day some of them gave up hope. For those that didn’t, it was certainly stretched to its limit. We could, therefore, reflect on the nature of hope as the disciples experienced it, but I think there is more merit in reflecting on hope as Jesus experienced it that Holy Saturday.

“What,” you might ask, “could Jesus teach us about hope that Saturday? He was buried in the grave still.”

To that I would answer, “His body was buried in the grave, but his spirit was someplace else. Where he went that Holy Saturday (and what he was doing) is precisely why we can have an irrepressible hope today. Without Jesus’ work on Holy Saturday all of us would be without hope today.”

So, let’s ask: what did Jesus do on Holy Saturday? Where did he go?

Answer: He went where every man had gone before. He went to the place where the spirits of the dead were waiting for the fulfillment of their hope.

The Apostle’s Creed, the earliest and most concise extrabiblical summary of Christian belief, states this when it says that Jesus was “dead and buried” and then, it states, “he descended to the dead.”

The word used here is Hades, the Greek equivalent of the Hebrew word “Sheol”. Today, we equate the word Hades or the word “Sheol” with the word “hell” but in the ancient church “Hades” and “Sheol” did not mean “hell”. When we use the word “hell” today, we use it to specify a place of punishment for the wicked. But, classically speaking, the words Hades and Sheol are invested with broader meaning. It is the place where all the departed dead went, both the unrighteous and the righteous. It was, essentially, a waiting place.

At this point, note: Waiting places are places of hope. True, waiting stretches hope to the limit, but in actuality hope is defined by the waiting. You don’t get hope without waiting; and you don’t get waiting without hope.

In Jesus’ time, Hades was therefore a place defined by hope for it was a place defined by waiting. Here, the righteous dead were waiting to receive their heavenly reward. They were waiting in hope for the deliverer to come (in the same way that the living waited for their deliverer to come). All mankind, both living and dead, at this point in history, was waiting in hope. This shows us that hope is indispensable for everyone. And this shows us how foundational hope really is.

With that background, let's look more deeply at why it is important to note that Jesus descended into Hades and how this descent can give us hope. I can think of at least two points here:

One: it was in descending to Hades that Christ completed His identification with us as humans. You see? At that time, every human descended into Hades, whether wicked or blessed; and so did Christ. His descent into Hades, therefore, shows that He really was fully human! He really does know what we go through! He left no "stone unturned" in taking on our human nature. He went "where every man has gone before."

But (number two) Christ is not merely human, He's also God. So, as God, Christ did a unique work. He did something no mere human could ever do: He took the keys of death and Hades, and He released the righteous dead that were being held captive there so that they could enjoy His presence from that time on in Paradise. And, he didn't stay there, like the rest of humanity. He emerged from Hades--something no one had ever done before.

Now: I can just hear someone saying "Wait a minute there, Troy! This sounds a little like heresy to me. Where does it say that in the Bible?"

There are a few key texts that support this.

First, the apostle Peter refers to Jesus' descent into Hades in Acts 2:24-32. In quoting King David, Peter says in verse 27 that Jesus will not be "abandoned to 'Hades'". This reference seems to indicate that Jesus did indeed descend into Hades but he was simply not "abandoned" (or left) there. And that is the point.

Second, this also fits with the picture we get in Ephesians 4:8 which tells us "When he [Jesus] ascended on high, he led captives in his train..." That begs the question: Who were these "captives" he led in his train? Early Christians believed that this is referring to none other than the righteous inhabitants of Hades at the time. Their waiting was over.

This means that nowadays, when someone dies, they go directly to be with the Lord--there's no need for a "waiting place" like Hades anymore. The apostle Paul states this in Philippians 1:21-23 where Paul states that we are present with Christ the moment we depart--that's because the righteous don't go to Hades anymore to await judgment. In fact, the scholar C. Donald Cole notes that there is no such thing as Hades anymore: only heaven and hell (in the modern-day sense of the word), because when Christ led out the righteous inhabitants of Hades (as is indicated by Ephesians 4:8) "Hades" became "hell"--a place reserved only for the "unrighteous."

Third, this way of looking at what happened on Holy Saturday does not contradict what Jesus told the prisoner on the cross next to him: "Today, you will be with me in paradise."

Fourth, this also fits with the picture in Revelation 1:18. (Brace yourself. This is the juicy part!) In this text, Jesus appears to John in a vision and identifies himself as the one who holds "the keys of death and Hades."

That text begs the question: Where did Jesus get these keys? The early Christians believed He got them by going to Hades and fighting for them.

And this is the part I like the best: early Christians believed that Christ was not just a sacrificial lamb. They also believed He was the victor. The irony is thick: soldiers are posted at Jesus' tomb all day Saturday. Meanwhile, Jesus is waging a battle on a more strategic front: in Hades. The soldiers by the large sealed rock can't touch Him. In fact, they're completely unaware of the battle being raged "beneath" them! Jesus goes where every man has gone before to do something no man has done before. He "breaks the seal" by stealing the keys! The soldiers posted at the tomb's entrance are impotent to stop it all from happening.

When Christ descended into Hades, a battle was waged and Christ emerged victorious. He now has the keys of death and Hades--for real. I don't know about you, but I think that is way way way way COOL!!! Christ is the victor! He fought the battle! He released the prisoners! He led them out of Hades into His glorious presence! So now, when we die, we go directly to be with Him. Directly to heaven. To paradise.

This, my friends, is hope, real hope. I can’t wait (or, wait: yes, I can.) And that is the point.

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