The Last Act of Redemption

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Easter and Holy Week that precedes it is unlike any other celebration in our church year.  It is a time of celebration and exultation . . . and yet also a time steeped in the mystery of deliverance, redemption, and resurrection.  Historically within the church, it was during this time that people, who for one reason or another found themselves outside the church, were welcomed back into the communion of faith and with God. It is also at this time during the middle ages that those who were to be Baptized came out of their forty days of prayer and fasting, as catachists, or students. They came to the great Bapistries of the early church to be baptized on the eve of the Resurrection in the name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. They were required to come as they were born . . . naked and alone . . . and led into a great pool of water by a Deacon where they were submerged and reborn in the Spirit and given a white robe to mark their entrance into the Church as members of Christ’s body and as living members of the Kingdom of God, and as the Redeemed of Heaven.

For us, much of the drama of the Early Church Easter celebration has been dropped out of usage over the passage of centuries.  In some ways I am kind of glad they dropped the naked thing, but in other ways I think we have been sorely shortchanged by the absence of the pools of water and of complete submersion, and by the absence of the difficult journey it used take in order to become a follower of Jesus Christ.  Though much of the mystery has been forgotten, there still remains intact, all of the story that we celebrate each year at this time.

As emphasized in the readings this Easter morning, these past three days, beginning with our Lord’s last day with his disciples in the upper room on Maundy Thursday; his death on Good Friday and ending with the resurrection on Easter Sunday are a commemoration of life and of death, they are about darkness and light, they are about our rejection of God, our deliverance through God and our redemption by a God who loves us beyond our ability to understand.  Easter is for the Church and for us a nexus where the spiritual and the physical worlds mysteriously become one for a brief moment in time each year.  That mystery being that once we were lost, alone and chained to our sins, but today we are delivered, redeemed and restored to a God who loves us.

Some years ago, I heard a story about a near death experience.  We have all heard these stories I am sure, you know, the one’s where people float above their bodies and then go through a long tunnel and are welcomed by friends or relatives and a being of light on the other end only to be told that they’re not done yet and are sent back to finish their lives.

Well, this story, that I want to relay to you, is different.  It stands out for me because there is no floating, there is no tunnel and there are no friends.  There is only aloneness and misery.  The person who died described himself standing alone on a beach that spread out for miles along a lake of fire below a sky of crimson red and black.  He described a burning thirst that was unquenchable and an aloneness that was unbearable and a roaring of waves that crashed against the shore that was deafening.  He told how he stood there, alone on that beach for what seemed like days watching the flames of the lake as they swept up the beach like windblown sand as it races across a desert.  He thought at first that he was dreaming, but after the third day, he knew that he had come to reside in Hell.  There was no longer anyone to blame, there was no longer anyone to swear at, there was no longer anything to do, there was only himself in a world he had created, devoid of all life and everyone who had ever loved him.  Finally, on the third day of his torment, when he looked out into the lake, he saw someone, walking away from him on the lake among the flames, and somehow he knew at once that this was Jesus.  Somehow he knew that if he could only get his attention, he would be saved from this awful life of misery.  So he called out to him above the roar of the waves, Jesus! Jesus! Have mercy on me! . . . but the man kept on walking across the lake.  Again he called out louder Jesus! Jesus! Have mercy on me! . . . but still the man walked on.  Again he cried out as he had never cried before; he cried for Jesus to have mercy on him and to forgive him.  And in the flaming lake of fire, Jesus turned and looked at the man with the most incredible love and compassion he had ever felt.  At once the man woke up in his hospital bed after having been dead more than three minutes from a gun shot by his own hand.  Was it a dream?  No one can say . . . but the man went out after his recovery, and like many in near death experience, changed everything about his life . . . his friends . . . his habits . . . and his work.  He began to study and learn what God had in store for him and he began to tell this amazing story of deliverance and redemption and resurrection to anyone who would listen, and because of him hundreds and perhaps thousands have learned from him . . . a thief, a robber, and a criminal, about the incredible power and love of God.

For those of you who are as old as I am, you may remember that in the old creed, you know, the one that was printed in the real prayer book, back in 1662, the line that now reads “He descended to the dead” used to read “He descended into hell”.  Why do you suppose Jesus descended into hell after he was crucified.  It wasn’t like he was a bad person who deserved to go to hell . . . so why do you suppose he spent that first Good Friday and Holy Saturday in hell?

To answer this, you need to go back to the first time that Jesus stood up to read in his hometown in Nazareth.  You’ll remember, where he read from the book of Isaiah, the same passage we read last Thursday . . .  “The Spirit of the Lord is upon me, because the Lord has anointed me to bring good tidings to the afflicted; he has sent me to bind up the brokenhearted, to proclaim liberty to the captives, and the opening of the prison to those who are bound.”  The place where those who were bound . . . the prison . . . that Isaiah describes may not only be a description of those mentally bound in the prison of their own minds as many would have us believe. You’ll remember from Revelation, it is Jesus who announces that “Fear not, I am the first and the last, and the living one; I died, and behold I am alive for evermore, and I have the keys of Death and Hell.”  It is more probable to me that the place where those people were bound is in hell itself.

I live in a 100 year old house that has its share of problems.  Every once in a while something wears out or gets broken that requires me to crawl under the house in what the real estate people would call a ‘crawl space’ but what I would call hell, or at least as close to hell as I would ever want to go.  I had occasion to go under my house a few years ago, because a pipe froze and I needed to take a torch and thaw it out.  As Barbara can tell you, if there is anything that I could do to avoid crawling under the house, I would do it, even if it meant hiring someone else to do it.  Well, the morning we woke up to find out that we had no water put a pit right in the middle of my stomach.  First, because I figured I would have to crawl under there, and second because if there is anything I like worse than crawling under a house, its plumbing!  I really do hate plumbing!  So after learning on the news that it was supposed to warm up to 32 degrees, I drove to work thinking that I would just let nature take its course, I would let the sun thaw out that frozen pipe.  Around one o’clock that afternoon, Barbara called to tell me that ‘benign neglect’ wasn’t working very well and that she needed water to use the bathroom . . . she would have to mention that.  So I went home, and armed with a trouble light and a torch I proceeded into that black hole of a crawl space praying that for once, my trouble light wouldn’t burn out or someone wouldn’t accidentally pull the plug on it.

But then, in the middle of the work, when I finally crawled through the hundred years of cob webs and dirt and frozen bugs and spiders and got to the center of the house, my light hit against the frozen ground, and I was instantly immersed in the blackness of that frozen abyss.  With the floor joists spanning just four inches away from my nose and not having the room to turn on my side, I felt that familiar panic attack of being forever locked under my house like someone in a cold, dark tomb.  But then I remembered my torch, I lit it and that blue flame lit up the darkness. I then proceeded with my mission and thawed out the pipe.  When I heard the water begin to run free I continued on my way, led out by the light of that steady flame hoping all the way that the flame would keep burning.  When I emerged from that crawl space, it was as if I had gone to hell and back and had lived to tell the tale. Why had I done it? . . .  because I had no other choice and there was nobody else to send.  It was something I had to do.

Dying on a cross and going to hell was the last redemptive act of Christ’s ministry on earth.  He didn’t go there because he wanted to, he went there because he had to, he went there to unlock the prison of hell and to lead all those who were bound there out of that place to share with him, in his Easter resurrection.  He came here to earth not only to save those who were living then and those of us yet unborn, but also to save those who had lived and died before he came.  And he did it all by willingly taking up his cross on our behalf.  This is what makes Easter so exciting for believers and so mysterious at the same time.  That God was willing to come, to take on our humanity, to live and die as one of us all so that we could be delivered from the distress of our sin and be welcomed into heaven as the redeemed and blessed of God.

Today, we who are baptized believers in the risen Christ, like millions before us, share in this last redemptive work of Christ.  We believe that through the act of our Baptism, we have a share in Christ’s death and have been reborn in the spirit and delivered from sin. We are, in fact, the redeemed and have been reborn through the Holy Spirit and have become true sons and daughters of the Most High and inheritors of the Kingdom of Heaven.  For me, the day of resurrection gives me a chance to renew the pledge of myself once again to God’s love and service and to acknowledge him as the only Savior and Lord in my life.  It gives both you and I a chance to walk out of this place as Easter people, Delivered, Redeemed and Reborn anew in the Holy Spirit who sustains us.

Finally, from our Psalm today we read . . . The LORD is my strength and my song, * and he has become my salvation.  There is a sound of exultation and victory * in the tents of the righteous:  “The right hand of the LORD has triumphed! * the right hand of the LORD is exalted! the right hand of the LORD has triumphed!”  I shall not die, but live, * and declare the works of the LORD.

Almighty God, who through your only-begotten Son Jesus Christ overcame death and opened to us the gate of everlasting life: Grant that we, who celebrate with joy the day of the Lord’s resurrection, may be raised from the death of sin by your life-giving Spirit; through Jesus Christ our Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever. Amen.