That Blessed Dependancy

"There wee leave you in that blessed dependancy, to hang upon him who hangs upon the Crosse…" -John Donne, "Death's Duell"

“Death of death, and hell’s destruction…”

Though they are not much heard of these days, the traditional Advent themes are Death, Judgment, Heaven, and Hell. On this Fourth Sunday of Advent, I offer an out-of-season post that is, nevertheless, relevant to the final Advent theme: hell.

The sermon below was preached at a service of Choral Evensong last Eastertide. It is about hell, or more specifically the Harrowing of Hell. Though its original context was within the Great Fifty Days celebrating Christ’s Resurrection, I hope that it will resonate as we approach the wonder of Christ’s Incarnation. There can be no separation of his birth in Bethlehem and his death in Jerusalem. The bitter pains of Good Friday are foreshadowed in the shivering child in the manger. The agonizing death on Calvary can only have meaning for us if Jesus “was made man” in Bethlehem.

And the hope of the Resurrection—of Christ’s triumph over Death and Hell—matters as much in Advent as it does at Easter. At this, “the turning of the year,” we look and pray and yearn for a Judge whose dazzling body still bears “those dear tokens of his passion,” but over whom “Death hath no more dominion.”

A Sermon Preached at Evensong on the Fifth Sunday of Easter, April 28, 2013

by The Rev’d Dane E. Boston, Curate of Christ Church, Greenwich, Connecticut

Texts: Wisdom 7.22-8.1; Matthew 7.7-14

May I speak in the name of Christ Jesus, crucified and risen. Amen.

Tonight I’d like to talk about hell. Or more specifically, the Harrowing of Hell. That may not seem an appropriate topic for Eastertide. Some of you may even be wondering about that old word “harrowing,” and what on earth it could mean in relation to hell. I admit that the Harrowing of Hell is not a doctrine that we spend a lot of time talking about in church, and it’s probably not a concept that we spend a lot of time thinking about in our individual spiritual lives.

And yet the Harrowing of Hell is important. We profess our faith in it every time we say the Apostle’s Creed. Twice every day, right here in these choir stalls, we gather for Morning and Evening Prayer and we proclaim our faith in Jesus Christ who suffered on the cross, was crucified, died, and was buried. And then we say: “He descended into hell.” We said it together just a few moments ago at this Evensong. What’s more, our choir has sung beautifully about the Harrowing of Hell in the second verse of our anthem this evening:

For Judah’s Lion bursts His chains, / crushing the serpent’s head;

And cries aloud through death’s domains / to wake the imprisoned dead.[1]

So what do we mean when we say that Jesus descended into hell? What do we mean when we sing that the mighty Lion of Judah who burst his chains—the great son of Eve who crushed the serpent’s head—also “cried aloud through death’s domains to wake the imprisoned dead”?

Let me say from the outset that I am not interested in giving you all a diabolical geography lesson. I will not try to pinpoint the location of hell for you, nor is this sermon a sightseeing tour of hell’s notable people and places. Besides stretching the limits of credibility and the boundaries of my knowledge, such a conversation would let us forget the horror of hell. When we turn hell into an overheated funhouse full of red devils and pitchforks and flames somewhere beneath our feet, we too readily and too easily disbelieve it, and laugh it to scorn.

But hell is not something comic or unbelievable. Though it has almost become a cliché, soldiers and civilians who have known the violence and horror of battle would surely agree with the statement, “War is hell.” Though the speed with which we are inured to the news of their suffering should shock and shame us, I would contend that the people of Boston, and the people of Newtown, and the people of Aurora, and the countless other victims of blind rage and mad hate have looked into the mouth of hell. And though we may not always recognize it as such, we have glimpsed hell’s destructive and deadening power at work in our own souls.

Hell is known and felt in the wrenching, grasping, strangling desire to acquire and consume. Hell is known and felt in each little spark of lust threatening to rise into fidelity-consuming flame. Hell is known and felt in every bitter outburst, every cutting word, every self-righteous refusal to forgive. Hell is, at last, known and felt in the inward turn, the persistent selfishness, the closing off of my soul and your soul to the rights and needs of others and to the glory of God our Creator. Brothers and sisters, we cannot afford to make light of hell, because by nature our feet stand upon the broad way leading to its wide gates.

And tonight we remember that Christ Jesus has walked that dark path before us. Tonight we recite that phrase “He descended into hell,” and we remember that Christ Jesus has sounded the very depths of human experience, and beyond. Tonight we celebrate his Resurrection, and we remember what he accomplished by his death. Tonight we rejoice that he is “triumphant in his glory now,” and we remember that he was first derelict, isolated, abandoned: that on the Cross he tasted hell for us. Tonight we dare to look with sober eyes on hell’s chains around us and hell’s gates before us, and we remember that Christ Jesus has broken those chains and shattered those gates forever.

My friends, the hell that we carry within us; the hell that we see in the world about us; the hell that shows its ugly face in the power of Death and Sin over us: Christ has stood in the midst of that hell, and he, by his mighty weakness, by his powerful vulnerability, by his life-giving death, has triumphed over its dreadful power. And so in strength, in hope, in faith, we may stand and look into the mouth of hell and say “Yes, he descended into hell…but on the third day he rose again from the dead!” Hell and death could not hold him. Sin could not claim him. Hate could not keep him. Love did not abandon him.

Eastern Orthodox Christians have a very powerful way of depicting the Resurrection. In any anastasis, or Icon of the Resurrection, Jesus stands in the middle of the image, clothed in dazzling white and gold. Beneath his feet lie the broken gates of hell, one atop the other, in the shape of a cross—the instrument by which he wrought hell’s destruction. Around him on every side stand his “ransomed hosts,” ready to “pursue their way / Where Jesus goes before.” These are the patriarchs, prophets, and all those who longed for the day of God’s salvation. They stand tall, strong, and joyful. But in my favorite versions of this icon, Jesus himself is actually stooping ever so slightly. His bright Resurrection body is bent, just a little, as he reaches down into the graves at his feet to grasp the hands of a shrouded old woman and a bearded old man.

These two are Adam and Eve. Jesus stoops to take their hands, and to lift them up from their tombs. By that simple touch, Christ Jesus who is the Son of God and the Son of Man restores in himself the full dignity of human nature. Through that mighty deed, Christ Jesus who is the Son of Adam and the Son of Eve redeems all their children who sit in bondage and deep darkness. In Jesus’ death and Resurrection, God undoes the long legacy of disobedience bequeathed to us by our first parents. Sin’s power, though fearsome, is cracked. Death’s terror, though dreadful, is conquered. Hell’s claim, though strong, is broken, and Christ has set us free.

Beloved people of God, I do not know what hell you have been through, or what hell you are going through. I do not know what hell has opened beneath you through cruel circumstance, or what hell you have built around yourself, brick by heavy brick. I can only proclaim to you what we profess this evening: Jesus Christ has harrowed hell. He has plundered its power, and is risen in glory. You are never beyond his mighty reach. And as he stooped to raise all human nature, so now he stoops to raise you and me up from our tombs. Grasp his hand. Enter by the narrow gate. Lift your voice and join with Adam and Eve, and all the ransomed hosts, as they hymn the Paschal victory “in strains of holy Joy”:

“All glory to the Father be, / All glory to the Son,

All glory, Holy Ghost, to thee, / While endless ages run. Alleluia!” AMEN.

[1] “Ye choirs of new Jerusalem”: words by R. Campbell, music by C. V. Stanford.

The Great Interruptor

A Sermon Preached on the Fourth Sunday of Advent, December 22, 2013

by the Rev’d Dane E. Boston, Curate of Christ Church, Greenwich, Connecticut

Texts: Isaiah 7:10-16; Matthew 1:18-25

“But just when he had resolved to do this, an Angel of the Lord appeared to him…”

May I speak in the Name of God the Father, God the Son, and God the Holy Ghost. Amen.

Joseph of Nazareth was a righteous man. Matthew’s Gospel makes that very clear. But even if we had not been told it, we might have guessed that Joseph was a righteous man from the reasonable, responsible, righteous plan that he came up with. After all, we can imagine the surprise, the anger, the hurt, and the embarrassment that Joseph must’ve felt when he received word that Mary, his espoused wife, was with child. No one could’ve blamed him for exposing his young ex-betrothed to the maximum amount of public humiliation and disgrace. No one would’ve been surprised if he had reacted to the news of Mary’s pregnancy with a sense of blind rage, seeking only to shame the woman who had so shamed him.

But Joseph was a righteous man, and he comes up with a righteous plan. He will dismiss her quietly, saving her the utter disgrace, and saving himself the searing embarrassment. It was a good and decent plan, a merciful plan, a righteous plan, and Joseph, a righteous man, had resolved to carry it out. And then the Angel of the Lord appeared.

Popular culture often depicts a person making a difficult decision with an angel on one shoulder and a devil on the other. We’ve all seen it in cartoons, in movies, and on television. The devil tries to get the person to take the selfish, sinful, vindictive course of action, while the angel tries to recall the person to what he or she knows is right, and good, and true. It’s an effective, if slightly simplistic, metaphor for our consciences.

But let us be very clear: nothing like that happens in this story. The Angel of the Lord does not come to convince, cajole, or coax Joseph’s wayward thoughts. Joseph’s mind was made up already before the Angel arrived. Joseph had already settled on his  reasonable, responsible, righteous plan. And Matthew tells us that, “Just when [Joseph] had resolved to do this, the Angel of the Lord appeared to him in a dream and said, ‘Joseph, Son of David, do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife, for the child conceived in her is from the Holy Spirit.'” This Angel does not plead, or request, or beg, or question. This Angel arrives with a command: “Do not be afraid to take Mary as your wife…She will bear a son, and you are to name him Jesus.”

Not only is Joseph told to abandon his reasonable, responsible, righteous plan to put Mary away quietly: the Angel gives him a name for the unborn child then growing in her womb. First, Joseph’s life was interrupted by Mary’s unexpected pregnancy. Now,  Joseph’s plan to put his life back on track is interrupted by the unexpected visit of the Angel. And when Joseph rose from sleep, “he did as the Angel of the Lord commanded him.” Twice now, the Lord has interrupted the life of righteous Joseph. And we who know the story of Mary’s son know that there are many more interruptions to come—for Joseph, and for the whole world.

Beloved, what are we to do with a God like this? What are we to do with a God who confronts a righteous man in the midst of his righteous plan—and turns him around? What are we to do with a God who intervenes in Joseph’s reasonable, responsible, sensible course of action, and tells him to head in the opposite direction—right into ridicule, and risk, and danger, and disgrace?

This is not the kind of God we want. We want a God who is on our side. We want a God  who will prosper our plans. We want a God who will protect us from the very circumstances Joseph was called to face. We want a God who will look down on us as we struggle and strive to be good, to do the right thing, to behave in a righteous way, and who will say, “You know, he really is doing his best. I think I’ll make everything turn out all right for him—She really has been praying hard. I think I’ll give her what she’s asking for—Those folks in Greenwich, Connecticut really are nice, decent, upstanding people. I suppose I ought to bless them, just to show them how pleased I am with all they’ve done.” We want a God who will be on our side.

In his Second Inaugural Address, as the Civil War was drawing to a close, Abraham Lincoln traced this very same desire lurking deep in the hearts of human beings. Speaking of the North and the South, Lincoln noted that, “Both read the same Bible, and pray to the same God; and each invokes His aid against the other.” In other words, both North and South were looking for a God who would be on their side, and who would support their cause against their enemies. But Lincoln went on: “The prayers of both [North and South] could not be answered; that of neither has been answered fully. The Almighty has his own purposes.”

“The Almighty has his own purposes.” There’s the rub. We want a God who will be on our side, and what do we find instead? “The Almighty has his own purposes.” It is a bitter and a difficult pill to swallow. It is the lesson learned by righteous Job, in what may be the most challenging book of the Bible. You all know the story. God’s faithful servant Job gets caught in a wager between God and Satan. Satan says, “Job only serves you, God, because you have richly blessed him. Take away all he has, and he will curse you to your face.” And the Lord permits Satan to bring calamity and affliction upon righteous Job. Through it all, Job refuses to curse God.

But he also maintains his innocence. He insists, to his friends who come to comfort him, that all of his misfortune and disaster cannot be punishment for some secret sin or forgotten transgression. Job is innocent, though he has been made to suffer, and he insists that he could make his case before God, if given the chance.

Then suddenly, in the final chapters, the Lord himself speaks to Job out a whirlwind. “Where were you, when I laid the foundations of the earth—when the morning-stars sang together and all the servants of God shouted for joy?” God’s response to Job in his suffering—in all the interruptions that Job has been made to endure—is, essentially, “The Almighty has his own purposes.” And Job falls silent before the power of the Lord.

Beloved, what are we to do with such a deity—a God who has his own purposes, a God who readily and, it would seem, carelessly interrupts the lives of human beings? When we think of Joseph, when we look to Job, when we consider a world riven and torn and disastrously, outrageously unfair, how can we simply accept the pronouncement that “The Almighty has his own purposes”? Such a God can surely be feared—can he be loved?

If we are to answer that question, we must look, I think, to one specific interruption: the interruption promised in our Isaiah reading this morning—the interruption fulfilled in the life of Mary and Joseph—the interruption that we celebrate this week. “Therefore the Lord himself will give you a sign. Behold, the virgin shall conceive and bear a son, and ye shall call his name Immanuel: God is with us.”

This Wednesday, we will keep the Feast of the Nativity. It ought, perhaps, to be called the Feast of the Great Interruption. For on Christmas, we recall with wonder that the God who has his own purposes chose to reveal those purposes in a startling and unexpected way. The God who has his own purposes has interrupted not simply the lives of Mary and Joseph, and a few other people in distant, dusty Palestine: but God has interrupted all our lives—indeed, the life of the whole world. Beloved, in the birth of Jesus our Lord, in the Incarnation, the taking-on-flesh of the Word of God, the Almighty who has his own purposes reveals that his purposes are for us. God is not on our side. But in the person of Jesus Christ, God chooses to draw us onto his side.

And this interruption—this radical intervention in the life of our world—changes everything. It does not mean that life will be easy: that all of our plans will be brought to fulfillment; that all of our prayers will be answered with a great yes. But it does mean that in this world of change and chance, God is with us. In this life of sorrow and surprise, God is with us. In this flesh of weakness and worry, God is with us. Dear people, God has not promised that we shall always be happy: but in Jesus our Lord, he has shown us that he will stop at nothing—not even Death itself—to make us holy.

So runs the promise of the Great Interruption called Christmas, soon to come. But this Advent—and remember, beloved, that it is still Advent for a few more days—we look forward to an even Greater Interruption. For the promise of this Season is that the purposes of the Almighty toward us have not yet been carried out in their fullness. God is not finished with us yet.

And so, in these waning days of Advent, we fix our hearts and hopes on that Great Day of Interruption when the sun shall be darkened, and the moon shall not give its light; when there will be signs in the heavens and tumults upon the earth; when the graves will be opened, and the sea shall give up its dead. On this last Sunday of Advent, we look for that Great Day of Interruption when the secrets of all hearts shall be revealed, and all the peoples of earth, both small and great, shall be called to give account of their deeds. At this, the turning of the year, we fix our hearts on that Great Day of Interruption when the heavens and earth shall be rolled back as a scroll, and the trumpet shall sound, and the Risen Lord will come in glorious majesty to judge both the quick and the dead.

And on that day all our decent behavior and all our careful plans; all our best manners and all our good intentions; all our sterling reputations and all our hard-won regards will be as dust and ashes and filthy rags in the bright light of the everlasting purposes of the Almighty. And then, in that moment of terror, in that dread day of Interruption, in that hour of deepest woe, in that time of weeping and wailing, Lo! we shall hear a loud, familiar voice say “Be not afraid.” For behold, our eyes shall look upon the one who was pierced—and he shall raise his wounded hand, not to smite, but to save. For the Great Interruptor—the One who was wrapped in swaddling clothes and laid in a manger—the One who was stripped by soldiers and heaved high upon the Cross—the One who rose again, forever clothed in power and great glory—even Jesus our Lord shall come down from on high to wrap the shining brightness of his kingly robe about the shivering form of our nakedness.

And on that day of Interruption, the purposes of the Almighty shall become our purposes, and the Kingdom of this world shall become the Kingdom of our Lord, and of his Christ, and at last “God shall be all in all.”