A sermon by Rev Richard Keith on Psalm 30 and Hebrews 2:10-18 on Sunday 15 March 2020
I don’t know what country kids grow up afraid of: brown snakes, redbacks, drop bears, or whatever, but growing up in Sydney I was afraid of funnel web spiders. And I was convinced that dozens of them lived under our house.
We lived in a fibro house built on top of brick piers, and the land sloped towards the back so you could climb in under our house from the back. That area under the house was used as a storage area. It was full of bricks and tiles and pipes and sheets of fibro, anything left over from when the house was built or when the extension was added, and some old furniture. To me it looked like the perfect breeding ground for funnel webs. Cool, dry and dark.
Under the house also happened to be a tennis ball graveyard, the place where all old tennis balls go to die. Because I’d practice my cricket against the back steps, or tennis against the garage door. And sometimes as Doug Walters, I’d cut loose with a thunderous cover drive, or as John Newcombe I’d send down a scorching serve and nine times out of ten the ball would end up under the house. If I could see it, I’d go under the house to get it. If I could reach it, I’d pick it up. But if I couldn’t see it, I’d look for a couple of minutes, maybe venturing as far as the first or second pier up under the house. But no further. I would rather lose my ball than dare to face the terror of the Sydney funnel web spider.
In 2004, however, I had to confront that fear when my parents sold their house and all the junk, I mean, all the precious building materials that my father had treasured for forty five years, had to go. And who was stupid enough to offer to help clear out under the house? That’s right, me. And I found everything I expected, there was scaffolding pipes and skirting boards and concrete pavers, and sheets of plastic and window frames, a pram, a stroller and a baby’s cot, but not one, not one single funnel web spider. I had gone into the dark that I had feared all my life and come out realising that there was nothing to fear. And possibly, probably, never had been. It was relieving and embarrassing all at the same time.
We fear the unknown. It is only natural. We fear what we cannot control. No wonder, then, that we fear death. We do all we can to deny it, to avoid it, to delay it. It is the ultimate big, black door, the last unknown, mankind’s final frontier. If only someone would go down into the dark of death, like I had gone under my parent’s house, and search it out and come back to tell us that there was nothing to fear. The good news of Jesus Christ is that he faced death and lived to tell the tale.
We’ve been looking at the Apostle’s Creed and this morning we come to the tenth article, “he descended to the dead.” Those of you with good memories, will remember that it used to say, “he descended into hell.” But however sinister the word hell sounds to modern ears that phrase was never intended to mean that Jesus’ suffering continued after he died on the cross. Jesus didn’t go to the place where the damned receive their eternal punishment, the place we normally call hell. John chapter 19, for example, tells us that when Jesus died, he cried out, “It is finished.” His suffering was over. His torment had finished. He had already done all he had to do to satisfy the father’s judgment on sin. There was nothing else that needed to be done. Not by him. Not by anyone else. He had purchased our salvation. Like the car ads say, “Drive away, no more to pay.” And Luke chapter 23 tells us that Jesus had already promised the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise.” Any hell that Jesus had to experience, was already past and gone.
But something happened in those crucial few days between the death and resurrection of Jesus to bring about an extraordinary change in the way the writers of the Bible viewed death. Look, for example, at Psalm 30. It is typical of the way that the writers of the Old Testament viewed death. Because under the old covenant, under the promises and demands God made to the people of Israel through Moses on the top of Mt Sinai, God’s blessings were experienced in a very physical way. In return for their obedience, God promised them rain in season and good harvests and success in battle and many children and long lives. Drought, defeat, failure, were not just accidents, but evidence that God was unhappy. And so death was seen not just as something inevitable or unfortunate, but more or less as the end of the life of blessing.
See what David says in Psalm 30. It’s a prayer of thanks to God after experiencing some healing. David thought he was going to die and he didn’t and he gave the credit to God. All of which is completely understandable. But look at verses 8 to 12.
To you, O Lord, I called; to the Lord I cried for mercy. What gain is there in my destruction, in my going down to the pit? Will the dust praise you? Will it proclaim your faithfulness? You turned my wailing into dancing; you removed my sackcloth and clothed me with joy, that my heart may sing to you and not be silent.
“Will the dust praise you?” David asks. He means, “If I die and my body turns to dust, how can I praise you?” To David death is an end, it is dust, it is going down into the pit, it is silence. It is just typical of the attitude of Old Testament saints. If they hoped to live forever, it was usually in the hope of having many descendants, of children and grandchildren who will live on long after they themselves have died. There is almost no idea of a life after death, in heaven. Instead, death is that big, black door, that dark and forbidding place that puts fear into the bravest heart. It isn’t unusual to hear of such thoughts and fears and attitudes among modern people too. I suppose it’s just a bit odd coming from the Bible, coming from a man like David who was a king, who was a warrior for God, a man whose songs got published in the Bible. But this was life in the Old Testament, under the old covenant. Death was still a mystery. It is not until Israel broke the old covenant and was sent into exile that we get hints that God’s people started to hope that the God who had created life was able to preserve life from death and even raise life from the dead.
But it still is a world apart from what we find in the New Testament. In Philippians chapter 1, for example, we find that the apostle Paul was in gaol and half expected to be put to death. Listen to what he says in Philippians chapter 1:
I know that through your prayers and the help of the Spirit of Jesus, what has happened to me will turn out for my deliverance. I eagerly expect and hope that I will have sufficient courage so that Christ will be exalted in my body, whether by life or by death. For to me, to live is Christ and to die is gain. If I am to go on living in the body, this will mean fruitful labour for me. Yet what shall I choose? I do not know. I am torn between the two: I desire to depart and be with Christ, which is better by far; but it is more necessary for you that I remain in the body.
So what has changed? What has happened so that death was no longer seen as the end as a kind of silence, but as leaving to be with Christ, as a kind of gain? What has happened to open that door, to shine the light into that dark and forbidding place? What has happened is that the Lord Jesus Christ died and rose again. Just like I went in under the house to find nothing to be afraid of, so Christ is the one who descended to the dead, who opened the door of death from the other side and came back out again. Christ died and he lived to tell the tale and now everyone who follows him knows that to live is to know him and love him and follow him, and that to die is to go to be with him forever.
As Hebrews chapter 2 says,
He became like us, he shared our humanity, our own flesh and blood, so that by his death he might destroy the devil who holds the power of death and so that he might set free those who were held in slavery by their fear of death.
He descended to the dead so that death might lose its grip on our hearts. This is life under the new covenant. It isn’t measured by rain in season and good harvests and success in battle and many children and long lives. Under the new covenant we can hope for more than just to live at a ripe old age and to live on in our children. No, to live is Christ, to live is to know him, to live is to have his Spirit within, to live is to be guided by him, to follow his example, to have his love in our hearts. And to die is to be with him, to have God’s purpose for us completed, to be like Christ, and to know God just as he knows us.
I wasted forty years of my life being afraid of the dark under the house. Don’t waste your life being afraid of death. Jesus has been there, and through it we go to where he is.