Friday, January 18, 2013

Yelling Up The Stairs

We read in John’s letter to his congregations, “my little children I am writing these things to you so that you may not sin.”  What was their sin?    Under the stress of persecution and other tribulations imposed on them from outside, they did what many, if not all of us would do under similar circumstances, they turned on one another.  Each man (and perhaps even the women) were looking out only for themselves, viewing the brethren as hinderances to survival.  John says that some were even “hating one another.”

What is John’s solution? Well, first off, he is not content merely to order them to “love another” and put down his pen.  John is a doctor and a real doctor treats not only the symptoms but gets to the root of the problem; a true doctor, like our Great Physician, treats the underlying disease.  And what is the problem at the root of the bad feelings and fighting with John’s congregations?  It is the fact that the people are not seeing the Lord Jesus, or rather, not seeing the Lord Jesus, the suffering servant.

The Bibles read to by the congregations of the first century included the following description of the suffering servant, “out of the tribulations of his soul he shall see light” (Isaiah 53:11).  This phrase leads us to other stories in the Bible. First and foremost it leads us to the story of Joseph.  He too was a suffering servant, who out the tribulations of his soul “saw light.”  He was sold by his own big brothers into slavery, then put into prison, then forgotten about in prison, but in the end Joseph triumphed, lifted out of prison he interpreted Pharaoh’s dream and became his right hand man, then Joseph saved his family and really, the whole known world from famine.  What a glorious, shining victory.  Out of the tribulations of his soul he did indeed see light!  John’s congregations need to be reminded of stories like these.  Why?  Because the brother that they now view as a “hinderance” is in actual truth, a “Joseph.”   That brother or sister sweating beside you in the mines, doubled over by the pressures being brought to bear on the church could very well be your savior.  As Luther said, we can be “christs” (with a small “c”) to one another.  John clears the mists of delusion from the eyes of the people and show them the truth that your brother is not your hinderance but your help. He is your savior and then you can be his savior right back.  There is a story in the Bible about the brothers Joab and Abishai.  They were great heroes and generals of David’s army.  They were facing two enemies.  In response, Joab and Abishai divided their armies, one force facing the Ammonites and the other facing the Syrians (2 Samuel 10).  The brother were fighting, as it were, “back to back” and Joab told his brother, “look if the Syrians are too strong for me, you shall come and save me and if the Ammonites are too strong for you I will come and save you.” If I were pressed to come up with mottoes that sum up the Bible, “you save me and I will save you” would definitely be one of them.  We are, as Paul puts it, “mutually encouraging one another in the establishment, that is, the faith of Jesus Anointed.” 
I have a confession.  Sometimes before church on Sunday morning, I have been known to get, let us say, rather shrill.  I am afraid we will be late to church.   I yell up the stairs “Come on, Farhad , we have leave! Hurry!”   Under stress I turn on the one closest to me, my dear husband.  But what if I had right perspective?  What if I realized that Farhad is my Joseph?  That he is not “in my way,” slowing me down, a hinderance, but rather savior, my help, and that in turn, I can be his savior and help right back?  Well, this Sunday I tried out this idea of John’s and it works!  True, I didn’t give up all my shrillness but it came down a notch or several notches.  I think I only yelled, “Farhad!” up the stairs once and on the scale of shrillness it was only maybe a 6. Pretty good for Amy Kosari!

Monday, January 07, 2013

He Preached To The Spirits In Prison

He Preached To The Spirits In Prison

In First Peter 3, Peter writes something that gives pause to many, namely, that Jesus went in the power of the Spirit and “preached to the spirits in prison.”  Peter goes on to explain that these spirits in prison are the sinners of Noah’s day, those who mocked and blasphemed against God when they saw Noah building the ark.  These were the people who died in the flood, and in rabbinic literature are considered the worst of the worst.  In other words, Jesus did not merely descend into the shallows of Hell but into the very depths.  He went all the way down.  In the next chapter, chapter four, verse six, Peter talks again on the same subject, saying that “the good news was preached even to the dead.”

Now, is this surprising that the Lord God would have the ability to speak to the dead and to enter into hell?  No, not really.  Are Hell’s gates so strong that they can keep the Lord out?  No one would suppose this.  This is not what gives people pause when considering the passage in I Peter. Remember the psalmist’s question in Psalm 139: “Whither can I go from thy Spirit, or whither shall I flee from thy presence?  If I ascend into heaven thou art there... if I make my bed in Hell behold thou art there....even there thy hand shall lead me and thy right hand shall hold me, even the darkness is not dark to thee.” And then also, remember the power of God that we learn about in Psalm 71: “Thy righteousness O God is very high, O God who is like unto thee, thou who has showed me great and sore troubles, shall quicken me again, and shall bring me up again from the depth of the earth, thou shall increase my greatness and comfort me on every side.” Jesus preached to Lazarus and Lazarus stood up and walked out the grave.  In Ezekiel, the word of God, not only enlivens the dry bones of Israel, his word is forgiveness and healing and hope to those whose hope was altogether cut off.  No, I don’t think that people are surprised by the power of God in this regard, I think the hesitation and uncertainty that people have about this passage in I Peter comes from another source.

I have been fifteen years in the ministry and have noticed that when I would talk of Jesus going down into hell and preaching to the dead there, often people would say, “Pastor Amy are you saying that everyone will be saved?”  For many years I was caught completely off guard by this question.  I wondered why they would think that I thought that everyone will be saved?  But recently I started to understand where the questioners  might be coming from.  Let me introduce the subject in this way: The good news is not an offer.  I might offer my child and stick of gum, he might take it, or he might not.  The good news is not an offer like this; it is a proclamation, a proclamation that everything has changed.  The theologian N.T. Wright puts it like this, “it is the announcement of the coup d’etat, Jesus is the King of Kings.”  The good news is the announcement that something has already happened.  It is the announcement of Jesus’  victory.  As one friend of mine put it, if the dead have the good news preached to them, it's as if they have been transferred from the dominion of darkness into heaven.  They are standing in paradise.  All things are theirs through the Lord Jesus.  They are children of the King with unimaginable treasures of love and grace at their fingertips.  They have, moreover a future and hope, as children of the Heavenly Father. When the Israelites reached the far side of the Red Sea, when they stood there on the shore, not one of them turned on his heel at that point and started walking back to Egypt.  In the same way, how can we imagine any of the dead turning on their heels and walking back into torment?   This is the reason that so many parishioners ask me, “But Pastor Amy, do you think everyone will be saved?”  They understood the ramifications of Peter better than me. Jesus' preaching saves, even from Hell!

So, to answer the question, does Pastor Amy say that all will be saved?  The short answer is is "No, she does not."  We read,"God wills that all men be saved and come to the knowledge of the Lord.”  We also know, as Markus Barth put it,  “God is willing and able to save all men,” and yet we do not say or even imagine that all will be saved.  If we were following logic we would say it, but we are not following logic, we are following the Lord.  We go where he goes.  If God had said, "all men will be saved," I would preach it too, but he does not, so I don’t.

What of those who die without believing in the Lord Jesus?   Can we say that the faithless dead will go to Hell and eternal torment?  No, we can’t say this, and it’s for the same reason.  God does not say that those who don’t believe during their lifetimes will go to Hell.  He doesn’t so we don’t.  We read in Revelation 21, that the “cowardly, the faithless, the polluted, the murderers, the fornicators, sorcerers, idolators and all liars” will be put into the lake of fire."  These people will not enter the New Jerusalem, but as my teacher said, “the question we must ask, is ‘Will there be any be any such people in the end?’”  We cannot answer yes, we cannot answer no.   We go where God wants us to go, and he has hidden the answer to that question in mystery, to be revealed only when Jesus comes again.  Nothing within human power can be done for the dead, but what will be done through the power of God?