The Place of the Dead

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Christ has been to hell and if for some reason if you end up there, Jesus has the power to reach into the depths of the deep to grab hold of your hand and raise you up to new life.


Lent 1, Year B, February 26, 2012

Genesis 9.8-17; Psalm 25.1-10; 1 Peter 3.18-22; Mark 1.9-15
Pastor Renee Splichal Larson


Grace to you and peace from the one who goes to the depths of the place of the dead to proclaim to us the good news, Jesus Christ our Lord.  Amen.

How many of you know or have heard of the story of Noah’s Ark?  Often this is depicted as a “cute” story in which God tells an old man with a great white beard to build a large boat and have all the animals enter the boat 2 by 2.  It starts raining and raining and raining until there is no more dry land and then they sail and sail and sail until it quits raining and the waters recede.  Noah and his family, along with all the animals, exit the ark and God puts a rainbow in the sky as a sign of the promise never to flood the earth again (this is the bow we read about in our Genesis text this morning).  The end.

No, it’s not really the end.  There is much more to the story of the great flood, of Noah and the building of the ark.  And we learn how much more there is to the story in our reading from 1 Peter today.  Here we have the story of God and Noah in Genesis, the first book of the Bible, and then we have it again, all the way in 1 Peter, one of the last books in the Bible.  Noah and his family were the only people to have survived the flood.  There is an obvious question for us to ask at this point: “Why did God flood the earth?”

For the answer to this, we need to stretch all the way back to Genesis chapter 6:  

The LORD saw that the wickedness of humankind was great in the earth, and that every inclination of the thoughts of their hearts was only evil continually.  6 And the LORD was sorry that he had made humankind on the earth, and it grieved him to his heart.  7 So the LORD said, "I will blot out from the earth the human beings I have created– people together with animals and creeping things and birds of the air, for I am sorry that I have made them."

It is amazing to me to feel the regret, grief, and sadness of God in these words.  Human beings had become so corrupt and selfish that God decided that the best way to save them from themselves was to destroy them. 

And so, Genesis chapter 7 continues: “everything on dry land whose nostrils was the breath of life died (Gen. 7.22).”  If we only read the book of Genesis, this is where we would be left with the story of the great flood, of Noah, and of all who perished. 

If this is where I was left, this is my question: “What happened to all those who died in the flood?  All those who were so awful that God wiped them out?  All those who I tend to identify with and think, if I lived in that time, I know I would have lost my breath underneath the waters of the flood with the rest of them. 

Dear people of God, it is a good thing this is not where we are left.  Let’s pull out our bulletins and look at our reading from 1 Peter together.  This passage of Scripture blows my mind.  I hesitate preaching on it because it can be so confusing, but it is so exciting and I can’t help but take you there. 

Verse 18 starts out:

For Christ also suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God. He was put to death in the flesh, but made alive in the spirit,  19 in which also he went and made a proclamation to the spirits in prison,  20 who in former times did not obey, when God waited patiently in the days of Noah, during the building of the ark, in which a few, that is, eight persons, were saved through water.

 Let me ask you this: Who are the spirits in prison?…

 The ‘spirits in prison’ are the ones who were so evil that God destroyed them through the flood.  They were the ones who had died thousands of years before Jesus died on the cross.  And what is it that we say in our confession of faith…Jesus “was crucified, died, and was buried;” and “he descended to the dead.”  Here is it, right here in 1 Peter.  Christ descended to the place of the dead.  Call it hell, call it whatever you want, but Christ went there. 

And what did he do while he was there?  He made a proclamation to those who had perished in the flood.  Now a proclamation doesn’t mean, “Ne ner ne ner ne ner.  Don’t you wish you would have lived a better life?”  No!  Christ says, “I suffered for sins once for all, the righteous for the unrighteous, in order to bring you to God.” 

Jesus proclaims victory over death and the good news of God for them, for these ones who had absolutely no reason to hope that God’s grace and love could possibly reach them, especially in their graves. 

Here is where I’m going to ask you to pull out the other piece of paper that is in the front of your hymnal.  On it has 3 images (Breaking Down the Door; The Resurrection; Release from Captivity).  The images illustrate Jesus descent into hell (or the place of the dead) and what Christians believe takes place there.  Tell me some of the things you see in the pictures…

In the one on the upper right hand corner of the page Jesus is physically pulling a man and a woman (this is really Adam and Eve) out of their coffins.  In the one on the bottom right, you can see Jesus breaking down the door to the place of the dead and escorting everyone out.  This one in particular has to do with our text today.

In the one on the left and upper right there are all kinds of locks and keys that are falling down into the abyss.  What this tells us is that Christ breaks all the chains and locks of the things that bind us, like fear, addiction, depression, hate, judging others, anger, and all of the things that keep us captive.  And ultimately, Jesus rips open our graves and raises us up from death because death cannot hold Christ, and because of Jesus, death cannot and will not hold us either.

There is a woman by the name of Corrie ten Boom, who is a holocaust survivor who has said, “There is no pit so deep that God is not deeper still (Corrie ten Boom).”  Can we even fathom the depths in which God is willing to go to save us and give us hope?

How many of you have been told that you’re going to hell for one reason or another?  How many of you are afraid that hell is where you will end up after you die?  Please hear me clearly, do not be afraid.  There is no place you can go, that God has already not been.  Christ has been to hell and if for some reason if you end up there, Jesus has the power to reach into the depths of the deep to grab hold of your hand and raise you up to new life.

Instead of destroying us because of the ways we harm ourselves and each other still, God tries something new in Jesus Christ.  Instead of us dying like the story in Genesis, God dies instead in Jesus, and He does it for you and for me.

We are now in the Church season of Lent.  As we begin Lent we begin our journey by personally and communally figuring out and naming the things that hold you and me captive from being healthy and from being the type of loving people God desires for us to be.  It is a journey to the cross, but the closer we get to the cross, we can see the faint horizon of Easter…the resurrection on the other side of death.

Faith is not about where you are going to go after you die.  Faith is about trusting that you are in the loving hands of God.  And not only yourself, but your family, your friends, and all of creation.  Is there any limit to which God will not go to save us?  

As the Pslamist writes in Psalm 139:  “Where can I go from your spirit? Or where can I flee from your presence?  8 If I ascend to heaven, you are there; if I make my bed in ‘the place of the dead,’ you are there.”

There is no where you are that God is not.  God promises to be with us and you have no need to fear.