My first message this week, and it is still Easter week, so…
Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices; my flesh also dwells secure. For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption.”
Psalms 16:9-10 ESV
Psalm 16 is one of the Old Testament texts Peter drew upon for his Pentecost Sunday sermon as he preached upon the resurrection of Jesus Christ. The events central to Pentecost occurred in the upper room. Very near to the upper room was the tomb of David. So as Peter preaches this sermon, he could quote from psalm 16, and then he could point to the tomb of David which was right there. “”Brothers, I may say to you with confidence about the patriarch David that he both died and was buried, and his tomb is with us to this day.” Acts 2:29 ESV. And he could point at the tomb of David as he preached. “Being therefore a prophet, and knowing that God had sworn with an oath to him that he would set one of his descendants on his throne, he foresaw and spoke about the resurrection of the Christ, that he was not abandoned to Hades, nor did his flesh see corruption.” Acts 2:30-31 ESV. And since his tomb is right there, apparently he was not talking about himself but messiah, who would not be abandoned to the grave, who would not see corruption, who would be raised in resurrection.
At His death, Christ descended to the dead, as we confess in the apostles creed. You (hopefully) are familiar with the creed, “I believe in God, the Father Almighty, creator of heaven and earth. I believe in Jesus Christ, his only Son our Lord. He was conceived by the power of the Holy Spirit, born of the Virgin Mary. He suffered under Pontius Pilate, was crucified, died and was buried. He descended to the dead….”. This is a very mysterious aspect of apostles creed. Some traditions have simply taken it out, because they don’t want to deal with it, don’t understand what it means to say Jesus descended to the dead.
Peter says he preached to captive souls. Paul in Ephesians says he liberated captive souls. But they kind of whet out appetites but don’t tell us all we want to know. But they do make hints and allusions to it.
Greek Orthodox Anastasis (resurrection) icons always picture Jesus in resurrection not alone, but bringing others with him. The idea that Jesus went into death and rose again by himself is kind of a happy ending to the story, but leaves death unchanged. Greek Orthodox icons have it right. They always depict Christ with others, specifically pulling Adam and Eve, representing all humanity, out of their graves. It is the iconography of Jesus actually conquering death.
By death, Christ entered into death to fill death with himself, so that now to enter into death is to encounter nothing but Christ. This is scripturally sound, theologically sound, and worth meditating on.
Today we are going to focus on this scripture – you will not abandon my soul to Sheol. The gospel, very simply, is the story of Jesus Christ. It’s the story of Jesus, not a formula, not an equation, not four laws and a sinners prayer.
The gospel in its fullest form encompasses the whole story of Israel, including the Old Testament, finding its fulfillment in Christ. Christ, the true Israelite, the seed of Abraham, the Son of David who sees the whole project into completion.
The gospel in its most succinct form is death, burial, and resurrection. The gospel in its clearest form is Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. It’s death, descent, and resurrection.
Salvation comes by believing and enfolding our story into the gospel story, so that our story and the gospel story mix together, becoming one new glorious story. That’s why formal entrance into the Christian faith involves the sacrament of baptism, which is many things but certainly a witness to the reality that we have died in christ, we are buried in Christ, and raised in newness of life in Christ. That which is the central story of Jesus, death, burial and resurrection, now because we are in Christ by faith, that becomes our story too. We too have died (to something), entered all the way into death, and been raised to newness of life. In other words, you have your own Good Friday, Holy Saturday, and Easter Sunday. But not just once, but many times throughout your journey, as you do it in Christ, there will be many occasions where the gospel pattern gets repeated in your life. Good Friday, Holy Saturday, Easter Sunday.
You will experience deaths. This is not bad news, it’s just news which you know already, that you will experience deaths. That is the pain of loss, relationships lost, stations and situations in life lost, sometimes even certain beliefs might be lost.
You will experience burial, that sense (not reality) of being abandoned by God. My god, my god, why have you forasaken me? We know Jesus prayed that from the cross. Every one of us has felt that very thing. In theology that’s called the cry of dereliction, where Jesus experiences the sense of abandonment upon the cross, you have experienced that same thing.
But you will also experience resurrection, being lifted up from death and Sheol into newness of life. You will be raised, but remember, you will not be the same. When you go through that pattern of life, because your story is enfolded into the story of Jesus, and you go through a period of death, burial and resurrection, when you are raised you are not just escaping by the skin of your teeth, you are coming through the whole process and now you are different.
Remember Lazarus? Lazarus was raised, but he was the same. Lazarus being raised after four days is not what happened to Jesus. It was a mere resuscitation. It was very dramatic, but it was simply resuscitation. Jesus was not resuscitated. Jesus’s resurrection was not merely Jesus coming back from the dead, “I got out, I escaped!” No, that’s why in those Orthodox icons it’s not just Jesus escaping by himself, but it’s Jesus destroying death itself from the inside. Lazarus just escapes, then returns. Jesus destroyed death, went through death. The resurrection of Jesus was a whole different order. If the resurrection of Jesus and the raising of Lazarus were of the same order, then Lazarus was even more impressive because he was four days dead, Jesus only three. But that’s not what’s going on.
Easter is Jesus Christ going all the way into death, not escaping death, but breaking through to the other side, breaking into a new world, a new age, a holy realm beyond the reach of death. Then he beckons us to follow.
When Jesus is raised, it’s very important to understand that he was changed. He is still Jesus. But he’s not the same. He’s still fundamentally the same person, but he is changed. We see this borne out in the fact that Jesus was almost always difficult to recognize. Mary Magdalene thought he was the gardener. The Emmaus Road disciples mistake him for a stranger. When Jesus appeared to the eleven on the mountain in Galilee, some of them doubted. It was possible to wonder “is this Jesus?” When the disciples had breakfast with him on the shore of the Sea of Galilee, we are told they didn’t dare ask “who are you?” “Jesus said to them, “Come and have breakfast.” Now none of the disciples dared ask him, “Who are you?” They knew it was the Lord.” John 21:12 ESV
The point is, it was hard to recognize Jesus after the resurrection. They identified him by his actions and certain things he did, but it was not as simple as instant facial recognition. They didn’t recognize him at first. “Just as day was breaking, Jesus stood on the shore; yet the disciples did not know that it was Jesus. Jesus said to them, “Children, do you have any fish?” They answered him, “No.” He said to them, “Cast the net on the right side of the boat, and you will find some.” So they cast it, and now they were not able to haul it in, because of the quantity of fish. That disciple whom Jesus loved therefore said to Peter, “It is the Lord!” When Simon Peter heard that it was the Lord, he put on his outer garment, for he was stripped for work, and threw himself into the sea.” John 21:4-7 ESV. They recognized because of the miracle they had seen…
In our own lives, as the gospel pattern of death, burial, and resurrection is played out over time, people may sometimes have a hard time recognizing you. They might even ask “who are you?” They didn’t ask Jesus, but they might ask you. They might say, you’re not really you anymore. “You’re not the real ___________!! What did you do with that guy i knew?” But isn’t that the point? Isn’t the point to become a new person in Christ? The point is not just to escape a certain situation but only come back the same, but to become a new person in Christ. We are buried as one kind of person, but be raised as another. For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol.
There will be times on your journey, if you stay on the journey (not everyone stays on the journey), all kinds of things will happen. There will be times when your soul will descend to Sheol. You might be able to avoid Sheol, if you don’t stay on the journey, and you get lucky and events in life work out to you favor, you may avoid the experience of Sheol. But you will never change, and that may be the greatest tragedy of all.
There will be times in your journey, if you stay on the journey, when your soul will descend into Sheol. Holy Saturday is part of the gospel. We like to go straight from Good Friday to Easter Sunday, but there is a whole day in between. That day may seem bleak. But Easter does come, amen and hallelujah.
There will be times when your soul will descend to Sheol. What is Sheol? It’s the same thing as the Greek Hades. It’s the place of the dead. It might best be best communicated by Homer in the Iliad and the Odyssey, where it’s this dark, dismal, subterranean abode of the dead, filled with shades and ghosts. They are listless spirits, everything is dull and grey. They wispy, listless spirits with no purpose or meaning, they just wander around forlorn and lost. That’s the biblical concept of Sheol, it’s this place where nothing makes sense, there seems to be no point to it, all the spirits are grey, listless, without any meaning.
There will be seasons where your soul will descend to Sheol, that’s what we generally call depression. Things are grey, they don’t make much sense. We get this feeling like what’s the point, your life doesn’t seem to have a clear defined meaning that makes sense to you.
There will be times when you feel like you’ve lost everything, it may feel like you’ve lost your faith, your hope, maybe your love. You may feel dead. You may feel dead to the things that once gave you comfort and provided meaning.
In Sheol, your soul will feel abandoned by god, but you will not be abandoned to Sheol. Yes, Sheol is a thing that happens to us. To you who believe, the promise is that god will not abandon your soul there. You’re not going to be stuck there forever. God will not abandon your soul to Sheol.
But Sheol does a work. You don’t do anything. What did Jesus do on holy Saturday? Nothing. He was there in a tomb. But Sheol for us may have a purpose. In Sheol death is doing its work if decomposing what ought not be, but, again, God will not abandon your soul to Sheol.
In the ambiguous third day (when we go through these things we can’t just look at the calendar and count three days), God will raise your soul from Sheol. Holy Saturday is not the end, Easter Sunday is the end, but it’s not so much an end as a new beginning. Yes, your soul will from time to time go down to Sheol, but God will not abandon your soul there. Just wait, your soul will be raised from Sheol to newness of life. But it will be a new you that is raised from Sheol. You might be hard to recognize. People might ask what happened to you??!! That’s the outsiders testimony of someone who’s gone down to Sheol, but God has not abandoned them, he has raised them them up to newness if life, and people are going to have say, “What’s happened to you, you’re not like you used to be!”
“Therefore my heart is glad, and my whole being rejoices; my flesh also dwells secure. For you will not abandon my soul to Sheol, or let your holy one see corruption.”
Psalms 16:9-10 ESV