GOING to Hell (to Preach)

“Mom, what is Saturday called?”

I looked at my 11-year-old with a puzzled expression, unsure how to answer her question.

“You know.  Thursday is Maundy Thursday.  Friday is Good Friday.  Sunday is Easter Sunday.  Even Monday is called Easter Monday.  So what is Saturday called?”

I considered the question, and realized I didn’t have a good answer.  Long after the conversation was over though, I finally came up with an answer.  “Saturday was the Sabbath.  It was the day of rest – even for Jesus.”

I remembered friend and pastor A.J. Swoboda, author of Messy: God Likes it That Way reviewed here on my blog, recently tweeting, “Some call it a tomb.  Christ-followers call it a nap.”

As I considered Jesus’ nap on Saturday, I recalled the text of the Apostles’ Creed that I remember repeating almost weekly in my childhood church.

I believe in God,
the Father almighty,
Creator of heaven and earth,
and in Jesus Christ, his only Son, our Lord,
who was conceived by the Holy Spirit,
born of the Virgin Mary,
suffered under Pontius Pilate,
was crucified, died and was buried;
he descended into hell;
on the third day he rose again from the dead;
he ascended into heaven,
and is seated at the right hand of God the Father almighty;
from there he will come to judge the living and the dead.
I believe in the Holy Spirit,
the holy catholic Church,
the communion of saints,
the forgiveness of sins,
the resurrection of the body,
and life everlasting. Amen.

These 112 words, written in the early centuries of the Church, express clearly and succinctly the basic foundational truths of our faith.  Without delving into secondary issues, it sums up well what Christians worldwide believe.  Through the years, churches, denominations and individuals have expanded upon the Apostles’ Creed, but this provides an excellent starting place.

In thinking about Jesus taking a nap though, the statement Jesus “descended into hell” jumped out at me.  Of course it is possible he could have rested in hell – after all, he slept through a dangerous, fear-filled storm aboard a boat with his disciples!  But then I recalled a curious set of verses in 1 Peter 3:18-20: “For Christ also suffered once for sins, the righteous for the unrighteous, to bring you to God.  He was put to death in the body but made alive in the Spirit.  After being made alive, he went and made proclamation to the imprisoned spirits— to those who were disobedient long ago when God waited patiently in the days of Noah while the ark was being built.”

Jesus went to hell to make proclamation to imprisoned spirits.  Although the word “proclamation” in Greek is not the familiar euaggelizó from which we get our word “evangelize”, it is kérussó which means to proclaim or herald.  This is the actually the same word used to describe what John the Baptist and Jesus did, as well as what Jesus instructed his disciples to do.  It’s a fairly weighty word.

Academic and theological discussions abound about what exactly Jesus was proclaiming, to whom, why and to what end while in hell.  While I certainly don’t have a handle on what the right answer is to these challenging questions, I do know one thing.

Jesus never rests from descending into our hells – our places of torment, despair, hopelessness, and suffering.  He never rests in proclaiming his good news of love, forgiveness, hope, and new life.  Nothing – not even his death – stops Jesus from declaring his intent and desire for healing and relationship with each one of us.

Even on the Sabbath – a day filled with restrictions and guidelines about how one could and could not act – a day bounded by what people could and could not do – Jesus proclaims his message.  He fully embraces the opportunity his presence in hell provides.  Jesus takes every opportunity – the good and the bad – to proclaim his message to us as well.  Whether it’s a beautiful sunset or a destructive freak storm; a spring flower poking through the snow or barren, lifeless ground’ a sweetly whispered “I love you” from a child or the heartache of infertility; a joy-filled afternoon with one you love or a hurtful argument with one you thought you loved – Jesus is proclaiming his message to you.

While I don’t know how his audience in hell might have responded, I do know how each of us can respond.  Jesus’ life message seems so complex, yet it’s so simple.  God loved the world so much that he had to create a way to bring his beloved creation back in relationship with him, for the relationship God desired had been torn apart by sin.  But God knew, and showed, love is greater than any sin.

And so Jesus came into the world as a gift – a gift that’s given in the beautiful cathedrals and the unsightly streets – a gift that’s offered in times of joy and times of despair – a gift that’s presented to powerful royalty and feeble outcasts – a gift that’s extended to us all who would listen and not listen, on the earth and below the earth.  Even on the established day of rest, when he was dead and laying in a tomb, Jesus went to hell.  And he went to hell to preach.

While we are on this earth, we are never too far gone.  It is never too late.  Jesus enters into hell – our hell – and proclaims his message of love.  So somehow today deserves a name far greater than just Sabbath.  Perhaps, we can call it, as my daughter suggested, “Holy Saturday”.

I can’t think of anything more holy than the God of this world proclaiming truth, even in the midst of hell!