Descending into Hell

This Lenten series works at clarifying an often-misunderstood statement from the Apostles' Creed "He descended into hell," The aim is to teach that Christ's loneliness and suffering intensified as he moved more deeply into the agony of hell. Even his close friends did not understand what was happening, thereby increasing their Lord's loneliness. Finally Christ called out in anguish, "My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?"

LENT 1: WALKING INTO PAIN

Matthew 16:21-28; John 12:23-36

Matthew includes this prediction of suffering right after a moving confession by Peter (16:16). Jesus simply states that he must go into Jerusalem and that he must die. He is on another agenda and schedule, an agenda that conflicts with the disciples' concept of a messiah who will liberate them from hated Roman oppression. The glory that each has in mind is different.

Peter's suggestion to avoid Jerusalem is a powerful temptation for Jesus. His humanity, like ours, seeks to avoid pain. Christ identifies the source of the temptation and deals with it firmly.

LENT 2: "STINKING THINKIN G"

Luke 22:1-5, 31-34

Lent must bring out that the battle is a continuation of the lifelong conflict of good and evil, God and Satan, that began in Genesis 3. Though victory is assured (Gen. 3:15), the battle is vicious. The kingdom of darkness is determined to dethrone God and demolish his followers. Note Satan's involvement with both Judas and Peter. Satan enters Judas and deceives him (Luke 22:3). He knows Judas's weak side and tempts him.

Judas has likely concluded that Jesus is not the messiah who will liberate his people from Roman oppression. He knows he will not be vice president in a new government led by King Jesus. In fact, from Judas's perspective things seem to be falling apart. He might as well make the best of it and get out. (That's "Stinking Thinking" a la Alcoholics Anonymous.) Jesus informs Peter (w. 31-34) that Satan is going to try his best (as he did with Job) to lead Peter away. For this inner spiritual attack Jesus asks the Father to provide Peter with a strong faith. The actual battle takes place behind the scenes, and Peter fails to recognize its intensity. His "stinking thinking" convinces him that he is strong enough to stick with Jesus and face the battle.

Although Jesus won the war, the skirmishes continue. Satan tempts Christ's followers today too. So be alert! Try to discern Satan's presence and learn to walk in truth.

LENT 3: GETTING READY FOR THE CEMETERY

John 12:1-11

Mary's uninhibited display of love is an affirmation for Jesus and an opportunity to teach the disciples the real values in life.

verses 1-3: The gift from Mary. Mary unashamedly and publicly expresses her love for Jesus. She pours expensive perfume (normally it was eked out in "tip and drip" measures). She forgets about protocol and costs. As the room is permeated with a rich perfume smell, the Lord is lavished with her love. But more is happening.

verses 4-6: The thrift of Judas. His calculator is going: 100 ml at 3 denarii each is 300 denarii... "My goodness, that's a whole year's wage! Think of all the good things that could have been done with that money. A drop or two would have served the same purpose, and the rest should have been sold...."

verses 7-11: The shift by Jesus. We can be so proper that there is no room for spontaneity or celebration. This is a rare, precious outpouring of adoration, worship, and love. For the master it is a onetime act of preparation for his suffering, death, and burial, now imminent. Without minimizing the needs of the poor, he states that his sacrifice warranted the outpouring of this costly gift.

Is there room in our well-organized, structured lives and worship for wholehearted, extravagant outpourings of love for the Lord who has given his all? Mary's outburst is a beautiful act of worship, not unlike David's dancing before the Lord (2 Sam. 6), fully accepted by God, but "grossly overdone and offensive" to others.

LENT 4: DIRTY FEET AND COLD HANDS

John 13:1-12; 18:15-18, 25-27

Peter refuses. He refuses to humble himself at the footwashing; he fears identification with Christ.

Christ accuses. The Lord responds both times without saying a thing! At the footwashing he takes the towel and basin and becomes the servant. After the denials the Lord turns and looks at Peter (Luke 22:61). Peter learns that his problem is a cold, dirty heart rather than hands and feet.

God uses. God used these episodes to teach Peter that Christ's death was not just due to the anger of the Pharisees. It was the planned way of reconciliation between God and fallen humankind.

LENT 5: DRAINED TO THE LAST DROP

Mark 14:32-42;John 17

Matthew, Mark, and Luke all spell out Christ's struggle to do the Father's will by drinking the entire cup: painfully and willingly giving up his life. His loneliness is again apparent; the disciples couldn't "watch one hour." The heart of Christ's struggle may well be contained in the prayer in John 17.

GOOD FRIDAY: A HELLISH EXECUTION

Mark 15:33-41; John 19:28-37

Our Good Friday service is usually a simple, quiet, reflective service focusing on the ugliness of the death and the beauty of its meaning. Our goal is to have the congregation reflect deeply about the price that Jesus paid. Being forsaken by the Father was the ultimate descent into hell.

When the service is held in the evening, we often include moving from full light into darkness. We conclude with a time of silent meditation in total darkness. We often ask the worshipers to leave in silence without the usual fellowship and after-service chatter. The service does not include the benediction and doxology. In fact, at the beginning we tell those gathered that this service will conclude on Sunday morning.

EASTER SUNDAY: GOD LOVES CEMETERIES

Ezekiel 37:1-14; John 20

An Old Testament message on Easter Sunday can be a refreshing change from the usual gospel Easter story. However, if the congregation has many community visitors, take extra care to bridge from Old to New.

The valley of dry bones portrays our absolute inability to bring life. It is a picture of people in their fallen state. Restoration must come from elsewhere. The cemetery is where we are most helpless; as such, it is the place where God does his best work. The Good Friday and Easter services are contrasts: from sober, silent reflection we move to exuberant, enthusiastic, celebrative praise. We involve many younger and older members with various musical instruments, readings, banners, drama, and dance.

Henry Wildeboer is a retired pastor in the Christian Reformed Church.