Thursday, October 01, 2009

Gates of Hell

A friend of mine is walking through the valley of the shadow of death. She is fine - physically - but hurting emotionally because she walks in death's shade: a grandfather who passed away last night, and just the day before, the ominous threat of cancer diagnosed in her mom...... It is an unpleasant walk, full of dark thoughts, lunging feelings, a hard place in the throat and in the pit of one's stomach.
    Where, O death, is your victory?
    Where, O death, is your sting?
What? How dare he say that, when death's sting is felt by those it chooses, and perhaps more, by those who live in its shadow.
    The sting of death is sin,
    and the power of sin is the law.
    But thanks be to God!
    He gives us the victory through our Lord Jesus Christ.
Understand this carefully: It is not a sin to feel the sting of death; the sting of death is itself sin. This ugly thing called death is the promised result of sin entering our world, of mankind breaking the primal law of God. Not one of us can cheat it or avoid it. We will all spend time in its shadow, and one day it will overtake us.

But understand this even more: There is victory. Jesus won it.

My friend tells me that yesterday afternoon, she and her mom and sister went to see her grandfather who was dying, and they told him again of Jesus, and this time he believed. In Jesus' name, they broke in and robbed the grave that her grandfather lived in all his earthly life! They stormed the prison cell that would have been his forever and broke him out! Astounding.

Jesus promised it this way: "Blessed are you, Simon Bar-Jonah! For flesh and blood has not revealed this to you, but my Father who is in heaven. And I tell you, you are Peter, and on this rock I will build my church, and the gates of hell shall not prevail against it. I will give you the keys of the kingdom of heaven, and whatever you bind on earth shall be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth shall be loosed in heaven" (Matthew 16:17-19).

I always used to picture the church in a defensive stance, fighting off the attack of hell. Look more carefully. It is the realm of the dead that is under attack, and the promise is that it will not withstand the siege of the church. He's talking about big gates, prison gates or city gates, and we will break through and rob Hades of the dead who dwell there. Not by our authority, but by the authority of the One who builds his church to be a fighting machine that cannot be overcome.

That's what happened last night. Three women, arriving in a hospital room in the name of Jesus, crashed the gates of hell and rescued one who had lived there all his life.

Thanks be to God!

Is it fair? One of the most beautiful parables in the Gospels - the beauty of the kingdom of God - is this:
    For the kingdom of heaven is like a landowner who went out early in the morning to hire men to work in his vineyard. He agreed to pay them a denarius for the day and sent them into his vineyard.

    About the third hour he went out and saw others standing in the marketplace doing nothing. He told them, "You also go and work in my vineyard, and I will pay you whatever is right." So they went.

    He went out again about the sixth hour and the ninth hour and did the same thing. About the eleventh hour he went out and found still others standing around. He asked them, "Why have you been standing here all day long doing nothing?"

    "Because no one has hired us," they answered.
    He said to them, "You also go and work in my vineyard."

    When evening came, the owner of the vineyard said to his foreman, "Call the workers and pay them their wages, beginning with the last ones hired and going on to the first."

    The workers who were hired about the eleventh hour came and each received a denarius. So when those came who were hired first, they expected to receive more. But each one of them also received a denarius. When they received it, they began to grumble against the landowner. "These men who were hired last worked only one hour," they said, "and you have made them equal to us who have borne the burden of the work and the heat of the day."

    But he answered one of them, "Friend, I am not being unfair to you. Didn't you agree to work for a denarius? Take your pay and go. I want to give the man who was hired last the same as I gave you. Don't I have the right to do what I want with my own money? Or are you envious because I am generous?"

    So the last will be first, and the first will be last.
Grandpa gets his reward first. So cool. Though if you are thinking of following his example, I'm sure that he would warn you against tempting God. And he will thank you, my friend, for not being afraid to storm the castle and set him free.
    Even though I walk
    through the valley of the shadow of death,
    I will fear no evil,
    for you are with me;
    your rod and your staff,
    they comfort me.

    You prepare a table before me
    in the presence of my enemies.
    You anoint my head with oil;
    my cup overflows.

    Surely goodness and love will follow me
    all the days of my life,
    and I will dwell in the house of the Lord
Hey Church. Your defense is admirable. You have managed to bar your doors against all appearance of evil (and many people). You are like the man who barricades himself in his cellar against an enemy who is quite content to leave him there and cause all manner of havoc outside.

Climb out of the cellar. Go on the offensive. Jesus promises you that the very gates of hell will crumble before you, that you will raid Hades itself and fleece it clean. You have been given keys to places you have never visited, in your neurotic attempt to avoid the appearance of evil (to quote a poorly understood rendition of 1 Thessalonians 5:22).

Go where no church has gone before, open doors in Jesus' name, with a prayer on your lips and the confidence of his promise ringing in your ears. Rescue those who thought rescue would never come.

What are we waiting for?