From the Womb to the Tomb
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In our sermon this morning we are looking at a big chunk of the Apostle’s Creed that follows the life of Jesus from the womb to the tomb. We are going to be looking at it in three parts this morning; conception and birth, suffering and then death. As a template for life, this isn’t really an ideal pattern but is it the path that we all walk; we all start in the womb and end in the tomb and we all suffer, whether in body or mind or spirit. Last week, Pastor David looked at the line I believe in Jesus Christ our Lord and talked about the name of Jesus. Today we are going to focus on who Jesus is and on what he reveals to us about God.
Conceived of the Holy Spirit/Born of the Virgin Mary
The Apostle’s Creed was written to clarify and explain certain aspects of the Christian faith and likely to refute certain heresies that were going around at the time. Heresies like Jesus wasn’t really human, he only appeared human or Jesus was only human and he wasn’t really God. For either of these beliefs to creep into the Church, would have changed everything as they go against the true message of the gospel. It was important that when you bought into this whole Jesus thing, that you knew exactly to what you were committing. Jesus was a lot of things; a teacher, a prophet, a leader, but he was much more. In order for us to understand who Jesus it, we need to know where he came from.
I am reminded of all the stories of superheroes who don’t quite know where they come from. Stories like Thor, Wonder Woman and Hercules. They will often discover, by accident, that they have super powers like super strength or regenerative power or shapeshifting. Then they must undertake a quest to hone their newly discovered powers and find out about their origin. At some point on this quest, they come into the knowledge of where they came from and everything falls into place.
Thankfully God was much less mysterious about bringing Jesus into the world so we know exactly where and who he comes from. He was conceived of the Holy Spirit and born of the Virgin Mary. And unlike Loci, the half-brother of Thor, or Diana and Hercules who are all half god and half human, Jesus came to earth as fully God and fully human. He came as two distinct essences, fully integrated in one body. We’re not too far off from Christmas so the story should be fresh in our minds. Mary, a young woman not yet married finds herself visited by an angel and told that she is pregnant. She tells the angel that this is impossible as she is a virgin and it is, impossible, unless of course, God did it.
We have this motif throughout the Bible, this theme of impossible pregnancy, or barrenness, and divine action. In fact, you can’t get very far into reading the Bible without coming across this theme. We see it with Sarah, who shows up in in the twelfth chapter of Genesis. We see it again with Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah, and Elizabeth. This story comes up every time there is a turning point in the history of Israel. Sarah, Rebekah and Rachel, though barren, become the mothers of patriarchs. Hannah and the nameless woman in the book of Judges, give birth to Samuel and Samson who become Judges of Israel. And Elizabeth becomes the mother of John the Baptist, a prophet, the one who will point the way to the Christ. In all these stories, pregnancy is unlikely, if not impossible, and God acts and a child is born who would become a leader to the people of Israel. In all this stories, God used women who were completely powerless over their wombs to birth power.
Then we have Mary. A woman for whom pregnancy was impossible, not because she was barren, but because, as we know, it takes two. The fact that she was a virgin is not saying something about Mary so much as it’s saying something about what God did. The Spirit of God created life. This time was similar to the times of Sarah, Rebekah, Rachel, Hannah, Elizabeth, and the unnamed woman because God intervened to bring life. It was different, because instead of a leader for the nation of Israel who would either bring blessings to the nation or act as a judge or point the way to God, this time, God gave a leader who would bless, not just one nation, but the whole world, a leader who would judge the world and a leader who would not only point the way to God, but bring us into a relationship with God. This time, the leader would do what no person could do unless that person was God. One writer puts in this way: “In Jesus’ death on the cross, divine love acts in a human way and human acts have divine force”.
Suffered under Pontius Pilate
The leader that was needed of course, one who was both God and man, had to suffer. We have this line in the Creed that Jesus suffered under Pontius Pilate and I feel a little bad for Pilate. He’s gone down in history as the one who made Jesus suffer. But this line isn’t about villainizing Pilate, it’s about marking this as an event that happened in real time. This mention is marking the death of Jesus as an event that took place during the governance of Pilate, which was from 26-36 AD, a death that was, most likely, either in 30 or 33 AD. As Christians who want to imitate Christ, we like to hear about the details. What did Jesus do? How would he act? Who would he talk to? This Creed doesn’t give us the details. All it tells us about Jesus’ life in between the womb and the tomb is that he suffered. We’ve learned where Jesus comes from, and now we are looking at who he is - the Messiah. The prophet Isaiah received a word from the Lord about who the Messiah would be. We read in Isaiah chapter 53 about a Suffering Servant; one who is innocent, who upheld the Law, who did no violence, and one who suffered. We read in verse 10 that it was God’s will to cause him to suffer. This was God’s will because he didn’t want anyone else to have to suffer. There was a need to satisfy God’s wrath against sin and that need was satisfied by Jesus. As Jesus bears the wrath of God and suffers, all the groans of creation that we read about in Romans, have ceased. It compares these groans to a woman in labour and Jesus’ suffering, brings us to the hour of deliverance. So, while something in the universe has been set right by the suffering of Jesus, it still needs to be set right in our hearts. We still need that deliverance for ourselves. Until it comes, we groan for our adoption into the family of God. We are restless like superheroes who know they made for something more, but don’t quite know where they come from.
Was crucified, dead and was buried. He descended to the dead
The next part of the Creed may seem a little bit redundant. Jesus was crucified, dead, and was buried. But it’s important to note that all three of these events took place. Jesus was crucified, like a common criminal, something that was a method of torture and didn’t necessarily mean death. But we know that after some hours on the cross, Jesus did die. Another heresy that was going around in the century after Jesus’ death was that he appeared dead but wasn’t really dead. But Jesus had to die because he didn’t only come to the earth to defeat sin, he came to defeat death. He was crucified, he died, and he was placed in a tomb. These three events show us that Jesus, the Son of God, was truly dead. He didn’t pass from death straight into glory, there was a period when the Son of God lay dead, buried in a tomb.
I’ve found that in the Church, we talk a lot about the death of Jesus and a lot about the resurrection, but we don’t talk about what happened in between. If Jesus rose 3 days after he died, what happened during those three days? His body was dead but where was his Spirit? Where does a God-man go upon death? Well, as we read in the Creed and as is mentioned in the Bible, Jesus descended to the dead. He descended to the realm of the dead.
The Bible gives us two words for the realm of the dead – Sheol used in the Old Testament and Hades, used in the New Testament. These both refer to a holding place where those who die stay will they await judgment. If you remember the story of Lazarus in Luke 16, you’ll remember that both a beggar and a rich man die and end up in the realm of the dead. It seems from the story that this realm has a place of blessing and a place of torment. This place is different than what we would think of as hell or what Jesus calls, Gehenna, but it is a place of suffering and so in that way, we can think of it as a sort of hell. After his death and burial, Jesus descends to this realm to destroy death itself. It’s not clear exactly what happens when he’s down there. There are some references in scripture to say that Jesus preached to the captive souls that were being held there, which would explain what Matthew (27:51-53) talks about when he writes that after the veil was torn in two, tombs were opened and many saints were resurrected but that might be a whole other sermon. What we do know happened, is that Christ defeated death.
I like to picture this moment as Jesus showing up to this realm of Hades and giving out a big “Hell, No!”. No to death and destruction, no to disease, no to oppression and injustice, no to racism and sexism and no to anything that would try to hold us back from God. As Romans says, neither death, nor life, neither angels nor demons, neither the present nor the future nor any powers, neither height nor depth nor anything else in all creation can separate us from the love of God in Jesus Christ. Jesus is our hope in life and in death. There’s a phrase out there, often used to refer to assisted-suicide; die with dignity. The truth is, if we follow in the way of Christ, we don’t die with dignity. But we do die with hope. Hope that death is not separation from our Father, but a reunion with our Father and with all those who have gone before us. Hope that when we stand for judgement, Jesus will be there to say, she’s with me or he’s with me. Hope because, while we once grieved over a barren womb, we now rejoice over a barren tomb. For God saw fit to enter into the two places where human beings are completely powerless, the womb and the tomb, and he brought life, and with that life, the power to change the world.
So that’s it. That’s Jesus from the womb to the tomb. I’d love to get on with what comes next but that would be getting ahead of ourselves. It can be helpful to linger at the cross. To consider what Jesus, fully God and fully man, did for us. And it’s helpful to linger at the tomb. To realize that there is nowhere Jesus won’t go to get us. For us to linger at the tomb is to ask, what hell am I living in that I need Jesus to break into? Or what place of powerlessness do we need to cover in prayer so that God can bring life and display his power? There are people all around us who are powerless to change their suffering. People who are without hope. We can share the hope that we have in Christ with them. And not only our hope, but our joy. The Joy of God’s promise and the joy of our salvation. The Father’s Joy. As I was writing this, I was dwelling on the concept this joy and it struck me that this is my name – in Hebrew, Abba for Father and Gail for Joy is how we get the name, Abigail. A good reminder for me of where it is that my joy comes from.
The Father’s joy. This is the joy that caused Sarah to laugh when she gave birth to Isaac. The joy that wiped away the tears of Hannah. And the joy that caused Mary to burst into song exclaiming that God is mighty and merciful and lifts up the lowly and fills up the hungry. This is the joy that causes us to declare with the psalmist
“How awesome are your deeds O God!
Because of your great power, your enemies cringe before you.
You have tested us, you have tried us, and you have brought us into a spacious place.
Come and see what God has done”.
Children of God, go into the world with confidence that neither death nor life, nor angels nor rulers, nor things present nor things to come, nor powers, nor height nor depth, nor anything else in all creation, will be able to separate us from the love of God in Christ Jesus our Lord.