“Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be weeping and gnashing of teeth.” I’m not getting a lot of easy texts to start my time with you, am I? Last week we heard about giving thanks when we’re not feeling thankful, and this week it’s hell. Yes, this outer darkness with weeping and gnashing of teeth is a reference to hell.
Now hell is actually something most of us are familiar with. Not in the fire-and-brimstone, pitchforks and the devil way, but in the original meaning of hell, which is that place where God is not. Hell is that place where God isn’t. That outer darkness, where there is no light, and no God, and no life. Hell is the place where we are alone when we desperately need a friend, where we can’t see the light and we feel swallowed up by darkness, where we feel overwhelmed by everything and see no way out.
I’ve been in hell, in that outer darkness, at least three times in my life. The first time was when I was doing hospital chaplaincy in my first year at seminary, and I was assigned to the Medical Respiratory Intensive Care Unit and the Neonatal Intensive Care Unit. In two short months, over twenty patients that I had been in contact with had died, from the elderly to babies. At the end of those two months, I felt like I was in the back of a very deep and very dark cave, and I couldn’t find my way out.
The second and third times were after the births of my two children. In both of those cases, it was when they were each about eight months and I was feeling beyond overwhelmed in caring for them. One time, I went for a walk in the woods and wondered on the way there if anyone would notice if I came back without the baby. Another time, I remember actually wanting to drive my car into a brick wall at top speed. Clearly, I did neither of those things, but I still remember the feeling of being in that hell, in that outer darkness. Feeling completely abandoned, bound hand and foot and thrown out there, in the dark, alone.
As it turns out, all three of those times were episodes of clinical depression. And during that third time, I went to the doctor and was diagnosed and was given medication that I will probably be on to one degree or another for the rest of my life. And I share this story whenever I can because this past Tuesday was World Mental Health Day, and this outer darkness of mental health is not something we talk about in the church very much. And I want you to know that if you have had times when you have felt bound and thrown into the darkness, or if you feel that way right now, you are not alone and we can talk about it.
Of course, depression is not the only time we can feel like we’ve been cast out into the outer darkness. Being rejected by a friend, facing a medical emergency, losing a job, losing a loved one––loss of any kind, actually, can throw us into that darkness, whether for just a moment or for years. The outer darkness, the valley of the shadow of death, the funeral shroud that covers the people––this is a common experience throughout history––the writer of Isaiah experienced it, the Psalmist who gave us Psalm 23 experienced it, the community of Matthew’s Gospel experienced it.
There’s a line in the Apostles’ Creed that I find particularly comforting when I’m in that outer darkness. I know we turn more to the Lord’s Prayer than the Creed when we’re in need of comfort, but for me, that line is there in the Second Article, “I believe in Jesus Christ.” After talking about Jesus’ life and death, we then say, “he descended into hell.” The alternate line says, “descended to the dead,” but for me, “descended into hell” is particularly comforting. Jesus was in hell.
This is profound. It means that when that man at the king’s son’s wedding banquet was bound hand and foot and cast out to the outer darkness, he was cast in to the place where Jesus was. It means that when we are suffering through our own personal hells, whether it’s the result of our own actions or someone else’s, Jesus is there. There is nowhere we can go where God has not gone - that’s Psalm 139. You are not alone in that outer darkness, in that valley of the shadow of death. God is with you. Martin Luther himself strongly believed this, and preached that Jesus Christ, the Son of God, fully human and fully divine, descended to hell, to be amongst the sinners and the lost and the abandoned and the rejected.
Being with you means more than just Christ suffering with you in the darkness, sitting there in dark cave next to you. We have God’s promise, given to us over and over and over again, that God transforms darkness into light, death into life. Psalm 23 assures us that, in the presence of our enemies, God prepares a table for us. When death surrounds us, when we feel overwhelmed, when the odds are stacked against us, God sets up a feast. Isaiah says this too, in the reading that we often hear at funerals. In the midst of loss, God is setting up an overabundance of good things - an overflowing of all those things that nourish us and bring us life.
Because ultimately, as Isaiah says, God is swallowing up death. God is making death no more because God is feeding us with new life, life that overflows the boundaries of darkness, and wipes away every tear. Life that spreads into every corner, into the backs of the deepest caves, into the moments of blackest darkness. The table that God is preparing for us is constantly expanding to include more and more people, and the food that God provides never ends.
We see it, actually, every time we come to this table. We come to this table with all of our darkness inside of us, we come to eat and drink of our Lord with all of our feelings of abandonment and rejection and loneliness, because this table was also set up in the outer darkness. Christ was abandoned and rejected by his followers, he died on the cross crying out, “My God, my God, why have you forsaken me?” and he descended to hell, and this is his table. And on the third day he rose again. And in that rising, God swallowed up death, and wiped away every tear, and shed light into the darkest corners, and granted new life to all the dead.
And God did it for us. For you. When you are at this table, when you hear, the body of Christ, given for you, and the blood of Christ, shed for you, know that in that for you are God’s words of life to you and for you. For you in your moments of light, and, more importantly, for you in your moments of darkness. Christ gives himself to you, to feast on and be filled, to carry inside of you even as you leave the table, to bring with you wherever you go, even into the darkness that is threatening to swallow you but never can.
“Bind him hand and foot, and throw him into the outer darkness, where there will be wailing and gnashing of teeth.” “Yea, though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death, I shall fear no evil, for you are with me.” The God whom we worship is, ultimately, the God of light and life, revealed to us in Christ, who prepares a table for us in the midst of our enemies, in the midst of our hell. It is a table overflowing with new life, and you are welcome to it, over and over again, as many times as you need, because it is “for you.” Thanks be to God. Amen.