+This morning, I brought a guest. He comes all the way from Japan. I love this guest. He’s just so sweet and nice.
I brought this statue of Jizo. Now, I love Jizo. If you know nothing about Jizo, that’s understandable. But to understand my relationship with Jizo, I want to share a little story.
As you might know, for an important part of my life, I considered myself a pretty committed Zen Buddhist. It wasn’t that I had given up Christianity or Jesus or anything like that, during this time. Spiritually, though—and probably more correctly, philosophically, it was a good time. I enjoyed my experience with Zen. And I still love and appreciate Zen Buddhism. And, I can say in all honesty, that I still have embraced and morphed some of those Zen aspects into my personal and spiritual life.
But one of my favorite stories during that time involved this little guy, Jizo. I always loved the story of Jizo. So, the story of Jizo goes like this:
Jizo is what is called, in Buddhism, a Bodhisattva. A Bodhisattva is just a very holy person who has gained enlightenment. Well, Jizo, as a Buddhist monk and bodhisattva, made a vow. He promised that we would not gain full enlightenment (which is roughly equivalent to our ultimate salvation) until every being was freed from hell. He understood, in taking this vow, that it would take close to an eternity for such a thing to happen. But that was his vow, and the belief continues that he is still here, trying to free all the beings from hell.
This why, these statues are very popular in Japan. They’re often seen in cemeteries, especially in children’s cemeteries. And he is seen as a special guardian of children in Japan.
I love that story of Jizo. I love it, because there is a bravery in Jizo’s vow. I don’t know if I could make a vow like that. Could I honestly hold off salvation until all people in hell were saved? I do not think I could.
But I do know someone who could do that. And that someone, in my opinion, is Jesus. I’m not saying he would put off salvation for himself. He doesn’t need to be saved. But I do believe that ultimately Christ is not victorious until hell is completely empty.
This belief, of course, comes to us from a very basic reading of 1 Peter, and from the early Church Fathers. Jesus descends into hell and preached to those there. The popular term for this is the Harrowing of Hell. He went to hell and harrowed until it was empty.
For me, as a Christian, I realized that my faith in Jesus is bigger than my faith in Jizo. I like Jizo. I think he’s a good example to all of us of untiring service and devotion to others. But, for me, and my following of Jesus, I find the story of the Harrowing of Hell to be so much more compelling. And my understanding of Jesus is most important in my spiritual life.
If Jizo could stay around, for centuries and centuries, trying to save all people, I have no doubt in my mind that Jesus certainly would do even more than that. I have no doubt that even if any of us were lost to the depths of hell, he would come to us, even there and lead us out.
Now, I know this is a very unpopular belief for many Christians. Many Christians simply cannot believe it. Hell is eternal, they believe And it should be. If you turn your back on Christ, then you should be in hell forever and ever. If you do wrong in life, you should be punished for all eternity.
I don’t agree. And my faith speaks loudly to me on this issue. The Christ I serve, the God is love and believe in, is not a God who would act in such a way. I am not saying there isn’t a hell. I am not saying I am certain I am right. I may be wrong. But if there is a hell, I believe that, at some point, it will be empty. And heaven will be full.
Until that day happens, none of us should be happy. None of us should rejoice. None of should exult in our own salvation, until salvation is granted to all. If there is an eternal hell and punishment, my salvation is not going to be what I thought it was.
And that is the real point of this day. I love the fact that, no matter where I am, no matter where I put myself, no matter what depths and hells and darknesses I sink myself into, even there Jesus will come to me and find me. And I know that the Jesus I serve and follow will not rest until the last of his lost loved ones is found and brought back. I know it’s not a popular belief in the Christian Church. But you know what. It should be. It should be, as long as anyone places a belief in eternal punishment and hell.
If nothing else, we as Christians should be pondering these issues. And we should be struggling with them. And we should be seeking God’s knowledge on them.
On this very sad, very bleak Holy Saturday morning, I find a great joy in knowing that, as far as we seem to be in this moment from Easter glory, Easter glory is still happening, unseen by us, like a seed slowly blooming in the ground. That Victory of Jesus we celebrate this evening and tomorrow morning and throughout the season of Easter is more glorious than anything we can imagine. And it is more powerful than anything we can even begin to comprehend.
In my own personal hells—and I have been there more than once—the greatest moment is when I can turn from my darkness toward the light and find consolation in the One who has come to me, even there, in my personal, self-imposed agony. Even there, he comes to me and frees me. He has done it before. And I have no doubt he will do it again. That is what we are celebrating this Holy Saturday morning. That is how we find our joy, when joy seems gone from us—when it seems buried in the ground and lost.
I’m going to close this morning with a bit of an ancient sermon from an unknown author. In this sermon, preaching on Christ’s descent to hell, we find Jesus peaking. He is speaking Adam, the first human, who is bringing out from the depths. But he may just as easily be speaking to any of us either in our personal hells, or in that place of seemingly eternal punishment. The sermon ends this way:
“Rise, [Jesus says] let us leave this place. The enemy led you out of the earthly paradise. I will not restore you to that paradise, but I will enthrone you in heaven. I forbade you the tree that was only a symbol of life, but see, I who am life itself am now one with you. I appointed cherubim to guard you as slaves are guarded, but now I make them worship you as God. The throne formed by cherubim awaits you, its bearers swift and eager. The bridal chamber is adorned, the banquet is ready, the eternal dwelling places are prepared, the treasure houses of all good things lie open. The kingdom of heaven has been prepared for you from all eternity.”