Scriptural Texts: Haggai 1:15b-2:9; Ps. 145:1-5, 17-21; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5; Luke 20:27-38
As the liturgical year winds down, the Gospels for these last three weeks address our deepest fears and offer our most profound hope. All three of the readings address our deepest fears and offer profound hope.
The very short-term prophet, Haggai, spoke to the disappointment of the people who have done all that they can to return their world to the way things were (and were supposed to be) but have found themselves far short of their vision.
The writer of 2 Thessalonians writes an urgent pastoral word to a fearful people whose faith is shaken and who may have encountered false teachings about the end time.
Luke uses the foil of the Sadducees to address the perpetual question of all people: what happens to us when we die? These are three urgent pastoral situations needing words of hope.
Let’s take a quick look at the situation and message that offers hope in each text. We know little about Haggai except that he lived among the returned people who had been in exile in Babylon, and a “word of the Lord came by the prophet Haggai” to them for just 3-4 months. He notes in his first oracle how their life after returning has not been what they expected: they planted their crops, but harvested little; they ate, but never had enough; the clothe themselves, but they aren’t warm; they earn wages that seem to be put in bags with holes in them. We know a little about that latter problem of money just disappearing as if through holes in some economic bag or other, even if we are not among those who are hungry, thirsty, cold. And maybe, too, there are those among us by whom a word from the Lord comes to people for just a short period in our lives. Who knows who among us may be a prophet?
It is easy to focus on the material promise: one day the returnees will be more prosperous, and the temple will be filled with more gold and silver than ever before. But that is not the primary point of the prophecy, which is more to say that God is satisfied with their best efforts, thus far, and that God has not compared their labor with that of their ancestors and found it lacking. God knows they are feeling insecure about the temple they have recreated for God. Perhaps most importantly, God is with them, temple or no temple.” [ Wil Gafney, professor of Old Testament at Lutheran Theological Seminary in Philadelphia, at Working Preacher.org]
Haggai calls the people to remember that God has been with them and that God, too, remembers God’s promise to this little remnant, tattered, weary, people. Thus, even though the temple they have started may seem inadequate, they should get back to work on it.
“Memory”, Hans Kung, the remarkable Roman Catholic theologian unappreciated by the Vatican, is “a springboard, flexible, with a free end permitting an immense leap….Memory can…rouse hopes which have not been fulfilled. Memory can curb the excessive power of the factual, can divert the pressure of existing facts, can break through the wall of reality of what has been effected, can get rid of the present and open the way to a better future.” [Kung, Hans. On Being A Christian, p. 121]
In the Epistle reading, it could be tempting to get bogged down in the vivid descriptions in this letter about a conflict between the unnamed lawless one and descriptions of what the time before the end of time will look like, as countless people have done. We need to remember that such expectations of an end time were common in the century before Jesus, and in the century after him. It was thought that there would be some kind of political upheaval that would ‘precede the Eschaton’ and there would be an anti-Christ figure, who would need to be destroyed.
But that is not the writer of this letter’s concern: he is far more worried about the fact that people have been led to “fear” and anxiety because of deceptive teaching. The writer wants the little church at Thessalonica, which fears it may have missed the “second coming”, to focus not on alarming descriptions of the end times but on their full participation in what Christ has done for them. He wants them to experience the freedom that the good news of God’s love in person on earth offers to even these Gentiles, and to live in memory of that experience.
The author of this letter calls them back to what they were taught by the Apostle Paul, in whose name he wrote. The call to remember includes those teachings that God had chosen them to receive the good news, and a prayer that Jesus would give them eternal comfort, and strengthen them in the midst of their struggles. The focus was to be on being active followers of Jesus, not sitting around anxiously wondering if the end was about to happen, or had already happened.
This too can be a word of hope for us: if we are inclined to think that our church’s end is in sight, that secularity will overcome faith, or prosperity gospel or fundamentalism, in their popularity, might be saying that we and churches like ours have it all wrong. Then, my friends, it might be wise to focus not on what the world wants to tell us—that we aren’t preaching a gospel that “sells” in the popular market place—but to remember our heritage, what has been the special gift and tradition of this congregation, from its inception until now, and that through times when the pews were full, to the days when there are but a handful here, and that we are God’s people. Our sister denomination, the United Church of Christ, has a wonderful new advertisement that is being aired in a variety of media: it proclaims the UCC to be a church of continuing testament, extravagant welcome, and changed lives; a church that listens to a
“still speaking God”. That’s what the writer of 2 Thessalonians wants that congregation to be, in memory and hope. That’s certainly been the testimony of this church, through thick and thin over 176 years.
And finally, but not least, in the gospel reading today, Jesus speaks of God as a God of the living, who promises a vision of a life beyond our death that will be far more intimate and profound than we can imagine.
The story is told of a Roman Catholic Bishop who was visiting one of his churches and administering confirmation to the children. The young parish priest was exceptionally nervous as he took the children through the answers to the catechism. “What is matrimony?” he asked one little girl. She replied. “Matrimony is a state of terrible torment which those who enter it are compelled to undergo for a time to prepare them for a better and brighter world.”
Devastated the young priest interrupted her, “O, no, no…That is purgatory, not matrimony. You know that!”
The Bishop interrupted: “Father, let the child alone. What do you or I know about it?”
The Sadducees’, who basically didn’t believe in resurrection, attempted a trick question that belittled those who did believe in resurrection by suggesting that life after death would be much like the little girl’s understanding of matrimony (or purgatory). They asked Jesus whose property the woman, who had been married sequentially to seven brothers, as required by the Torah, would be in the life to come, after the resurrection of the dead.
Luke means for the debate to be seen as how the Sadducees have joined forces with the Pharisees for once in an effort to discredit Jesus, if they can. But if we look at the story pastorally, we hear Jesus addressing the ancient and continuing concerns of people today of what happens to us when we die. And he is pointing, also, to the fact that life in the “kin_dom of God” will be different: Luke, who so elevates the role of women in his Gospel, is inferring that women will no longer be property to be handed from one man to the next, with no rights of her own.
Jesus argues that resurrection life, contrary to the assumption betrayed by their question, is qualitatively different from life here and now. The question, he implies, is irrelevant. People will be like angels and will be children of God, i.e., close to God’s tender love.
Bill Coffin always used to say that if we don’t know what lies on the other side of the grave, we know WHO is there, and that is sufficient.
Jesus, you see, also points to the memory of the people of the ancient stories about God who transcends all categories of life and death. Jesus uses the moment to teach about the love and mercy of God.
This episode with the Sadducees gives us enough hope to live in and enough hope to face death. It does not answer our many questions about what Christian resurrection means, nor does it provide a road map of the new creation, but, as one scholar so beautifully wrote, we are invited to remember, and to trust, that in God all our questions come to rest.
For many years, I’ve carried a quotation from the writings of the great , Quaker writer and thinker, Rufus Jones, who died in 1948, that I think expresses what Jesus was trying to tell us about what happens in death:
Leave me not, God, until…
–nay, until when?
Not until I am with Thee,
one heart, one mind.
Not until thy life is
light in me, and then
Leaving is left behind.
Hope’s springboard is memory…It is memory of the traditions and stories of people of the past which still resonate with our own experience today. It is the memory of those fleeting moments when we have felt the exhilarating and freeing “glory of God” deep down in our bones, when we know we have been touched, almost chosen, to feel God’s holy presence with us to save us and make life wonderful. Remember what those before you learned and taught, and don’t be turned aside by what is popular at the moment. Remember that the whole of Scripture testifies that we have a God who transcends all categories, and who extends radical hospitality in this world, and who is speaking still, and who changes lives.
When we remember we can, in the words of the prophet Haggai, “take courage, knowing that God’s spirit abides among us” and we need not fear. When we remember we can stand firm against falsehoods as the writer of 2 Thessalonians urged; when we remember, we have a springboard to the hope in whatever lies ahead, knowing that to God, whether we are dead or alive, we are alive to God. So may we have eyes to see, ears to hear, hearts to understand, and the will to be faithful. Amen.