Saturday, 6 November 2010

3rd Sunday before Advent - Hope

2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
The Man of Lawlessness

As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here. Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God. Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you?

But we must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth. For this purpose he called you through our proclamation of the good news, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.
Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.

Luke 20:27-38
The Question about the Resurrection

Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a question, ‘Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.’
Jesus said to them, ‘Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die any more, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.’

Have you ever wondered what the world would be like if there was no such thing as a hypothetical question?...

A hypothetical question is what today’s Gospel reading is all about, but Jesus uses it to teach us something very important about the future. What makes this extra special for us is that this last week has had quite a focus on death and bereavement with All Hallow’s Eve last Sunday, and then All Souls on Tuesday with a service at which we remembered the lives of many of those who have died in recent times. In the face of fear and confusion about the future on the other side of death, today’s reading should inspire hope in us.

But let me first give you a little background to the situation Jesus is facing. We’re in the period leading up to his arrest, and he’s in Jerusalem for the last time. His arrest is probably only a matter of days away. Those who are in power are well aware of this upstart from up in the northern province who’s not a part of their political system.

They are well aware of all the people who are following him, and so they do what the rich and powerful have always done to those they call, ‘The Little People’, by asking him a series of questions in public that are specifically designed to reveal their ignorance.

Think of it a little like this, and you might even have observed it for yourself; who knows, you might even have done it! A wealthy and intelligent man’s daughter brings home the new boyfriend. It’s seems apparent to the girl’s father that this man is a bit of a nobody and clearly not good enough for his daughter.

So when they sit down to supper he begins asking the new boyfriend a series of questions that are clearly intended to embarrass him, show him up for being a bit thick, and reveal to the daughter that the new boyfriend isn’t good enough for her. Imagine the shock then when the scruffy new boyfriend with the unkept hair turns out to have a PhD in particle physics after doing a Masters in Philosophy.

You see that’s more or less what happened to the Religious leaders when they started questioning Jesus. They wanted to show him up to be a charlatan so that the popular vote would turn away from him. What they discovered was that intellectually, philosophically and theologically Jesus was streets ahead of them.

Today’s reading centres on the Sadducees asking a question. Now this group were, if you like, the traditionalists of Judaism. They had no time for the Pharisees and their new fangled theological ideas of resurrected life after death, which, at that time had only been an emerging strand of Jewish thought over the previous two hundred years. When you’re dead, you’re dead; that was what the Sadducees thought. They were also politically very powerful at this time.

And so they threw a very hypothetical question at Jesus. In the Jewish culture of that time the law stated that if a man married a woman and then he died before they had children, then his brother would have to marry the woman and give her children. Initially it sounds quite laudable, that the woman’s needs are being looked out for, although the real reason was so that the original husband’s property would have a lineage to be passed down to.

Effectively the children had by the second brother would be acknowledged as the children of the first brother, and the first brother’s property would therefore stay in the family. It was the way in which they managed property and succession. But in this hypothetical situation the second brother died. So, again following the law, the woman was married off to the third brother, who then died, and then to the fourth, and so on until everyone was dead and there were no children.

Then comes the question, and remember that the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection. They ask, at the supposed resurrection, who will the poor woman be married to? Now obviously being married to all of them was not permissible under law, since only a man could have more than one wife; a woman could not have more than one husband. Therefore, logically the idea of a literal resurrection from the dead was illogical.

What Jesus does is to undermine their logic completely. Yes, they would be correct if after the resurrection we are just like we are now, that we’ve been through death and we’re simply alive again, but Jesus makes it absolutely clear that that’s not what it will be like. It will be a whole new order completely.

When I was twenty five Alison took me on holiday up to the highlands of Scotland. Now to put this in context, I was a city boy through and through. I was brought up in a London overspill new-town, and Ali and I lived in Watford. Holidays had always been in Cornwall. Nothing prepared me for the impact that the Western Highlands were going to have on me.

I will never forget pulling up into Glen Nevis, in the shadows of some of the most awesome scenery in the British Isles, and getting out of the car, closing the door and just standing there, almost breathless. Not only was it the most unutterably beautiful thing I had ever seen, but, for almost the first time in my life, I couldn’t hear any cars. The sun was shining, it was mid-May, and the only sound was the birds singing. I was awestruck. This was reality of a whole new order.

And that, I believe, is just the tiniest taste of the kind of thing Jesus was trying to say to the Sadducees. If I were to paraphrase Jesus it would be something like this, ‘Everything you think you know about the afterlife? Forget it. You have no comprehension, not even the beginnings of an understanding, because it is so far beyond anything you have experienced that your feeble philosophical ideas and traps bear no resemblance to the reality of the resurrection.’

You see the Sadducees were mocking something that they didn’t understand. They were imagining heaven to be like this, but it isn’t; not even close.

Now there is something very important for us to learn here, and it flies in the face of received wisdom. We have a culture of belief that when we die our soul leaves our body and goes to heaven where it joins other souls in the presence of God. Then it all becomes a little unclear because we’re used to having a body, and, well what will it be like to be in heaven without a body?

Yet inherent in what Jesus is saying is that this is not the final state of affairs. When we die here, there may be someway in which there is a spiritual continuity, but that is all a prelude to a literal resurrection into something infinitely superior to what we are now, and that’s what we saw at Jesus’s own resurrection.

It’s one of the things that makes the Easter story so very important. In some strands of Christianity you will find churches full of crucifixes, celebrating the death of Jesus; Jesus dying on a cross. In the Anglican Church you are far more likely to see an empty cross. Why? It’s because the empty cross reminds us that the story didn’t end with the death of Jesus.

The miracle of Easter wasn’t just that Jesus died a death which in some way brought us into the Father’s family. The miracle was that Jesus was then raised from the dead in a body that was clearly his but was also obviously so much more than his earthly body. By his resurrection Jesus led the way. He was the first, but he won’t be the last.

The whole joy and hope of the death and resurrection of Jesus is that he showed us what we could hope for; not floating around on a cloud playing a harp, but a life which is more real, more tangible, than this one. What Jesus experienced is what we shall, in time, experience. That’s the gift he promised us, and since hundreds of people saw him after his resurrection, I am inclined to believe him.

But if the Sadducees got it wrong, well, the question on all our hearts is, ‘What will it be like then?’ Clearly even Jesus himself struggled to find a way to describe the indescribable. It’s not that we will become angels, because they are a different kind of creature from us, but we will be like them in some ways. There will no longer be procreation, because no one will die; but that doesn’t preclude intimacy and love.

God is love, and so we can expect the afterlife to have far more love in it than this world does; infinitely more! But as to what it’s going to be like, well the best we can do in heading towards truth is to use story and metaphor.

C.S. Lewis probably put it most clearly in his book, ‘The Great Divorce’. It was nothing to do with marriage, but was instead about excursions from hell to the outskirts of heaven where the dead could, if they wished, stay if they were willing to leave behind their old ways of doing things. But what they found was that everything was so real, so solid, that it hurt them to walk on the grass. They were insubstantial compared to the realm of the resurrected.

And this is what I think I want us to take with us today: We will, at the resurrection, receive new bodies, and they will be more real and more substantial than these ones are. I think that after the final resurrection, and when we find ourselves in the new creation we will discover it to be more solid and more real than this one is.

You know how, when you try to remember a dream it seems insubstantial and maybe disconnected? The solid nature of our reality compared to the insubstantial nature of a dream probably mimics the insubstantial nature of this world compared to the post-resurrection world.

So be filled with hope. Whatever you are going through now, it is not how things will always be. There is a future, if we want it, that is immeasurably more real and beautiful than this reality. Let St. Paul have the last words, and this is from the first reading:
Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.

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