Proper 27c 2013 • SJF • Tobias Stanislas Haller BSG
I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold.
Advent, the season of expectation both for Christmas and second coming of our Lord, will soon be upon us. Every year, it seems, the readings appointed for the weeks before Advent always seem to take on an Advent air a bit early, as if the framers of the cycle of readings just couldn’t wait to launch into the new church year — just as the merchants of the secular world can’t seem to wait until Thanksgiving any more to start the Christmas push; they want to start before Hallowe’en!
This tendency to want to jump the gun, to over-anticipate, is nothing new. Whether a holiday, or a holy day, or the coming of the Lord, there will always be someone pushing the calendar impatiently, trying to reach out into the future and drag it into the present.
One of the reasons that Saint Paul has to write a second letter to the Thessalonians is on account of just this eager anticipation. Someone, somehow, is spreading the word — either by spirit or by word or by a letter (even a letter claiming to come from Saint Paul himself) — to the effect that the day of the Lord has already come. Paul is writing to calm the Thessalonians down with a virtual, “hold your horses.” He warns the Thessalonians not to be deceived, and assures them that the day of the Lord will not come before the antichrist is revealed — though he doesn’t use the word antichrist, referring instead to the “lawless one” who pretends to be a god and even seats himself in God’s temple and proclaims himself to be God — of course, that’s exactly who antichrist is! We tend to hear the “anti” in antichrist as meaning “against” — but the antichrist is not some powerful atheist opponent to God or to Christ, but someone who pretends to be Christ, who pretends to be God: a wolf in sheep’s clothing, or in this case, a lawless deceiver who present himself clothed as the Lamb of God. As is often true, the most dangerous villain is the one who looks like a hero.
Paul is concerned for his flock in Thessalonica, and even adds an impatient, “Don’t you remember I told you all this?” Perhaps they do, but perhaps they also remember something Paul it seems has forgotten — that in his First Letter to them he had talked about the coming of the Lord as very likely happening within their own lifetime, urging them to be prepared to be caught up into the clouds with the Lord at his coming, and to stay awake and be watchful for the day of the Lord, that will come like a thief in the night. So it may be that Paul is reaping what he sowed, and trying to put the proverbial toothpaste back into the tube, walking back his words — as politicians have to do from time to time in our own day — because he got them overexcited and over-expectant in his first letter, his second letter has to call them back and calm them down: like the posters in war-time England that said, “Keep Calm and Carry On.”
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There is, it seems, an enthusiasm, an almost inescapable or uncontrollable desire to lay hold of the future and realize it in the present — like children who just can’t wait for Christmas morning to arrive. Give people the slightest hint or encouragement, and they will grab at it and run with it. On the other side, and we see some of them today, there are some people who have no use at all for such a future, who deny it or ignore it, or try to argue it away.
In today’s Gospel, some Sadducees come to Jesus with what they think is a foolproof argument against the life of the world to come, which they don’t believe in. They are among the fundamentalists of their day— they reject the “modern” ideas about resurrection. These notions have only begun to circulate since the Greeks and Romans came to dominate their land. The Law of Moses, as they read it, makes no mention of resurrection. There is no future life, there is no resurrection, no there is no kingdom of God awaiting the virtuous, no heaven. The dead are dead, and that’s it; all that survives when you die is your memory in others — their memory of you; the good are remembered with thanks, and their name endures, the wicked are cursed or forgotten. So the Sadducees believe.
So they try to trap Jesus with what they regard as the absurdity of this idea of the resurrection of the dead, by setting for him a puzzle based on one of the aspects of the law of Moses, an aspect that is very near and dear to their hearts. This is the law that requires a man’s brother to marry his widow if he dies childless — if he dies without children, his brother is to marry her. And the reason for this was precisely so that a memory of the deadman could continue, for the child born to his brother would not be reckoned as the brother’s son but as the son of the dead man. The biological father would be regarded, still, as an uncle. And so the dead man’s name would continue down through the generations.
This fits the Sadducee belief system perfectly: there is no afterlife or resurrection — only the memory passed down through your family, and so it is vital to continue that family, for the family name to continue on, for someone unfortunate enough to die childless; even — and I’m sure this has occurred to you — even to the extent of violating another portion of the Law that forbids a man to marry his brother’s wife. Moreover, the law requiring this exceptional and incestuous marriage also fits their agenda to find fault with Jesus. The Sadducees multiply the problem for him by imagining seven brothers, all of whom die after attempting to fulfill their responsibility. I suppose it’s no surprise that the woman died! The Sadducees set a problem for Jesus that they think is absurd — since the woman, again under the law of Moses, can only have one husband. Under the Jewish law a man can have many wives but a woman only one husband. And so, they are saying to Jesus, in this crazy “resurrection” you talk about how could she possibly have seven? They think they’ve got a “gotcha.”
Jesus rounds on them and he accuses them of trying to put the life of the world in terms of the life of this world. They try to imagine in the life of the world to come something which belongs only to this world — and that is marriage. Now, don’t get me or Jesus wrong about this. Marriage is a wonderful thing, and the love that spouses share can be blessed and beautiful. But marriage, as good as it is, is only a shadow of the all-encompassing love of God that those who are blessed to come to the resurrection will share. The life of the world to come is not just a repetition or continuation of this life, but a transformation of this life into something so beautiful, so surpassing of any joy we can possibly experience here on earth, that all of our former joys — as wonderful as they are, as good as they are — will seem like a snapshot compared to the real thing.
All that being said — which is quite a bit! — Jesus doesn’t stop there, with the teaching that marriage is a state of this life, not the next. For in the next life people do not have to marry and have children because they do not die! In the life of the world to come, life is everlasting. He doesn’t let the Sadducees off the hook at this point, even though he could stop there. He doesn’t let them off on their terms. They want to claim that there is nothing in the law of Moses about resurrection? Jesus says to them, au contraire! You want Moses, I’ll give you Moses.
Jesus goes right back to the beginning, to the book of Exodus, to Moses’ call from God, the moment at which Moses encounters God in that bush that burned but was not consumed (itself an image of the eternal being of God and of God’s kingdom) and the voice of God calling to Moses out of the bush: “I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” In this passage the eternal God identifies himself by the name I AM — and so if he is the God of the three patriarchs who died centuries before Moses, then they must still be present to God — that is, they are still alive. For God does not say, “I was the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” but “I am the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” Somehow those patriarchs are still alive, still worshiping God, in God’s presence. So Jesus confounds the Sadducees with their own authority: with the writings of Moses himself, which they’ve heard read year after year, and yet it hasn’t sunk in; and it testifies that God lives, and that the patriarchs are alive to God.
I’m sorry that our Gospel reading stops with that verse; because the text continues, “Then some of the scribes answered, ‘Teacher, you have spoken well.’ For they no longer dared to ask him any questions.” Snap!
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The hardest thing, it seems, is to live in the present as the present, respectful of the past, and hopeful for the future. So many seem stuck either trying to relive past glories or joys and thrusting them into the future, or pulling the future closer to us than it really it is. Sufficient to the day is both the good and the evil thereof. Our call as Christians is to rest in the confidence of God, who is everlasting, who is at all times and in all places, past, present and to come; to rest in the confidence of Job — to know that our Redeemer lives, and that our redemption awaits us — and moreover that it is something that we will behold with our newly awakened eyes in the resurrection. With that kind of hope, standing firm and holding fast to what we have learned through the traditions and creeds of the church, handed down to us from the days of Jesus, we continue to trust that at the last he will stand upon the earth, and our eyes shall see — and what is future now will be now then.+