Sunday, November 28, 2010

Advent I: Waiting...

Many thanks (as usual) to Kate Huey, and a special thanks to my friend Jim Morgan, (@jimmorgan10)for help in writing this sermon.

Isaiah 2:1-5
The word that Isaiah son of Amoz saw concerning Judah and Jerusalem.
In days to come the mountain of the Lord's house shall be established as the highest of the mountains, and shall be raised above the hills; all the nations shall stream to it. Many peoples shall come and say, "Come, let us go up to the mountain of the LORD, to the house of the God of Jacob; that he may teach us his ways and that we may walk in his paths." For out of Zion shall go forth instruction, and the word of the LORD from Jerusalem. He shall judge between the nations, and shall arbitrate for many peoples; they shall beat their swords into plowshares, and their spears into pruning hooks; nation shall not lift up sword against nation, neither shall they learn war any more. O house of Jacob, come, let us walk in the light of the LORD!

Romans 13:11-14
Besides this, you know what time it is, how it is now the moment for you to wake from sleep. For salvation is nearer to us now than when we became believers; the night is far gone, the day is near. Let us then lay aside the works of darkness and put on the armor of light; let us live honorably as in the day, not in reveling and drunkenness, not in debauchery and licentiousness, not in quarreling and jealousy. Instead, put on the Lord Jesus Christ, and make no provision for the flesh, to gratify its desires.

Matthew 24:36-44
"But about that day and hour no one knows, neither the angels of heaven, nor the Son, but only the Father. For as the days of Noah were, so will be the coming of the Son of Man. For as in those days before the flood they were eating and drinking, marrying and giving in marriage, until the day Noah entered the ark, and they knew nothing until the flood came and swept them all away, so too will be the coming of the Son of Man. Then two will be in the field; one will be taken and one will be left. Two women will be grinding meal together; one will be taken and one will be left. Keep awake therefore, for you do not know on what day your Lord is coming. But understand this: if the owner of the house had known in what part of the night the thief was coming, he would have stayed awake and would not have let his house be broken into. Therefore you also must be ready, for the Son of Man is coming at an unexpected hour."

This is the Word of the Lord.

I’m not real good at waiting. I try to be, I know that being patient is a virtue, and that I need to be a good example for folks and all, but I really hate waiting. There are lines to wait in at the post office, lines to wait in at the supermarket, there’s the long wait in the waiting room when you go to the doctor, and when you’re finally called in, it’s only so you can sit on butcher paper and wait in the examining room. For a society obsessed with fast food, instant answers, and get-rich-quick schemes, we seem to do an awful lot of waiting, don’t we?

In our Gospel reading today, Jesus has just gotten through telling his disciples that the Temple would be utterly destroyed, and the disciples, naturally, had one question: “when?” Jesus responds by telling them of the coming persecution – that’s the persecution that the whole Church endured almost nonstop for its first three centuries of existence, and the persecution that goes on today in many parts of the world – and he tells them how he will return. Not when, but how.

Because, you see, the disciples were waiting, too. They, like their parents, and their parents before them, and their ancestors going back for centuries, had been under the bootheel of one conquering empire after another. They had been promised a Messiah, someone who would establish a new kind of empire, a Kingdom of God.
They had thrown their lot in with this itinerant Rabbi from the backwoods of Judea, this man who could heal the lame, cleanse the leper, and even raise the dead. He talked a lot about the Kingdom, taught them to pray for the Kingdom to come… they were waiting on this amazing man to overthrow the Roman oppressors and establish his kingdom, by force if necessary. All of this talk of wars and earthquakes and the Abomination of Desolation standing in the Temple, and the description of the Temple utterly ruined, well, it sounds like something is finally happening!

But not yet, Jesus says.

Journey down a few more decades, to the first people who read Matthew’s Gospel – men and women either living under the gathering clouds of destruction, as Titus Flavius Vespasianus led the Roman legions to lay siege of Jerusalem, or mourning the memories of the utterly destroyed city they had left behind, never to see again. These men and women, these early Christians, were hated and persecuted on all sides – by the Jewish people, because of their faith in Christ, and by the Romans, for refusing to worship the Roman gods. Groaning under the weight of oppression, they wondered when, too.

Not yet.

The meaning of the word “Advent” is “coming,” and it’s a time when we recognize that the same Jesus who we remember as coming to us as a baby, born in a barn and cradled in a feeding trough, will come again. The same Jesus who rose from the dead and ascended to heaven will return, will come back, will bring us into that final glorious place of relationship and eternal worship.

But not yet.

We’re waiting, too.

But this waiting is not the inert, listless, waiting-in-line variety. This waiting is an active kind of waiting. As Advent bursts upon us, we recognize that we may well see Jesus appear in the clouds, but we are far more likely to see Jesus appear just around the corner, suddenly, like a hungry person, or a neighbor ill-clothed, or someone sick or in prison. We know that the way we react to this more common, more likely appearance of Jesus will dictate how Jesus sees us in the end.

That’s an interesting phrase, isn’t it? “The end.” You know, when you get right down to it, we aren’t really waiting for “the end,” are we? Our hope is better characterized as expecting the Beginning of the World, not the end. We are waiting for the freeing of… the completion of… creation, not its destruction!

There’s another way to refer to “active waiting,” you know. Another way to view the not-yet waiting we all do, not only at Advent but every day of our lives in Christ. It’s a journey.

I have a friend who lives in West Texas, a fellow named Jim Morgan. He has a voice and an accent almost exactly like Sam Elliott. He’s a wonderful storyteller, taking Bible stories and giving them a cowboy setting. I could listen to that guy talk and tell stories for hours!

He’s coming off a four-week-long case of writer’s block, which is one of the worst feelings a writer of any kind can have. He says, “I ruminated on the sermon writing block… and have come to the belief that the silence was God trying to show me something. Ironically it was a line from the Disney movie Cars that opened the door for me.

“Sally Carrera, the ‘girl car’ in the movie, was explaining the old days to Lightning McQueen. She explained to him how the new interstate highway didn’t follow the land but cut through it. In the old days, she said, ‘Cars didn’t drive to make good time, they drove to have a good time.’

“We all know this line. We hear it said in many different ways. Usually I hear it as ‘it’s not the destination that’s important, it’s the journey.’”

Jim continues, “God doesn’t offer us pat answers. God offers us a journey. He offers a journey where we learn more of him with each passing day. A lot like your relationship with your spouse. You learn little by little, day by day. So what was God telling me with the writer’s block? Living in grace and peace is much harder to do than talking about grace and peace. It’s part of the journey.”

We journey in the not-yet, in the waiting. As we long for a new heaven and a new earth on this first day of the church year, I like Barbara Brown Taylor’s words about seeking to live our lives right here, right now, in ways that are pleasing to God as we learn to trust in God's goodness: "Every morning when you wake up, decide to live the life God has given you to live right now. Refuse to live yesterday over and over again. Resist the temptation to save your best self for tomorrow. Live a caught-up life, not a put-off life, so that wherever you are….you are ready for God….Ours may be the generation that finally sees him ride in on the clouds, or we may meet him the same way generations before us have – one by one by one, as each of us closes our eyes for the last time. Either way, our lives are in God's hands.”

For the active-waiting journey through the not-yet, for Advent, for new beginnings every day, and for the hope of the New Beginning when Christ does return, we give thanks to God.

Sunday, November 21, 2010

Christ the King: Jesus Is Lord!

Many thanks to Kate Huey and the Preaching Peace website for help in putting this sermon together.

Jeremiah 23:1-6

Woe to the shepherds who destroy and scatter the sheep of my pasture! says the LORD. Therefore thus says the LORD, the God of Israel, concerning the shepherds who shepherd my people: It is you who have scattered my flock, and have driven them away, and you have not attended to them. So I will attend to you for your evil doings, says the LORD. Then I myself will gather the remnant of my flock out of all the lands where I have driven them, and I will bring them back to their fold, and they shall be fruitful and multiply. I will raise up shepherds over them who will shepherd them, and they shall not fear any longer, or be dismayed, nor shall any be missing, says the LORD.
The days are surely coming, says the LORD, when I will raise up for David a righteous Branch, and he shall reign as king and deal wisely, and shall execute justice and righteousness in the land. In his days Judah will be saved and Israel will live in safety. And this is the name by which he will be called: "The LORD is our righteousness."

Luke 1:68-79

"Blessed be the Lord God of Israel, for he has looked favorably on his people and redeemed them. He has raised up a mighty savior for us in the house of his servant David, as he spoke through the mouth of his holy prophets from of old, that we would be saved from our enemies and from the hand of all who hate us. Thus he has shown the mercy promised to our ancestors, and has remembered his holy covenant, the oath that he swore to our ancestor Abraham, to grant us that we, being rescued from the hands of our enemies, might serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness before him all our days. And you, child, will be called the prophet of the Most High; for you will go before the Lord to prepare his ways, to give knowledge of salvation to his people by the forgiveness of their sins. By the tender mercy of our God, the dawn from on high will break upon us, to give light to those who sit in darkness and in the shadow of death, to guide our feet into the way of peace."

Colossians 1:11-20

May you be made strong with all the strength that comes from his glorious power, and may you be prepared to endure everything with patience, while joyfully giving thanks to the Father, who has enabled you to share in the inheritance of the saints in the light. He has rescued us from the power of darkness and transferred us into the kingdom of his beloved Son, in whom we have redemption, the forgiveness of sins.
He is the image of the invisible God, the firstborn of all creation; for in him all things in heaven and on earth were created, things visible and invisible, whether thrones or dominions or rulers or powers-all things have been created through him and for him. He himself is before all things, and in him all things hold together. He is the head of the body, the church; he is the beginning, the firstborn from the dead, so that he might come to have first place in everything. For in him all the fullness of God was pleased to dwell, and through him God was pleased to reconcile to himself all things, whether on earth or in heaven, by making peace through the blood of his cross.

Luke 23:33-43

When they came to the place that is called The Skull, they crucified Jesus there with the criminals, one on his right and one on his left. Then Jesus said, "Father, forgive them; for they do not know what they are doing." And they cast lots to divide his clothing. And the people stood by, watching; but the leaders scoffed at him, saying, "He saved others; let him save himself if he is the Messiah of God, his chosen one!" The soldiers also mocked him, coming up and offering him sour wine, and saying, "If you are the King of the Jews, save yourself!" There was also an inscription over him, "This is the King of the Jews."
One of the criminals who were hanged there kept deriding him and saying, "Are you not the Messiah? Save yourself and us!" But the other rebuked him, saying, "Do you not fear God, since you are under the same sentence of condemnation? And we indeed have been condemned justly, for we are getting what we deserve for our deeds, but this man has done nothing wrong." Then he said, "Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom." He replied, "Truly I tell you, today you will be with me in Paradise."

This is the Word of the Lord.

For the Christians living in the Roman city of Colossae, the world was more than what a person could see, feel, and touch. The world was a strange and frightening place. Most people in that day believed that the air was thick with unseen spirits, and mere humans ignored them at their peril. The Colossians, as a culture, lived in a kind of constant terror that, if they did not appease these spirits, they left themselves open to poverty, disease, war, and famine.

The citizens of Colossae looked with suspicion and anger at the Christians, who dared to refuse to honor these gods, thus endangering the entire area and everyone in it! Suppose the gods noticed the lack of worship from these Christians? They might kill them all!

So these Colossian Christians endured constant persecutions and hardships. No wonder so many of them wondered, what is Jesus compared to all these angry, spiteful, dangerous gods? When the persecutor’s whip fell and their children’s bellies grumbled from hunger, they looked around and wondered, surely this can’t be all there is. Is this Jesus really more powerful than the gods we worshiped before Epaphras came and told us the Good News? Is there really any point to this Christianity stuff?

After all, to a person living under Roman rule, merely saying the words, “Jesus is Lord” was a seditious act. To say “Jesus is Lord” was to invite insurrection, to work against the established order and societal expectations. To have any king but Caesar was to be a terrorist, a malcontent, an invader. The Colossian Christians knew that Jesus, and not Caesar, was Lord… but it would have been a lot easier to simply give up, burn the incense at the feet of Caesar’s statue, and just get on with life.

It is into this fear, frustration, lack and pain that the writer of Colossians speaks. Yes, Jesus is more: more powerful, more real, more eternal… Jesus is more than a first among equals within a pantheon of every god everyone ever thought to worship or pray to or think about. Jesus is more than Rome, and more than Caesar. Jesus is the one true, lasting and relevant and reliable image of the living God. The Colossian Christians are no longer citizens of that angry and frightened city, no longer despised subjects of a remote and despotic Caesar, but have been brought into the here-and-now of the Kingdom of Christ.

This is a call to see the question of Jesus Christ as not of secondary but primary importance in the lives of his followers – both those in first-century Colossae and in twenty-first century America. The question of who Jesus is cannot be simply something we think about on Sunday morning, or when someone asks us what church we go to, but a question that shapes our whole life. For the early Christians, and for us today, following Jesus changes everything. As Neta Pringle puts it in Feasting on the Word, the writer of the letter to the Colossians says that being a Christian "is not simply a matter of fitting Jesus into our present way of thinking. We are transferred, moved, deported, from one kingdom to another. Nothing is as we have known it."

This Kingdom is so different than anything anyone has ever known, nothing is as it appears. Imagine the thoughts of those who followed Jesus while He walked the roads of Judea, as they stand before the Cross – or cower in fear, far away from it – in the Gospel reading today. All the years and the miles and the miracles and the teachings end up here, on Golgatha, with the one who was supposed to be the Messiah, the One who was to bring the reign of God to earth once and for all, hanging naked and bleeding on a cross. They must have thought, surely this can’t be all there is.

But what really was happening there? Was a really good idea coming to an end at the hands of an oppressive governmental and religious structure? Or was there something more – the redemption of all humankind, the restoration of all that is, all that ever was, and all that ever shall be, into community with a loving Creator?

Could it be that, in Jesus, we are exposed to a new kind of Empire: not one obtained by the edge of the sword, shedding the blood of enemies, but an empire established when the King Himself sheds his blood?

Isn’t it fascinating that, out of everyone there that day, all the soldiers and all the religious leaders and those few followers of Jesus with the guts to stand at the Cross, one guy understood? Not John, not even Jesus’ mother. Not Pilate, not Annas or Caiaphas, no one. Not one person looked at the cross and saw anything but disaster… except a common criminal, a thief, hanging on the cross right next to Jesus. He said, “Jesus, remember me when you come into your kingdom.”

Do you notice what Jesus said? He didn’t say, “Sure, in three days, when I rise from the dead, you and I will dwell together.” He said “Today.” Joining Jesus in paradise had nothing to do with dying. It had nothing to do with being raised from the dead. It had everything to do with seeing beyond the appearances to the truth, that God is victorious in the cross. It has everything to do with the thief’s realization that his own condemnation on the cross bore no relationship to his standing before God. In that moment, he became free. In that moment, he joined Jesus in paradise.

We are called to make that same paradise a reality in this present moment, as Jesus did for the thief on the cross. We are called to point to the reality of Jesus’ kingship in the here and now, not to point to it as some far-off reward for our perseverance. We can see beyond the lies of this world to the world beyond because we see the meaning of the cross.

Today is “Reign of Christ,” or “Christ the King” Sunday. It is a day we traditionally use to particularly emphasize the triumph of Christ, and the reality of the Kingdom of God, both here in our world, and in the world to come. For this congregation, we proclaim our hope in Christ as King for the second time in four days. The Roman Empire has fallen, and while no human reigns over us demanding full control of our existence, insisting on being worshiped as a god, we have a Caesar – his name is “Death.”

So we, as Christians, as residents in this Kingdom of Christ, proclaim faith and fellowship with the reigning Christ even when we face an open grave, and when we say goodbye to a loved one. Because when we say “Jesus is Lord,” when we proclaim Christ as King, we don’t ignore or deny the pain of loss, the fear of the unknown, or the questions which nag at us. Certainly, for the church at Colossae, the persecution didn’t stop simply because the Apostle Paul wrote them a letter. Rather, we say that the reality of the cross is that through Jesus, God reconciled all things. Everything, be it death or doubt or persecution or fear, has been conquered. We choose to remember that the “Kingdom of God” — to which Jesus constantly pointed — is as fully available now and always as it was 2,000 years ago. We choose to live as if the one who reigns is not Caesar, but God. Jesus is Lord, and because of that, in life, in death, in life beyond death, we belong to God.

Sunday, November 14, 2010

God, Out of the Box

Thanks to Pastor Debye Swilley, who helped get me past a mental block concerning the Gospel reading. With my background in Fundamentalist Christianity, it's difficult sometimes to see beyond the apocalyptic language of the passage to the meat of what Jesus is saying to us today. Once again, it's Twitter to the rescue...

Isaiah 12
You will say in that day: I will give thanks to you, O LORD, for though you were angry with me, your anger turned away, and you comforted me. Surely God is my salvation; I will trust, and will not be afraid, for the LORD GOD is my strength and my might; he has become my salvation.
With joy you will draw water from the wells of salvation. And you will say in that day: Give thanks to the LORD, call on his name; make known his deeds among the nations; proclaim that his name is exalted.
Sing praises to the LORD, for he has done gloriously; let this be known in all the earth. Shout aloud and sing for joy, O royal Zion, for great in your midst is the Holy One of Israel.

Thessalonians 3:6-13
Now we command you, beloved, in the name of our Lord Jesus Christ, to keep away from believers who are living in idleness and not according to the tradition that they received from us. For you yourselves know how you ought to imitate us; we were not idle when we were with you, and we did not eat anyone's bread without paying for it; but with toil and labor we worked night and day, so that we might not burden any of you. This was not because we do not have that right, but in order to give you an example to imitate. For even when we were with you, we gave you this command: Anyone unwilling to work should not eat.
For we hear that some of you are living in idleness, mere busybodies, not doing any work. Now such persons we command and exhort in the Lord Jesus Christ to do their work quietly and to earn their own living. Brothers and sisters, do not be weary in doing what is right.

Luke 21:5-19
When some were speaking about the temple, how it was adorned with beautiful stones and gifts dedicated to God, he said, "As for these things that you see, the days will come when not one stone will be left upon another; all will be thrown down."
They asked him, "Teacher, when will this be, and what will be the sign that this is about to take place?" And he said, "Beware that you are not led astray; for many will come in my name and say, 'I am he!' and, 'The time is near!' Do not go after them.
"When you hear of wars and insurrections, do not be terrified; for these things must take place first, but the end will not follow immediately." Then he said to them, "Nation will rise against nation, and kingdom against kingdom; there will be great earthquakes, and in various places famines and plagues; and there will be dreadful portents and great signs from heaven.
"But before all this occurs, they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name. This will give you an opportunity to testify. So make up your minds not to prepare your defense in advance; for I will give you words and a wisdom that none of your opponents will be able to withstand or contradict. You will be betrayed even by parents and brothers, by relatives and friends; and they will put some of you to death. You will be hated by all because of my name. But not a hair of your head will perish. By your endurance you will gain your souls.

This is the Word of the Lord.

Luke is recounting, in his Gospel, the final week before Jesus will be executed by the Roman authorities. At this point in history, what is known as Herod’s Temple is still under construction, and will be for a number of years to come. The city is packed to bursting with families that have come to take part in the feast of the Passover. However much people dislike, distrust, even hate whichever Herod happens to be in power at a given time, from about any point in the city, one can look up and see the Temple, its white marble highlighted with gold decorations, smoke from constant sacrifice wafting through the air and to the heavens.

By the time Jesus rides into Jerusalem on a donkey’s colt, the Temple has been under construction for some forty-six years. Barely anyone alive remembers the Temple as it was when King Herod I undertook its renovation in 19BC. They’ve heard about it: small, rather run-down despite constant repair and expansion, it was actually torn down as part of the building project. But since the daily religious activities had continued without interruption, Herod’s Temple was still considered the second Temple, first constructed by the returning exiles in 515 BC.

The magnificence of this work in progress filled the hearts of every Jewish man, woman, and child with pride. Here, at last, a building which personified the Jewish people and the Jewish God, every stone and every embellishment dedicated to the One True God, who had led them from captivity in Egypt, and had brought them back from Babylon. And right there, in that tallest structure on the innermost courts, was the Holy of Holies – and while no one would admit believing that God actually resided in the Most Holy Place, still there wasn’t any arguing that, when you looked at the glory of the structure, witnessed the solemn dedication of the army of priests, and felt in your soul the beauty of the singing of the Psalms, deep down, it was hard not to think that this was where God lived.

But can God be contained in a building? Of course not, it’s silly to even pretend that it’s worth discussing in a sermon. So let’s change the question: can a people’s identity, can a faith tradition’s identity, be so closely identified with an architectural creation that it is, in effect, inseparable? We know, living on this side of the Resurrection, this side of 70AD, how Jesus, and how history, has answered that question. Yes, the long temple renovation will be finished, and it will stand completed… for three years, before being utterly destroyed in 70AD. As my friend, the Reverend Debye Swilley put it, “What ‘was’ has to fall, so that what ‘is’ can come.”

Here’s what that means: just days from the moment Jesus speaks the words in our reading this morning, the heavy curtain that separates the Holy of Holies from the rest of the Temple will be torn apart. The idea of God being contained in a structure will be forever destroyed, as anyone in the Temple courts will be able to look inside the darkened chamber only to find it empty.

Empty, like the burial chamber three days after they lay Jesus to rest.

The fact that Jesus arose and ascended doesn’t mean that those who call on the name of Christ are to sit idle, waiting for Jesus to return. From Easter morning on, God’s identity, God’s community, God’s activity will reside not in a building – even a beautiful building – but in people: men and women in every time and place. The Gospel isn’t a residence. It’s a journey, and since the moment the tongues of flame settled on the disciples’ heads on the Day of Pentecost, people have been moving.

From Pentecost onward, men and women found themselves at odds with the Roman authorities, arrested and killed for daring to refuse to worship Caesar, blamed for everything from foreign invasion to natural disaster, they knew, firsthand, what Jesus meant when he said, “they will arrest you and persecute you; they will hand you over to synagogues and prisons, and you will be brought before kings and governors because of my name.”

I confess that I am doubtful if anyone in the United States today has any understanding of what it’s like to undergo true persecution. Yet there are places on this planet where men, women, and children are being imprisoned, starved, tortured and killed for the crime of believing in Christ. Iraqi militants stormed a church and took worshipers hostage, killing fifty-eight of them. Since then, Iraqi Christian neighborhoods have been the scene of bombings and attacks by militants. In Pakistan, Asia Bibi, was arrested for sharing her faith in Christ and has been sentenced to hang for blasphemy.

This is not, by the way, simply a problem in Muslim nations. China, too, persecutes Christians, as does North Korea, Columbia, Cuba, and dozens of other countries. Yet in these places, Christianity thrives and continues to grow. Christians persevere.

Perhaps you and I don’t know what persecution is like. Perhaps it falls on us, then, to be the voice of those in countries who cannot speak up for themselves. It’s as simple as a letter or email to an elected official, calling on them to push for human rights in all areas of the globe. It’s as simple as writing a check to a ministry or organization that works to support imprisoned and persecuted Christians, and, for that matter, any marginalized and neglected segment of the world’s population.

Part of what Jesus speaks about in our reading today is the art of “speaking the truth to power.” He has promised to give us the words to say. It is up to us to speak.

Sunday, November 7, 2010

It Gets Better!

It isn't like the "It Gets Better" campaign I've enjoyed seeing blossom over the past month or so... but, then again, it kinda is.

Haggai 1:15b-2:9
In the second year of King Darius,
in the seventh month, on the twenty-first day of the month, the word of the LORD came by the prophet Haggai, saying: Speak now to Zerubbabel son of Shealtiel, governor of Judah, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak, the high priest, and to the remnant of the people, and say, Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing? Yet now take courage, O Zerubbabel, says the LORD; take courage, O Joshua, son of Jehozadak, the high priest; take courage, all you people of the land, says the LORD; work, for I am with you, says the LORD of hosts, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. My spirit abides among you; do not fear. For thus says the LORD of hosts: Once again, in a little while, I will shake the heavens and the earth and the sea and the dry land; and I will shake all the nations, so that the treasure of all nations shall come, and I will fill this house with splendor, says the LORD of hosts. The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the LORD of hosts. The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the LORD of hosts; and in this place I will give prosperity, says the LORD of hosts.

2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
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
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 anymore, 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."

This is the Word of the Lord.

One of the difficulties we run into as twenty-first century people is that, very often, when the Scriptures make reference to people, places, and events, we have no real frame of reference for them. Groups like the Pharisees and Sadducees, for example, tend to get grouped together in our minds and in our conversations, filed away in a box marked “enemies of Jesus.”

In reality, these two groups were as different as you could get and still be within the same general ideology. To begin with, the Sadducees counted only the Pentateuch, or first five books of our modern Old Testament, as authoritative. The Sadducees insisted on a very strict literal reading of Scripture, and since these five books of the Bible make no mention of an afterlife, they held that there must then be no such thing.

The Sadducees were the elite in Jewish culture – they were the ones who were in charge of the Temple’s operations (and, as a result, became rich off of the merchants who sold goods in and around the Temple); and from a select few of their families, the chief priests were assigned.

In contrast, the Pharisees take—and I know it sounds odd, but bear with me—a more liberal view of Scripture. In Jesus’ time, the Pharisee held the whole Bible as it existed as authoritative. As a result, they believed in a resurrection, a life after death. What’s more, they were much less wedded to the Temple as the center of culture and worship. If the Sadducees were the religious elitists, the Pharisees were much more democratic in their practice of religion.

Now, the way this played out in practice is, rather than being limited to the strict interpretation of the text of the Law, and only the text of the law, the Pharisees sought to place the Law into the context of daily life. This resulted in hundreds upon hundreds of supplementary rules. For example, if one is to do no work on the Sabbath, then one must define what “work” is, right? So they developed, over time, some 39 general categories of activities which are prohibited on the Sabbath. These are: Carrying, Burning, Extinguishing, Finishing, Writing, Erasing, Cooking, Washing, Sewing, Tearing, Knotting, Untying, Shaping, Plowing, Planting, Reaping, Harvesting, Threshing, Winnowing, Selecting, Sifting, Grinding, Kneading, Combing, Spinning, Dyeing, Chain-stitching, Warping, Weaving, Unraveling, Building, Demolishing, Trapping, Shearing, Slaughtering, Skinning, Tanning, Smoothing, and Marking.

And while these laws (and believe me, that list is a tiny representation of the legal minutiae the Pharisees developed) served to produce in the Pharisees the very self-righteous superiority they had originally rebelled against in the Sadducees, it is their ability to have a construct of faith apart from the Temple proper that allowed them to rescue Judaism from obscurity following the temple’s destruction in 70AD. By contrast, the Sadducees all but ceased to exist.

Now, that’s the wider historical background, but if the dispute is between the Pharisees and Sadducees, why on earth drag Jesus into it? He certainly was no fan of the Pharisees, and the feeling was mutual. Well, our reading takes place during the last week before Jesus is crucified. When Jesus came into Jerusalem, his first stop was the Temple, where he singlehandedly drove out the moneychangers. Now, as you might imagine, running the moneychangers out served to take a bite out of the Sadducees’ profit margin. Thus you might say that, in all of Judaism, the one thing the Pharisees and Sadducees could agree on was that they hated Jesus.

Obviously, the question they pose to Jesus is meant to not only discredit him, but by extension to show the impossibility of life after death. The law they referenced – called levirate marriage from the Latin levir ("brother in law") comes from Deuteronomy 25:5-10 and sought to insure the preservation of one's family name by stipulating that a man should marry the childless widow of his brother.

Think about it: if there is nothing to hope for after the end of life, then the most important thing a person can hope for, the only immortality available, is that one’s name will live after them. Thus the levirate marriage law would have been of inestimable importance to the Sadducees. Yet for all the importance they placed on the idea, their question was based upon a ridiculous and improbable situation. I mean, Elizabeth Taylor hadn’t even been born yet! But, of course, they weren’t really interested in the answer at all, were they? They were interested in discrediting Jesus, and if they made fools of the other folks who believed in the resurrection, well, that was a bonus.

But it turns out that the Sadducees were making an error. Not just in thinking they could confuse and embarrass Jesus. No, they were making a mistake that many of us make: they were assuming that the afterlife is, at its core, merely an extension of this life.

I don’t know if you ever saw the movie “Beetlejuice,” but I found its (thankfully comedic) interpretation of the afterlife depressing. The dead were either employees of – or victims of – a bureaucracy, where you took a number and waited in line for years only to find that they’d misplaced your papers.

And what Jesus tells them is, oh, no, you’ve got it all wrong. It’s better than that.

In our reading from the book of Haggai, the exiles have returned from a 70-year captivity in Babylon, dragging with them their meager possessions and a few building materials, and they’ve managed to cobble together a Temple. It’s ramshackle, tiny, pitiful. An embarrassment. Their stomachs growl as they wonder, is this it? Is this all we ever have to look forward to? Living hand-to-mouth under the heel of some king or another, worshiping in a shack, the rest of our lives? This is when God whispers in their ear, “No. It gets better.”

What is it we hope for? Do we, like so many Christians today and through the centuries, hold to some Greek notion of the immortality of the soul, where whatever it is we imagine our spirit or soul to be carries on, a wisp of who we are now, into the Great Unknown? In our Gospel reading, Jesus tells us, “Oh, no. It gets better.”

Hear the Word of God, from First Corinthians, the fifteenth chapter, reading from the New International Reader’s Version: “The body that is planted does not last forever. The body that is raised from the dead lasts forever. It is planted without honor. But it is raised in glory. It is planted in weakness. But it is raised in power. It is planted as an earthly body. But it is raised as a spiritual body. Just as there is an earthly body, there is also a spiritual body. It is written, ‘The first man Adam became a living person.’ The last Adam became a spirit that gives life. What is spiritual did not come first. What is earthly came first. What is spiritual came after that. The first man came from the dust of the earth. The second man came from heaven.”

It is the whole person, not some wispy essence, that God promises to redeem. We do, in fact, die – there is no escaping that. But because of the One who died on the cross and was raised again from death, we live and die with the promise that God will similarly raise us from death to new life where, in the words of Jesus today we “cannot die, because [we] are like angels and are children of God, being children of resurrection” (David Lose)

Marcia Thompson puts it this way: “Heaven does not equal earth taken to perfection. Life in God is not an extension of this life. Resurrection is complete transformation. The only thing that holds this life together with the next is God, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.”

The Sadducees thought that they were God’s favorites because of how they were born – the children of privilege, destined to prosper, to enjoy the authority and profit of controlling the religious life of a nation. The Pharisees thought that God’s favor was a thing to be earned, an ideal to attain through careful observance of every nuance of legal observance. Neither had it right, of course.

The resurrection life isn’t just a future hope, but a current crucial aspect of our existence. Heaven isn’t “up there,” but as Henry David Thoreau said, “Heaven is under out feet as well as over our heads.” Yes, there is a beyond, and yes it is beyond anything our minds can comprehend, but eternity begins now. This is why we live. This is why we love. This is why we worship. This is why we hope.

Oh, yes. It really does get better.