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.

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