Toorak Uniting Church

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When we are dead and other curly questions

Haggai 2:1 – 4     Luke 20: 27 – 38
Rev. Ian Brown
7 November 2004

Author of life, nurturer of those who live lovingly, increase in us we pray, the capacity to live life to the full.
Let no voice misguide us, no fancy delude us, no sight confuse us. Through Christ Jesus, the pioneer and finisher of our faith.
Amen!

Today we have a very odd pairing of texts, as our particular gift from the lectionary. There is the odd question about marriage in the afterlife in the gospel from Luke to which Jesus replies that death isn’t such an issue for God. And then the rather grand words from Haggai, "In the second year of King Darius, the word of the LORD came by the prophet Haggai, saying: Speak now to Zerubbabel, and to Joshua son of Jehozadak and then follows a message to get on with their work and be encouraged by God’s presence. Obtuse, obscure, odd - yes, relevance? let’s see!

So I’d like to start in an odd place too.
I wonder do you have any of those interesting little books, collections of sayings on a theme, often illustrated with a photo for each one, they’ve become quite popular. On my shelves I have a book of the sayings of people on their deathbeds. You may be thinking, "that Ian must have some very strange books", which could be true, but there are some very wry, witty and profound things in this book. One of my favorites is by Gertrude Stien, who asked, quite prfoundly in her last moments, "what is the answer?" there was a long pause, the she asked, "What is the question?"

It's very much like that with the bible and our search for God. We need to know the questions before we launch out looking for the answers.
People came to Jesus with some real corkers, - classics like "who is my neighbor?" and "is it lawful to pay taxes", and then today’s gospel reading is a prime example "who will be married to this woman who had seven husbands when they get to heaven?" It was the Sadducees question and it was very important to them - I'll return to it later.

We all like and need to ask questions, it’s a part of how we learn and how we communicate; "how was your day? what have you been up to? How are you? We would be lost without the ability to ask questions.

The religious leaders of Jesus day had a greater privilege than they knew in being able to question Jesus at such length - and we have gained so much from their questions and from Jesus answers.
I wonder, if you had the opportunity today what questions would you want to ask Jesus? What are the issues that gnaw away at the back of your mind, the things you find yourself pondering on. What if I give you a moment to think about it, then come for a walk with this roving mic. And we’ll listen to some of your questions?

.............

It is important to ask our questions -
and we find some of the most central questions of all asked in the bible: -
questions like: "What is truth? Am I my brother's keeper? What does it profit a person if they should gain the whole world but loose their soul? Where can I flee from your Spirit? What shall I do to inherit eternal life? and Jesus always took the questions he was asked seriously, he always gave profound answers even to trick questions and made the questioners see from a different perspective.

The Sadducees we heard from today asked Jesus the question about heaven because they didn't believe in afterlife and wanted to show Jesus up, they were in fact, hiding behind their question.
Lots of us still do that today, we ask, "what about this situation, or that tragedy, doesn't that mean God doesn't care? And what about predestination or injustice, does it really matter to God what we do? and we can try hide behind our clever questions. We should just remember though that even when Jesus was faced with a patently false or trick question, he always seemed to get behind it to the heart of the matter for the questioner.

On the question then of life after death, I’d want to say, don’t you be put off by today’s distant cousins of the cynical Sadducees; who want to make fun of eternal life. God’s love is faithful-love; the Hebrew is, CHESED! Dependable for ever! ‘They cannot die any more, but are like the angels and are children of God, having become children of resurrection."

And we, I beleive are foolish to try and predict, or picture, the nature of eternal life.

The Sadducees made themselves look ridiculous with all that stuff about one bride and seven husbands. Any picture we try to draw with pen or words, must depend on images from this mortal life. Projecting that on to eternity it will always look silly. The "life abundant or eternal life" that Jesus spoke of was evocatively promised, sketched or alluded to, but not tightly defined, as "more than this life." And the fact of what we believe about it will not alter it one bit.

When it comes to talking about the hereafter, I resonate with the words of St Paul: "What eye has not seen nor ear heard nor the mind conceived, God has in store for those whom love him."
Then it needs to be said, resurrection is not some natural ability that we have.
Resurrection is not native to us. It is a remarkable gift from the grace of God. Absolutely free! Always in the gospel we get back to grace.

Some Greek philosophers believed that we are, by nature, immortal souls; the human body and life on earth was a crude prison. We are like caged eagles. For them immortality was our right, which at death could be restored as we escape to our true element. These ideas have worked their way into many philosophies over the ages. But this is not faith in Christ, not part of the Hebrew, Christian tradition. The greatest conceit for us to engage in would be this modern self centred thinking that the world, God, the afterlife must all be as each of us imagines them.

It is good to have honest questions and to seek the answers, but we need to remember too, that as with the Sadducees, Jesus sees the real heart of the matter, our real needs and the important question we each need to answer.
The question that Jesus puts to us though is, - "who am I to you?" and "will you make a commitment to my ways?"
That's the bottom line question Jesus put.

Back in the prophet Haggai's day life was hard, the Israelites had returned from exile, the crops were not good and they were asking, "is God really still with us?" The answer is a promise to us too. "All you people, take courage, work, (build the house of God, in fact was the message) for I am with you says the Lord, my Spirit lives among you." Questions or not - that is God's bottom line answer to the Israelites who were so worried and anxious and I believe it's God's answer to us too. Take courage, get on with the most important things first and be assured that God’s Spirit is amongst us

And the Good News is, as Jesus says, "God is the God of the living", the God of abundant life and God wants to bless us with this abundant life. Amen. May it be so, even for us, by God’s grace.

© Rev. Ian Brown, 2004


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