Sunday, November 8, 2015

Begun, but not Completed

Haggai 2:1-9
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: 2Speak 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, 
3Who 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? 
4Yet 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,
 5according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt. 
My spirit abides among you; do not fear. 
6For 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; 
7and 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. 
8The silver is mine, and the gold is mine, says the Lord of hosts. 
9The 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.

This is the Word of the LORD
Thanks be to God

Mark 12:18-27
18Some Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked him a questions, saying, 19”Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no child, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 20There were seven brothers; the first married and, when he died, left no children; 21and the second married the widow and died, leaving no children; and the third likewise; 22none of the seven left children. Last of all the woman herself died. 23In the resurrection whose wife will she be? For the seven had married her.”

24Jesus said to them, “Is not this the reason you are wrong, that you know neither the scriptures nor the power of God? 25For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage, but are like angels in heaven. 26And as for the dead being raised, have you not read in the book of Moses, in the story about him and bush, how God said to them, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob?’ 27He is the God not of the dead, but of the living, you are quite wrong.

This is the Word of the Lord
Thanks be to God

Over the last several years, I've noticed something peculiar about American culture. We spend untold amounts of time and money to avoid the reality of our own aging. Maybe it’s because we remember the past more fondly than we read the present. Maybe we look towards the former glory of our houses because we have become discouraged with the work required to maintain them, to rebuild time after time.

I think that's because, at some level, we know that we have a shelf life. We are limited both in our ability and in our time. Our limits terrify us, the death and loss we experience during our lives are so far beyond even the illusion of our control that we reach into the illusion of eternal youth to avoid dealing with the most terrifying events in our lives. We are consistently taught, as American Christians, that grief and fear are “bad” emotions, and should be treated as though something is broken in our minds.

But the human condition is a frightening one. Throughout our lives, we have to deal with loss, with grief, with pain, much of the time through no fault of our own. Avoidance of these frightening realities may be easier than dealing with them, but pretending they don’t exist doesn’t solve them, and I’m not convinced it actually makes it more bearable.

I think that when we run as hard as we do from the things that frighten us, it makes us think that we have to bear them alone when they do finally catch up to us. When we can no longer avoid the grief over the loss of a dear friend or relative, we feel like we cannot reach out to anyone else because no one else is grieving in the ways we are. By avoiding heartache, we allow it to fester, merely so that we can keep up the cultural illusion that we are not susceptible to those dark emotions.

Death is a reality, and an eventuality, for us all. And that is a terrifying prospect, so much so that we go to great lengths to avoid even the appearance of approaching that end. Searching for a way to increase our reach into the future, straining for something beyond the scope of our life on this planet. We search for eternal youth, for a measure of immortality, the idea that our deaths are only in part.

The Christian claim is not one of immortality, it is of resurrection. Because we will all face the trauma of loss and death. If we trust a continuity based on our own abilities, we will find ourselves paralyzed in the face of the limits of our imagination.

The prophet Haggai has seen his people’s imagination break. For centuries, the people of Israel imagined God as tied to the law, the covenant, and above all the holy city of Jerusalem which housed the temple. God was one who preserved the Israelite nation.

Then came the armies of Babylon, who destroyed the temple and carried off the people of the land, away from their ancestral inheritance. Haggai is among those who survived. He is one who has been allowed to return home. But the trauma of exile has broken the people’s imagination. Everything they understood about reality, about their identity, about their God, is dead.

But the covenant is not one of immortality, but of resurrection. God speaks to their spiritual death: "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?”

The temple-centered religious practices are dead. But God is not. Though lives have been lost, though faith has been lost, the God of their covenant is working on their resurrection, and encourages them to rebuild, not because they are invulnerable to another conquest, but because not even death can separate us from the love of God. It is not the glory of the temple that matters, it is the glory of the LORD of hosts. Though the temple may be lost, the presence of the LORD is still among us. So God tells us to not be paralyzed by our fear. Even the greatest of our works will fade in time, but the work of God is ongoing, begun, but not completed.

"Take courage, all you people of the land, says the Lord; Work, for I am with you, says the Lord of hosts.” It is easy to become discouraged when they look around and see the limitation of their humanity, and the fruits it has borne for them. There is much to fear, Haggai's congregation do not have a King of the line of David on the throne, they have a governor appointed by their captors. They have a high priest, but no place for him to carry out his duties. The work of their hands has been laid waste with fire and sword at the hands of the Babylonian army. Their exile has been real, so have the deaths that they have witnessed on their journey. The people need hope, but they also need room to grieve for the individual losses they have endured.

The theoretical Widow in our gospel passage has found that grief time and time again, having buried seven husbands. But it’s not her grief that concerns the Sadducees in our gospel passage this morning. These learned men, wealthy and powerful, pose the question as a trap, to get Jesus to admit that the resurrection isn’t logical.

Well they’re right, it’s not.

Where’s the logic in the grief of a seven-fold widow being transformed to songs of praise? Where’s the logic in a barren mother being called a child of the resurrection? Where’s the logic in a conquered people reinvesting in a temple to a God who hadn’t prevented disaster?

Where’s the logic in a God who refuses to give up on us when we so consistently abandon God? Where’s the logic in an all-powerful God who goes to death, even death on a cross?

The resurrection is not about logic, it’s about the greatness of God, who can triumph even over the fact of death. The Sadducees have missed that. They point Jesus to a technicality, and he points them right back to God.

God’s covenant is not one of immortality, it’s one of resurrection. Where there once was only death, now there is life, and life abundant. For God is not of the dead, but of the living. John Donne wrote that “All [humanity] is of one author and one volume, and when one [person] dies, a chapter is not torn out of the book, but translated into a better language; and every chapter must be so translated.” And as we wait for our own translation, we will lose access to friends and family who are taken by death before us. That loss is real, and deserves to be mourned. Our mourning testifies that our translation is begun, but not completed.

We confess that Christ was crucified, died, and was buried. But through the loving power of our God, death was not the end of his story, and it’s not the end of ours. Because we are witnesses to resurrection: the creation of life where there was only death. That resurrected life will be one of greater glory than we can now imagine. God’s covenant of resurrection lifts us up, both as individuals, but more importantly as a community of faith.

Through Hosea, God speaks to a people who remember how great things used to be, but are stuck in their nostalgia. Yet God promises them that neither the ruin the see before them nor the rose-colored memories are the end of what God has in store for them. God lifts up covenant communities, like the remnant of Israel, like churches who think they are past their prime. God gives communities of faith a resurrection that breathes transformative life back into their tiredness.

The Sadducees assumed that in the resurrection, everything would be back to the life they understood, the life that had enriched them, that they understood and could work within, only with everybody alive again.

But the God who writes and rewrites the laws of nature does not just raised us from the dead, we are reformed in this resurrection. Not just humanity either, all of creation is redeemed through the death and resurrection of Christ, that is the new form of humanity. “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; ...The latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, says the Lord of hosts.”

The resurrected life is one where we dine with our Lord, no longer held back by our fears and grief, but loved through them. Our fears are redeemed to joy, our grief to gratitude, our despair to faith. Because the power of the God of resurrection makes it so. As individuals and as a community, we are defined by the greatness of God that shines through us, and God can do that through the great and the small, the strong and the weak, and everyone in between.

Because the God who loves us enough to become a human, with all of our limits, like us in every respect except sin, will let neither sin nor death separate us from God. The God whose sovereignty speaks into being things which do not exist declares us to be children of the resurrection, so that we may be like angels in heaven.

So the widow of this gospel story no longer needs to be defined by her ability to bear children and continue the family line. The sinner no longer needs to be cast out for his uncleanness. The wealthy businessman no longer needs to focus on acquiring enough stuff to pass on his legacy. The temple no longer needs to compare itself to a faded memory of its own glory. The church elder no longer needs to hold up the church on his own, fearing that if he steps away that no one will fill the void.

Now they are all like angels in heaven, worshipping God in spirit and in truth, the true church, made whole through the grace of Jesus Christ. And in that communion of the saints, our worship will sing “I will lift you up high, my God, the true king. I will bless you every day, One generation will praise your works to the next one! Proclaiming your mighty Acts! The LORD is righteous in all his ways, faithful in all his deeds!”

We continue in this life though, as resurrection begun but not completed, trusting in the words of the Apostle Paul. “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.” Because ours is a tradition not of immortality, but of resurrection. Our tradition says that death may be more powerful than we are, but our God is more powerful than death by far. We created ones are begun, but not completed, because the LORD is with us, making us new each day. The promise the Lord of hosts made with our spiritual ancestors when we came out of Egypt still holds. For our God is not of the dead, but of the living. The LORD will be our God, and we will be God’s people. We will grieve those we have lost, and we will grieve for ourselves when we lose parts of ourselves. When our time comes, others will grieve for us as well.

But that grief is not the end of our story, because God’s story continues forever. God’s love for us is such that he wants us to be a continual part of that story, a story of creation, resurrection, and everlasting praise.

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