Collect for Third Sunday before Advent
ETERNAL God, who caused all holy scriptures to be written for our learning:
grant us so to hear them, read, mark, learn, and inwardly digest them,
that we may embrace and ever hold fast the blessed hope of everlasting life,
which you have given us in our Saviour Jesus Christ; who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit,
one God, for ever and ever. Amen.
Old Testament lesson:
Haggai Vv 1: 15b - 2: 9
2 Thessalonians 2 Vv 1 - 4 & 13 17
St Luke 20, Vv 27 - 38
In our Gospel proclamation Jesus became involved in one of factional disputes in the Jewish religion of his day. We may like to think that divisions within the church are a phenomenon of recent centuries, but it was ever thus. Separations within the Christian Church number tens of thousands; one world-wide survey carried out in 1995 listed nearly thirty-four thousand and I am sure that that number has increased in the last fifteen years. The Jewish religion of Jesus’ time was far less fractured and splintered, but we know from our Bible readings that he had to contend with both the Pharisees and the Sadducees. Also in the background, although not mentioned in Holy Scriptures, were the Essenes, who were based at Qumran, on the banks of the Dead Sea. All of these groups had there own views, opinions and teachings of the Jewish faith. In the opening verses of chapter twenty, Saint Luke tells us that Jesus was accosted by chief priests, scribes and elders. They wanted to know the source of his authority to preach and heal. The traditional teachings of the religious leaders in Temple and synagogue were based on what they had learned in their turn; there was almost no new understanding or exposition. As we learn elsewhere, Jesus taught with authority, his message was new, original and unaffected by what others had said. Jesus may just have been fed up with questions about the sources of his mandate to do the Father’s work. He may equally have been in a mood to spar with his opponents or he may just have felt a trifle bloody-minded. He turned the tables on his questioners by asking them whether they thought that the baptism of John came from heaven, or was of human origin. This flummoxed them. They couldn’t decide how to answer. So, Jesus told them that he couldn’t give them an answer to their question, either.
Then, Jesus told the crowds a parable about the absent vineyard owner. It was a fine story. It ended with the vineyard being given to others. Everyone was satisfied except the scribes and priests at whom it was addressed. They wanted to take Jesus into custody but they feared the reaction of the people, Jesus adoring public. Not willing to be remain unjustified, the Jewish authorities then sent in spies, ‘who pretended to be honest,’ as Luke tells us. They quizzed Jesus about paying taxes to Caesar. As we know, Jesus gave these new enquirers their comeuppance. As Luke reported, ‘they were not able in the presence of the people to trap him by what he said; and being amazed by his answer, they became silent’. Then we come to our reading for this morning. After the chief priests, the scribes and elders, and the spies, who were probably Pharisees, the Sadducees had a go at him. Just as there are serious doctrinal differences between various Christian churches in our modern world, as for example their respective understandings of the Holy Eucharist, so, in Jesus’ day, there was diversity among the Jewish groups. So it was, about the subject of resurrection.
I suppose at this juncture that it is important to consider the background to resurrection. The possibility of resurrection depends on a death from which one has to be resurrected and death resulted from sin. What do I mean by this? In the beginning God created Adam and Eve and put them in the Garden of Eden. They had nothing to do but live endless lives of luxury and talk with God, ‘in the cool of the evening’, as the Book called Genesis tells us. There was no concept of death at that time – those idyllic circumstances could have lasted for all eternity. However, for reasons that are not important for us to consider this morning, Adam and Eve ate the fruit of the Tree of the Knowledge of Good and Evil, contrary to God’s specific instructions, and sin entered the world. With the introduction of sin came death – Adam and Eve now lived finite lives that would terminate in death. In God’s good time their souls would descend to Sheol, the underworld. That was the general belief of the ancient Jews. Our Bible gives us some instances of exceptions to this rule that all souls must descend to Sheol. You will know of Enoch. Genesis tells us that, ‘he walked with God, and then he was no more’; he had ascended directly to be with God. Similarly, as we saw in our readings a few weeks ago, Elijah ascended to heaven in a whirlwind; his soul did not descend to Sheol. These bodily ascensions aside, we have Biblical evidence, in the Old Testament, of resurrection, that is, of individuals returning to life after being observed as dead, and, presumably, having entered Sheol. In the first Book of the Kings we may read of the son of the widow of Zarephath whom Elijah brought back from the dead by stretching himself three times on the body. In the Second Book of the Kings we learn that Elisha, Elijah’s protégé and successor, brought the son of the Shunemite woman back to life. Elisha’s ministrations were a little more complex. He laid on top of the child and touched his mouth, eyes and hands with his own mouth, eyes and hands. Then, as Elijah had done, he stretched himself upon the prone figure and life returned to the child. In another story the body of a dead soldier, which was mistakenly thrown into Elisha’s tomb, was restored to life on touching Elisha’s bones. However, perhaps the most impressive resurrection imagery in the Old Testament is that told in the Prophecy of Ezekiel. It concerns a large quantity of dry bones, lying dispersed and unburied on the ground. On God’s command the bones came together and, amid much rattling, formed a great army. Let me quote you the words from Ezekiel, chapter thirty-seven: ‘Behold, I will cause breath to enter you, and you shall live. And I will lay sinews upon you and will cause flesh to come upon you, and cover you with skin, and put my breath in you, and you shall live’. Stories of individuals and armies being raised from the dead, shaking off the sleep of death, were powerful images to the Jews of those far off times. If this imagery did nothing else, it persuaded them that escape of their souls from Sheol was always a possibility.
At the time of Jesus there were two conflicting views on resurrection. One opinion was held by the Sadducees. They were a priestly group, concerned particularly with Temple worship. They were materialists who denied not only the resurrection of the dead but the existence of angels and spirits. Their name reflects that of the High Priest Zadok who anointed Solomon at the start of what is commonly called the First Temple Period. They took a literal view of the Torah, the Laws of Moses, and rejected the Pharisees’ more flexible, oral code. The Pharisees, as we know, did accept the idea of resurrection.
So we come to the Saducees’ question to Jesus – after a woman had married each of seven brothers, whose wife would she be at the resurrection? Jesus makes it quite clear that the Sadducees were wrong in their thinking. He said, ‘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’. Jesus made it quite clear that resurrection can be expected, by, ‘those who are considered worthy’. So, can we expect to be resurrected when we die? What will resurrection mean for us? It is impossible to be precise because, although there are many references to eternal life in the gospels, as far as we know, nobody has returned from the dead with an accurate description of what took place while they were dead. Jesus, as we know, arose from the dead on the third day, the first day of the week. He had more important things to do during his final forty days on earth than talk about being dead; such as giving final instructions to his disciples and commissioning them to follow in his footsteps when he had returned to the Father. It is interesting to reflect that the authority given to those frightened men at Pentecost included the power to raise the dead to life. Peter is reported to have brought Tabitha, also known as Dorcas, back to life and Paul restored a young man called Eutychus, who had fallen from a high window after falling asleep during one of Paul’s sermons.
What does the church then teach us about resurrection? The Apostles’ Creed makes it clear that we, ‘Believe in the Resurrection of the Body and the Life everlasting’. In the Nicene Creed we affirm that we, ‘look for the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come’. At various times the church has developed doctrines and dogmas about what the faithful should also believe. One of these is Purgatory, a place where the souls of the dead go to be made ready for heaven. The concept of Purgatory got a bad press in the late Middle Ages, or it would have done had there been a press in those days. The church taught that the time souls spent in Purgatory could be reduced by the payment of monies to the church, either through the purchase of indulgences or through the saying of private Masses; Masses that had to be paid for. Martin Luther’s objection to these practices was one of the causes of the Protestant Reformation in the sixteenth century. Other churches teach the idea of Paradise, again, a place to which souls go before their final journey to heaven. It is important to state that the Bible is very unclear on this whole matter and much has been read, rightly or wrongly, in such apocalyptic books as Daniel and Revelation. I should, perhaps, add that the three-part structure of most Christian church buildings is thought to be based on a tri-partite understanding of life, death and resurrection. The nave, the body of the building, is seen to represent the Church Militant here in Earth (in other words, us); the chancel, the Church Expectant in Paradise; and the sanctuary, the Church Triumphant in Heaven.
In conclusion, and despite our cursory and incomplete understanding of the subject of resurrection, we may be comforted by some words from Saint Paul. In his first letter to the Christian Church in Corinth, he wrote, ‘we will all be changed, in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye, at the last trumpet. For the trumpet will sound, and the dead will be raised imperishable, and we will be changed’. And finally, so that we can approach the ends of our lives in confidence, and with faith in Jesus Christ resurrected, ascended and glorified, Paul also reminds us that ‘Death has been swallowed up in victory’.
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