Not Finished… (Haggai 1:15b-2:9; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-4,13-17; Luke 20:27-38)
Well, the day after tomorrow is election day. Some say it’s the most important election in a century (or ever!?). I think many of us have been overwhelmed by the unprecedented negativity, personal attacks, general nastiness and lack of civility in the last months. I also think that many of us are at least as worried about what happens next, with the possibility of violence at the polls and later. We hear rumours that, already plans are afoot in Washington to make the next President’s term unpleasant and difficult. And, so, the gridlock with which we ended will be that with which we begin. The mark of democracy is compromise, while the mark of dictatorship is ideological hatred that holds that compromise is treason, anyone who is not in lockstep is an enemy to be vanquished. In fact, we do have things about which to worry.
And yet, it is our duty as citizens of this nation (and, frankly, as Christians) to help the process to work. We live in a present that is not like the past. It is not like anything. But it’s the only time we have. How, then, shall we live? My encouragement to you is to live by the faithfulness of God who is not finished with us yet.
All of our passages of scripture today have to do with the differences between people’s expectations of the future and the reality of what happened as time went on. The people in these passages were thrown for a loop because they imagined that the future would be just like the past and the present, and it wasn’t. They began to believe that God had finished with them, and if with them, then with the world, because they were the most important people in the world. God must have lied. The world is at an end. And all the lessons respond: “No!” ”God’s not finished…even with us.” “Hang in there, trust in the steadfast faithfulness of God.” The future is open and God can remake it.
In the little Book of Haggai, God’s people were convinced that they were heirs to God’s covenant with David. That confidence had been fairly shaken when the Babylonians deported much of the population from the land of Judah, burning the city of Jerusalem and God’s temple, but some hung in there and trusted in God’s faithfulness to bring them home.
Eventually a few chose to accept the new conqueror-Persia’s invitation to return to Jerusalem and rebuild. They were especially encouraged by this Prophet Haggai and his chum Zechariah (whose book is right next door to his) to let the centerpiece of rebuilding be a new Temple. The two-decades-long work of rebuilding was carried on by this sturdy little community, because they imagined that such a place would restore David’s glory among the nations. The future would take the shape of the past. Some of their poetry, found in biblical texts of this period, reflects the almost-cosmic greatness of their imaginative longing for the past to be reborn. But, now, after all the long, hard work, they looked at what they’d accomplished and, the honest truth was that it wasn’t cosmic at all, but little and a bit cheap compared to that old temple. The older folk in the community told them so, and the younger folk knew it, when they really looked at it. They had allowed the language and a fantasy about how great the past was to limit their imagined future. Their real world was something that didn’t live up to any of that, but, instead discouraged them, scared them and made them sure that whatever they did as God’s people now would be little and unimportant. God must be finished with them so they wanted to quit.
If we skip ahead about 500 years to the northern Greek city of Thessalonica (now Thessaloniki) we find the specifics of the problems different than those in Haggai’s Jerusalem. In the early days of the Christian movement, especially while some who knew Jesus were still alive, one of his most treasured promises was that he would return to be with his disciples forever. Peace and justice would reign in the world. He set no timetable set out for this to happen (in spite of the fact that some have always tried to do it), but it was to be “soon,” which was taken by some to mean “right away.” As time passed, first-generation followers of Jesus began to die and Jesus hadn’t come yet in the way that they had imagined he would.
The traditional date, at least for 1 Thessalonians, is about 51CE, within two decades of Jesus’ death and resurrection. The so-called “delay of Jesus’ coming” had already become an issue then, and it only got worse. To complicate matters even more, there were some teachers in the Thessalonian church (teaching, perhaps, even in the name of the Apostle Paul) who said that, somehow, Jesus already had come back, and, well, the Thessalonians had simply missed it. And they were confused and devastated. They thought they knew the tradition, and had imagined the future in the shape of the past. And none of it was happening the “right way.” So, they wanted to quit.
The Gospel story isn’t about either how the right way to serve God in the temple, or about how the end of the world might be. It’s about the resurrection, not directly the resurrection of Jesus, but about what is called the general resurrection of people at the end of the age. The bottom line is that Jesus, the Pharisees, and the Essenes (two Jewish political/religious parties of the first century CE) believed it would happen in the future, and a group called the Sadducees did not. In Luke 20, Jesus confronted some of these aristocratic, priestly Sadducees. These folk are only mentioned about 14 times in the New Testament and only here in the Gospel of Luke. The Jewish/Roman historian Josephus (late 1st century CE) also discussed them, as do some of the writings of the Jewish rabbis later on. They seem to have been hard-line traditionalists. They stuck with the authority of only the first five books of the Bible as authoritative (“they’re from Moses, you know”), and they found no evidence in those books for the resurrection of people at the end of the age, nor for angels, nor for God’s daily providence for people, nor a few other things.
The lack of a substantial view of life after death is pretty much the Old Testament position, and the Sadducees simply repeated that tradition in their day. Their conservatism extended to, and was, perhaps driven by, their support for the economic status quo that kept them in power. The fact that Mark, Matthew, and Luke all tell this story is a ringing affirmation that Jesus did see the crucial nature of resurrection. Luke was telling this story for those in his Christian community (and others who would later read it), who might be tempted, like the Sadducees, simply to deny that God could be at work in the world in certain ways because they, pretty much, thought the job of Christians was to stick to traditional beliefs just the way they’d always been taught. Again, it was allowing the images of the past tradition to limit the shape of God’s future. They were already sure that resurrection was impossible, so anyone, like Jesus who affirmed it, had to be wrong and suspect in their faith because certain doctrines disagreed with their little list. That virtually every other Jewish group did affirm a resurrection in some way (including Jesus and his followers) is ample evidence, however, that the old tradition was not working for folks in their real lives.
Now, Jesus’ response to these Sadducees did not carve out a distinctively Christian doctrine – that wasn’t what Jesus was about anyway. What he said agreed with what Pharisees, Essenes, and others already believed in his day. What’s important for us, is that Jesus’ response to ancient and contemporary Sadducees works away at this principle: “Don’t judge what God can do in the future by what you’ve been used to reading about the past.” What Jesus called “the Resurrection” was a brand new kind of time when God would abolish death. Period. And that changes everything. Some of the things that have been “normal” won’t be “normal” anymore. Refusing to be flexible and open to the future in this way, will bring people up against a brick wall and they’ll want to quit.
Those are our texts for this morning. Now, let’s go back to them and try to unearth what is in them about how to think about God in our present days. We find this in Haggai: (God says), “I am with you…my spirit abides among you, do not fear…and I will fill this house with splendour, and the latter splendour of this (cheap little) house shall be greater than the former.” “Don’t worry about externals. Go ahead with mission in the in-between spaces of your life. Don’t fret that things look different than they used to, or even look small, or cheap, or reduced compared to whatever you imagined about the good old days. I am with you, my spirit abides with you, to help you conquer your fear. I am not finished with you and I will enable you to live in your own difficult times.” And that includes whatever happens Tuesday. Concentrate on being creative in mission to the world.
In 2 Thessalonians, we read these words: “God chose you…for sanctification by the Spirit… (and) gave…eternal comfort and good hope (to) comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work.” God is the one who is “for” us, and chooses us and comforts us and gives us hope to keep on doing what is good. We don’t just wait around for Jesus to show up in ancient terms with everyone dressed in ancient clothes, etc., but understand that Jesus’ presence is real through God’s spirit in our difficult times, and together with one another and God, we will figure out how to serve.
From Luke’s Gospel, we remember Jesus’ words at the end of the story that “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living; for to God, all…are alive.” God is the living God as well as the God of the living, and because that is so, we cannot know the shape of what is possible with God, nor limit what may be to what has been. We should be careful, not to assume that being God’s people now and in the future will look just like being God’s people in the past. We should neither shrink from our traditions nor be trapped by them. We should be unafraid to try old things again, new things afresh, and be open to responding to this flux of living in the present and into the future. It’s clear that Christian communities find themselves in new situations today.
This is not because the world is such an evil place. God made the world. God loves the world. We should be bold enough to think new thoughts as we trust in the God of the living to love God’s world, too. We need to be attentive to needs that match our mission and be nimble enough to respond and to trust God that these opportunities will come along at the right time. God is the God of the living, and because that is true, things are not finished for us, and we will go on.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.