Waiting in Another Place (Haggai 1:15b-2:9; 2 Thessalonians 2:13-17; Matthew 22:23-33)
The musical “Fiddler on the Roof” is set in the little Jewish village (the Yiddish word would be shtetl) of Anatevka in Russia.. The Russian powers (that were Christian by name at least) had co-existed with the Jewish folk for a long time, but now, a cold wind blew from the Czar that dictated that Jews were no longer welcome as they had been, and Anatevka was to be purged of its inhabitants. They all had be leave or face violence. One of my favourite lines is spoken, at almost the end of the play, by the old rabbi (or “rebbi” as he is called). In the maelstrom of emotions that arose from folks being forcibly deported from what had been their homes for generations, where they had practiced the daily rituals that went together to make life including the tradition of celebrating the Passover and other feasts and fasts, and waiting for the messiah to come, in the midst of all that, the rebbi says, “We will wait for the Messiah in another place.” Although he meant, primarily, a change in physical place, I suspect that it also might entail a change in spiritual and social place. We are left to imagine what such changes might be like as they follow the sound of that fiddler.
The sermons for the next two weeks will not follow the Revised Common Lectionary. One will be preached by me and one by Maxine. Neither of us could see a great deal that appealed in the prescribed texts. All three of today’s alternate passages paint a picture those who have been forced to wait for the Messiah in another place, so to speak. We find in all of these texts God as consistently creating new life in old people and old communities, as those people and communities become open, flexible and willing to adapt to waiting in another place, a changed and changing environment. God doesn’t give up on us. Maxine will come along next, to emphasize some crucial points for participating in that new life in new environments by underlining and staying with some old truths in a different place. Or that’s what I think will happen. Come and see.
Our Haggai text centres on a little, stressed out community made up of some people, many of whom were the descendants of folk who had been forced into a physically different place when they had been deported to Babylon, where they had been for 70 years. Now they had come back “home” so to speak. In their minds they had pictured that being home was going to be just like it had been before they (or their ancestors) had been forcibly removed. They would simply go back to doing everything just like they always had. Instead, they found that that their so called home had become another place from the one they remembered. Everything had changed and even the world around was in an uproar. Haggai was insistent that their community could experience renewal by working together in rebuilding their Temple.
Well, they had neither a king nor lot of money, so they couldn’t do what Solomon had done on his Temple. Everything had to be cheaper and different, and that seemed discouraging. They also couldn’t seem to agree on anything and that too led to discouragement and weakness in the community.
In their discouragement they concluded that everything significant had already been finished in the past before they had gone to wait in a different place. Haggai’s purpose was to get the community mobilized in common mission, so that God’s spirit could energize them to do new things that weren’t like what they’d already done. The present and future demanded new things. The complainers (and there always are some) whined that the new Temple wasn’t as grand as the old one. The newness they’d been given wasn’t as good as the oldness they couldn’t have and didn’t need. In his way, Haggai responded, “You’re right,” the new temple isn’t like the old one, but maybe it’s more suited to the needs of people today and tomorrow. Our passage really deals with the key problems of discouragement, and past-centeredness, that keep people from focusing on accepting the creative energy that God has for them when they wait for the Messiah in a different place. Haggai said, in ancient language that is specific to that situation, that the greatest days for the temple were not past, but present and future, even with all the differences. Haggai worked hard at getting the people to believe that the work they were doing in the present was going to be significant in the real world. God hadn’t abandoned them, the mission wasn’t finished and neither were they. Let’s leave Haggai there for today.
Paul wrote the Thessalonian correspondence, probably his earliest surviving writings, to Christians in the chief seaport and capital city of the Roman province of Macedonia that today we call Thessaloniki. The folks in the church were having a hard time distinguishing between God’s promises being fulfilled and God’s promises being finished, so, in a way, they were like those we’ve seen in Haggai.
It’s interesting to think that these Christians seem to be discouraged even though they lived only about twenty years distant Jesus’ death and resurrection. The early expectation of those who followed Messiah Jesus was that he would soon come to earth again for his people and end history with a glorious reign of justice and peace. But, even then, people had begun to die without that happening. I don’t know why it seems easier to believe that God or somebody has lied to us rather than we misunderstood the promise of God. But it is. To add fuel to the fire, it seemed that some people had gotten the idea that Jesus had, indeed, come and they had missed him. They’d been “left behind.” God’s left us in another place.
Unfortunately, we don’t have enough information to know just what had happened, nor really, some of the nuances of what Paul meant in some of what he wrote. It is pretty clear, however, that Paul’s response is similar to Haggai’s. His message was, God has not abandoned you. You might have to wait for the Messiah in another (mental and spiritual) place than you thought, but God’s promises don’t depend on what people say about them. There are always those who say “things are all over.” So what! God keeps promises, even if we misunderstand them. Paul said, “Look around you and count how many ways God is at work now.” God is still working, Paul wrote, “Give thanks, proclaim the good news, hang on, and hold fast to God’s promises.” Involve yourself in mission now, in a different place than Jesus’ world. Retool, rethink, repurpose. The mission’s not finished and neither are you.
The Gospel Lesson for today is one that the Lectionary actually skipped a few weeks ago. If you remember, I said back then that Matthew told these stories in the way he did to point to values that were crucial for his own community of faith, and, by extension, for ours. In the four controversy stories in Matthew 22, this is the only place where Jesus said to his conversation partners: “You are wrong about this.” It would seem to me that what Matthew meant to convey by this was “It is possible to get this value wrong, and crucial to get it right! It was.
In the story Jesus had a conversation with a group from the people called the Sadducees, who were a religious and political party made up mostly of aristocrats and wealthy Jews who controlled the Jerusalem Temple. They kept good relationships with whomever was in power (in this case Rome) to guard their position. Hobnobbing with such non-Jews might have made them broad-minded about things, but it did not. They were narrow-minded traditionalists. They affirmed the authority of only the first five books of the Bible called the Torah. Anything they couldn’t find in these five books, they didn’t believe. They saw no evidence there for a belief in angels, providence, spirits or the resurrection. When Moses (or God) put the last stroke into the Torah, it was finished and God had nothing more to add. It was the job of the faithful to remain “the frozen chosen” and simply to repeat what they had been told.
The particular thing the Sadducees didn’t believe that’s important in our story is the resurrection. When we see the word resurrection, we have a hard time not thinking of Jesus’ resurrection, but that’s not the resurrection we’re talking about. It was fairly common (though not universal) Jewish belief in and around the time of Jesus to divide world history into two pieces: the present age and the age to come. The first was living in history, the second was living in the time when God and the Messiah would rule directly and everything would be as it should be. Also, to be alive, in any meaningful way, most Jews thought that people needed to have a physical body. They would live on earth with God and the Messiah. To put it bluntly, in order for the people who had died to be available to be alive (that is, with bodies) with God on earth, there had to be a way of “getting them un-dead.” In Jesus’ day and before, many thought that the way this happened was in a resurrection of some or all people in Israel, or, some said, the world. In any case, it is this resurrection that Jesus discussed with the Sadducees here. It has to do with “getting bodies un-dead” at the junction of the present age and the age to come. This time was often simply called “the resurrection,” and so it is here in this passage. These Sadducees told a complicated story based on Deuteronomy 25 that said that a dead man’s brother is to marry his widow to give him an inheritance. In their story, they couldn’t tell who was married to whom. It can’t be true! But to Jesus and to Matthew, by denying this resurrection, the Sadducees were simply saying that there does come a time when God is finished. There is a place where we cannot wait for the Messiah. It’s when you’re dead. It’s over and done with then.
Now remember that Matthew was telling these stories of Jesus to his congregation about six or seven decades after Jesus and about 20 years after the Temple was destroyed and the Sadducees, tied to it as they were, sort of went out of business.
I don’t think Matthew cared about the historical Sadducees as much as he did those in and around his congregation that reminded him of them. And Matthew wanted to echo Jesus’ own words about the attitude that God is ever finished with people or abandoned them. “You are wrong about this.” And, “You understand neither the scriptures nor the power of God.” Even if you have to wait for the Messiah in a different place, God is not finished with you, nor has God abandoned you.
Jesus quoted a passage from Exodus 3:6 in which God said “I am (not I was) the God of Abraham, etc.” Jesus took this to mean that if God said “I am” about these folks, that God meant that, to God, in some way, Abraham, Isaac, and so on, were somehow alive. God wasn’t finished even with folk we consider dead. So the resurrection must be true. To Matthew, the very fact that the God cared enough for people to bring them to new life meant that God had not abandoned people, congregations or the world. Communities of Jesus have always needed to be open to experience new life, and, as they have responded to that newness, the future has been opened as they used and adapted the principles of scripture to guide them into ways to meet new challenges, even as they wait in another place.
What this says to communities of faith today, is that today’s world will, indeed, present different challenges than yesterday’s, we wait, again, in another place. And yet, God will be present within these challenges to raise up new life within communities to meet them if they hang in there together.
As Matthew wrote this, he was addressing a congregation full of folk who were seeing the old ways of doing things die out. As in the days of Haggai and the days of Paul and the Thessalonians, God didn’t just say it once and carve it in stone. Contemporary Sadducees still are wrong and don’t understand the scriptures! God isn’t done speaking to an acting in the world, or with people. So, when we’re feeling weak and small or old and shaky, we need to take courage from the fact that God raises people and communities to new life. Our friends in the United Church of Christ say, “Don’t put a period, where God has only put a comma.” Matthew wants to make sure that people are wise and insightful enough to look for the commas, and still find God at work in new ways and in new places.
In the name of God: Creator, Redeemer, Sustainer. AMEN.