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Sermon – “Take Courage” – November 10, 2013

Sunday, November 10, 2013

First Baptist Church of Lewisburg

Take Courage

Psalm 145: 1-5, 17-21; Haggai 1: 15b – 2: 9; Luke 20: 27-38

An essay in the “Christian Century” said having parents living shields people from death; not that no younger person could die while a parent lived–that tragedy is familiar enough. What it meant was that the general course of things is for each generation to grow old and die, while newer generations are born and grow up, and that the younger generations always enjoy an unconscious expectation of continued life so long as their elders still are around. Itʼs as though there is a great conveyor belt bearing everyone along, with those ahead going in the grave, and the beginning behind us filled continually by babies being born. Middle generations donʼt see the end–our view is obscured by others between us and there. When our parents are gone, however–and especially when that whole generation has perished, then we find that ours is the generation shielding everyone younger from the prospect of mortality. Our view ahead at that point is unobstructed.

This morningʼs scriptures mention the dynamic of older generations being called upon to witness to meaningful things for following generations, and also deal with death. Godʼs power to create, to breathe life, to bring into being new realities is part of Jesusʼ response to those who disbelieve resurrection. Weʼll try to see how these readings- themselves useful information inherited from forebears–illuminate what it is to be who we are, but first I want to make an observation about a modern way of thinking about death.

When I was a kid there was a book called “The Denial of Death.” Fifty years ago popular psychology identified a discomfort with the fact of death as a significant feature of modern life. Improved hygiene, medicine, nutrition all made death less omnipresent in the more privileged societies than it had been, and it was believed, at least by the experts, that people were becoming worse than ever at making their peace with the terms on which life is offered. A faltering of religious faith certainly was part of that.

Now folk wisdom about death is that it is motivation to make a bucket list. People have internalized the old beer commercial–you only go around once and should grab for all the gusto that you can. This is an approach specifically denounced by the apostle Paul in its ancient-world version of “eat, drink, and be merry,for tomorrow we die.” Yet, in this nation which has such a high percentage of population claiming Christianity, it is increasingly the way death is dealt with. Death is no longer denied– its sting is removed, not by confidence in resurrection, but in planning and pursuing every experience craved, so that there will be no regret in the final hour about not having had as interesting a life as one once wished.

That doesnʼt have to be as narcissistic as it sounds, but it sure could be. If you go on line, you see that some peopleʼs hopes for their final years include things like love and doing people good, but the biggest focus seems to be surviving daring stunts, seeing exotic sights, and attaining various ego-boosting achievements. It wasnʼt too long ago that when people who had lived past middle life began to talk

about preparing for death, what they had in mind was pursuing religious seriousness. They expected to meet their Maker and felt that time remained for them to take that to heart. They ended up with some of the same resolutions people still have about charitable deeds, and making amends for earlier wrongs, but the prospect of eternity precluded a focus on entertainment or luxuries. Death wasnʼt seen as an end to opportunity, the way it is now, even with so many professing belief in resurrection. Death was seen as the doorway to a more intimate relationship with God, and the review of life which mattered was not oneʼs own, but oneʼs Makerʼs. Getting right with God was what people sought, and the New Testament God, everyone understood, was more interested in what you gave during your time on earth than in what you got.

This wisdom about life has always been the responsibility of one generation to pass on to the next. Just because, when the world works as it should, the young feel indestructible, and their focus is on the life ahead of them, it remains to their more mature contemporaries to impart perspective about the whole destiny of human beings, and the part played in it of making peace with oneʼs death and preparing for oneʼs immortality.

The role of elders in a traditional society is mentioned both in the psalm and in the reading from the prophet Haggai. The prophet calls upon a generation who were in the community prior to the cataclysm which saw the city defeated and the Temple defiled and damaged, to consider both past and present. What is their current assessment of Godʼs house, and of the city which once was conscience of the honor of being host to it? Donʼt both place of worship and community seem abandoned and unpromising?

It is part of life to contrast past glory with present humility. It is deflating to picture to oneself decline, and the prophet understands this. This is the response he elicits it in order to overturn it. God is not done, nor Godʼs desire for the placeʼs majesty defeated. People are to buck up, to believe, and to work hard, and the future in which God will intervene to bless Jerusalem with the wealth of the peoples round about will come.

Part of what will secure that better future is their being forward-looking and their working hard. One of the Bibleʼs beliefs is that if you can get people to keep doing what they should do, and not grow discouraged, that their effort will be blessed by God. The other part of what will restore Jerusalem and the Temple to prominence and prosperity is Godʼs shaking things up in all the lands nearby. From where Haggaiʼs hearers stand, the strength, security and wealth of neighboring lands look indomitable and eternal, but the prophet reminds them that history is full of reversals. Theirs is not the only place to endure conquest, or find its treasure scattered abroad.

Oneofthethingsaboutlifewhichcanmakeusnervousisthatitʼsunpredictable. As Jesusʼ parable about the rich man who built larger storehouses reminds us, you canʼt count on tomorrow. We so want to run our own lives, and have good outcomes result from our foresight and our diligence, that we donʼt like being hostage to the vagaries of experience, and the unexpected events waiting around the turns of life.

Thereʼs another possibility, though, created by lifeʼs potential to surprise. Though we hardly dare hope itʼs so, we can be surprised on the upside. Things can happen which change menacing circumstances just as things can happen which alter promising situations. A NASCAR race driver offered this advice when asked what he thought people should do if they were suddenly part of an evolving pileup on the road. He said, “drive toward where you see other cars, because theyʼre not going to be there when you get there.” He felt oneʼs best odds were to rely on the changing nature of what was going on.

Failure to consider change is part of the encounter between some Sadducees and Jesus. The Sadduccees, in Jesusʼ time, are traditionalists associated with the Temple cult and the political class reliant on sacrificial Judaism for its influence. There is a big theological dispute between the Sadducees and the Pharisees. The Pharisees, whose similarities to Jesus are obscured by their rivalries and doubts emphasized in the gospels, believe that there will be a resurrection of the dead, and the Sadducees do not. When Judaism and Christianity divided early in the history of our faith, Christian insistence on the resurrection meant that organized Judaism distinguished itself, in part, by returning to conceiving life as entirely occurring between birth and death, with nothing beyond the grave. The keeper of this historically dominant position during Jesusʼ day was the party of the Sadducees.

They use scripture to set up a problem which they believe makes the idea of resurrection silly. An old regulation about establishing offspring for a deceased brother offers a chance to pose the question about a many-married widow, and whose wife she will be in the resurrection.

That question counts on a continuity which Jesus teaches is changed by resurrection itself. I hasten to say I donʼt think the point of Jesusʼ objection to their line of inquiry is the impossibility of persons being reunited in the afterlife. Jesus doesnʼt say that wife and spouses wonʼt retain any personal qualities in the resurrection, just that the new life with God is one in which people wonʼt marry or be given in marriage. As is often the case in rabbinical controversy, there may be a little sidestepping in the response, but its main point is that expecting the next life to work exactly like this one is unfounded. Thatʼs consistent with the power of God to make things new.

Jesus is more concerned, though, to dismiss the trick question in order to offer his own scriptural evidence for belief in resurrection. What he tells the Sadducees is that Godʼs telling Moses that he is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob– because itʼs not put “I was the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob”–means that all of them are alive to God when God says that, and always alive to God. Hence they must be resurrected, therefore there is resurrection.

All todayʼs scriptures are hopeful. Pray that we ourselves may be hopeful, relying not only on what we see, but on belief in what God can do.

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