November 10, 2013, Pentecost 25 – Glory Worth Waiting For
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I KNOW that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold and not another.
Those are the words of Job, who wrote with the faith of a man who had lost everything in this world. He had nothing worldly left to hang onto, nothing left to fear, because all the “worsts” that could have happened had happened to him. Job was a model citizen, a prosperous man, but not a scheming, grasping, ambitious man. He was a good and righteous man, with a large and happy family and a booming business, loved and admired by all who knew him.
The book of Job tells the story of what happened when Job lost his family and his friends and all his wealth and all the respect and affection that people had had for him. His own wife came to despise him, and especially she despised him for continuing to have faith in God when God seemed to have turned his back on Job. She said to her husband, “Are you still holding onto your integrity? Curse God, why don’t you –give all that religious stuff a rest already – and just die!” But Job, coming to the end of every good thing this world had to offer, never let go of his certainty that God was true, and truly good. Even his cries for justice and mercy were solidly rooted in his belief that God was the only one who was all-powerful and all good, and who would hear him when he called out.
Most of us live out our faith in less grim circumstances, fortunately. Job’s life was stripped of everything good the world had to offer, but our lives are full of good things, and that isn’t because we are particularly worldly people. It’s because God created this world to be a very good place. He created us in love, and he created us to love one another and to get married and to have families and friends and enjoy beauty and have good work to do. And as broken and dysfunctional as this world is, most of us would have a hard time imagining a good creation that was very different. Can you imagine the new creation – what we might call “heaven” – being really good without the kinds of human relationships and other excellent and beautiful things we have enjoyed in this creation?
The Sadducees couldn’t imagine it. Resurrection, and life after death, and any kind of life beyond this creation, just made no sense to them, and they were ready to prove it with a clever sort of logic problem. The Sadducees were a small and exclusive sect of Jewish priests, who were very comfortable in their life in this old creation. They traced their lineage back to King David’s time, so they were confident in their religious and social standing, and they had even formed a pretty friendly relationship with the invading Romans. Life in this world was pretty good if you were a Sadducee. And so they came to Jesus with a pretty little puzzle to show him that the whole idea of the Resurrection was absurd. To the Sadducees, talking about a physical Resurrection was kind of like we might talk about time travel: maybe it’s a fun idea, but once you get really thinking about it there are too many logical contradictions for most of us to take it seriously.
Their story was based on the Law of Moses, which said a man whose brother died and left his wife childless was required to marry his brother’s widow and produce children in his brother’s name – you remember at that time there weren’t any Laws against polygamy so that wasn’t a problem – and that way he would preserve his brother’s family line and property. And so, rubbing their hands together with glee, the Sadducees spun a story about seven brothers who all died and left their poor widow childless. Okay, so in the “Resurrection” – and they put little air quotes around that – whose wife is she? She can’t belong to all seven of them, right? You see? Resurrection doesn’t make any sense; it couldn’t really work.
Jesus answers them so thoroughly that they are left speechless – Luke says that they didn’t dare ask him any more questions. And in the gospel of Matthew, where Matthew relates this same event, he tells us Jesus’s answer was pretty blunt. “You’re wrong,” Jesus told them, “and you’re wrong for two reasons. You don’t know your Bible. And you don’t know the power of God.” That was a one-two punch for people whose whole identity was wrapped up in being scholars of the Scriptures and holy men of God, and he pretty much knocked the wind out of their priestly sails.
But actually, their problem was the same problem we all have. All that we know of goodness and of life is what we know in this creation. We can only know what we know with our human minds and our physical senses. It all comes down to a failure of imagination. Is there any picture of heaven that you have ever heard that really sounds worth dying for? Are any of us attracted to the traditional image of floating around on clouds in white nighties and playing harps day and night for eternity? Or even if we’re more Biblically literate, are we really attracted to the idea of living in a big city with crystal walls and a big throne and endless daylight and singing hymns forever and ever? Our minds can’t really comprehend any of that stuff, and I think for most of us it doesn’t even sound that good. My idea of good is sitting around the table with my family and talking and eating really delicious food. Or walking in the woods on a perfect October day. Or curling up on the couch with my dog and cat and a warm blanket and a good book. Those are the most heavenly pictures my little mind can make up.
We are wrong about the Resurrection, Jesus would tell us, because we don’t know our Bibles and we haven’t even begun to comprehend the power of God. The Bible tells us that this creation that is the most wonderful – as well as the most messed up – thing any of us have experienced: this creation was made to be completely good in a way we can’t fathom, and that Jesus came to make that happen. Paul wrote to the Ephesians that God’s final purpose is to bring everything together in Jesus, everything in heaven and earth, and he uses words like “the riches of our glorious inheritance” and the “immeasurable greatness of his power toward us”.
But our human experience is so limiting that when we try to think of a world without death or disease or sorrow or suffering we don’t end up with anything immeasurably great or glorious; usually we end up with something inexplicably bland and flat and boring-sounding. Most of us don’t have any feel for what a glorious inheritance might look like. And that is because nothing we have ever known has ever been completely free of the taint of sin. All we know of love and beauty and goodness is sweeter to us because we see it against the backdrop of sadness and evil. That’s where the human philosophy of dualism comes from – that kind of “Star Wars” theology that an awful lot of people buy into, that says there needs to be a kind of balance in the world; good needs the presence of evil to be truly good. That is very sensible in a logical, Sadducee-sort of way, but it is complete garbage.
We are wrong because we really don’t know the power of God. We can’t even imagine what kind of good and glorious things he will do with this broken creation we love so much; it’s not in our capabilities to imagine so much good. Our hope can only be based on faith in the person of Jesus Christ, because he is something we do know. Because he came to be a real part of this physical creation, Jesus is the one and only good and holy and perfect thing that we can know and experience. He gave us his words to teach us and his Spirit to guide us and his body and blood to taste and touch and smell and know that we are loved and to remind us of his promise that there is more to come than we can understand now. And in a way that is beyond our comprehension he made us, as a group of plain old people, into his Body. He is present in our midst to act in this world: to comfort and to remind and to help one another. But there is more to come that we can only hold onto by faith.
C.S. Lewis wrote, in his book called “Miracles”, about how impossible it is for us to understand what true goodness with no faintest touch of evil will be like:
…I think our present outlook might be like that of a small boy who, on being told that the sexual act was the highest bodily pleasure should immediately ask whether you ate chocolates at the same time. On receiving the answer ‘No’, he might regard absence of chocolates as the chief characteristic of sexuality. In vain would you tell him that the reason why lovers in their carnal raptures don’t bother about chocolates is that they have something better to think of. The boy knows chocolate: he does not know the positive thing that excludes it. We are in the same position. We know the sexual life; we do not know, except in glimpses, the other thing which, in Heaven, will leave no room for it.
We do well to live a life of thanksgiving, to enjoy the good that God has given us in this creation: the good of chocolate, and the good of married life, and all other good things that make our lives sweet. But in our thanksgiving we always need to remember, by faith, that there are beauties and goodnesses that are far beyond anything we have ever yet known, and that life in the presence of the Father and the Son will be so much more than life in the here and now that we can only comprehend it as the absence of what we know – a place of no sorrow, no pain, no death.
Our hope is in the faith Job expressed when the good of this world had utterly failed him, not pie in the sky by-and-by, but a solid faith that we will be with Christ, and that then the words glory and riches and beauty and joy will make sense to us, not in comparison to anything else, but in their full and true meanings, because they are all contained in the person who is our only Hope:
We KNOW that our Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after our skin has been thus destroyed, yet in our flesh – as whole people with bodies and minds, not airy kinds of spirit-things – in our flesh we shall see God, whom we shall see for ourselves, and our eyes shall behold and not another.
May our Lord Jesus Christ himself, and God our Father, who loved us and gave us eternal comfort and good hope through grace, comfort your hearts and establish them in every good work and word.