“Hope Behond History”
Background on this week’s readings:
After the time of exile in Babylon, and after the King of Babylon, Cyrus, allowed the Jewish people to return to their land, they returned. Cyrus had also encouraged them to re-build the temple, and following on the words of prophets like Isaiah, they had great hopes for a complete renewal.
They returned, and their land, their capital, Jerusalem, and their nation were in ruins. The rebuilding did not go easily. It was hard work, and the results were not what they had dreamed. They was discouraged.
To them, Haggai speaks a word of encouragement.
2Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17
A main theme within of both first and second Thessalonians is the question, “why is it taking so long for Christ to return?” The early Christians believed that a new day was to dawn upon them with the return of Christ in which the present powers (namely Rome) and the religious underpinnings of it would be banished. This was expressed in a variety of ways, and in Thessalonians, it has an apocalyptic flavour. Christ will return after great suffering and a new just and peaceful day will begin.
So the church was stuck in between. Christ had not yet returned but they believed it was imminent. So how do you live a “normal” life in the meantime? And why is it taking so long? Paul had explained that Christ would return and given then some tips on how to live in the meantime, but as time went on, they doubted, and they listened to others saying he had already returned and they had missed it. In this part of 2 Thessalonians, Paul reiterates his main point, Christ will return, and urges them to hold fast to this hope, and live well in the meantime.
Over the last number of weeks we have been following Jesus as he makes his way toward Jerusalem, teaching and interacting with people along the way. Now he has arrived and is teaching in the temple in Jerusalem- the religious, social and political centre of Jewish life and teaching. He has just driven the sellers and money changers out of the temple area and the religious and political leaders are looking for a way to dispose of him. The air is charged.
In today’s reading the Sadducees (pronounced “sad-you-sieze”) take a run at him around teachings of resurrection. They offer an absurd scenario about a woman whose husbands die successively seven times. The question they pose is “in the resurrection, whose wife is she.”
To be clear, the resurrection is not the same as the modern idea of the afterlife. In Jewish mythology, we live in the present age, and at some divinely appointed day, a new age would be ushered in, and the dead would be raised. As with the modern ideas of afterlife, not all Jews imagined this the same way, and the Sadducees didn’t believe in it at all. But clearly, they are trying to trip Jesus up. This is partly about the teachings around resurrection, which Jesus addresses. More importantly in Jesus’ mind, this is about who is in charge when we enter the mystery of life beyond this life. Here Jesus speaks clearly: “God is God not of the dead but of the living, and for God, they are all alive.”
My mind goes down two paths as I reflect on these readings together. Firstly, when things are not what we had hoped they would be, when “things just ain’t what they used to be, or ain’t what they ought to be”, where do we find strength, courage and hope. For the returning exiles, the glory days of the previous temple are clearly over and they don’t have the resources to rebuild to the same extent. The early Christians were hanging on hoping for Christ to return and a new age would dawn. But it was taking so long!
Our neighbours to the south head to the polls today in mid-term elections and the great hopes that Obama would usher in a new day are flagging along with the economy. There is disappointment, sometimes bordering on disillusionment. Things ain’t what they used to be nor are they what they ought to be. These readings speak to this situation in life. What do they say to you?
I also have in mind that Remembrance day is coming up and in church on Sunday we will remember those past and present who have offered, risked and given their lives so that their families, friends and nations could have a lasting peace. They went into the chaos and fear of battle trusting that it was for a greater cause. Along with their gear they were issued bibles. There is a sense in which they all knew that they faced uncertainty and they would be relying a greater help to get them through. When the foundations are shaking, when life is in the balance, where do you reach for something spiritually solid?
I struggle with notions of an interventionist God, one who will swoop in and change my life arbitrarily, especially if I have asked for it. That feels like a Santa Claus notion of God. Yet I also believe God cares about what happens in life, in the course of history. God to me is both in history and beyond it, somehow.
1. Where have you found sources of strength when things have not worked out the way you had hoped? What has helped you to “stand firm and hold fast?”
2. When the foundations are shaking, when life is in the balance, where do you reach for something spiritually solid?
3. How do you make sense of a God who cares about life and the course of history when things are not unfolding in life-giving ways?