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Faith >

This Sunday's readings: 3rd Sunday before Advent

by Martin Warner

3rd Sunday before Advent

Job 19.23-27a;
2 Thessalonians 2.1-5, 13-end;
Luke 20.27-38

RECENTLY I spent an evening in the company of an intelligent little girl who liked asking questions. “What would happen if . . ?” So great was her imagination that she would have been perfectly capable of inventing the question we heard in today’s Gospel.

The Sadducees, who did invent it, were a speculative, philosophical lot. Their origins as an identifiable order can be traced back to Zadok, an Old Testament priest. He is probably best known now for featuring in Handel’s Coronation Anthem, Zadok the Priest, that staple of  Classic FM, and for anointing Solomon King (1 Kings 1.38-40).

When Mark and Matthew recount today’s Gospel story, Jesus simply tells the Sadducees that they are wrong (Mark 12.27; Matthew 22.29). In Luke’s version, Jesus deals with the question differently. He patiently reveals the folly of adults who have lost the wonder of childhood.

The little girl I met was asking questions that opened doors into an imaginative world where anything was possible. Her questions were exploring how that world of imagination might connect with the experience of this world. This exploration is, perhaps, where we stumble across the experience of faith, and grasp the truth that God exists.

The asking of questions in this way can be an indication of what spiritual energy there is, collectively and as individuals, in our quest for God. This is where we might hammer out what is fundamental about belief in the existence of God as Trinity, the nature of creation, and how we shape a Christian morality and live by it, costly though that might be. It is often the young people in our congregations who stir this energy and provoke us out of complacency or despair.

By contrast, the question asked by the Sadducees appears to be a clever one, possibly a trick, suggesting the superior knowledge of those who ask it. In reality, it indicates the extent to which they have got so absorbed with their own question that they have become blind to the majestic reality of God that a child or person of faith could see immediately.

An important indication of this is the reference Jesus makes to Moses and the burning bush (Luke 20.37). For the people of Israel, this is one of the most significant stories of revelation. It is the moment when God reveals the divine name — a word so holy that it is never spoken (Exodus 3.14).

The response of Moses is not to ask: “How do you spell that?” His response is profound awe and worship: he hides his face. This is not a statement of shame, but of extreme reverence. Moses is counted worthy to be brought into the presence of God because he understands what it means to worship God.
 In the same way, Luke has Jesus respond to the Sadducees by speaking about those who are considered worthy of a place in the age to come, in the resurrection from the dead (Luke 20.35). This worthiness is characterised by a capacity for worship — “they are like angels” — not by the ability to predict with accuracy what happens to the categories of earthly status.

Asking questions about our capacity for worship will inevitably lead to reflection on the nature of what we value in society today. To what do we attach worth that will command our total attention?

The reality, I suspect, is that much of what we value is ephemeral — of value only for today. We should be judged by our rubbish. We have learnt to discard clothing, furniture, reading material, food, utensils, electrical goods and gadgets, and even buildings, because new ones are more appealing, and technology is a god that never rests.

It is against this background that the words of Job strike home with lapidary force in today’s first reading. Here is a man who is compelled by experience to ask the very toughest questions about the futility of life. But, ultimately, it is known that he worshipped God, “and the Lord accepted Job’s prayer” (Job 42.9).

In today’s reading, Job’s worship is an expression of faith so forged by bitter experience that it seeks to chisel the protest of its existence into stone as a testimony for all time. Against the ephemera of what we value in today’s society, there is no doubt in my mind that such faith, chiselled into the stones of our church buildings, can still prompt the search for God.

The 19th-century artist and critic John Ruskin understood something of this when he wrote: “The greatest glory of a building is . . . in that deep sense of voicefulness, of stern watching, of mysterious sympathy . . . which we feel in walls that have long been washed by the passing waves of humanity.”

As we stumble across church buildings that persistently present themselves to us, we might ask: “Why are these Christian buildings here, what is their meaning, and how do we access it?” The remote churches that I visit on the North York Moors present such questions eloquently.

The small and steadfast congregations that worship in them keep alive the light of faith that prompts further enquiry, and challenges the assumption that we live in a post-Christian, secular age. But the same is true of other areas where I work, such as housing estates that are also “remote”, in the sense that they are a long way from access to the benefits of a share in prosperity and of protection against hard times.

This is the witness that challenges the limitations of an age that longs for value, but is obsessed with questions about price.

Job 19.23-27a

23‘O that my words were written down!
O that they were inscribed in a book!
24O that with an iron pen and with lead
they were engraved on a rock for ever!
25For I know that my Redeemer lives,
and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
26and after my skin has been thus destroyed,
then in my flesh I shall see God,
27whom I shall see on my side,
and my eyes shall behold, and not another.

2 Thessalonians 2.1-5,13-17

1As to the coming of our Lord Jesus Christ and our being gathered together to him, we beg you, brothers and sisters, 2not to be quickly shaken in mind or alarmed, either by spirit or by word or by letter, as though from us, to the effect that the day of the Lord is already here. 3Let no one deceive you in any way; for that day will not come unless the rebellion comes first and the lawless one is revealed, the one destined for destruction. 4He opposes and exalts himself above every so-called god or object of worship, so that he takes his seat in the temple of God, declaring himself to be God. 5Do you not remember that I told you these things when I was still with you?

13But we must always give thanks to God for you, brothers and sisters beloved by the Lord, because God chose you as the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth. 14For this purpose he called you through our proclamation of the good news, so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ. 15So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the traditions that you were taught by us, either by word of mouth or by our letter.16Now may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, 17comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.

Luke 20.27-38

27Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus, and asked him a question, 28‘Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 29Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; 30then the second 31and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. 32Finally the woman also died. 33In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.’34Jesus said to them, ‘Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 35but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. 36Indeed they cannot die any more, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. 37And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.’



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