3rd Sunday before Advent

27 October 2016

Job 19.23-27a; Psalm 17.1-9; 2 Thessalonians 2.1-5, 13-17; Luke 20.27-38

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Almighty Father, whose will is to restore all things in your beloved Son, the King of all: govern the hearts and minds of those in authority, and bring the families of the nations, divided and torn apart by the ravages of sin, to be subject to his just and gentle rule; who is alive and reigns with you, in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, now and for ever. Amen.

 

THE desire for certainty about how things will end preoccupies human beings for a variety of reasons. Dread of some impending horror, happy expectation of a satisfactory outcome, curiosity about an interesting state of affairs, longing for relief after affliction, and the hope of vindication where there has been injustice — all these direct the gaze to conclusions.

The Kingdom season, spanning the time from the eve of All Saints to the eve of Advent, is an opportunity to pay attention to endings. Its focus on the will of God “to restore all things in [his] beloved Son, the King of all” (collect of the day) gathers up our consciousness of the Church on earth and in heaven, together with the expanding theme of remembrance around 11 November, in looking forward to the eternal and peaceful reign of Christ.

Job’s outburst against fresh suggestions from his eloquent friends that his own sin, and the sins of his children, must have reduced him to poverty, illness, and social rejection looks beyond his tormenting boils and the conviction that God is persecuting him to another time. Then, his innocence would be confirmed, with the confidence of something that could be permanently visible — a written record or an engraved stone — and he would know that a redeemer had come to his help.

James Crenshaw warns us not to be distracted by Handel’s use of Job 19.25, “I know that my Redeemer liveth”, to open the third part of his Messiah. Handel is working within the framework of Paul’s teaching on the resurrection, especially in 1 Corinthians 15. For “Redeemer”, Job has in mind a “go’el”.

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The term belongs to family law, and covers a number of situations. A “go’el” might avenge the blood of a relative (Numbers 35.19, Deuteronomy 19.6) or redeem property (Ruth 4.4-6, Jeremiah 32.6-7). He might recover stolen property or ransom a relative sold into slavery (Numbers 5.8, Leviticus 25.28). He might also marry a childless widow and raise children for her deceased husband, as is the case for Ruth and Boaz (“Job” in The Oxford Bible Commentary, edited by John Barton and John Muddiman, 2001).

With this hope of an advocate, Job clings to the possibility of presenting his case directly to God, even at the grotesque limits of suffering, his naked flesh stripped of its skin (Job 19.26).

Another kind of ending is addressed by the writer of the Second Letter to the Thessalonians. On the one hand, the writer emphasises his gratitude to God that the community he is writing to has been chosen as “the first fruits for salvation through sanctification by the Spirit and through belief in the truth” (2 Thessalonians 2.13).

God wants them to share the glory of the risen Christ (2 Thessalonians 2.14). And yet, on the other hand, that will not happen immediately, as they seem to be in danger of believing (2 Thessalonians 2.1-2). The liturgical historian Robert Taft says of New Testament time that it is “not some new philosophy of time, but a new quality of life. The eschaton is not so much a new age as a new existence”.

The New Testament, he suggests, divides time in a new way: “No longer do we have to await salvation. It is here in Christ, though the denouement of his Parousia still lies ahead” (“The Liturgical Year: Studies, Prospects, Reflections”, Worship 55, 1981). This is the message that has to be communicated to the Thessalonians — albeit in more practical terms.

Luke’s account of the discussion between the Sadducees and Jesus tackles a school that found no biblical evidence for the resurrection, and deplored the claims of the Pharisees to scriptural foundations for confidence in “a portion in the world to come” (Christopher Evans, Saint Luke, SCM Press, 1990).

Their deliberately absurd challenge invites Jesus to become entangled in an answer as complicated as the question. He does not fall for the ruse. Instead, he draws a firm line between “this age” and the age to come: the time of the resurrection (Luke 20.34).

In that new time, there will also be a new creation, not an extension of the circumstances and relationships of this world into some sort of tedious infinity. These “children of the resurrection” (a phrase that Luke adds to the parallel passage in Mark 12.18-27) will not die, and thus will not find themselves enmeshed in legal difficulties.

The Sadducees’ restricted understanding of Moses as a codifier of behaviour is thus overwhelmed by a generous picture of Moses, with Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob not as figures of the past, but as human beings whose relationship with God is personal because it is greater than death.

In this way, it speaks of the hope for all humanity.

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