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6th October 2016 - Hugh Perry

Date Given: 
3 November 2016

Sermon handout                                                                                                           November 6th 2016

Readings

Haggai 1: 15b-2:9

Our reading from Haggai acknowledges the greatness of Solomon’s temple but points out that, although the rebuilt temple cannot recreate that former glory, God is still with God’s people. [1]

That is very relevant to Christchurch as churches rebuild after the earthquake and must face the possibility that a building that was purpose built for a past congregation may not suit the mission of the church in the future.   The temple served a civic as well as religious purpose so Haggai might also have something to say about other damaged iconic structures and the need to build a place that enhances people’s lives rather than a theme park for tourists to visit.

Luke 20: 27-38

Bill Loader explains that the Sadducees appear to have been the more culturally sophisticated of the identified movements among Jews at the time.  Their followers tended to be among the leading priestly families and the aristocracy. Their approach to scripture was more conservative than that of the Pharisees.[2]

There is little doubt that Jesus, along with the Pharisees believed in life after death but the Sadducees, as a conservative Jewish religious party, did not.  

Sermon 

A cartoon that circulates from time to time has Charles Schulz’ Peanuts characters Charley Brown and Snoopy sitting on a wharf gazing on a sunlit lake. Charley Brown makes the somewhat philosophical comment ‘Someday we will all die Snoopy’ 

Snoopy’s profound reply is ‘True, but all the other days we will not’ 

Jesus’ reply to the Sadducees was along similar lines particularly the section of verse 38 where Jesus says ‘Now God is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive’. (Luke 20:38)

Jesus had referenced the voice from the burning Bush where God claims to be the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  God was the God of their history who had been active through Moses to free them from slavery and was equally active in the life of the people of Jesus’ time. 

Jesus’ message then and now is about the lives of the living.  What he called ‘the Kingdom of God’ which is both a now and future reality.  Jesus also challenges us to live that divine realm into reality.

In the context of that mission the Sadducees argument was a distraction although Luke probably uses the incident to make a point about the resurrection and the ongoing life of the emerging church.

The Sadducees were a conservative Jewish religious party and like all conservative religious groups they saw it as their duty to protect established belief.  At the time of Jesus the idea of life after death was relatively new.  Some scholars felt that it arose from a sense of injustice during Greek persecution.  Those who were tortured for holding firm to their culture and religion were not saved by the God they so fiercely defended.  Devine justice could still be recognised if they were rewarded in the afterlife.

However, a lot of people, Christian and otherwise, ancient and contemporary, have some vision of some form of continuing of existence after death.  Likewise most people like the idea that those who persecute them will get their comeuppance even if it has to happen in the next life.   

The Pharisees held the opposite view and although we have many disagreements between Jesus and the Pharisees over their obsession with the law on life after death Jesus agreed with the Pharisees. 

So the Sadducees came to him with their carefully worked out debate.  It was very much the sort of debate that people like Richard Dawkins try to have with Christians when they define what Christians believe and then endeavour to prove how silly it is.  Often the avid atheist is frustrated because the Christian will agree that the example chosen is stupid because Christians don’t agree with what the protagonist thinks they should.

Clearly in this story from Luke’s Gospel that is Jesus’ response.  The Sadducees have built a complicated argument based on the levirate marriage law from verses five and six of the twenty fifth chapter of Deuteronomy.  That law obliges the oldest surviving brother of a man who dies childless to marry the widow of his childless deceased brother, with the firstborn child being treated as that of the deceased brother. 

The Sadducees argument clearly demonstrates how awkward life could get if they all arrived in the afterlife.  But the argument is flawed because the law exists to protect widows and family property in a patriarchal society.  In Jesus’ vision of life as it could be, in this life or the next, was clearly going to be different.  In fact the Sadducees argument could be so easily turned against them.  The idea of seven men contesting the marriage to the same woman for all eternity was so ridiculous that rather than prove there was no life after death it demonstrated what a stupid argument it was. 

The argument also proved that the focus of Jesus’ mission was the plight of the living not the dead.  Furthermore from the Gospel writers perspective the focus for the emerging church needed to be the living.  On the instructions within this story the church must never become so heavenly minded that it is no earthly use.

Certainly, we will all die one day but as Snoopy rightly points out, all the other days we will not die and it is on those other days that Christ calls us to new beginnings for ourselves and for our world.

It is in that call to be the people of the God of the living on the journey of new beginnings that we meet the despair and hope of our reading from Haggai.

Haggai writes of the devastation of the temple following the Babylonian exile and what he writes encourages the idea that what is destroyed can and will be rebuilt.  More importantly Haggai draws attention to the reality that God is not contained in a building.

The Jerusalem temple has an interesting history.  The first temple was built by Solomon and destroyed by the Babylonians who took many of the people into exile.  According to the Book of Ezra, construction of the Second Temple was authorized by Cyrus the Great and began in 538 BCE, after the fall of the Babylonian Empire the year before.  It was completed 23 years later. 

Having suffered neglect and the threat of further destruction under Greek occupation the building was renovated and expanded by Herod the Great around 20 BCE, and became known as Herod's Temple.  The Temple was in use throughout the construction and the initial work was accomplished within a year.  However, construction on the out buildings and other features lasted 80 years. That temple was destroyed by the Romans in 70 CE during the Siege of Jerusalem.   Later attempts to restore the temple were finally abandoned after an earthquake in Galilee in 363CE.  Subsequently a Christian Church was built on the site and later a Mosque.

The mention of the earthquake in the fourth century make a connection with Christchurch.  We can reflect on the destruction and rebuilding of our iconic buildings and what they mean to us.  Perhaps there is even encouragement in some of the timespans. 23 years for the second temple and eighty years for Herod’s temple.  We can understand the reality of a 23year construction without heavy machinery but there is a temptation to speculate that resource consent, public consultation, protest and special commissions had been invented by the time of Herod.  History may yet judge the rebuilding or repair of the Anglican cathedral as being a rapid process.

What is more enlightening in the Haggai reading, and connects significantly with the Christchurch experience, is that it testifies to the feeling of loss at the destruction of the temple.  Haggai also makes an effort to restore hope. 

At last month’s Community Comment, there was keen interest in Patrick’s talk on the restoration of the Town Hall and it stimulated strong memories of events we attended or were part of in that iconic building.  For many of us it truly was a symbol of Christchurch and we felt part of the pulse of the city when we were involved in something big or small within it.  I can still remember members of the city’s Presbyterian parishes filling the main auditorium for a special service at the time of a visit of the Moderator of the General Assembly to the city.  I also remember that with some of my colleagues we had an arrangement to fill the walls of the passage to the restaurant with photographs and change them regularly. 

So many of the buildings that we lost in the earthquakes gave the city its soul that made us feel part of Christchurch.  We probably still do not understand how deep our feeling of loss really is.  Haggai expresses that sense of loss for his people but he also moves on to offer hope. 

Great as their history and culture that is connected to the Temple Haggai also remind his readers they have an even greater connection to God. 

The temple is a place where they worship God and remind themselves of God’s presence but the temple is not God.  Haggai’s message is that God will lead them to rebuild the temple. 

The spirit of Christchurch will, despite the best efforts of budgets, consultation and seemingly endless procrastination, call the people of Christchurch to rebuild our defining building.  As Christians, we will not only see God in that spirit but expect to see God in the process because God is the God of new beginnings. 

Within this year of moving into our new complex we are at last able to recognise the leading of God’s Spirit in the process that brought us here.  Certainly the Spirit’s presence was not always clear in the frustration and heartache as the hard decisions had to be made.  Now as each compliment from each visitor is received the reality of the divine presence in every step along the way becomes more and more apparent.

The time of Jesus was the time when the Jerusalem Temple was at its finest ever and the Pharisees and the Sadducees were busy further defining their relationship with God through rules and stated belief, much like many Christians do today. 

The story of the seven husbands was not just an exercise in trying to embarrass Jesus.  The Sadducees’ adherence to traditional belief was important to them and, like many people who defend traditional beliefs today, they thought it should be important to everybody.  Debating with Jesus was a way of promoting their belief. 

But defining belief was not what Jesus was interested in.  The God of Haggai and the God of Jesus was a God who brought order out of chaos and new beginnings out of devastated hope and shattered lives.

Arguing the merits and difficulties of levirate marriage was meaningless when Jesus was promoting nothing less than a total new way of being human and a direct connection with God without the mediation of priest, temples, laws or creeds. 

The message of Jesus supported by both these readings is that as followers of Christ we are not called to the worship of magnificent buildings, even if such buildings, as we are discovering, can be helpful, convenient and even replaceable.  We are not even called to laws that protect the vulnerable or beliefs that define the indefinable.  We are not required to endlessly debate what happens after the inevitable day when we all will die. 

As followers of Christ we are called to accept Snoopy’s advice and make the best use of all the other days when we don’t die.  Days we are called to live in costly loving.



[1] Maurice Andrew The Old Testament in Aotearoa New Zealand (Wellington: DEFT 1999), pp. 595,596.

 

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