Sermon: Third Sunday before Advent, 6 November 2016, St John the Divine

Readings  Job 19: 23-27; 2 Thessalonians 2: 1-5, 13-17; Luke 20: 27-38

Preacher  The Reverend Neil Summers

The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.  So wrote L.P. Hartley in The Go-Between in 1953.  I reckon we could say pretty much the same thing about the future.  As the Brexit machinations rumble on, with no one sure how things might eventually pan out, it strikes me that the desire for certainty about how various things will end up preoccupies we human beings, and for a whole host of reasons. Dread, perhaps, of some impending horror; or happy expectation of a satisfactory outcome; curiosity about an interesting state of affairs; longing for relief after affliction; or the hope of vindication where there has been injustice.  All these direct our gaze towards conclusions or, as we often call them nowadays, outcomes.

This season of the church calendar is known as the Kingdom season.  It’s quite short, running from the eve of All Saints’ Day (All Hallows’ Eve) to the eve of Advent.  It provides an opportunity, as the current church year reaches towards its conclusion, to focus on endings.  It will reach its climax on the Feast of Christ the King, in two weeks’ time, which will finish the church year on a high and triumphant note, to be sure, though we bear in mind that this has little to do with personal glory, for the sort of kingship Christians see in Jesus is markedly different from our more usual view of what being a king is all about.  Rather, the direction of travel in this season is towards God’s will to restore all things in his beloved Son, gathering up our consciousness of both the church here on earth with those who have gone before us – ‘the church in heaven’ to use the traditional imagery – so that all will become united in the hope which lies in the eventual eternal and peaceful reign of Christ.  It is into that great multitude no one can number that Alfie will fully take his place alongside all God’s people in every age as he comes for baptism this morning.

November, with its dark nights and sometimes dreary mornings, with fallen leaves giving way to bare branches, seems a fitting season to contemplate the mortality we all share – life, death and beyond – and the church provides many opportunities to do that. Last Sunday, All Saints’, we reflected on our calling to be saints here and now, lives that are open to being transformed by God’s presence, like the saints who’ve gone before us.  Then on Wednesday, All Souls’, we read aloud the long list of names – our own beloved departed ones – remembered before God in what I always think is one of the most moving services of the year. Next week, we’ll think especially of those who have died in war…and those who continue to do so.  Wherever we look at this time of year, questions of life and death are there… Even in the service of baptism, there is a powerful symbolism, as an old way of being dies, to be replaced by the new life into which we are baptised.  It draws on Jesus himself, who also underwent his own baptism by his cousin, John, and who eventually died.  But that was not to be the end of his story, for the Christian assertion is that his life, somehow, goes on.  We wouldn’t be here today were that not the case.  So though November brings us face to face with the limitations of our human mortality, it reminds us also of continuity, of life that stretches from the past, to today, and into the future – yes, beyond even death itself.

I have occasionally been asked, after someone has died: where are they now?

And that, of course, I simply cannot answer.  Every generation and every culture has wondered about what happens when life as we know it ends, and there have been all sorts of attempts to make the unknown bearable…from the ancient Egyptians, filling their tombs with every possible physical essential, so that the dead will be fully provided for as they continue on their journey…to those who see life as cycles of death and rebirth, until finally the freedom of nirvana is attained.

In this morning’s Gospel reading, the Sadducees were a Jewish grouping who had no concept of resurrection, of life after death, unlike their counterparts, the Pharisees, who had at least some notion of a ‘world to come’, even if it didn’t equate with what the resurrection later came to mean for Christians.  Jesus’ view, it seems, was more akin to that of the Pharisees, so the Sadducees’ rather absurd question to Jesus, about who will be married to whom in the resurrection, is clearly mischievous and designed to catch him out. Jesus’ response makes it very clear that we cannot domesticate eternity by envisaging it according to the world that we do know, or the experiences that are our daily lot. We might imagine it as a sort of upgraded earth, where all the things we wish were different will be put right.  But, as we are reminded in Scripture, ‘No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him’.  That’s a very nice way of saying that we just don’t have a clue!

Marriage is for now – not for later. Death is for now as well – there is no dying later.  And Jesus draws on the central figure of Moses to make his point.  Moses, we are told, understood, for he recognised that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were alive with God – so he chose to call the Lord the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob. He could simply have described him as ‘my God’, but that would have been to limit himself to the present.  Instead, he widens his horizon, bringing the past into the present and asserting that ancestors who are dead are yet still alive with God.  Alive, part of us still, but not in a way that simply continues, or improves upon, the existence we know right now.  Resurrection is not the same as resuscitation.

Jesus was nothing if not honest with us. He assures us of a resurrection, but not in terms of a repetition of our earthly lives. For some of us, that’s a loss. But in many ways, and for many people, it may be a relief, too; it depends on the sort of life you’ve been able to lead here.  Let’s not forget that Jesus’ own life, as it came to a premature human end, contained disappointment and betrayal, let down even by his own friends, mental torment, anguish, pain and death.

‘Now God is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to God all of them are alive.’, says Jesus, calling his hearers – and us – to trust in the God of the living, to focus on our life here and now, and let God take care of what comes next.  We are consoled and encouraged that, ultimately, we can trust God not just with our own life and destiny but, even more, with the life and destiny of those we love most, both living and departed, for to God all of them are alive.  When you think about it, the creed we frequently say in church does not assert that we believe in the immortality of the soul…  It says, ‘We look for the resurrection of the dead, and the life of the world to come.’ This is not just good news for the future; it is good news for now, too. Because, in saying that we trust in God’s radical affirmation of life, we can commit ourselves confidently to focus on, and strive towards, all that is life-affirming and against all that is life-denying, both for ourselves and for our fellow human beings and all creation.

Way back in Hebrew history, as we read in the Book of Deuteronomy, God said to his chosen people, as he made his covenant with them: See, I have set before you life and death, blessings and curses: therefore choose life, that both you and your seed may live. As we give thanks in this Kingdom season for those who’ve trod the path before us, and also look forward to the fulfilment of the Kingdom, and all things in Christ, let us be consoled that, in life or in death, we can never be lost to the love of God.

About Revd Neil Summers

Revd Neil Summers served as a non-stipendiary minister in the Team between 2000 and 2014, whilst continuing his work as a lecturer in further and adult education. In October 2014, he was licensed as full-time Team Vicar of St John the Divine. He has particular interests in the literary and poetic aspects of scripture and theology, the rational case for faith and belief in an increasingly secular culture and the strengthening of links between the local church and the community in which is it set. Among his spare time pursuits are travel, literature, theatre, dance (only as a spectator!) cycling, singing in a local community choir, and gardening.
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