Sunday, 6 November 2016

Third Sunday before Advent: Life and death

What does it mean to be alive? In one sense it’s obvious – a heartbeat, brain activity, a pulse. But instinctively we know there’s more to it than that. We can be walking and talking, up and around, but still feel dead inside.

Being alive is about energy and enthusiasm, a sense of purpose and belonging. Falling in love, having a child, doing a job that brings us real satisfaction, having an intense experience, seeing a wonderful view – it may be a fleeting moment or a lasting state, but we know it when it comes, and we know when it’s not there too.

Our Bible readings today are all about life and death, but again, it turns out that it’s not just a matter of having a heartbeat.

In the Gospel reading Jesus is approached by some Sadducees, who, as Luke helpfully explains, don’t believe in resurrection.

The Jewish people at the time of Jesus had many different views of what happened after death. The earlier parts of the Old Testament hardly mention the afterlife, and generally speaking early Jewish faith was far more interested in this life and this world. At most they seem to have believed there might be a shadowy sort of underworld – Sheol – but it was a place of silence and forgetfulness, really just a sort of nothingness.  . “The dead do not praise the Lord, nor do any that go down into silence.” said Psalm 115.
The idea of a conscious afterlife only developed slowly. By the time of Jesus, there were many different groups within Judaism, just as there are in Christianity today. Some groups believed in some sort of resurrection, but others didn’t. The Sadducees didn’t. They were often drawn from the wealthier and more powerful sections of the community, so maybe they worried that in the afterlife there might be a rebalancing of the scales, and they’d be worse off!

So that’s what’s behind the Sadducees’ question to Jesus in the story we heard. They present what sounds like a very far-fetched scenario; a man marries, but dies without any children. In Jewish law, there was an obligation for his brother to marry the widow. Any children he fathered with her would count as the dead brother’s, so his name and lineage wouldn’t die out. But in this hypothetical case, the second brother died too, and so the next brother married her. On and on it went, until she had worked through all seven brothers. Then she died. Whose wife would she be in the afterlife?

I may have lost you in all of that – you may have switched off somewhere along the line. If so, don’t worry, because I think that’s what Jesus did too. Effectively, his response is “O, for crying out loud, you’re missing the point completely!” Whatever life after death is like, it won’t just be a souped up version of what we know now.  It’ll be so different, he says, that the everyday questions just won’t apply. All that will matter is that we will be with God. The questions which might bug us on earth won’t even occur to us in heaven. We’ll be too alive to worry.

But Jesus is also, I think, trying to take the focus away from speculation about the unknown future, and remind the Sadducees that the true life of God – eternal life – is for the present moment too. The kingdom of God, is among you, and within you, Jesus says elsewhere. Eternal life isn’t a consolation prize to pick up after death;  it’s the experience of radical love, connection, joy which is indestructible, right now.

I’m reading a book at the moment which is the fruit of a week’s worth of conversations between the Dalai Lama and Archbishop Desmond Tutu, who are old friends. The book, written by Douglas Abrams, is called The Book of Joy, because that’s what they came together to talk about. Neither of their life stories looks as if it should have produced much joy. The Dalai Lama has lived most of his life in exile from his native Tibet, trying to sustain the Tibetan Buddhist community against a backdrop of persecution by the Chinese. Desmond Tutu led the Anglican Church in South Africa through the apartheid period and beyond it as the nation tried to rebuild. He’s also been through two bouts of cancer, and was very unwell at the time of these conversations. And yet, again and again, Abrams describes the infectious sense of joy these two men showed. If ever there were people who were fully alive, it is these two. What does eternal life look like – it must be something like this.

It’s not about happiness. Desmond Tutu says that “Joy is much bigger than happiness. While happiness is often seen as being dependent on external circumstances, joy is not.” In other words, joy comes from a connection with something bigger than ourselves. Desmond Tutu calls that something God; the Dalai Lama prefers the Buddhist idea of compassion, but the effect is the same. It’s also about connection with other people. Desmond Tutu answered a question about his current struggle with cancer. “I think we ought not to make people feel guilty when it is painful. It is painful and you have to acknowledge that it is painful, but actually, even in the midst of that pain, you can recognise the gentleness of the nurse who is looking after you. You can see the skill of the surgeon who is going to be performing the operation on you.” Joy isn’t about going around with a fake smile stuck to your face, pretending everything is all right when it’s not, but to find it we do need to lift our eyes from ourselves.  

We can easily let ourselves become prisoners of the here and now. If things are going well, we think life is good, God is good, we are good, and somehow deserving of our good fortune, but if something goes wrong, then we decide that life is pointless, God is a monster, or that we are failures. We forget the good times when the bad times hit. Our horizons shrink to our own immediate concerns. That’s very understandable, but it’s not usually very helpful. What Abrams discerned in the Dalai Lama and Desmond Tutu was their fearless ability to see beyond themselves, and beyond whatever they were currently suffering, to set it into a bigger perspective.  

The reading we heard from the Old Testament today, from the book of Job, echoes that, in a rather different way. Poor Job. He’s a byword for suffering and misery, and when you know his story, it’s easy to see why. At the start of the book all is well with him. He’s comfortably off, with his family around him, but then disaster after disaster strikes. His crops fail and his livestock is destroyed. His family die, and he gets ill. He sits in misery, scraping his sores with a potsherd. His friends come along to console him, but what they say makes things worse, not better. They try to persuade him that he must have done something wrong, something to deserve this, and that if he repents, maybe things will get better. He’s adamant, though, that he’s kept the law, and gone beyond its requirements too, and that he is innocent. And  according to the story that’s the truth.

So why is he suffering? He doesn’t know, but instead of giving up on God, his bafflement makes him stick even closer. He shouts at God, argues with God, demands an answer from him, but he doesn’t deny him, or his claim on his life. In the end, the only answer he gets is to be told that even if God explained, Job wouldn’t be able to understand. That has to be enough and it is enough. The point is though that  Job doesn’t give up on God, any more than God gives up on Job. Throughout this nightmare, Job is still plugged into God, connected to the source of life. That’s what keeps him going.

Job is a fascinating book, because it refuses to give the easy answers we long for – the winning formula for making everything go smoothly in our lives. It shows us that it is quite all right to be angry with God and to argue with him.  But it also shows us Job’s faith. He never stops believing that he is in God’s hands, and that that is where he needs to be. “I know that my Redeemer lives,…and in my flesh I shall see God”. What kind of God will he see? A God who is on his side, he says, a God who is for him. Job’s friends have a dead, rule-bound relationship with God; he is no more than a heavenly slot machine to them, dispensing justice impersonally from a great distance. Job’s God, though, is close, intimate, passionate, alive – and so Job has a life that is deep enough to carry him through his troubles too.

The second reading, from 2 Thessalonians, finished with a prayer for the Thessalonians, who obviously felt  that the end of the world was just around the corner. They were “shaken and alarmed”.  What do they need in the midst of all this? Not a detailed plan of the end times or a description of the afterlife, says the writer. This is his prayer for them, that God “who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, [will] comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.” The word comfort, repeated twice here, literally means to be called alongside someone. It’s linked to the word for an advocate or a helper, someone who is present with you and for you. When we are comforted by God, strengthened by his presence, even if we don’t know the answers, even if we don’t know where the road leads, we are safe.  

I began by talking about life and death, so here’s a question to end with. How alive are you this morning? Not, how happy are you, or how well is life going, but how alive are you, on a scale of one to ten? If we want to make sure it’s ten and not one, we need to be securely connected to the life of the God who is life; through prayer, through stillness, through the Eucharist, through the Bible, through service of others, in whom we can meet him afresh.  Whatever’s going on in the world around us, whatever might be hurting or worrying us, we have a God who is on our side, at our side, with life to pour into us that nothing can destroy.  

*The Book of Joy, by the Dalai Lama, Desmond Tutu, and Douglas Abrams. ISBN-13: 978-0399185045

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