3rd Sunday Before Advent – Mortality and Things to Come
All our readings this morning concern the natural concern of humanity over the hardest fact of our existence, the fact that we are mortal and we shall all die in due course. Moreover the readings explore in various ways responses to that reality, how do we as people of faith in God’s promises of eternal life and continuity face the stark realities of illness and mortality?
Our first reading comes from the book of Job, a famous passage from the book which more than most seeks to explore the idea of how God permits bad things to happen in the world, indeed especially to good people, the study of this is often called theodicy. Job is a wealthy and God-fearing man with a comfortable life and a large family; God, having asked Satan for his opinion of Job's piety, decides to take away Job's wealth, family and material comforts, following Satan's accusation that if Job were rendered penniless and without his family, he would turn away from God. Job’s friends assume that Job must have displeased God, and take for granted his piety must have been a fraud. In the end Job endures his suffering, remains faithful despite seemingly being cast asunder by God, and is finally restored to all that he once had. The famous passage we heard confirm his long held belief in the truth that his Redeemer liveth, and will stand upon the earth, and that once his earthly body is finished it is upon God that Job will cast his eyes, God and none other. Despite seeming rejection and trial by God, and desertion by his friends, Job holds firm and receives God’s blessings.
The Epistle to the Thessalonians is written at a time when early Christians were being persecuted and martyred for their faith, and when not unnaturally they thought very much on the meaning of how such suffering could be the lot of those who were the believers in the Christ the Son of God. There was also a widespread idea that Christ would return again imminently, to make sense of all that was confusing to them, to hold to world both to a judgement and to a winnowing where the faithful would receive there promised redemption and eternal miss, and the rest would be lost for all eternity, banished from God’s presence to lack of the acceptance of His Son in faith. Paul is urging them not to concern themselves about a rumor or false teaching that in fact Christ had returned and these were in fact the last times. Instead they are to see that beyond the trials and sufferings of the present time, it is faith that sustains patience waiting and hope in God’s promises that is the real source of an answer to their questions. Believing alone not enough, we must accept that bad things do indeed happen to good people, and that there are a range of what we see as injustices and sufferings we cannot easily square with what we perceive God to be. Our hope is one which transcends this world where so often as a consequence of sin and human frailty life for many can be challenging to faith.
The Gospel from Luke reports a dialog with some Sadducees, a mystical branch of Judaism differentiated from the mainstream by having no belief in an afterlife beyond this world – whereas in much of Judaism there are various forms of belief in such a state. They posit a hypothetic question of a woman whose husband dies childless and who obeying the Mosaic Law marries his brother again without issue, indeed marries in succession all his brothers to the same effect. They then ask after she dies whose wife would she be? Luke has Jesus teach them that this is not what the life to come holds for us, there in the presence of God we will be living a life different for this, where we won’t be concerned with marriage, and the heritage of generations. Those who life again cannot die any longer, don’t need to be concerned with having their memory perpetuated by succeeding generations. In the life to come all are God’s children, as they share the heritage of the Resurrection life, for God is concerned not with the things that concern the mortal – what will become of me, of what I am and did? Not God is about life, in Him we are not dead, but alive, we are about the present and future and not the past.
We have reflected in the past week on All Saints and All Souls, and shortly we will recall those who have given their lives for others in the pursuit of peace in our troubled world. In normal times we often sideline issues of illness and death, unlike times past when most would have had a personal knowledge of human physical frailty and loss. So when the pandemic came people were afraid, feeling exposed and vulnerable as perhaps previous generations aware of our weakness and susceptibility to illness and mortality may not have been. So many things have made us less able to cope with our mortality – a belief that science has our back even when we don’t actually give it much help, that somehow we can hold on to youth, good health and good looks into late middle age, the sidelining of the elderly, where most people make arrangements for their weakening relations, and where so often care is second hand at best. We don’t want to think on what is after all an entirely natural process that we will age and over time our faculties and our strength will diminish, and most likely we will also have to deal with illness of many kinds, and ultimately our life will come to its natural end. Even the church has more to say about healing than it does about human death, individual death I mean. We rush past the realities to the great hope, without it seems to me much waiting on the challenges.
I love this time of reflection on the reality of illness and loss, the meaning of mortality and the remembrance of lives lived and sacrificed. For our own sanity though we need to anchor our faith in reality – of this mortal life, which is often seemingly unfair and unjust, and where bad things happen to good people, and where much does not seem to make sense. If through that we can hold onto the promises of life eternal, of a meaning for all who have lived and died in God, then I think with Job we can say with confidence and with joy that we do indeed know that our redeemed liveth, and stood upon this earth. Christ came to redeem and raise up that with was broken and laid low, what was in pain and at a loss – the darkest place and experiences, we need not deny they exist, just accept that they are not ultimately what counts.