Saturday, November 05, 2016

November 6, Proper 27, Haggai: Shaking Out Your Silver and Gold

Haggai 1:15b–2:9, Psalm 98, 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17, Luke 20:27-38

This is the backstory to the prophet Haggai: The Babylonian Empire under Nebudchadnezzar destroyed the Kingdom of Judah and carted the people off to Babylon, with all the gold and silver from Solomon’s Temple, and they burned the Temple and leveled Jerusalem. The Jews began 70 years in exile.

Eventually Babylonia was conquered by the Persians, and the Persians allowed a group of Jewish colonists to return, and rebuild Jerusalem, and the Temple too. But the colony was poor, and the Second Temple was only a poor memory of the first one, and it stood unfinished.

The prophet Haggai comes along and he calls the people to finish the work, and he promises that God will shake the treasure out of the nations to restore the splendor of the temple, for, as he says, “The silver is mine and the gold is mine, and the latter splendor of this house shall be greater than the former, and in this place I will give prosperity, says the Lord of hosts.”

So then, Old First, I want you all to come back next week with every piece of gold or silver that you have, jewelry, tableware, whatever, and hand it over for the renovation of the sanctuary, to make it more splendid than before. And I want you to shake it out of your neighbors too. Just tell them that God says, “The silver is mine and the gold is mine!” Do this and I promise you prosperity!

I wish I could promise you prosperity as a by-product of your tithing to the church. I mean if what tithing means is that since all of your substance belongs to God to begin with, and thus you give back to God the first tenth of it—just that forces you to manage your money and be thrifty, which will tend toward your prosperity.

Well, as I said last week, there’s always at least some slight self-interest in every good thing that you do. No gift to God is pure, it can’t be helped, no tithe is pure, whether two percent or five percent or ten, there is in it some self-interest, and the financial interest of the church that teaches it. And yet the whole ideal of tithing is that you let the money go, you give it to God in order to surrender your control of it, and you want no recognition for doing it.

This problem of self-interest is also in our gospel for today. The Sadducees were the political party that was in power in Jerusalem. Their opponents were the Pharisees. The Pharisees taught the doctrine of the resurrection of all good Israelites in the coming Messianic age. But the Sadducees disagreed, because there’s no mention of resurrection in the Torah nor any eternal life. To believe such doctrines is to be contaminated by other religions. This is the only life we have, we are to serve God in the here and now, and whatever we have now is what God promised us. This is the best we’re going to get, so will you people please behave.

To teach this was in their interest, as they were the ones in power, and believing it, they kept the power, and controlled the money, and had nice lives. Their incentive for possession and control comes through in the test case that they offer Jesus: If, as required by the Torah, the woman marries seven times, and each one dies, then in the resurrection whose wife will she be?

Of course, it never occurs to them to ask the woman to make the choice. Even as late as 1968, the Reformed Church marriage liturgy included the question, “Who gives this woman to be married to this man?” The bride went from the custody of her father to the custody of her husband. Custody means control and it goes with property. So the test question of the Sadducees reveals an underlying interest in property and control.

It is typical of religion, even of the best churches, that our doctrines and disciplines are always contaminated by the interests of property and control. It can’t be helped, but it must be confessed. Just as we can never piously insulate our teaching of tithing from the financial interest of the church. We confess it, and we count on your maturity to value the message despite the messenger.

Jesus does not condemn the Sadducees. He even plays their game to argue from the Torah. Yet he moves the conversation to a higher level, from the What of the future to the Who of the future. The Why of the resurrection is not What you’re going to get from the resurrection, but for Whom you will be resurrected. You will not be resurrected for yourself, nor for your husband, nor for your wife, nor for your tribe nor for your nation. You will be resurrected for your God. You will belong to God and God alone, you will be free of every other social and obligation and sexual interest so that you may be free for God. (This, I think, is where God is drawing human social evolution.)

We are meant to be single, apparently, in the resurrection, single but not alone, single but not lonely, single but not incomplete, as the Lord Jesus himself was single and complete. Of course this raises questions. If we shall be resurrected bodily, and thus still gendered and with our sexualities, but forever single, will our genders and sexualities be eternally irrelevant? We are not told. No wonder it’s been easier to suppose that eternal life is only for the soul, and not for the body. But the Lord Jesus was resurrected in his body, and he proclaims it without explaining it.

So we accept the resurrection, not for ourselves, but for God. We accept the resurrection not in our own interest but in God’s interest. Not because eternity belongs to us but because we belong to God. Not as the reward we deserve but as the obedience we owe, not as the prize we earn but the praise that we render.

And if giving praise and thanks to God eternally sounds boring, as I think it must, and if you’d rather do something that has more interest, I guess we have to trust that what God has in mind for us will be more deeply satisfying than what we have known so far. And there will be music, that we know. And eating too, apparently. And wine. How it all works I do not know. But let me say it again, the message of Jesus is not the What of eternal life but the Whom of eternal life, the God for whom you will be resurrected.

What I dislike about the prophet Haggai is that he sounds like he’s wearing a white cap on which is written Make Judah Great Again. “You have no idea how rich you’ll be, and how splendid your temple will be, and we will make the other nations pay for it.” But at least he does say this: “My spirit abides among you, do not fear.” And that’s a real advance. God is fully present with God’s people already without the temple; before the temple is ready, God is fully among them anyway. Even in their circumstance, God is alive to them, and all of them are alive to God.

That’s what the Lord Jesus says: “Now God is the God of the living, not the dead, for all of them are alive to God.” When the Sadducees envision possessing and controlling, the Lord Jesus envisions living, really living, but living beyond possessing and controlling. Living alive to God, living open to God, and thereby open to others, and even more open to the world. It’s to enrich your life today, in this world, that you are promised the resurrection.

It means that your life today will not be wasted or rejected, nor the world, or the planet, and not even superseded, but revived, restored, renovated, and expanded and accelerated. So you can consider everything good thing and every good action that you do in the world today an investment in the life of the world to come, a seed you plant, for even though you yourself will pass away your life remains alive to God.

The vision of the Lord Jesus goes way beyond the Sadducees and the Pharisees because he sees the vastness of the love of God, the love of God beyond control and beyond the vindication of our rightful interests and beyond the boundaries of life and death. It’s all one. To enjoy eternal life is to give in and to surrender to this love that knows no bounds, this love whose name is God.

Copyright © 2016 by Daniel Meeter, all rights reserved.

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