Twenty Second Sunday After Pentecost

 

In our language we have sayings that describe a difficult or even impossible situation. For example, we say of someone who has exhausted all possibilities and does not know what to do next that “he is at his wits’ end.” Before he reaches this point, and is still pursuing possibilities that don’t seem likely to work out, we say of him that “he is grasping at straws.” And if he recklessly continues in this pursuit, which is only making things worse, we say of him that “he is digging a deeper hole for himself.” At all events, we say of him that he is “in dire straits.”

 

These sayings name an experience that’s all too familiar to each of us. For sooner or later, if we’ve lived long enough, each of us will find ourselves in an impossible situation from which there seems no escape. Or we find ourselves trapped in a problem for which there seems to be no remedy. Then the saying of Job proves true of us: “Man is born to trouble, as surely as sparks fly upward” (Job 5:7).

 

This an experience that happens to us on a collective as well as on a personal level. Consider the situation of the people of Israel in our first lesson. They are a demoralized, and discouraged bunch. You see, their nation was defeated by the Babylonian empire, and those not killed by famine or the sword, were driven into exile to Babylon, where they languished for 70 years. All this the prophet Jeremiah foretold.

 

But now that time has ended. No longer are the Babylonians the imperial power. They suffered defeat at the hands of the Persians. And the Persian king Cyrus issued an edict that allowed the Jewish exiles to return to their homeland. Free at last! For the people it was a longing fulfilled, a dream come true. When the captives returned to Zion, their mouths were filled with laughter and their tongues with songs of joy, as the Psalmist expressed it so poetically (Psalm 126).

 

But what do you suppose was waiting for them when they arrived? Ruin and devastation where once homes and buildings stood. The temple, the very heart of the nation, in ruins.

 

Perhaps some of you have watched on the History Channel those old war reels of the Second World War. Among the most memorable are those that feature German cities after the defeat of the Nazis. Relentless bombing raids had leveled major cities, reducing them to rubble. Survivors wandered the streets helplessly, foraging among the rocks for anything valuable they could trade for food and shelter.

 

Closer to home are the pictures of those towns devastated by Hurricane Ian earlier this fall. That powerful storm hit Florida after tearing through Western Cuba, killing at least two there, before plowing a path of destruction along the Western coast, obliterating Fort Myers. Many lost homes and property; some even lost their lives. Indeed, even a few of you here in this congregation lost winter homes and property down there. After the storm had passed through, you went down there to see what, if anything, you could still salvage.

 

So you can imagine how these returning exiles felt. They remember a time, or at least heard stories about a time, when their temple stood tall: the glory of their people and the boast of the nations. But the Babylonian hurricane swept through and leveled it. And after 70 years, they return to assess the damage.

 

“Who is left among you that saw this house in its former glory? How does it look to you now? Is it not in your sight as nothing?” (Haggai 2:3).

 

Indeed, the spectacle of the annihilation as far as the eye could see reduced the people to paralysis. This is a very human reaction. Our ruin can be so total that we don’t even know where to begin. We go to our bedrooms and shut the door. More than 15 years had passed since their return, Cyrus has been succeeded by Darius, and the people still have not started to rebuild the temple.

 

The people are discouraged, their eyes have grown dim, their spirits flag. They have nothing with which to rebuild, and even if they did, they have nothing within them to rebuild. It was an impossible situation.

 

Enter Haggai. He is a prophet, even though he is not a very well-known one. He certainly does not have the stature of an Isaiah or a Jeremiah, and he has not left to us a record of his prophetic ministry as extensive as either of these two prophet’s. But his significance does not lie in his name, much less in the length of the book he has left us. It lies rather in the calling he was to execute during a very critical period in the history of God’s people.

 

Haggai has been sent by God with a message to the people, to their leaders Zerubbabel and Joshua. They need to hear what he has to say, so that they may find new courage, new determination, and new hope for the rebuilding.

 

God knows the situation and his response is a compassionate one. We have already seen how he acknowledges the discouragement of those old enough to remember the temple in its former glory. Compared to the past the present is in their sight as nothing.

 

Nor does God reproach them for the sense of futility that has been weighing heavy on their hearts. Likewise, he acknowledges the fear that grips their hearts when they realize that the task before them far exceeds their ability to accomplish it.

 

Arthur Schopenhauer, the German philosopher who lived in the early nineteenth century, makes an astute observation that relates to the condition in which we find God’s people here. He notes that human suffering derives from the fact that we live through “memory and anticipation.” In other words, suffering is mediated through imagination: the images that make up our memories and the ideals that make up our longings.

 

The image of the former glories of Solomon’s temple—now in ruins–is painful. Likewise, the ideals that appear to them to be unattainable—a restored temple–these too cause them to suffer each day when the realization of those ideals seems to be hopelessly out of reach.

 

So many today lose certainty of the sense of the future because of what happened to them in the past. They see only today, and allow today to limit their hopes, their dreams, their pursuits and their loyalties. They give up on their goals. Very few want to hold on to their dreams for the future any longer. They live according to the words the Apostle Paul applies to those who say there is no resurrection hope: “Let us eat and drink, for tomorrow we die” (1 Cor. 15:32). 

 

But God knows this intimately about human beings. How could he not? He created us! That’s why he addresses both memory and anticipation in Haggai’s message. “I am with you, according to the promise that I made you when you came out of Egypt” (Haggai 2:5).

 

Consider how memory here is transformed from a source of discouragement into a source of encouragement! It’s as if God is saying: “Don’t forget the things that I have done for you before. I brought you out of Egypt after all. Didn’t that seem impossible to you? And remember I can do it all once more.”

 

But that is not all. God also tells them, “Do not fear.” When we face an unknown future, our response is fear. When our strength, when our resources, do not seem equal to it, we shrink back. So many never even make a start towards their goals, because they don’t believe they have what it takes. 

 

But when have God’s people in the Bible ever had what it takes? Their enemies are almost always too strong for them. Their enemies have the power to crush their hopes and dreams, at least that’s how it appears to them.

 

But that is when God sends his prophets to remind them of his incomparably greater power. It is a power by which God will shake the heavens and the earth, the sea and the dry land, as well as all the nations, just as Haggai tells the returning exiles in our lesson (Haggai 2:6-7).

 

Can anything stand opposed to that kind of power? Is anything strong enough ultimately to frustrate God’s purposes for God’s people? Can anything ultimately prevent the fulfillment of the longings of God’s people?

 

As we saw last week when we looked at Ephesians 1, the answer is: of course not. It is foolish to entertain such a thought. And when the people complain that they don’t the vast resources needed to rebuild the temple, God reminds them that the silver is his, and the gold is his (Haggai 2:8).

 

What then is the upshot of this message for the returning exiles to whom Haggai addresses his message? “I am the Lord the God of all humankind, is anything too hard for me?”

 

This message is implicit in our Gospel lesson too. We tend to focus here on the hypothetical scenario proposed to Jesus by his opponents, the Sadducees. The Sadducees are the theological liberals of Jesus’ day. They don’t believe in life after death. There is no resurrection. And they wish to demonstrate the absurdity of this belief by means of this hypothetical scenario. If they can compel Jesus to concede the problem the scenario raises, they score a theological point, and thereby vindicate themselves in their belief. 

 

We certainly can read and understand the lesson on this level. It certainly is a theological debate about the resurrection of the dead. But we can also read it from the woman’s perspective and consider the sense of futility that must have weighed her heart down after so many losses.

 

At the meeting of the Holland Classis of the Reformed Church in America last month, which I’m obligated to attend as a minister credentialed by that classis, we welcomed a missionary who desired to transfer into our classis. (And for those of you who don’t know, a classis meeting in the Reformed Church is the same as a presbytery meeting in the Presbyterian Church).

 

He told us interesting stories about his adventures as a missionary, including performing a ceremony underwater at a wedding in the Caribbean islands. Toward the end of his time at the microphone, he told us about his family. Now in his mid-90s he has survived two wives, and is likely to survive his third.

 

Now it may be the case that each of these women lived a long and productive life herself. It’s just that he has lived longer. But no one can say that burying a spouse is pleasant, especially a spouse whom one has loved deeply, regardless of how long and how well she has lived. It is a personal catastrophe.

 

Now consider the woman in the scenario that the Sadducees paint. She buries not three, but seven husbands! How can we even conceive of greater misfortune! She must have thought she was born under a bad sign, or that she was cursed from birth.

 

But just as the prophet does not concede that the national disaster spelled the end of God’s people, neither does Jesus concede that this woman’s misfortune is the last word for her.

 

The Sadducees can offer no hope. To them there is no hope for the hapless men to whom the woman was at one time married. And there is certainly no hope for her. New Testament professor Luke Timothy Johnson describes the Sadducees as having a “closed-horizon religion.” To the Sadducees the woman was no more than abstract placeholder in a hypothetical scenario. But if they were to meet her in real life, the only counsel they could give her are the words we have already heard from the Apostle Paul: “Eat and drink for tomorrow you will end up like your seven husbands.” Their view of life was small, because there was no place in it for the regenerative, transformative power of God.

 

Jesus doesn’t speak the language of death and despair, not even around the woman whom death stalked as soon as her married life began. For the God in whose name he has come into the world is the living God. He is the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. For to him all are alive.   

 

Because God is the God of resurrection, the message of Jesus to this woman, to the Sadducees, and to us, is the same as it was to the returning exiles. Is there anything too hard for God? For man, it is impossible. With God all things are possible. Amen.

 

 

 

 

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