Sermon: Life before and after death

Sermon for Williamstown

10th of January 2016

Isaiah 43:1-7

As some of you know, I am sadly addicted to social media. I spend much too much time on Facebook and Twitter. The reason I mention this is not to show how young and cool, or how old and behind the times, I am. It’s because two Facebook posts I read this week have caused me to stop, think, and completely rewrite this sermon.

The first was a remark about the bushfires in Western Australia. On the Facebook page of an Anglican priest who ministers in Perth someone commented that they were sorry for all the preachers in Western Australia who would have to talk about Isaiah 43:2 this Sunday. Isaiah 43:2 is: ‘When you pass through the waters, I will be with you; and through the rivers, they shall not overwhelm you; when you walk through fire you shall not be burned, and the flame shall not consume you.’

I looked at that comment and thought, ‘Huh’. How do any of us preach on this verse in the wake of the bushfires along the Great Ocean Road that destroyed over 100 houses on Christmas Day, and in the wake of the almost total destruction of the town of Yarloop in Western Australia? What does Isaiah have to say to us when we hear that the bodies of two men have now been found in one of the burnt out houses in Yarloop?

The other social media post that caused me to stop and think this week was an article by New York Times’ journalist Barbara Ehrenreich called ‘The Selfish Side of Gratitude’. It was shared on Facebook by a friend of mine and it included this reflection on saying grace before meals:

Who picked the lettuce in the fields, processed the standing rib roast, drove these products to the stores, stacked them on the supermarket shelves and, of course, prepared them and brought them to the table? Saying grace to an abstract God is an evasion; there are crowds, whole communities of actual people, many of them with aching backs and tenuous finances, who made the meal possible.

The real challenge of gratitude lies in figuring out how to express our debt to them, whether through generous tips or, say, by supporting their demands for decent pay and better working conditions. But now we’re not talking about gratitude, we’re talking about a far more muscular impulse — and this is, to use the old-fashioned term, “solidarity” which may involve getting up off the yoga mat.

This article immediately made me want to race out and do some social research. Are people who say grace before meals, who are reminded whenever we eat how privileged we are to have full stomachs, more or less likely to care about those who are hungry? Are people who believe food is a gift from God more or less likely to care about the human beings who directly provide the food for our tables? What if Ehrenreich is right and in our gratitude to God we ignore other human beings?

Just to reassure you that I don’t spend all my time on social media, I’m also halfway through a book written by British theologian Elizabeth Stuart called Gay and Lesbian Theologies: Repetitions with Critical Difference (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2002). In one of the chapters Stuart looks at the ways in which theology dealt with the AIDS epidemic, and argues that a lot of modern theology failed because it couldn’t talk about an afterlife. (pp. 65-78.) Some modern theologians believe that any talk of life after death undermines the value of life before death, and any belief in God’s ultimate justice in the next world prevents people from working for justice in this world – in the same way that Ehrenreich suggests that people expressing gratitude to God are less likely to act in solidarity with others.

The comment about the fires, Ehrenreich’s article, and Stuart’s book all seem to me to be talking about the relationship between the spiritual and the physical; between this life and the next. It has been in the context of thinking about that relationship that I have pondered today’s reading from Isaiah.

Last week we heard from the prophet we call Third Isaiah speaking to those who’d returned to Jerusalem from Exile; this week we step back and hear from the prophet we call Second Isaiah, speaking to those in Exile in Babylon. As we hear God reassuring the people through Second Isaiah’s words we need to remember their situation. Jerusalem had been conquered by the Babylonians; the Temple had been destroyed; two-thirds of the people had been deported to Babylon. People who had been prosperous, confident, and materialistic had been taken into exile. These are people who know suffering and displacement. These are people who feel deserted by their God. They would be able to empathise with the people who have lost family or friends or homes or livelihood to bushfires; the people who labour with ‘aching backs and tenuous finances’ so that others can eat; the people who face death from AIDS – and most people living with AIDS today are in impoverished countries and still don’t have access to treatment. The exiles are not people who would be satisfied with easy answers.

It is to these people that Second Isaiah writes ‘The Book of Consolation’. Isaiah assures them that although they are still in exile, there is hope. Second Isaiah doesn’t write of judgment and condemnation but of comfort and trust. This trust is based on the belief that, as Second Isaiah writes, no matter what has happened, God has always been with His people.

This is the message of the passage that we hear today: ‘But now thus says the Lord, he who created you, O Jacob, he who formed you, O Israel: Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine’. God the Creator, God who wrestled Jacob and gave him the new name Israel, is still with Jacob’s descendents. And God is not just the Creator, God is also the Redeemer, the closest kinsman, the one who can buy his children back from slavery and repossess the family home. The job of the Redeemer is to protect the family, and this is what God will do for the people of Israel.

The people in exile asked: Where is God? Is God powerful enough to save us? Second Isaiah answered that God was always with them – and is still with us. Even when we’re in exile, God brings us comfort. God sees and feels the pain of God’s people, and God responds. But Second Isaiah also warned the exiles that God might not respond in the way they expected, or even in the way they wanted. Later in chapter 43 Second Isaiah says that God is doing something new: ‘Do not remember the former things, or consider the things of old. I am about to do a new thing; now it springs forth, do you not perceive it?’ (Isaiah 43:19) As Christians, we believe that God’s ultimate ‘new thing’ was to enter into all the messiness of human life in Jesus.

If Jesus is the answer

Since this is a church it shouldn’t surprise you that I’m going to argue that Jesus’ incarnation, crucifixion and resurrection is the answer to any questions about the relationship between the spiritual and the physical, between this life and the next. (And I do know that there’s a meme that asks: ‘If Jesus is the answer, what’s the question?’) In the incarnation God unites the spiritual and the physical. In the crucifixion God experiences sorrow and suffering and death in solidarity with humanity. In the resurrection God reveals the ultimate defeat of death. No matter where we are or what we are experiencing, God is with us.

Ehrenreich suggests that people expressing gratitude to God are less likely to act in solidarity with others. But the God we are thanking is the God who showed ultimate solidarity with humanity by becoming part of this world in Jesus; the God who welcomed the poor and hungry and outcast, and told his disciples that if they fed and clothed and visited and cared for others, they were feeding and clothing and visiting and caring for him. It is impossible to be grateful to this God and not act in solidarity with others to make this world a more just place, a place in which the hungry are fed and all labourers receive a fair wage. In the same way, it is impossible to be followers of God the Creator and not do our best for every part of God’s creation, including every person and animal and bird and plant and community affected by bushfires. In short, it is impossible to be baptised into Jesus Christ and not seek to imitate him.

Today we celebrate the baptism of Jesus and remember our own baptisms. By God’s grace, in baptism we are plunged into the faith of Jesus Christ, so that whatever is his may be called ours. And we are not just baptised into Jesus’ life and death. We are also baptised into his resurrection. Christianity is a faith that is profoundly concerned about life before death and the world in which we live, but it also a faith that is profoundly concerned about life after death and about the new heaven and new earth that will be born at the eschaton, the end of time. We know very little about life after death, the writers of the Bible spent very little time on it, but we are assured that in Jesus’ resurrection we see the first fruits of what is ahead for all of us – resurrection life. In her book Elizabeth Stuart writes that it was the hope of union with God and reunion with loved ones in the presence of God that comforted men who were HIV+ in the 1980s and 90s. (p. 75) It is the reassurance that those we love who have died are held tightly in the hands of God that the church offers mourners when people die tragic and untimely deaths, as sometimes happens in bushfires. The sure and certain hope of the resurrection, the hope of life after death, does not negate the importance of life before death; any more than expressing gratitude to God for our food negates solidarity with the people who produce our food. But there is comfort in knowing that when God says to us ‘Do not fear, for I am with you’, God will be with us in life, death and life beyond death.

To the people of Israel in Babylon Second Isaiah offered the reassurance that God had never deserted them; that God was always with them, no matter their circumstances. We are still offered that comfort today. God is always with us, and always will be with us. This means that everything we do in this world, every day of our life, is profoundly important, because we are doing it in communion with God. And it also means that we can face death with hope, because whatever form life after death takes we will continue to be in communion with God. ‘Do not fear, for I have redeemed you; I have called you by name, you are mine’ Second Isaiah tells the exiles on behalf of God. Each one of us is given the same assurance at our baptism. We belong to God. Amen.

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