With my thanks to my dear friend Songbird, and the contributers to the "Desperate Preacher" site...This week I surely qualified there!
November with dark nights and dreary mornings, with fallen leaves and bare branches, is a fitting season to contemplate life, death and the hereafter – and the church provides many opportunities to do so. Last Sunday, All Saints, we reflected on our calling to be saints here and now – filled with and transformed by God's presence in our lives...then on Tuesday, All Souls, I read aloud 241 names – the beloved dead that we remembered before God in that most moving of services. Next week we'll think especially of those who die in war...Wherever we look at this time of year, questions of life and death are there...Death, the elephant in the room, is shifting around, refusing to be quiet só that we can ignore it.
I'll never forget taking a funeral for an elderly lady in the early months of my ministry...Her grand-daughters, a few years younger than me, were the chief mourners and we celebrated their grandmother's life, the gift she had been to them and the difference she had made to the world, and stood together as we entrusted her into God's care. They laughed and cried and the service was a wonderful mix of honesty and idealism, as funerals só often are.
But afterwards, as we sat over a glass of wine, the younger sister turned to me and said
“I know that God is looking after Gran – but what I want to know is.......where is she now”
And that, of course, for all my training, I simply could not answer.
Every generation and every culture has wondered about what happens when life as we know it ends and there have been all sorts of attempts to make the unknown bearable...from the ancient Egyptians, filling their tombs with every possible physical essential, só that the dead will be fully provided for as they continue on their journey...to those who see life as cycle of death and rebirth, until finally we reach the freedom of nirvana. The Saducees, questioning Jesus, have no concept of resurrection, of life after death....so their question is at best mischievous. They don't really want to know what is going to happen to that poor, much married woman.
But I think that we often try to domesticate eternity by envisaging it according to the world that we do know, the experiences that are our daily lot. We imagine it as a sort of upgraded earth, where all the things we wish were different will indeed be put right.
But, as we are reminded in Scripture, "No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him"--
in other words, - we just don't have a clue!
Heaven is completely different so the two big pillars of the argument -marriage and death- make no sense at all in heaven's terms. Marriage is for now – not for later. Death is for now as well– there is no dying then.
This is something that Moses understood as he recognised that Abraham, Isaac and Jacob were alive with God – só he chose to call the Lord the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, the God of Jacob. He could simply have described him as “my God”, but that would have been to limit himself to the present....Instead he widens his horizon, bringing the past into the present and asserting that ancestors who are dead are alive with God.
Alive – but not in a way that simply continues and improves upon the existence we know right now.
We are not the same after this life. Resurrection is not the same as ressucitation.
Jesus was nothing if not honest with us. He assures us of a resurrection, but not of a repetition of our earthly lives. For some of us that’s a loss. But in many ways, and for many people, it may be a relief, too. Christ's own life, as it came to a human end, contained disappointment and betrayal, being let down by his friends and cruelly killed by his enemies.Jesus understood the pain of being human and he understood too the pain of dying.
“Now God is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to God all of them are alive.
Jesus calls us to trust in the God of the living, and focus on our life here and now... and let God look after the next life. The how remains beyond us, as it did for Job when he proclaimed his confidence in the paradox that asserts
“For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;
and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God”
That doesn't make any sense, from our time-limited, material frame of reference – but imagine those words as set by Handel...and you will, I'm certain, understand their deep and lasting truth. For the moment it may be only through the lens of great art that we can have an inkling of what is to come...só i'm afraid I would still have no helpful answer for Victoria and her sister – but I hope that i would be slightly less embarassed by this failing.
I know that my Redeemer lives......and that God is the God not of the dead but of the living.......so I can, ultimately, trust him not just with my own life and destiny but, even more, with that of those whom I love most...both living and departed.....for to God all of them are alive.