Encouragement

St Andrews – 

Sermon: Twenty Second Sunday after Pentecost: Ann Edwards Haggai 1:15b – 2.9 

2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17 

Luke 20: 27-40 

Encouragement

In Sunday School a few years back, my kids made rope out of wool. I had never  seen it done before, and it’s a really useful life skill, and an interesting science  experiment. If you and I were to play tug of war, a single strand would break. If we  bring multiple strands alongside one another, they are stronger, but are difficult to  hold and the individual threads are vulnerable to shifting movement. But twisted  together, the threads make rope, and you can even have a tug of war without the  wool breaking. Today, we’re going to explore how Haggai, Jesus, and Paul all  encourage this type of consolidated strength. 

Who was Haggai 

The book of Haggai is an interesting inclusion in scripture. Haggai is one of the so called lesser prophets, and doesn’t garner much attention, but is best known for  calling for the rebuilding of the temple which had been destroyed by the neo Babylonians, as recorded in 2 Kings 1. In our Haggai reading, the prophet is calling  on the people to be strong, to take courage, and to rebuild their temple and  community. This is one of the few examples of a people that listened, and the  second temple was built. The Hebrew word that is translated as to “take courage”  זי ַאוּ) oo-‘zah-ee) literally is to twist, like a rope, and means strong. זי ַאוּ in the Hebrew  scriptures is popular, appearing 202 times, and is used to describe growing and  strengthening communities, God’s own strong hand, and strong people and even  strong drink.2 

The original Hebrew is evocative, isn’t it? That idea of strength and courage as  coming from being wound not straight. Threads that are integrated, not a single  super powered line. In community and in people, strength is not a singular  characteristic. In exhorting the community to be strong, Haggai reminds them that  God’s spirit abides amongst the community. The Spirit that draws together threads  and works them until they are integrated and strong. 

Who were the Sadducees 

In Gospel times, clearly there were issues with the community being integrated and  strong. We see this in the reactions to Jesus, and today’s Gospel brings us an  encounter with the Sadduccees. 

The Sadducees were opponents of the Pharisees on Halakhic – or legal – matters. In Jewish history, they have been shown as having strong opinions, that even the  Pharisees found difficult to refute. Halakhah (halɑːˈxɑ) literally means “the way” – the  Jewish Law, and each group believed they knew the way. In other ancient writings,  the Sadducees are frequently treated contemptuously by their opponents. Their  influence in the temple is unclear, but it seems that they taught Scripture and studied  the law, and in some ways were even stricter than Pharisees. 3 

One key area of contention was their rejection of the resurrection of the dead, which  the Pharisees held as true. So as we meet the Sadducees in this story, that is  paralleled in Matthew and Mark, we get one of the few direct clues to Jesus’s  thinking about resurrection. 4 

The Sadducees come with a riddle, to ridicule the idea of resurrection. According to  a strict interpretation of Jewish law 5, if a man died and his widow was without a son,  the man’s brother was to sleep with the widow to provide a son and continue the  brother’s line. The Sadducees use this concept to present a riddle. They take an  improbable scenario, and asked to whom a widow would belong at the resurrection,  if she survived 7 brothers but remained without a son. To whom will she belong

The Sadducees present an absurdity for the sake of the argument. In Jesus’s time,  the marriage of widows to their brother in laws was falling into disuse (Robinson,  1997, p. 534)., Looking at the law itself, it is clear that the expectation was not that  the brothers would take the widow for life, as they would their own wife. The  expectation was only to provide a child. For women at the time the law was written,  this served as a protection, by giving hope of offspring that could support the family. The Deuteronomical text itself explicitly says the intention was to build up the  brother’s house (and therefore community), not to transfer the widow to the brother. 

Jesus cuts straight through the pedantry of the riddle, of the obscure law taken out of  context, and answers by pointing back to God’s revelation and earthly presence in  the burning bush, to the God that self-revealed as the great I AM, the author,  purpose, and life of the law. To the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – all long  dead in linear time, but not in God. To the God that promised Abraham his offspring  would be many – becoming a great nation and blessing (Ellis, 2000). 

Jesus’s response shows the riddle misses the point and the intent of the law. Jesus  doesn’t just retort, but instead cracks open the intent of the law in the context of  God’s covenant, and deepens and builds the listeners’ understanding. Jesus  redirects from technicality and speaks relevance. Jesus speaks to hope. Jesus  speaks not just to the present and future, but to eternity

Paul, encouragement, and eschatology 

Which brings us now to our reading from the Epistles. The second letter to the  Thessalonians has scholars divided over authorship – is this one of Paul’s works?  (Horrell, 2010, p. 2080-2081). A key point of dissent relates to the strong  eschatological focus of the work – a focus on the end of time. If this is the work of  Paul, as many believe, this text is Paul being at his most apocalyptic. 

This letter from Paul is deeply pastoral. The early Christians were expecting an  imminent return of Jesus, and the Thessalonians were worried about those that had  died in the interim, puzzling over how that could happen (Horrell, 2010b). Meeting  the community’s concerns, Paul addresses their expectations. Paul evokes an apocalyptic style of writing from Hebrew scriptures, that was also common in other  early Jewish and Christian works. 6 The lectionary here skips 6 verses in the middle of the text, and we’ve missed the promise of Jesus annihilating a lawless one to  come, that will lead many to condemnation.  

Apocalyptic writing feels unfamiliar today but was familiar to the readers. It speaks to  a transcendent reality, a supernatural influence on life, and an ultimate judgement  and reckoning (Collins, 2014; Menken, 1994). But Paul then adds a distinctively  Pauline slant to encourage their faith. 

Paul refocuses on the community and God’s work within the community. He  entwines the community with the apostles, with each other, and with God. The  Thessalonians are brothers and sisters – related to Paul, to those that worked with  Paul, and related to one another other. Paul expresses gratitude for this relationship,  and for their faithfulness, reminding them they were called by God, to obtain the  glory of Christ. The threads of teacher, and community, and church, and God, and  faith, and love, and grace are wound and wound and integrated and strengthened.  Only then does Paul exhort them to stand firm and hold fast to what they had been  taught, to be strengthened in their works. 

The Greek for strengthen here is στηρίξαι (stay-rid’-zo) – to support, make firm, and  strengthen: that’s encouragement. The authentic gift of courage to another, in the  face of fatigue, fear, trial or suffering. Paul calls for strength not in an individual’s or  community’s own power, not out of the fear of hell, or a lure of justice, but in the love,  grace, eternal comfort and good hope of God.  

Encouragement today 

Haggai pointed us to the spirit in our midst, Jesus to the great I AM that was and is  and will always be, and Paul points us to Christ. Hope and courage are found in the  ever-present triune God. We are threads in the rope of God’s people and the story  that weaves back to Jacob, Isaac, Abraham, Adam and Eve.  

When things are falling apart, we sometimes say we need to hold it together. But like  the strands of wool, we’re stronger as individuals when our life, love, faith, intent, and  work are drawn together and entwined with God. As a community, we are strongest  when we are entwined together with each other in love by the grace of God. God  holds it together. 

Tradition holds that Haggai was the first to sing alleluia in the new temple, a hymn  we continue to sing today. Let’s encourage ourselves and each other, looking always  to the deepest truth of the eternal and ever-present God, who draws us together in community and abides with us. 

1 2 Kings 24:13, 25:8-17 

2 In other translations, the word in Haggai is translated strong. The choice of Courage is telling – strength in the  face of pain or grief; the ability to do something when frightened. In Joshua and Deuteronomy זַי אוּ is often  paired with חָזַק) khaw-zak’) which also means to be strong, but has connotations of holding fast, and is  figuratively used for courageous.

3 Even within the Sadducees, there is historical evidence that suggests a splintering of the pure from the  priestly, those that refused to compromise against those that remained in the temple.

4 The Sadducees are reintroduced again after Jesus’s resurrection where the conflict (understandably!) heats  up in Acts. Acts 4:1, 5:17, 23:6-8 

5Deuteronomy 25 When brothers reside together, and one of them dies and has no son the wife of the  deceased shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her, taking  her in marriage, and performing the duty of a husband’s brother to her, and the firstborn whom she bears  shall succeed to the name of the deceased brother, so that his name shall not be blotted out of Israel.

6 Familiar to us in Daniel and Revelation, for example

Newman, H. & Ludlam, R. (2005). Proximity to Power and Jewish Sectarian Groups of the Ancient Period: A  Review of Lifestyle, Values, and Halacha in the Pharisees, Sadducees, Essenes, and Qumran. Brill  Academic Publishers. 

Collins, J. (2014). What Is Apocalyptic Literature? In The Oxford Handbook of Apocalyptic Literature. Oxford  University Press.  

Ellis, E. (2000). Resurrection: Jesus, The Sadducees and Qumran. (Vol. 97, Novum Testamentum, Supplements, 97, 95-104. 

Horrell, D. (2010). The second letter of Paul to the Thessalonians. In M. Coogan (Ed.) The New Oxford  Annotated Bible (4th Ed.). Oxford UK: Oxford University Press. 

Horrell, D. (2010b). The first letter of Paul to the Thessalonians. In M. Coogan (Ed.) The New Oxford Annotated  Bible (4th Ed.). Oxford UK: Oxford University Press. 

Menken, M. J. (1994). 2 Thessalonians: Facing the end with sobriety. Routledge. Retrieved from  https://ebookcentral-proquest-com.ezproxy1.acu.edu.au 

Mermelstein, A. (2017). When History Repeats Itself: The Theological Significance of the Abrahamic Covenant in  Early Jewish Writings. Journal for the Study of the Pseudepigrapha, 27(2), 113-142. 

Robinson, B. (1997). ‘They are as Angels in Heaven’: Jesus’ Alleged Riposte to the Sadducees (Mark 12: 18-27;  par. Mt 22:23-33, Lk 20:27-40), New Blackfriars, 78, 530-537 

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