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
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.
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
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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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