November 2019

Seeing God Beyond the Borders, in the Flesh

22nd Sunday after Pentecost, November 10, 2019, 2019
Job 19:23-27a, Luke 20:27-38
– The Reverend Dr. Arnold Isidore Thomas

Those familiar with the Book of Job, and the distressing story it conveys to people of faith confronting faith-challenging situations, are equally familiar with the words he voices in his cry for justice: “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.” (19:25-26) These words evoke moments of spiritual rapture when we recall them sung as the soprano aria in Handel’s “Messiah.” And while Christians are quick to apply these words to Christ, our Redeemer, that is not who the author of Job had in mind. For the main character of the story was one unjustly tormented by God, and even God knew it (2:3). So, Job sought the appeal of a physical or spiritual mediator who would argue his innocence before God and redeem him from divine torment. It was his hope, while he lived in the flesh, that this redeemer would allow him to see God relent and repent of this evil against him.

Many people today have turned their backs on God, the church and religion in general because they feel that God has forsaken them. For every story one provides about the wonderful experience of faith and being part of a faith community, there are countless others concerning how God has let them down. Such stories include the death of loved ones through terminal illness in which one prayed to God for a miracle that never occurred; or the loss of innocent lives through natural disasters, domestic abuse, gun violence, or war. Our prayers to God, if there’s enough belief left in us to pray at all, become angry accusations against God’s unrighteous wrath that, like Job, desire redemption from the pain.

I often wonder how the widow in Luke’s gospel felt about God. She suffered the death and, possibly the lives, of seven husbands of whom she had no say in marrying, before she herself died.

The Sadducees, who allegedly rejected belief in the resurrection, took light of the notion by jokingly conveying this scenario before asking Jesus to whom she would belong in the afterlife. They assumed that even after death her condition of servitude would not have changed and she would be denied the freedom of choice.

But Jesus was quick to contrast the bondage of this world with the liberation of God’s realm. In this world we are given and taken, tied and tugged by people or obligations over which we often have little or no say. However, in the realm of God, said Jesus, we are neither given nor taken, for we belong to no one but God; and in that belonging, we are as angels and children of God, no longer slaves to fear and death; for God is not a god of the dead, but the Lord of life. (Luke 20:36-38)

The story of Job asks the question, “Why do bad things happen to good people?” And the answer God gives is that we’re not qualified to ask. Now I use to hate that answer until I realized that those who assume themselves so good as to deserve immunity from the unpredictability of life are so self-absorbed, they fail to appreciate the fact that they are subject to both flesh and spirit.

As creatures of flesh we are like all other creatures who endure the uncertainties of our mortality and must, therefore, depend on and care for one another to make the most of whatever time we have on this side of life. Yet all conscious life is also endowed with the Spirit of God that connects us to a web of dependency with one another, with all creation and, most of all, with creation’s God. And in our ability to acknowledge the ultimate tie that binds us as spiritual beings to the infinity of God, we are able to live not as creatures burdened by the cautions and fears of death, but as angels and children of God’s death-defying, life-sustaining immortality. Our focus is reoriented beyond the borders of the grave to envisioning heaven on earth, in the flesh.

I remember one of our children’s moments in which a child asked, “Where is heaven?” I was reminded of Jesus who said, “Out of the mouths of infants and babes you, O Lord, have prepared praise for yourself.” (Matthew 21:16)

Where is heaven? Don’t be deceived, said the Apostle Paul, by politicians and potentates who prop themselves up as gods and answers to the world’s problems (2nd Thessalonians 2:3-4). Place not your trust, said the psalmist, in mortals, for when they die their plans die with them (146:3-4) Happy, instead, are those whose help and hope is in the God who made heaven and earth and keeps faith forever; “who executes justice for the oppressed; who gives food to the hungry and sets the captives free; who opens the eyes of the blind and lifts up those who are bowed down.” (146:5-8) Where is heaven? Heaven is wherever this compassionate God is in control.

On this Stewardship Sunday, let us rededicate and consecrate our lives to living the Lord’s prayer by which God’s realm and will may be achieved on earth as it is in heaven, starting here and now, in the flesh. In you, and in all children born of the Spirit, God has placed the hope of the world. In you God has granted spiritual gifts and divine potential by which those who suffer may know that their Redeemer lives, and that in their flesh they will see God. Amen.