Sunday, 10 November 2013

Remember, Remember... Remembrance Sunday Sermon

Bloomsbury Central Baptist Church, 
Remembrance Sunday 
10th November 2013 11.00am

Luke 20.27-38  Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him  28 ¶ and asked him a question, "Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man's brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother.  29 Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless;  30 then the second  31 and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless.  32 Finally the woman also died.  33 In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her."  34 ¶ Jesus said to them, "Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage;  35 but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.  36 Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.  37 And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.  38 Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive."

Genesis 4.8-10  Cain said to his brother Abel, "Let us go out to the field." And when they were in the field, Cain rose up against his brother Abel, and killed him.  9 Then the LORD said to Cain, "Where is your brother Abel?" He said, "I do not know; am I my brother's keeper?"  10 And the LORD said, "What have you done? Listen; your brother's blood is crying out to me from the ground!
Job 19.23-27  "O that my words were written down! O that they were inscribed in a book!  24 O that with an iron pen and with lead they were engraved on a rock forever!  25 For I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth;  26 and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God,  27 whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and not another.

The Soldier

If I should die, think only this of me;   
  That there's some corner of a foreign field 
That is for ever England. There shall be          
  In that rich earth a richer dust concealed;   
A dust whom England bore, shaped, made aware,       
  Gave, once, her flowers to love, her ways to roam,         
A body of England's breathing English air,     
  Washed by the rivers, blest by suns of home.        
And think, this heart, all evil shed away,        
  A pulse in the eternal mind, no less     
    Gives somewhere back the thoughts by England given;
Her sights and sounds; dreams happy as her day;  
  And laughter, learnt of friends; and gentleness,    
    In hearts at peace, under an English heaven.
                        Rupert Brooke. 1887–1915

What will they think of me when I’m gone?
            Who will remember me?

They say ‘life goes on’,
            but the reality, for all of us eventually,
            is that it doesn’t.
It comes to an end, sooner or later,
            and then what’s left?
Some ashes to scatter, or a body to bury;
            some possessions to distribute;
            a reputation, perhaps, or some achievements of note;
            conceivably children or grandchildren
            or maybe just stories, so many stories,
                        to be told with tears and laughter
                        by those who have known and loved us
                        saying to one another, ‘do you remember when…?’

Do you remember?

Do you remember?

We’re in the season of remembrance at the moment,
            from ‘Remember, Remember the 5th of November’
            to today’s and tomorrow’s Remembrance services
                        and two minutes silences.
And at such times,
            we particularly remember those who have been killed in war,
            those whose lives came to a premature and violent end,
                        leaving loved ones to grieve and cope.

Last week, I paid a visit to the Air Forces Memorial at Runnymede
            and there, amongst the thousands upon thousands of names
                        which have been carved into the stone walls,
            I found the memorial to my maternal grandfather,
                        Sgt Frederick David King, DFM,
            a young man killed just a few weeks after his wedding day,
                        leaving a widow,
                                    yet to discover that she was pregnant with my mother,
                        and a few medals that now sit in a case at my parents’ house,
                                    speaking to us from beyond the grave
                                    of his bravery and valour in the face of danger.

And it matters to us that we remember the names, doesn’t it?
            It matters that the stories and the people are not lost to us.
This is one of the reasons why we have books of remembrance,
            keeping the person’s name and memory alive.
And it’s the reason we often mark a person’s grave with a stone,
            with their name carved as a permanent record
                        of the fact that they were once alive.

But, as anyone who has wandered through an old graveyard will know,
            eventually the stones weather, and the names and dates fade.
And books can be lost or destroyed,
            and even revered war memorials won’t last eternally.
Eventually, Sgt Fred King’s name and memory will be lost,
            as so many others, both before him and since,
            have also passed into obscurity.

And what then?
            Who remembers?
            Who keeps the memory alive?
            What becomes of what was once a person?

Such things were obviously preying on Job’s mind,
            as we heard in our reading this morning,
where Job cries out:

"O that my words were written down!
            O that they were inscribed in a book! 
O that with an iron pen and with lead
            they were engraved on a rock forever!”

For those of you who haven’t read the book of Job in a while,
            a brief recap might be useful.
The book of Job is named after it’s protagonist,
            about whom we don’t know a lot
                        (he is, after all, a fictional character).
            But what we do know, is that he is an innocent man.
Yet, despite his innocence,
            he suffers loss and pain through no fault of his own.

As the dialogue of the book develops,
            with Job and his friends discussing
                        what he has done to deserve such torment,
            Job starts to imagine a way in which he might go to trial with God,
                        seeking to vindicate his righteousness,
            and perhaps also to obtain an acknowledgment
                        of God’s mistreatment of Job.

In our passage for this morning,
            we meet Job in characteristically depressive mood,
                        clearly not expecting to see the desired vindication
                                    before his death,
                        and concerned that he will go to the grave unjustified.

In chapter 16, he calls on the earth to not let
            his murder at God’s hand, as he sees it, go unavenged.
He wants his innocent blood to continue crying out,
            arguing his vindication for all eternity.

In an echo of God’s words to Cain after his murder of his brother Abel,
            Job expresses hope that that the blood of his death
            will continue to cry out from the ground:
“O earth, do not cover my blood;
            let my outcry find no resting place.” (Job 16:18)

This idea of shed blood crying out from the ground,
            attesting to the righteousness of those
                        who have been un-righteously killed
            is one which continues to have great resonance today.

From Rupert Brooke’s heart-rending assertion that
            in the event of his death in war
            there will be ‘some corner of a foreign field
                        that is for ever England’,
to the poppy fields of Flanders,
to the mass graves of the 2nd world war concentration camps,
            to more recent discoveries in Bosnia, Iraq and Syria…
the blood of the slain cries out from the ground,
            and it shouts and screams to the world
            that those who lie here did not deserve to die in this way.

And so Job contemplates his death;
            a righteous and innocent man
            who doesn’t deserve to die like this.
Job’s anxious desire is that he should ‘see’ God judge his case while he is alive,
            but he doesn’t, frankly, expect to be vindicated before his death,
so, despite his conviction that ‘in the end’ he will be judged innocent (v.25),
            he wants his case committed to permanent writing,
because he knows that whilst his life may be fleeting and soon-ended,
            the fact of his righteousness is an eternal truth,
            and his hope is that one day,
                        the record of his blamelessness will be attested before God
                        and will be proven to be true.

And so Job utters possibly the most famous words in the entire book,
            and possibly also the most misunderstood:
‘For I know that my Redeemer lives,
            and that at the last he will stand upon the earth’ (19.25).

Despite it’s usage within the Christian tradition…
            (and who, on hearing this verse,
                        doesn’t also hear the strains of Handel’s Messiah?)
But despite this,
            Job’s redeemer is not Jesus,
            and it isn’t God either.

Rather, Job’s ‘redeemer’ is his protestation of his innocence,
            it is his righteousness itself that pleads his cause
                        and will secure his redemption.

Job’s ‘redeemer’ isn’t some heavenly being,
            rather, it is his own declaration of innocence.

To understand why this is the case,
            we need to understand a little bit
                        about the Old Testament concept of redemption.

The world translated here as ‘redeemer’
            can also be translated as ‘vindicator’ or ‘champion’
and in the Levitical law,
            a person’s redeemer, or vindicator, or champion,
            was their nearest relative.

So, when a person died,
            their next of kin would be expected
                        to redeem their property for the family,
                        by buying it back to secure the family’s inheritance.
                        (Lev 25.25-34).
Or if a person was taken into slavery,
            their next of kin would be expected
                        to redeem them by paying the price for their release.
                        (Lev 25.47-54).
Or if a man died childless,
            their next of kin would be expected to marry their widow
                        and father a child with her on behalf of the dead husband.
                        (Deut 25.5-10; Ruth 3.12; 4.1-6).
Or if a person was murdered,
            their next of kin would be expected to vindicate them
                        by avenging their shed blood. (Num 35.12, 19-27).

So when Job states his belief
            that his redeemer, his vindicator, his champion, lives,
            he is objectifying his protestation of his innocence
                        into an entity that has something of an existence of its own.
His blood that will cry out from the ground for all eternity,
            his deeds that are written in writing that never fades,
            take on the character of an eternal affidavit of innocence.

The legal language continues,
            as Job states that his redeemer
            will, at the last, stand upon the earth.
In an ancient lawsuit trial,
            the last to rise was the winner of the dispute,
                        the final speaker won the day,
            the successful voice was granted the last word,
and Job believes that his blood crying out from the ground,
            will, at the last, rise up to affirm his innocence,
            and attest that his death was neither deserved nor sought.

So, what remains of a person when they are gone?
            What is remembered?
Job’s answer is that it is righteousness that endures eternally.

Bodies die, possessions are redistributed,
            children go their own way,
                        and reputations and mighty deeds are easily sullied or forgotten.
But a person’s righteousness? That’s a different story.
            Innocence from guilt is eternal
            and blameless deeds endure.

And so we come to the woman with her seven husbands.
            And once again we find ourselves in the murky world
                        of the kinsman-redeemer laws of the ancient Jews,
            And once again we find ourselves grappling with the question
                        of what remains of a person when they die.

There was a view that the value of a person’s life
            could be judged on whether they had managed
                        to bring children into the world,
            with a childless man’s life considered incomplete.
So, if a man died leaving a widow still of childbearing age,
            that man’s life could be redeemed
                        if he had a brother who would take his widow,
                        and father a child with her on behalf of the dead brother,
            so that the dead brother could live on through his descendants.

Clearly, this system is intensely problematic from a contemporary perspective,
            and it raises huge issues for us surrounding the rights of the woman,
            and her existence as a person in her own right,
                        rather than as part of the estate of her husband.

But within the worldview of the ancient near east,
            it had a certain logical consistency,
and it is this logic that the Sadducees are seeking to exploit,
            by making their argument Reductio ad absurdum
                        about the one bride for seven brothers,
            as they sought to demonstrate the irrationality
                        of a belief in the afterlife.

It all hinges around this question
            of what happens when a person dies.
What remains of them?
            How do they live on beyond the grave?

Is it through children, as the levirate law implied?
            Or is it through reputation and good deeds,
                        as the Sadducees believed,
            Or is it through some future resurrection to an afterlife,
                        as the Sadducees very definitely did not believe?

Jesus’ reply to the challenge of the Sadducees,
            takes us to an eternal truth of being,
            which is that nothing good is ever lost.

I’ll say that again:
            nothing good is ever lost.

In answer to the question of what remains of a person when they are dead,
            Jesus replies:
“Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living;
            for to him all are alive.” (Luke 20:38)

Descendants may die out,
            reputations and good deeds may be forgotten,
grave stones may weather to illegibility,
            and the writing in books may fade to nothing.
But God remembers…
            each moment is held safe by God,
            each instant of life finds eternity within the love of God,
Because God ‘is God not of the dead, but of the living;
            for to him all are alive.’

It may well be that the greatest service we can pay to the dead
            is to remember their righteous needs,
            and to ensure that they are not forgotten.
This, after all, is why we have remembrance Sunday,
            to remember the dead in war,
            and to ensure that the precious gift of their lives
                        doesn’t pass into obscurity.

We remember their deaths,
            but we also hear their voices:
            their blood crying out to us from the ground.

And what do the voices of the dead say to us today?
            Tales of valour, stories of bravery, honour, and loyalty, yes.
            But also, because we are remembering those dead in war,
                        stories of mercy, compassion,
                                    betrayal, suffering, terror,
                                                and of so many lives lost.

And the voice of Jesus, echoing to us down the millennia,
            assures us that each of these lives, remembered or not,
                        was a life that has eternal value.
            Each soldier has worth:
                        named or unknown,
                                    decorated officer or cannon-fodder Tommy;
            and in our remembrance of them
                        their voices are heard once again,
                        crying out from the ground for vindication, for redemption.

And they live still,
            they live among us through our act of remembrance,
                        and in our memories as we keep their memory alive.
Their stories matter to us because they keep us all human,
            and their blood cries out to us from the ground,
            protesting that they didn’t deserve to die like this.

But they live still, not just because we remember them,
            but because God remembers them.
Each life matters eternally to God,
            and nothing good is ever lost.

And this is true for them,
            and it is true for us also.

Whether we die a valiant death in the theatre of war,
            or in one of a million more ordinary ways,
Whether we die alone at home, or cared for in hospital,
            or suddenly early, or peacefully at the end of along life,
However and whenever we die,
            we too are remembered by God.

All the good life that we have lived
            is not lost at the moment of our passing,
but is held safe for all eternity
            in the loving embrace of the God of love,
who will not see even a flickering spark of life extinguished.

This is life eternal,
            this is the hope of resurrection.
And it begins today,
            eternity in each present moment.

For God ‘is God not of the dead, but of the living;
            for to him all are alive.’

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