Ideas about death and existence beyond death are in flux in the Hebrew Bible. Daniel 12:1-3 presents with one of the final commentaries on death and the life beyond. Here we are taught that death is not the “end” and Sheol (the pit in the ground) is not to hold the dead forever. It is important to note that Daniel is most likely written during a time of persecution (possibly under the Seleucid ruler Antiochus Ephiphanes who tried to abolish the Sabaath and slaughtered a pig in the Temple to offend the Jews). During this time faithful Jews were dying because they refused to violate the Torah. During this time of extreme duress Daniel promises that ‘Michael’ (the angelic protector of the people) shall arise. The times will be tough, but Michael will see that every righteous person will be delivered, even those who lie dead in the ground. The text speaks of a two fold resurrection, of both the righteous and the unrighteous, and a two fold destination: the righteous to everlasting life shining like the stars in the sky, and the unrighteous to everlasting shame and contempt. This passage was certainly hugely influential in shaping the New Testaments thoughts on the eternal life and the destiny of the righteous and the wicked. This text is part of God’s continued self revelation to the Jewish people. Here, in the worst of times, God presents Godself to the people in such a way that they see God as able to operate even beyond the grave. In times where it appears God is not present we
actually learn that God is busy writing names in the cosmic book that records the names of the righteous.
Psalm 16 is an appopriate response to the Hebrew Bible lesson in that the Psalmist seeks after God’s protection (in our Hebrew Bible lection Michael is described as the “protector of the people”). The Psalmist will praise God for salation: “For you do not give me up to Sheol, or let your faithful one see the Pit.”
Our epistle lection is an “if…then” text. The author of Hebrews describes the once and for all nature of Jesus atoning sacrifice. When this sacrifice was made Jesus took his rightful place of glory next to God the Father. It is by this once and for all sacrifice that we are “perfected for all time.” “If” this sacrifice has been made “then” we can now approach the throne room of God–the same one where Jesus now resides in glory, with confidence knowing that “our hearts [are] sprinkled clean from an evil conscience and our bodies [are] washed with pure water.” Furthermore “if” we have received this great cleansing”then” “let us hold fast to the confession of our hope without wavering, for he who has promised is faithful. And let us consider how to provoke one another to love and good deeds, not neglecting to meet together, as is the habit of some, but encouraging
one another, and all the more as you see the Day approaching.”
Our gospel lection provides us with the beginning of Jesus “apocalyptic discourse”–or discourse about hidden things. Here Jesus responds to a comment made by one of his dicisples about the size of the stones used to construct the temple (some of which were as a large as a modern bus!). For this disciple the stones represented something that would never go away–they were stable and secure. Jesus however follows the disciples statement of wonder with a shocking prediction of a chaotic future, “Do you see these great buildings? Not one stone will be left here upon another; all will be thrown down.” Later in private four of the disciples come to Jesus and ask him when this terrible calamity will occur. Jesus does not give them a definite answer, but his answer does instruct them about the hidden end in two different ways. First, many will come proclaiming that they are the ones who will bring this about–but they are not, and many will be led astray. Second, the end is surrounded by dreadful international upheaval–but such upheaval is not an end in itself. It is simply the beginning–the pain that comes with birth. The new creation is the end–and it is for such a new creation that we all live and hope.
Celebration of Worship
Our texts this week remind us that God is the God of the resurrection and new creation. God does not abandon anyone to the pit of Sheol. However, the pit of Sheol is real. Calamity is real. International upheaval is real. Oppression is real. God takes what is real, the unfortunate realities of a fallen world, and brings from this old damaged creation a newly resurrected creation. It is when things are most bleak that we most marvel at God’s ability to make new again. As you prepare your thoughts, hymns, and prayers for Sunday consider the new creation. What does it mean to be led astray as we wait for God to act in the new creation? What does it mean for the new creation to come through the suffering brought on by birth pains? In what ways has this proven to be true in your own life? How do we approach the throne of God in confidence as we wait for the final fulfillment of God’s unfolding work in the new creation?