Sunday, April 21, 2024
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“The Dead Can’t Praise”
By Rev. Dr. Jason Byassee
Sunday, April 21, 2024
Reading: Isaiah 38:1-8; 16-20

During this Easter series I’ve pushed the resurrection of the body pretty hard. Not just the resurrection of Jesus’ body—that’s what fundamentalists and modernists fought about in the early 20th century. Was Jesus’ body physically raised? Or was this a metaphor, a spiritual awakening of some sort? Strange division, they’re both right in what they affirm and wrong in what they deny. Jesus is bodily raised, and it’s a metaphor for all kinds of awakenings, why one or the other? In this series I’ve tried to say it’s easy enough to believe in Jesus’ resurrection. What Christian faith pushes us to believe in is the coming resurrection of each one of us. And the coming renewal of all creation, its transfiguration into the world Jesus wants.

Some of you asked me after last week whether this makes any difference for how to be buried. Cremation? Casket? None whatsoever. If God made us out of nothing, God can remake us much more surely. Ancient Jews and Christians did bury bodies whole as a witness to the coming resurrection of the body and because their pagan neighbours burned bodies, but cremation can witness to bodily resurrection just as well. Look how creative God is, to gather us back up from scattered dust.

But the more interesting question is this: is this all true? Like, do you have to believe all this to be a Christian?

The answer is yes, it’s all true. And no, you don’t have to believe anything. Faith is not a math test where if you score more than an 81 you scrape by. We’re made Christian by baptism, by God claiming us for himself. You don’t have to believe any of it. But you may believe all of it. Because it’s beautiful. I’m going to keep pushing the strange. I want to hear more of you object: come on, really? And I’ll respond, I know right? It’s big and weird and hard and awesome. Who can believe all this? Some say the only real Christian is Jesus Christ himself.

Today we meet King Hezekiah of Judah. I’ve told you often the kings of Israel are a rogue’s gallery. Even the “good” ones are bad. King David starts out great, slaying Goliath, writing psalms. He ends up lazing around the house when he should be leading, seizing Bathsheba (that is: raping her), murdering her husband, a loyal soldier. Not a good career arc. Solomon, the grandest king, is praised ironically. ‘Solomon had hundreds of foreign wives!’ Uh, you’re not supposed to have any of those in Israel, but okay. ‘Solomon had hundreds of foreign concubines!’ Uh, again, you’re supposed to have any of those. ‘Solomon had thousands of chariots and charioteers!’ You’re not supposed to have a standing army at all in Israel, because then you’ll trust your military and not God for defense. Armies are for Pharaohs. David and Solomon are the most famous kings and the worst failures.

No document criticizes its leaders quite as gloriously as the Bible.

There are some mild exceptions, some members of the rogues’ gallery of kings that really aren’t so roguish. One is King Hezekiah of Judah, who returned the people to faithfulness, destroyed idols, served God wholeheartedly. Never heard of Hezekiah? Me neither if I hadn’t gone into the Bible business. Friends of ours named their son Hezekiah Rex. Sounds like a dinosaur. Learning about King Hezekiah is sort of like being told none of the kings or queens of England were any good, except this one guy, Athelstan, back in the 10th century. This is not my view of English royalty mind you. You’d immediately ask, wait, what about both Elizabeths? And Victoria? And surely one or two of the boys? Nope, just Aethelstan. So too with biblical kings, you mean David and Solomon are no good? Correct. But Hezekiah, he’s not too terrible.

Hezekiah is king of Judah just as the northern tribes of Israel are smashed to bits. The Assyrians have annihilated 10/12ths of Israel and now are sniffing at the door of Jerusalem. In the chapter just before ours Hezekiah prays and God reassures him, don’t worry, Judah will not be devoured. And in 701 BC, the Assyrians go home, and Judah is spared. In this chapter, Hezekiah is told he is going to die. Get your house in order. He weeps and prays. He doesn’t deserve it. His actual words:

“Remember now, O Lord, I implore you, how I have walked before you in faithfulness with a whole heart, and have done what is good in your sight.” (Is 38:3)

Hezekiah says what you and I cannot, hey, ‘I am sinless here, spare me.’ He says what Judah cannot. The city Jerusalem has not kept covenant, it has not been faithful. But Hezekiah is holy and righteous. He can pray this prayer.

Later he sings to God with thanks:

18 Sheol cannot thank you,
    death cannot praise you;
    those who go down to the Pit cannot hope
    for your faithfulness.
19 The living, the living, they thank you,
    as I do this day.

Sheol is the place of the dead in the Old Testament. They didn’t think of heaven or hell yet, just a shadowy underworld where people can’t praise, like a waiting room or customer service for us. Hezekiah names this trade with God: okay God, you like praise. I like being alive. How about you keep me alive God, and I’ll keep the praise coming? Deal?

And it works! Hezekiah receives 15 more years of life. Awfully specific number. As a sign, God turns the sun back ten notches on the sundial, lengthening the day. Someone in Tuesday Bible study said it sounds like the eclipse, God doing tricks with the sun and heavenly bodies. But someone else said, nah, this transactional prayer doesn’t work, it sounds like how Trump politics. We can’t make deals with God like that. I agree. I don’t pray this way. I don’t teach others to pray this way. Who can pray with a straight face ‘Hey God, I’ve had a pure heart every moment of my life.’ Go ahead, try your hardest not to sin till lunchtime. You won’t make it. But Hezekiah can.

So, what’s this story about, how do we make sense of it as a glimpse of more resurrection?

There is a parallel between the health of Judah and the health of the king. Jerusalem is set to be devoured by its enemies. And King Hezekiah is set to be devoured by death. But they pray and are delivered. That happens sometimes. We pray and answers come. I’ve spoken with more than one of you who struggled with alcoholism and prayed and suddenly were delivered. Haven’t touched it since. When that happens, give thanks, it’s life from the dead. Most of us need more help and time than that. A relative of mine had a sick child facing death. And he suddenly recovered. Doctors couldn’t explain it. He called me up, ‘hey, uh, I don’t believe in God, but I think I just experienced a miracle. Is this what faith feels like? I can’t stop saying thank you.’ Yes, this is what faith is exactly like. Can’t explain, all you can do is say thank you.

In the movie 127 Hours a rock climber is trapped with a boulder on his arm for more than five days. He manages to cut his arm off with a pocketknife. And when he’s done, he steps back, armless, and says, “thank you.” Who are you talking to?

Someone wise said life is the only miracle there is. After being alive, any other miracle is nothing. And it’s not surprising King Hezekiah gets 15 more years, gets the sun to run backwards. It’s God who’s in charge of health, of the sun and stars. If God gives out more health, more daylight, we have no authority to object. All we can do is say thank you.

The problem of course is when none of this happens. Folks pray and death still comes, pain gets worse, the thirst for alcohol gets stronger. Lots of stories of lost faith start out about illness, long prayers, no answer, and premature death. When we hear stories like Hezekiah’s it can sound like ‘hey, pray hard enough and you’ll get what you want. Oh, you didn’t? Sorry, guess you didn’t believe enough, did you? It’s your fault.’ No, we’re all dying, most sooner than we’d like. As the great Canadian writer Kate Bowler says, there is no cure for being human. So, we should be nothing but gratitude. Don’t you bet that one-armed climber enjoyed his breakfast the next morning, eating with his left hand? Thank you should be always on our lips. Everything is a gift.

The Bible nowhere teaches that if your prayer isn’t answered it’s your fault. Remember the 10 northern tribes just vanished from existence, dashed into smithereens. Ever since there have been efforts to find these lost tribes—the Mormons think they’re in New York or Utah, various Anglophiles say England. Israel has discovered Jews in Ethiopia and Yemen with very different practice, invited them into Israeli life. But no, the twelve tribes are gone. When a people are conquered, they’re enslaved, executed, cease to exist as a distinct entity. That just happened, despite all Israel’s prayers. Here in Judah, Hezekiah’s prayer is answered, and Jerusalem is delivered, the king returned to health. But not long after Jerusalem is destroyed. Its last king sees his four sons executed and then is blinded, taken as a mutilated beggar to Babylon. And the Babylonians destroy the temple. Judah loses its king, temple, land, and so basically all of God’s promises. Most of the time—prayer isn’t answered the way we want.

Jesus Christ, right before his arrest, prays in the Garden of Gethsemane that this cup might pass from him. Please God I don’t want to do this. God’s answer? No. You must. If Jesus’ prayer at his worst hour is refused, do we think we’ll always get what we want in prayer? Or in life?

In exile, the Jews do not vanish. They struggle. The psalms record their struggles.

By the rivers of Babylon—
   there we sat down, and there we wept
   when we remembered Zion.
On the willows there
   we hung up our harps.
For there our captors
   asked us for songs,
   and our tormentors asked for mirth, saying,
  “Sing us one of the songs of Zion!”
4 How could we sing the 
Lord’s song
   in a foreign land?

They don’t just miss home. They miss God. But they do learn to sing the Lord’s song in a foreign land. They started gathering in groups for prayer with no temple. That’s the origin of the synagogue today. Lots of Israel’s scripture is written down for the first time in exile. No exile, no Bible. Some say Israel in exile is the best vision we have for life in the church now. We have no land of our own, no human king, no army, just each other and prayer and God. Exile doesn’t destroy Israel. It makes Israel. Babylon thought she was devouring Judah. You ever met a Babylonian? Me neither. We got synagogues all in our neighbourhood, Jewish people in our lives, families. Life from death. Resurrection.

The cup does not pass from Jesus, he chokes it down. And all these prayers in Israel for deliverance sound different now.

18 Sheol cannot thank you,
     death cannot praise you;
     those who go down to the Pit cannot hope
     for your faithfulness.
19 The living, the living, they thank you,
     as I do this day;
Jesus raids Sheol. Kills death. Empties out the pit. Turns the grave from a place of dread to a site of triumph. If you go to hell now, the sign above the door says, “ruled by Jesus Christ.” There’s not a lock secured in the place. When Jesus prays, God you like being praised, and I like being alive, let’s trade, his resurrection delivers all of us from death. You think it’s hard to believe Jesus is raised? What are you gonna say when you are? When all creation is raised?

And so what? What’s the payoff of whether we believe in the coming resurrection of the body or not? We liberals don’t kick people out of churches or say you’re not really a Christian if you don’t sign up to every line. So, what’s the difference?

A friend of mine pastored in a neighbourhood slotted for gentrification. That is, the historic black neighbourhood in that southern mill town was going to be bulldozed, residents expelled, gleaming new condos going in. As another black pastor friend says when Starbucks goes in, that’s not for you. That’s for the people coming. They weren’t doing it illegally—they just raised property taxes so high the historically poor owners couldn’t pay, but a developer could. The Chamber of commerce was pleased: a blighted eyesore was now suitable for the brochure. And my friend preached this as a denial of the resurrection of the body. What it means to have a body is to be fed, housed, loved. Razing homes and displacing people are signs of death. When the gospel of John describes Jesus’ incarnation, it says that “the Word became flesh and dwelt among us.” Here’s a more contemporary translation: “the word became flesh and moved into the neighbourhood.” Do we have any housing issues here in Toronto? Just asking.

I imagine the resurrection of the body best from watching movies. Sally Field’s Places in the Heart is about a murder in a small Texas town a century ago—a black kid accidentally kills a white farmer, is lynched for it, quite common in US history. In the film’s last scene, they’re all in church, it’s communion, the plate passes from hand to hand, and suddenly there’s the murdered young man, and there’s the accidentally killed farmer, sharing grace, in a church full of lynchers. The resurrection works beyond what’s “possible.” Jump forward a generation to Titanic, Canadian filmmaker James Cameron. He says he invented a love story so Hollywood would pay for him to see the boat in a submersible. In its last scene all the dead are back in a restored ship—characters we last saw dying—the captain, the crew, the passengers, even Leo DiCaprio’s Jack. They all applaud the couple in love. It’s like the close of a play—don’t worry, all the actors who died on stage are fine, it’s just a story. But it’s also a glimpse of something unimaginable, the resurrection of the body, the boat even! I don’t remember seeing the villains at the end. We could have a debate about that interesting omission.

Jesus Christ is raised from the dead. He’s promising more resurrection. So much more it’s beyond our imagining. Every injury healed. Every atom made new. I know it’s hard to believe. Who in their right mind would believe it? But God gave us life in the first place. And that life returns so we can begin our praise anew. Amen.