Have you ever wondered about the human capacity for endurance? I’ve always marveled at the various ways people can endure disasters and hardships: veterans enduring war, typhoon or hurricane survivors enduring homelessness, lack of food and water, being surrounded by death and disease, victims of domestic and sexual violence enduring their assaults, and finding ways to triumph over them. It’s almost like humanity was built for endurance and recovery.
I was read an article about human evolution once, about how we came to possess a brain that is comparatively larger in proportion to our bodies than any other animal on earth. Scientists believe that we developed a more upright posture so that we could pursue other animals for food. In fact, our ability to run long distances without getting tired is almost unmatched in the animal kingdom: certain animals can run faster than humans, for short distances, but few animals can match our ability to run 10, 20, even 30 miles at a clip.
As humans became more successful at enduring long distances in the pursuit of food, the extra calories that came as a reward were employed by the body to grow bigger brains.
It didn’t happen overnight, but the key components in our genetic make-up were already there.
When someone we know has heart surgery, by-pass surgery or valve replacement surgery, what is the most striking thing that doctors make them do just a few hours out of recovery? They have to walk around the unit. Their first faltering steps outside their room are just the beginning of a regimen designed to strengthen their heart and lungs. Because just hours after traumatic surgery to the heart and lungs, the human body is ready to build its endurance. You’ve probably heard the stories: first just a few steps, then once around the unit. Then several times around the unit, and by discharge time, maybe 10 minutes of walking.
Rehab consists of more aerobic activities that will strengthen the heart, because every fiber of our being is designed to improve when challenged: we are designed and programmed to excel at endurance.
Without one scientific article to refer to, Jesus understood that both literally and figuratively, we have been built to endure. Without anthropologists, without cardiologists, without psychiatrists or psychologists, Jesus knew that by our endurance we will gain our souls. That’s just a fancy way of saying that triumphing over our challenges helps us grow.
Biologically, we are programmed to heal. Psychologically, we are programmed to learn from our mistakes and grow from our failures. Spiritually, we have been given a resilience and a tenacity that makes new beginnings in the face of disaster a daily possibility.
Just think for a moment what each of us has survived in our lives, what we have endured. Health crises, the loss of loved ones, loss of jobs, financial disasters, we are a gathering of survivors. Our genetic predisposition gives us a head start, but we also have something many others do not: our faith. The faith that God walks with us when we are in the valleys of the shadow of death, that we will come through our most challenging times perhaps scarred, but not defeated.
With our faith, Jesus said, we can endure anything. With our faith, we don’t have to be afraid of anything.
Both our Hebrew Scripture and our Gospel Lesson make reference to what scholars call ‘The End Times’. A time when the end of the world is at hand, and Jesus is ready to return. The reward for enduring what Jesus described, the wars, the insurrections, the famines, the plagues, the persecution for our faith, is our very souls. Our reward described by Isaiah is a time when humanity prospers in peace, when life will be so good, when no one will remember the hard times.
Isaiah’s vision is compelling, nearly impossible to comprehend, especially in this day and age, when our world more closely resembles what Jesus described. But while Isaiah described the world that God will create, Jesus actually gives us some ideas about how to bring Isaiah’s vision to reality: The challenges put before us in our lives give us opportunities to testify about our faith.
The ways in which we endure the disasters of our lives, the ways in which we triumph over our losses give us opportunities to live out our faith. Jesus said to testify, but we don’t actually have to say anything, do we? We already know the people in our lives who are testifying about their faith by living their lives in the face of impossibly sad challenges. Some of us are testifying this very day, by bravely living our lives in the face of pain and loss. Some of us are testifying about our faith by simply getting up this morning and coming to church!
By our endurance, we will gain our souls.
By taking our first step after surgery, by refusing to let someone else define who we are, by owning our mistakes and learning from them, by mourning the loss of our loved ones, but living in spite of our losses, we will gain our souls.
God is going to create a new heaven and a new earth. But before that happens, we are going to be challenged to the very core of our faith. How we respond to those challenges will be our testimony. How we respond to the challenges of our lives is how we testify about our faith. And we don’t have to say a word.
The human capacity to develop endurance is a gift. It’s in our DNA. It flows through our veins. Each of us can develop endurance, no matter what level of fitness we might be in now. And I mean that physically as much as I do emotionally and spiritually.
We don’t have to be marathon runners to improve our endurance levels. It only takes a few steps each day, and in time, we can go from being out of breath after 2 steps, to walking for hours without a break. We don’t have to be Olympic athletes to have endurance, we only need to be faithful children of God, living our lives faithfully with Isaiah’s vision as motivation.
Jesus will come again. The end times will come when God decides. But in the meantime, we must endure. In the meantime, we are called to testify in the face of our fears, in triumph over our disappointments, and in spite of our losses.
What you endure might not be what I can endure. And what I endure might not be what you can endure. The details aren’t important. What is important is that we live our lives as God puts them before us, with faith and with gratitude. What is important is that we understand that the way we live our lives in the face of the world’s challenges is the way we testify about our faith.
Isaiah’s vision of the new heaven and the new earth is out there somewhere in the future. But before we get there, we’ll have to get through our Savior’s vision first. I thank God that we are so wonderfully made that we are designed to build endurance in the face of the world’s challenges, because I know that by our endurance, we will gain our very souls. Amen.
Our gospel lesson this morning tells of a time when a group of Sadducees approached Jesus with a question.
The Sadducees were a sect of Jewish believers that did not believe in the resurrection of the dead, or in the existence of individual spirits, and placed a large emphasis on their obligation to an oral tradition founded on the strict adherence to the written law found in the Torah: the first five books of the bible.
Because they are a subset of Jewish believers, they are often lumped together with the Pharisees, another Jewish sect, but their beliefs skew away from what we know as traditional Jewish thought.
However different their beliefs, at the very least, we know from this morning’s reading that they considered Jesus a teacher, and they found him both approachable and open to challenging questions. It should come as no surprise then, that they would ask him about one of their central tenets: the existence of the eternal life.
The questions is based on a basic social and religious custom from Moses that states that when a man’s brother dies, if that man is single, his obligation is to marry his brother’s widow, so that she and possibly his children, may be cared for.
They take this basic custom, and for the purposes of making their point, stretch it absurdly, asking Jesus that if seven brothers married the same woman, and they all died, to whom was she married in the resurrection?
So while the Sadducees were respectful in approaching Jesus as a teacher, asking their question in a respectful manner, (as opposed to some of the Pharisees, who were sometimes rude and derisive when asking their questions) the underlying intent is to trip Jesus up with what might be seen as a confusing and confounding example.
Jesus doesn’t fall for it.
He begins by explaining that marriage is an earthly and human institution, or covenant, and that the life ever-after, or the resurrection, transcends human institutions and covenants.
He adds that the faithful children of God experience a resurrection that transcends death. Jesus not only holds steadfast to the concept of resurrection, he likens their spirits to angels. A sharp poke at the Sadducees underlying beliefs.
But he doesn’t stop there. He takes their most revered religious figure, Moses, and places him at the center of his response: because Moses referred to the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob, Jesus implies that Moses himself understood God to be the God of the living; the living in this case being Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, in the resurrection.
For many, this whole exchange is both philosophically and theologically interesting, but for the children of God in today’s age, how might this scripture have meaning and relevance?
I personally find it a powerful concept that the life ever-after, the resurrection, transcends human conventions and institutions: it transcends any and all earthly covenants, and transcends death itself.
The resurrection transcends anything we can say or do, anything we can touch, or taste, or feel. It’s almost too big to understand: that our spirits, created by God to be unique and beautiful, transcend the physical and earthly rules, outlast the human bodies we’ve been given, and triumph over death.
Jesus has said it before: in the resurrection there is no marriage, no gender, no ethnicity.
What does this mean?
Well for me, it means I can take some spiritual risks knowing that God has my spiritual back! I can take a risk in forgiving someone who has hurt me, I can have compassion for someone who’s behavior is despicable, and is deserving of punishment. I can let go of any grudges against others, because their resurrection transcends my grudges, and renders them irrelevant and unnecessary.
For now, as God’s faithful children, our lives are focused on living in this age, in living faithfully and gratefully with the treasures and joys, the challenges and sorrows that come with life
In fact, maybe this idea of the resurrection transcending our earthly existence could help us appreciate some of the treasures we have in our midst, but often overlook!
Let me tell you a story by Robert van de Weyer, about a farmer, and two lazy children.
There was a farmer who was known to grow the finest gooseberries, blackcurrants and redcurrants in the whole village. He had three fields of fruit bushes, and every day he walked around the bushes with a hoe, taking out any weeds that were growing, so that the bushes had all the goodness of the soil to themselves. By the middle of each summer, they were heavy with large, juicy fruit.
Sadly, he was not as good at raising children as he was at raising fruit. His two children were known as the laziest young people in the village. They spent all day eating and drinking and chatting with friends; they never lifted a finger to help their father. As the years past, the farmer became increasingly anxious about his children’s laziness. ‘When I’m dead and gone’ he would say to his neighbors, ‘all my fruit bushes will become overgrown with weeds, and my children will starve’.
Living a short distance from the village in a small hut was a hermit, renowned for his wily wisdom. The farmer decided to visit this hermit to ask for advice. After hearing the farmer’s story, the hermit sat for a few moments in silence, stroking his long beard. At last, the hermit rose up, patted the farmer on the shoulder, and assured him that he would teach the two lazy children to work. Then the hermit left his hut and went to see the two young adults.
‘I have something important to tell you,’ he said to them. ‘I happen to know that in those fields of fruit bushes there is a great treasure. It will be enough to feed and clothe you for the rest of your lives.’
It was now September. From then until Christmas, the two siblings went out into the fields each day, searching for treasure. They dug around every fruit bush, turning over the earth, in the hope of finding a chest full of gold. But by Christmas Eve they had found nothing. So they went to the hermit’s hut and accused him of deceiving them.
‘I haven’t deceived you’, the hermit replied with grin. ‘You must keep searching. I promise that by next September you have found the treasure.’
The siblings refused to believe him.
‘Very well, then,’ the hermit continued, ‘I will make a bargain with you. If by September you have not found enough treasure to buy food and clothing for you for the rest of your lives, I will share whatever I receive with you. But if you do find the treasure, you must share it with the poor in this village’.
The two agreed. So they continued to dig the fields, turning over the earth between the fruit bushes. The farmer watched with great satisfaction, pleased that while his young adult children searched for treasure, no weeds would grow. Thus, by the middle of summer, the bushes were again heavy with large and juicy fruit. The hermit came to the fields to see the two siblings.
‘Ah,’ he exclaimed, looking at the fruit bushes, ‘I see you have found your treasure.’
At first, they could not imagine what he meant. Then it finally dawned on them. Over the next few weeks, the hermit helped them to pick the treasure. Half they sold in the market, and the other half they gave to the poor.
And from then on, the two children of the farmer continued to work hard in the fields. Each year, they again sold half the crop and gave away the rest. And, as the hermit had predicted, the money they received was quite sufficient to feed and clothe them for the rest of their lives.
In this age, in this time and in this place, we are surrounded by treasure. We just don’t see it. Sometimes, in our frantic digging for treasure, we catch a glimpse of the treasure God has placed in our midst.
As bountiful and as beautiful as that treasure may be, it is the treasure of the resurrection, the life hear-after, that transcends even the largest bounty here on earth.
For our faithfulness, that resurrection is promised. For our love of God, that resurrection is promised. For our journey of forgiving, and loving our neighbor, that resurrection is promised. For our compassion for those in pain or sorrow, who make bad decisions, or have been victims of trauma, that resurrection is promised.
Living faithfully means spending our days digging for treasure, and sharing our bounty when we harvest it.
But let us not forget that when the time of resurrection comes, it will transcend everything that we could possibly know on earth, it will even transcend our own death.
The unique and individual spirit given to each of us by our God at our creation, will outlast and outlive our earthly existence, will transcend everything we could possibly know here on earth. A holy treasure.
In the week to come, let us find some ways to appreciate the treasures in our midst, and it that appreciation, let us consider how even more powerful the treasure of the promised resurrection can be.