Wisdom 3:1-9 November 1st 2015
The Souls of the Righteous are in the Hand of God
Today on All Saints’ Day we’ve come together to remember with thanksgiving our loved ones who have died. We might feel a little awkward about the idea that the ones we knew and loved so well are remembered today with the ‘saints’; we loved them, of course, and we know they were good people, but ‘saints’? Isn’t that stretching it a bit?
No, it’s not. In the Bible the word ‘saint’ is related to words like ‘holy’ and it simply means ‘someone or something that belongs to God’. In the Book of Revelation the living creatures before the throne of God sing a song of praise to Christ the Lamb, and in it they say,
‘You are worthy to take the scroll and to open its seals,
For you were slaughtered and by your blood you ransomed for God
Saints from every tribe and language and people and nation;
You have made them to be a kingdom
and priests serving our God
and they will reign on earth’ (Revelation 5:9-10).
In other words, by dying for us Jesus has purchased us for God at the price of his own blood, and so he has made us his saints. Some of us are better saints than others, but we all belong to God. And on this day, we are thinking especially about the saints we knew, the ordinary people we loved, who have died and gone before us.
Ever since we began this annual service at St. Margaret’s back in 2009 I have been amazed by the response to it, and by the number of people who choose to bring a carnation forward in memory of a loved one and to offer their name in remembrance and prayer. Obviously many of us have been touched by the sobering reality of death, and so it’s good for us today to pause for a few minutes, lift our loved ones up in prayer, and think about our Christian hope.
In our Anglican funeral service, when I stand at a graveside, I say these words: ‘In sure and certain hope of the resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ, we commend to almighty God our sister or brother’. I like that phrase, ‘In sure and certain hope’. The word ‘hope’ has a different meaning in the Bible than it does in popular culture today. If I were to say to you, “I hope it doesn’t get too cold during the night tonight”, you’d know exactly what I meant: “It would be nice if this happened, but it might not”. In other words, there’s no certainty about this kind of hope; we’re expressing a wish about the future, but we know our wishes don’t always come true.
But when the Bible uses the word ‘hope’, it’s talking about something different. ‘Christian hope’, in the Bible, means the future that God has promised, for the world and for us as individuals. We look around us now and see a world in which bad things happen to good people, in which people are oppressed and exploited and in which they die of deadly diseases. But the Bible promises us that things are not always going to be this way.
This is especially relevant for us in this service today. In many cases, our loved ones suffered a lot before they died, and as we get older and we approach our own death, many of us are going to suffer too. Is that the end of the story? Does human life inevitably end in pain and suffering, with no relief except extinction? Or is there a better hope, a better future, something that God has promised and that we can look forward to?
Our first reading, from the Book of Wisdom, examines these questions. As an aside, I need to say a couple of quick words about the Book of Wisdom. Some of you may notice, if you go home and look in the table of contents in your Bible, that this book doesn’t appear there. That’s because this book comes in a collection called ‘the Apocrypha’ – our Roman Catholic friends call it the ‘Deutero-canonical books’ – and not all Bibles contain them.
The process by which the books in what we now call ‘the Old Testament’ were recognized as authoritative scripture is a little obscure to historians. We know that Jewish people today recognize a canon of Scripture identical with our current Old Testament. But we also know that when the Hebrew scriptures were translated into Greek about a century before Christ, some additional books were included. There has always been a disagreement in the church about the status of these books. Catholics and Orthodox accept them as fully scriptural and include them in the Old Testament. Protestants don’t accept them as scriptural at all. The Anglican Church tends to like to hedge its bets, and so we include them in our readings from time to time, but we don’t see them as being on the same level as the rest of the Old Testament, and if there’s a doctrine that’s only taught in the Apocrypha and not in the rest of the Bible, we don’t feel obliged to accept it.
Nonetheless, these books contain a lot of wisdom and inspiration and personally I quite enjoy reading them. And this passage today from Wisdom is a well-loved one that is often used at funerals. It deals with the questions that we all ask: where are our loved ones now? Is there some sort of future for them? Will we see them again?
First, then, where are our loved ones now? They were alive with us, and now – in some cases, quite suddenly - they’re gone. It’s natural for us to ask, “When the body dies, what happens to the true self, to the true human being? Is it actually possible for me to survive the death of my brain? How does that work?”
The Bible of course doesn’t answer the question of how it works, because the Bible is not a textbook of science. But the reading from Wisdom leaves us in no doubt that death is not the end for us. Listen again to these words:
‘But the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God,
and no torment will ever touch them.
In the eyes of the foolish they seemed to have died,
and their departure was thought to be a disaster,
and their going from us to be their destruction;
but they are at peace’. (Wisdom 3:1-3).
Note that the text doesn’t answer questions of detail: “Where are they? How is it possible for them to have survived death?” When the Bible talks about the life of the world to come it uses many different kinds of symbolism, and we’d be wise not to push the symbols too far, because if we do, the details sometimes collide with each other. This text simply gives us three powerful and connected truths: one, the souls of the righteous are in the hand of God; two, they are safe, and three, they are at peace.
Think of that for a moment, in terms of our loved ones who have gone before us. The text says: ‘They are safe’. Maybe, in some cases, the years before they died were not easy ones for them. Maybe they had to deal with the increasing frailty of their bodies as they got older. Or maybe they died early, after an unexpected disease or an accident or tragedy of some kind. But now, says Wisdom, ‘no torment will ever touch them’, because ‘they are in the hand of God’. Certainly our loved ones are in no danger in the hands of God! As the Book of Revelation, puts it, ‘(God) will wipe away every tear from their eyes…mourning and crying and pain will be no more’ (Revelation 21:4).
Wisdom says that our loved ones are ‘in the hand of God’, and that is the safest place in the entire universe. It goes on to say that they are ‘at peace’; there is no more worry, no more anxiety, no more struggle and pain and suffering. This reminds me of the way the New Testament talks about death. In the New Testament, Christians who have died are said to have ‘fallen asleep’. I don’t know about you, but some days I really look forward to that sleep! When I was a teenager I had no problem sleeping ‘til noon on Saturdays, but these days I’m lucky to get three or four hours of unbroken sleep at night before I wake up and toss and turn for a while, and I often get up in the morning still feeling tired. Yes, I have to say that when people ask me what I’m looking forward to about life after death, I often say, “Well, I’m going to start with a few years of good solid sleep!”
So where are our loved ones now? Wisdom tells us that they are safe in the hand of God, and they are at peace. But it also goes on to say that there is a future for them, and perhaps that future is a little different from many popular ideas about ‘dying and going to heaven’. Listen again to verses 7-8:
‘In the time of their visitation they will shine forth,
and will run like sparks through the stubble.
They will govern nations and rule over peoples,
and the Lord will reign over them forever’.
A moment ago we talked about our loved ones being at peace in the hand of God, but these verses don’t sound very peaceful, do they? Governing nations and ruling over peoples sounds like a lot of work, and anyway, are there going to be nations and ‘peoples’ in heaven? What’s this all about?
The reason it sounds strange to us is that the author of the Book of Wisdom - like Jesus and his apostles - didn’t think that people who die ‘go away to a better place’ forever. He had a two-stage view of the life to come. He thought that at the moment, in the first stage, the souls of the righteous are safe in the hands of God, but he also thought that God has an exciting future for them in the second stage.
What is this second stage? Well, like most Jewish people in his time, Jesus believed in the coming of the kingdom of God and in the resurrection of the body. He did not believe that the purpose of life was to escape this world. He did not believe that God is going to abandon this poor suffering world and focus all his attention on a few people who have gone to ‘a better place’. No – God has a bigger plan than that.
At the moment, when we look around, we see war and injustice, poverty and disease and natural disaster and so on. But this was not God’s original plan when he created the world, and it isn’t going to be the last word. No – Jesus came to tell us that ‘the kingdom of God is at hand’ – in other words, that God is going to extend his loving rule over the whole earth and make it whole again. And when that day comes, God will raise the souls of the righteous from the dead, just as he raised Jesus from the dead, and we will finally enjoy this world as God intended when he created it at the beginning. What a day that will be!
This is hard for us to understand because it isn’t a very common idea about life after death these days. But listen to these words of Jesus himself:
“This is indeed the will of my Father, that all who see the Son and believe in him may have eternal life, and I will raise them up on the last day… No one can come to me unless drawn by the Father who sent me; and I will raise that person up on the last day” (John 6:40, 44).
And remember also his words to Martha at the grave of her brother Lazarus:
“I am the resurrection and the life. Those who believe in me, even though they die, will live…” (John 12:25).
So there is indeed a future for our loved ones, and for us too! In the words of Wisdom: “In the time of their visitation they will shine forth, and will run like sparks through the stubble” (3:7). This is what the old Anglican Book of Common Prayer refers to as the ‘sure and certain hope of the Resurrection to eternal life through our Lord Jesus Christ; who shall change our mortal body, that it might be like unto his glorious body’. It is this sure and certain hope that gives me strength when I think about my own death.
Of course, the biblical writers use a lot of symbolism to describe that future resurrection, and we can’t take all of it literally, because some of the symbols contradict each other. Will there literally be thrones and nations in God’s future world, with the saints of God ruling over them? I have no idea. But I do know that God’s future world will be a glorious experience for all who participate in it, and I suspect that there are no words or images in any human language adequate to describe that glory.
So today, as we gather to give thanks for our loved ones who have gone before us, it’s natural that we should grieve for them, and it’s a necessary part of our healing. But St. Paul tells us in one of his letters that there is no need for us to ‘grieve as if we had no hope’. Our grief has a different character when we know and believe that our parting from our loved ones is only temporary. So let’s take comfort in the promise of the Book of Wisdom, that those who have died in the peace of Christ are safe in the hands of God, where no more suffering can touch them. But let’s also look forward to the day when God will finally heal and renew his creation, and when Jesus will raise his people from the dead. On that day we will indeed see our loved ones again, and we will share in a glorious future with them. And as C.S. Lewis writes, on that day we will realise that all that we have experienced so far is simply the first chapter of the great story of our life, the story God is writing, the story in which every chapter is better than the one that came before it!