Fiddling while Rome burns
Luke 20: 27 - 38
27 Some of the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus with a question. 28 ‘Teacher,’ they said, ‘Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. 29 Now there were seven brothers. The first one married a woman and died childless. 30 The second 31 and then the third married her, and in the same way the seven died, leaving no children. 32 Finally, the woman died too. 33 Now then, at the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?’
34 Jesus replied, ‘The people of this age marry and are given in marriage.35 But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, 36 and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection. 37 But in the account of the burning bush, even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord “the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob”.[b] 38 He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.’
39 Some of the teachers of the law responded, ‘Well said, teacher!’ 40 And no one dared to ask him any more questions.
‘Fiddling while Rome burns!’ The story goes that a fire broke out in Rome under the reign of Nero and instead of taking action to stop the fire, Nero played his lyre and composed a song about the destruction. Seems hilarious but then we so often love to do it as well, not writing songs about destruction perhaps but ignoring reality by doing something else.
Focusing on the little stuff because that is all we can cope with as the big stuff is just too big. It is the kind of watering the pots in the garden while the house burns down behind us moment. And sometimes these things are ok, because they help us to cope. Tidying the house after a tragic death is a way to bring some order to the disorder that we feel. However, when tidying the house is about pretending that all is well, about avoiding the truth, about ignoring reality, then we are as a people asleep, a people without hope, a people living a lie.
And this is what the Sadducees were about, they were a bunch of wealthy, upper middle class people who held the reins of religious and financial power. The synagogue on the other hand was the ordinary person movement of its day, often no more than an open square, a place under a tree, or a simple rectangular building. The synagogue was about you and me, which is why Jesus was often there. The Sadducees would no more be found in such a place than a rabbit be found on the moon. For the Sadducees ruled the temple, dominated the religious economic environment, emphasised that now is what matters so grab it while you can because there is no tomorrow. And here they were, facing disaster, Roman power absolute, terrorists on every corner, a weak puppet king and their power about to come crashing down, so they distracted themselves with idle curiosities and foolish controversies.
How like the situations of our world today, a world that since 1991 has pumped out more Carbon Dioxide than the rest of human history put together. A world that is facing the abyss but talks as though we will be here for the next 1000 years, a world focusing on the lesser because the greater is just too big, too hard, too scary.
I wonder if the church falls into the same trap?
It cost £10.9 million, the permanent display of the hidden treasures of Durham Cathedral, a display to chart the history of Christianity in the North East. Isn’t it funny that Jesus, the one who began this love centred revolution said ‘don’t store up for yourself treasures on earth where moth and rust destroy but build up treasures in heaven.’ And yes, the exhibition might be lovely but do you know what the true treasures of the church of Jesus are? Not old coffins, gold crosses, and ruby centre pieces, echoes of the muddled priorities of an earlier church, but you, each one of you, you are the diamonds and the rubies, you are the gold and the silver, you are the beautifully worked pieces that take my breath away, you. Yet somehow a nice fixed display of inanimate objects is easier to deal with, easier to handle, and ok it won’t set the world on fire but it is so much easier than loving each other, so much easier to fiddle while Rome burns.
Job is the oldest book in the Bible, a story to teach truth, an ancient story that predates everything else, a story in which everything is stripped from Job, everything. I mean he lost his house, his possessions, the people he loved, the wealth and position that affirmed him, even his health was broken. He had to put up with the kind of nonsense advice all too common when something bad happens. ‘It must have been something you did’, that kind of advice, ‘what goes around comes around’, that kind of faux wisdom, for the truth is much more prosaic, bad stuff happens to good people but good people are wise enough to stand firm anyway.
“I know that my redeemer[c] lives, and that in the end he will stand on the earth.[d] 26 And after my skin has been destroyed, yet[e] in[f] my flesh I will see God; 27 I myself will see him with my own eyes – I, and not another. How my heart yearns within me!
Says Job as he wrestles with the pain of his loss and his despair, “I will see God.” And here is a man surrounded by the meaningless arguments of false friends, friends fiddling while Rome burns, seeking to blame the poor guy for the calamity that has come upon him. “Curse God and die!” shrieks his embittered wife, but Job chooses another way, a way of wisdom, a way that cuts right through the distractions of words, the false comfort of other ways of looking at this, and instead declares that ‘I know that my redeemer lives’. My redeemer - the one who has bought me back from the snares of death that entangled me, the one for whom my heart yearns, the one who reaches for me, the one in whom I trust. And make no mistake this trust is never about circumstances, but it shapes our response to those circumstances.
For this is the danger with which the Sadducees were flirting, the danger with which the institution of church flirts today, a danger that can lead to disillusionment and despair. Fiddling with the trivial, claiming that belief that God is about keeping us comfortable, keeping us with treasures to count, keeping us warm, keeping us safe all in the terms of the world. And it is a lie, a lie that is peddled by many, because it is easier to play at the edges of truth than dive into the centre.
‘God wants you to be this, or that, to have this or that, to do this or that. No! God wants us to stand amidst the ruins and know hope, to gaze upon the destruction of the cross and see resurrection, to look to that with which we wrestle and find God wrestling with us. To build our faith on the foundation of reality, not the fruitless controversies that do nothing and go nowhere, but the deep truth of peace amidst turmoil and hope in despair.
. ‘13 But we ought always to thank God for you, brothers and sisters loved by the Lord, because God chose you as firstfruits[b] to be saved through the sanctifying work of the Spirit and through belief in the truth. 14 He called you to this through our gospel, that you might share in the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.
15 So then, brothers and sisters, stand firm and hold fast to the teachings[c] we passed on to you, whether by word of mouth or by letter.’ So wrote Paul to the church in Thessalonica.
And what where those teachings? Oh yes ‘by this all people will know you are my disciples because you spend millions on exhibitions, oops I mean ‘because you love one another’, nothing about fiddling while Rome burns there then! Amen.