In My Flesh Shall I See God

Rev. David Bast Uncategorized

READ : Job 19:25-27
1 Corinthians 15

Our ultimate hope is to live, body and soul together, in the presence of the Lord. Christ has shown us the way. He is the first-fruits.

One of the brightest testimonies to the believer’s hope is found in one of the darkest places in all the Bible. The words I’m thinking of, spoken by Job in the depths of his suffering, have been made familiar to millions by their inclusion in George Frederick Handel’s great oratorio, Messiah. Just after the tremendous, glorious, crashing conclusion of the Hallelujah Chorus — “He shall reign forever and ever, King of kings, and Lord of lords, forever and ever and ever, Hallelujah! Hallelujah! Hallelujah!” — a soprano soloist then gets up to sing. The Hallelujah Chorus expresses the church’s conviction using words from the book of Revelation. The soprano aria that comes next sings of the individual believer’s hope and expectation, with a quiet confidence made all the more impressive by its source in the Old Testament book of Job. The text that Handel uses is from Job 19, verses 25 and 26.

I know that my Redeemer liveth,and that he shall stand at the latter day upon the earth. And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God.

Job 19:25-26, KJV

When Job speaks these words he is broken both in body and spirit. He has lost his possessions, his family, his reputation, his friends and his health. Worst of all, his faith in the goodness and justice and love of God has been severely shaken. Yet from the depths of his suffering, with his supposed comforters’ criticism ringing in his ears, Job doggedly clings to his hope of vindication. Somehow, beyond all expectation, beyond even death and the dissolution of his mortal remains, Job believes that he will see God. He will see God in his own flesh and God will redeem him, heal his hurts, and answer his questions. God will vindicate his trust. God will reward his loyalty.

How can this be? Job doesn’t tell us because Job doesn’t really know how it can be. The answer to that question had to wait for the coming of another Man of Sorrows, another who was much-acquainted with grief and suffering, but who, in dying and rising, triumphed over sin, death, and evil. And so Handel adds a second text to his beautiful aria, this one from the New Testament. How can I know that “my Redeemer liveth,” and that I, in my flesh, shall see God one day? Because, as the apostle Paul wrote in 1 Corinthians 15:20, “now is Christ risen from the dead, and become the firstfruits of them that sleep.”

I believe in the resurrection of the body. That is my hope for the future. Not just that my soul will survive the death of my body; not just that I will go to heaven to be with the Lord when I die, though I do believe both those things. But that’s not my ultimate hope. My ultimate hope is to live, body and soul together, in the presence of the Lord. Christ my Savior has shown me the way. He is the first-fruits. As I follow him in life and through death, so one day I will rise with him, physically and gloriously. And though worms destroy this body, yet in my flesh shall I see God. This is my hope and this is the Christian hope as we confess in the words of the Apostles’ Creed, “I believe in the resurrection of the body.”

A Sign of Hope

I’ve been to a lot of funerals in my life, hundreds of them, many of which as a pastor I have conducted, but none was as haunting as the one I went to on a warm and sunny spring day, now some twenty years ago. For one thing, there wasn’t just one individual body. A whole group of people were being buried; actually, reburied that day. And I didn’t know a single one of them; in fact, no one who was present did.

I was the pastor of the First Reformed Church of South Holland, Illinois, a middle-class suburb 20 miles or so south of Chicago. In the late 1840s the first Dutch immigrants to the area had formed two communities: South Holland, and ten miles to the north, Roseland, which eventually became part of the city of Chicago. Each of those two communities had an original congregation, a First Reformed Church. But over the years many changes had come, and by the early 1970s, when almost all their people had left the city, the First Reformed Church of Roseland had relocated to South Holland after selling their majestic old building to another congregation. Then one day the city of Chicago decided to dig up the street alongside the old First Roseland for a new sewer line. What nobody realized was that the new line ran through what a hundred years before had been the church’s graveyard. When the workers hit a row of 19th-century coffins they stopped digging, and then, proceeding carefully, they brought up what they found: the bones of five children and three adults.

The question arose of what to do with the remains. Rather than leave the problem to the city, the church stepped forward to take care of its own, and because our congregation owned a cemetery that was still operating, the one First Church called on the other, sister asking sister for help. So that’s how I found myself standing on that sunny afternoon in our cemetery in front of the open grave that we had donated. We were a small group, six gray-haired elders serving as pall-bearers, a dozen others, mostly women, a couple of ministers. It was a funeral like funerals of long ago, stripped to the bare essentials. No painted corpses resting on satin pillows in glossy caskets, no soft lighting in a funeral home’s imitation living room, no organ music playing in the background. Just a plain wooden box of decay and corruption poised over a hole in the ground. Who were those people whose bones we buried that day? What had their lives been like? How did they die? Nobody knew.

And yet we did know, not their identities, not their names, but we did know who they were. You see, they were members of our family. They were our brothers and sisters. They were covenant folk, laid in the earth by families who, just like us, confessed that their help was in the name of the Lord and that all things come to us not by chance but by his fatherly hand. They were part of the communion of saints, the fellowship of the church, the fellowship that extends backward in time as well as outward throughout the world. And so we buried their bones again, not because they needed it, not so their spirits could rest easy, for they all, we believe, had long since entered the presence of the Lord. These sisters and brothers were now, in John Bunyan’s beautiful phrase, beholding “the face of him whom to look upon is to live.” The dead in Christ have no needs that the Lord has not already satisfied. Nor did we act simply out of a sense of nostalgia or reverence for the past. No, we buried those long dead men, women, and children that day as a sign of hope, the way you sow a bare kernel in the ground, “perhaps of wheat or of some other grain.” This is how the apostle Paul explains the resurrection of the body.

But someone will ask, “How are the dead raised? With what kind of body do they come?” You foolish person! What you sow does not come to life unless it dies. And what you sow is not the body that is to be, but a bare kernel, perhaps of wheat or of some other grain. But God gives it a body as he has chosen, and to each kind of seed its own body. . . . So it is with the resurrection of the dead. What is sown is perishable; what is raised is imperishable. It is sown in dishonor; it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness; it is raised in power. It is sown a natural body; it is raised a spiritual body.

1 Corinthians 15:35-44

To many, the idea of the resurrection of the body seems ridiculous. That’s not just a modern prejudice; many in Paul’s day felt the same way. Don’t you Christians know what happens to dead bodies? How is God going to restore life to a body that has long since disappeared, turned to dust, been scattered into atoms? What are you going to look like in the resurrection? How old will you be? Will children who have died still be children? Will amputees get their limbs back? So many questions without any answers. And Paul’s “explanation” frankly isn’t a great deal of help. He uses the analogy of planting seeds, and he tells us that our new “spiritual” bodies will be deathless, glorious, powerful. But beyond that, we just don’t know. I’m not sure what a spiritual body even is, let alone what it will look like or feel like. But I’m going to find out one day; of that I am sure. God will keep his promise to me; this is my hope for the future.

As a young pastor I moved to a small agricultural community to serve my very first congregation. I remember how the farmers used to check the corn they had planted, before it broke the surface, to see if it was germinating. But mostly they just left it alone, confident that in due season, though the seed would disappear, a glorious new plant would spring up. There were no evident signs of growth or life in the kernels we re-sowed that day in South Holland, and what we put back into the ground seemed precious little for God to work with. But still we believe, and we look forward with hope. The day is coming when there will be a rich harvest of life, for we have already seen the Lord Jesus Christ, our first-fruits, risen from the dead. “I believe in the resurrection of the body.”