Monday, November 12, 2007

Gotcha… Not!

Gotcha… Not!
Luke 20:27-38
November 11, 2007
32nd Sunday in Ordinary Time

© 2007 by Christopher D. Drew

Sermon Focus: The Sadducees attempt to trap Jesus through their inquiry about a woman marrying each of seven brothers? At the resurrection, they ask, who will be the wife’s husband? The absurdity of the question is intended by the Sadducees to illustrate the absurdity of Jesus’ apparent belief in the resurrection. Jesus, however, neatly eviscerates the premise of their question. The age to come will not be characterized by the social or even the biological functions we attribute to our earthly, fallen, existence. The people of God, at the resurrection, will be immortal, like the angels, and have no need for institutions like marriage. Creation will be, transformed when the Kingdom of God comes.

Sermon Function: To illustrate how, in this season approaching Lent, our lives should be marked by the objective understanding that the world to come will be, in many ways, fundamentally different from what we understand now, and that the common characteristics of humanity, when perfected by God, will also be transformed in ways we cannot completely understand. Once this is known, it makes it much easier to see how this-worldly our society is, and how it will, in the divine plan, be overturned by God.

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Our busy life at the church continues. Our worship team met to begin the formal preparations for Advent, which is just three Sunday’s away. We also continue to prepare for the coming year, and the financial and non-financial demands that we face as we continue our journey of faith together. This week is our pledge dedication Sunday, and during the offering you will be invited to share your pledge card for the year along with your offering for the day here at the table.

Speaking of the table, you probably notice that it is set this week. As a result of our successful class on the sacraments of the church, it was determined that it might be nice to have a more visible reminder of what our table is for, which is to celebrate the shared feast given to us by our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Each week in worship, we’ll be reminded of our baptisms when, at the beginning of each service, water is poured visibly and loudly into the font. And we’ll be reminded of the Lord’s Supper each week by the bread that sits in readiness on our banquet table.

We’ve also been in the midst of our annual stewardship sermon series. We’ve spoken about giving in the church. We talked about giving with a humble, confessional disposition, about giving generously in response to Jesus entering our lives unexpectedly, as happened to Zacchaeus in last week’s reading. This week, our topic is the resurrection. Many people might not connect the resurrection of the dead with our giving today, but there is a connection, and we’ll explore it together today.

We have been following Jesus’ path to Jerusalem through to his stopping to see Zacchaeus in Jericho, and now Jesus has reached the City of David – Jerusalem. Here in chapter twenty of Luke’s gospel, Jesus encounters several groups of people who attempt to trip him up with questions about the law. First, there’s the group that questions Jesus his authority. Jesus responds with a question, and asks them if John’s baptism was from heaven or from men. Realizing that they have stepped into a trap, they respond that they don’t know. Jesus said to them, “Neither will I tell you by what authority I am doing these things” (Luke 20:8 NRSV).

Luke then recounts Jesus telling the parable of the tenants. After that, he is questioned about paying taxes to Caesar. Jesus tells them to “Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor’s, and to God the things that are God’s” (Luke 20:25 NRSV).

They became silent after this second attempt at gotcha. But then there’s a third attempt to catch Jesus on a point of doctrine. And that’s our text for today.

[Read Scripture - Luke 20:27-38]

Opening Comments

After the attempt to get Jesus in trouble with the Roman authorities with the question about paying taxes to Caesar, Luke now recounts one additional attempt to play “gotcha” with Jesus. The Sadducees were one of the Jewish sects of some note at the time of our story. Other groups included the Pharisees and the Zealots, a party in which John the Baptizer might have been a member. As you can imagine, these different groups had varied interpretations of the complexities of the Jewish law, the Torah, the major potion of which was called the Pentateuch, that is, the first five books of the our bible: Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.

The Sadducees are a group that has a definitive view of the resurrection of the dead. When we talk about the doctrines of the church, we often throw language around without having a clear understanding of exactly what it is we’re referring to. People today have divergent views of resurrection. I once heard an extraordinary version of what happens when the body is raised from the dead to be reunited with the soul. The doctrine of the resurrection of the body, which we profess to believe each time we read the great creeds of the church, and a doctrine I completely believe, is next to impossible for us to understand. Accordingly, we try to come up with fanciful ways of describing exactly how the resurrection of the dead will be accomplished.

The fact of the matter is this: We cannot possibly ever understand the full nature of God, at least on this side of the cross, so how can we possibly understand the details of the resurrection, that great hope and promise we have from God that our embodied souls will one day be joined with all the heavenly host, singing and praising God forevermore.

I would suggest to you, in fact, that anyone who tells you he or she has the details of the resurrection of the body all worked out is not working from the same playbook as the rest of Christendom. The fact of the matter is this: We don’t know how it will happen, or when. We do know this: For God, nothing is impossible.

But we constantly try to reduce God and God’s works into terms we are familiar with. And that is exactly what is happening here. The Sadducees didn’t believe in the resurrection of the body. It’s wasn’t canonical for them, it didn’t fall into line with what Moses had taught, therefore it must not be real. You know that old joke, right? The reason they have the name Sadducee is because they don’t believe in the dead, which makes them sad, you see?

Translating Heaven Using Earthly Terms

But the Sadducees aren’t all that different from us. We like to have a carefully defined God that meets all of our expectations and needs. Same with Jesus and the Holy Spirit. The Trinity is a divine mystery, however, and not subject entirely to human reason. And that is precisely the point the just irritates the heck out of those people who view human reason as the ultimate arbiter of everything, including ethics and morals. But if we accept the fact that human beings are depraved, and that their tendency is, despite what they might “will,” that they will persist in sin, then I’m reluctant to join with those who think that, through the power of human reason, we can figure out life, the body, and the mystery of the universe.

But the Sadducees think they’ve figured out what the resurrection means, and so they think they’ve identified the perfect absurd example that will illustrate the absurdity of resurrection belief. They ask Jesus their question because they know, through means not fully disclosed to us in scripture that Jesus believes in the resurrection. They hope to put his belief to ridicule by using an example straight from the Mosaic Law, the Pentateuch, the Torah. They describe how a woman marries one of seven brothers. When the brother dies, leaving the widow childless, Hebrew law required that the man’s brother take the woman as his wife and have children with here, thereby keeping the family name alive in the nation of Israel.1 This happens until the woman has married all seven brothers. And then she dies.

The Sadducees, thinking they’ve clearly illustrated the absurdity of the resurrection, ask Jesus a pretty straightforward question: “In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her” (Luke 20:33 NRSV). They were probably proud at their cleverness, having taken this earthly estate of marriage to demonstrate how utterly ridiculous, how mind-numbingly stupid Jesus was for believing in the resurrection of the dead. Whatcha going to say to that, Jesus! Huh? We gotcha!

Surprise Surprise! God is Bigger than You Thought

And it is at this point we get a peak at just how amazing Jesus is. He could have gotten into the mix with the Sadducees and started a wide-ranging debate on the Torah and the example they provided. But he doesn’t do that. And what Jesus does is a model for all of us: He takes the Sadducees into much deeper spiritual territory than they probably expected. Jesus does this by neatly taking apart their argument.
Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. (Luke 20:34-36 NRSV)
In this age, with the preoccupations of our lives and the necessity of the biological perpetuation of the human race, things like marriage are commonplace. But Jesus then tells us that in “that” age, the age of the resurrection, the resurrection people with neither marry nor be given in marriage. The reason is very straightforward: Things in the resurrection won’t be as they are now.

And that is the terrific hope of the gospel, and the awesome gift of the Father in his Son Jesus Christ. It is in the resurrected Jesus that we ourselves are made dead to sin and to the ways of the world and made alive in the kingdom, inaugurated with the first coming of Jesus way back in Nazareth, and brought to fullness when God responds to our intercession for the Kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven. The resurrected people of God are like the angels of heaven, incorruptible and immortal. I’ve always wanted to see an angel, but I cannot imagine being like one. What must that be like? What will we be like? These are unimaginable things for us to consider, but this is the promise of the gospel of Jesus Christ.

What Jesus is saying to the Sadducees is that they need to think much bigger about God and about humanity, because humanity is made in the image of God. We ought to remember this, because the remnant of God’s image in us is what makes us precious and distinctive in all of God’s creation. Having been accorded the gift of being made in God’s very image, our response should be one of awe, wonder, gratitude, and repentance, because we oftentimes abuse that image, either by abusing our bodies with extensive and abusive habits, or by abusing others with our behavior.

We are destined for a redemption that exceeds our wildest expectations.

And the reason we have this Hope is that the God we worship is the God of salvation, the God who seeks us out when we screw it all up. He is the God of the living. As Jesus so aptly notes, “The fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive” (Luke 20:37-38 NRSV). In the Hebrew text of Exodus 3:6, where God discloses His name to Moses, God declares, very clearly, that he is the God of the Fathers of the Bible. God is a God of presence. There is a present-tenseness of God in all things and across all time. God’s time isn’t our own, and God’s redemption is nothing that we can logically determine or discover.

And if we sit for a moment, and reflect on this fact, that the eternal God of Presence, here right now with us as we worship Him, gave his Son Jesus to the world to illustrate how clearly he wants to be with us, to the point where he will resurrect those who are worthy from the dead, means that death itself is nothing to God, and that the transformative power of the Holy Spirit can transform you into a new, amazing creature beyond your wildest expectations.

For us, that means right now, right now, nothing should be as it was before. The old-self is dead and gone. The present newness of life in Christ is all that matters. And that objective fact should change how we live, how we relate, and how we exercise our dominion and stewardship over the gifts we have been given.

On this dedication Sunday, I implore you to remember that you are citizens of a resurrection kingdom, a kingdom of Grace and Love and Peace that transcends all our understanding, but nonetheless causes us to responds. Ponder this fact as we prepare to move forward together in the coming year.

Let us pray.

God of all the living, in the resurrection of Christ Jesus you have given us the promise of life which death itself cannot destroy. In the strength of this unshakable promise give us a new heart to live, even now, as your new creation. We ask this through your Son, our Lord Jesus Christ, who lives and reigns with you in the unity of the Holy Spirit, one God, forever and ever. Amen.2

Given at First Presbyterian Church, Portland, Texas.

1See Deuteronomy 25:5ff.

2Theology and Worship Ministry Unit. Book of Common Worship. Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 1993, p. 392.