(a sermon for November 6, 2016, the 25th Sunday after Pentecost, based on Luke 20:27-38)
Perhaps you’ve heard the story about the professor who walked into his classroom one morning and placed a large sheet of white paper on the wall and then marked a small black spot right in the middle of it. “Now,” he said to his students, “Here’s your assignment: I want you to describe to me exactly what you see there.” There was an uneasy silence all through the room until first, one, and then another after another of the group raised their hands with the same answer: I see a small black spot. And to this, the professor simply smiled and replied, “Isn’t it interesting that you each one of you says you see a small black spot, but not one of you mentions the large white paper that surrounds it!”
And therein lies a small but significant truth of human life: that there are so many of us who also find ourselves completely focused on small black spots! Call it missing the big picture, or not being able to see the forest for the trees, but what’s true is that we will too often fail to consider the clearest, the most obvious and even the most beneficial of truths all because we are wholly fixated on the smallest and perhaps even the most inconsequential of distractions! Well, think about that for a moment, because our text for this morning has everything to do with the difference between black spots and white pages; between what’s now and what will be; between the world as we know it and the world as God intends it to be.
And it all starts with a trick question.
You see, back in Jesus’ time Jewish law was such that when a man died leaving a wife but no children, if that man had an unmarried brother then he was directed to step up and marry the widow of his brother. As strange and as, well, sexist as that sounds to our ears today, this was actually a very humane and protective law in a time and place in which women were very vulnerable, most especially if they happened to be single. So understanding this, it would not be inconceivable that a woman might indeed be married to her deceased husband’s brother.
But… here’s where things get interesting: what would have happened if the second husband died childless, and there’s yet another brother? If we understand the law correctly, the woman would have to marry the second brother; in fact, if this were a large family (albeit, a family with a whole lot of catastrophic illness!) this same arrangement could apply through many as seven weddings and funerals!
Granted, it was a rather unlikely scenario; but it’s within just such a legal and theological conundrum that Jesus is asked this question: what happens when this woman dies? Or, more to the point, “in the resurrection [of the dead] …whose wife will the woman be? For [after all,] the seven had married her.”
As I said before, it was a trick question; tricky because the ones asking it, a religious group known as the Sadducees, didn’t actually believe in the resurrection in the first place! For the Sadducees, such a thing wasn’t even a possibility; the whole idea of an afterlife, a resurrection of the dead was simply silly and illogical. Now, to give you a little background, these Sadducees were among the oldest, wealthiest and most conservative of the religious groups of Jesus’ day; but unlike the Pharisees who lived their entire lives in active pursuit of an afterlife, the Sadducees could not, in their limited view of things, begin to conceive a life beyond this one. They were not about to embrace the joy of resurrection hope and that’s why they were “sad, you see.” (I know, I know… but someone had to say it!)
Actually, their real purpose in asking this question was to trap Jesus. The Sadducees figured that either Jesus gets caught on the horns of this theological dilemma regarding the widow with seven husbands – which would prove him to be a fool, at least in their eyes – or else Jesus would end up “waffling” on this resurrection issue and thus risk angering the Pharisees. Either way, they figured that Jesus’ growing reputation amongst the people would be irreparably damaged, and that’s just the way the Sadducees wanted it.
What the Sadducees didn’t expect, however, was that Jesus would actually see more here than just the black spot; and so he answers this supposedly impossible riddle in a way that sets forth a whole new logic. “’Those who belong to this age,’” he says, “’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… because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.”
In other words, says Jesus, don’t be thinking merely on the basis of this world and the way things have always been; for that’s a point of view that is literally stuck in the here and now! But in the resurrection there’s an age to come that will be the advent of a whole new world; world with an entirely different point of view. This will be the world as God intends it, and has always intended it to be from the time of creation!
So, then: regarding this question about widows and marriage in the afterlife? Turns out that ultimately, it doesn’t even matter; as The Message puts it, “they have will have better things to think about, if you can believe it!” Because when Jesus talks about the resurrection, he’s referring to nothing less than the complete transformation of the world; it’s the proclamation of a sure and certain hope belonging to those who would find their faith in the triumph of God’s loving purposes, who would embrace an identity that extends far beyond a day to day flesh and blood existence, and who know that by God’s gracious intent that they are “like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.”
Is there a resurrection? Absolutely; for our God is “God not of the dead, but of the living… to him all of them are alive.” We are the people, beloved, to whom by grace this great gift of abiding hope is given. The question for us today is whether we really believe this; whether or not you and I truly see the hope of resurrection amidst our present situation. Can it be said of each of us today that we are living as “children of the resurrection?” Dare we believe that God is actively doing a new thing in the here and now? Or have we become as the Sadducees in that we’ve become so locked into the way things are in terms of human life that we’re now in danger of missing out on the promise of what will be for us children of God?
It’s a valid question even for those of us who recognize who we are as God’s people in the world; for though we may well speak the language of faith, nonetheless we still tend to view the things of this world from a very human and generally limited point of view. Simply put, we know what we’re supposed to believe, but we still remain skeptical! We talk about love; yet we still carry ourselves with caution, afraid to take the risk to love our neighbors as ourselves. We proclaim the necessity for justice and peace in the world, and the need for morality and ethical behavior both personally, professionally, and yes, I’ll say it, politically, but when it matters we’re reluctant take a stand. It’s not that we haven’t heard the truth espoused by our Christian faith; it’s not even that we don’t believe. It’s just that so often we aren’t able to see, or perhaps choose not to see the truth of what God has set before us as a living hope.
William Easum, in his seminal book, Dancing with Dinosaurs: Ministry in a Hostile and Hurting World, tells the story of a woman who owned the finest winery in all the land. Hers was a vineyard that yielded some of the finest grapes to be found anywhere, and over the course of two centuries the large wooden vats on her family’s land had produced some of the world’s most exquisite wines; that is, until one year when the wine began to develop a bitter taste.
At first, no one could explain it, because nothing had changed. The wine was still made exactly as it had been made for 200 years, but something was wrong, and with each passing year the wine had gotten progressively worse. In desperation, this woman tried everything she knew to return the wine to its previous quality: adding new fertilizer to the soil of the vineyard, hiring new workers in the winery; she even decided to change the label on the bottle (!), but nothing worked. And now this long established winery was slowly but steadily going out of business.
Oh, there was one thing. It turned out that the old wooden vats in which the wine was stored had long since outlived their usefulness. You see, over time the wood had itself become old and sour, and which was more than likely the reason for the wine’s bitter taste. And since there was no way for these vats to be adequately cleaned and restored, the only answer was to replace them. But the woman couldn’t bring herself to do that this because, she said, these vats had been a part of their family’s winemaking tradition for generations and so it was inconceivable to her that they do anything differently; she could not, and would not look beyond that! Even though the winery’s customers continued to diminish, until at last there was no one left at all; even though this family tradition that was so treasured had begun to fall into ruin, she could not bring herself to see the sure and certain hope that would restore her winery’s future.
What was it that Jesus said about new wines having to be put into new wineskins? He said it was the only way that both the wine and the wineskins are preserved. It seems to me that if you and I are to survive these days of confused and conflicted situations we will have to look beyond the nightly gloom and doom of media, step away from the “de-evolution” of society, and embrace our true citizenship as children of resurrection; otherwise, we cannot help but be ruled by despair. I’ve been saying this a lot lately, but it bears repeating: if we are to truly be the church of Jesus Christ in this time and place, then we’re going to have to stop living wholly out of today’s fears and uncertainties, and instead start directing ourselves and our ministries toward the new world that God is even now breaking in among us.
In the resurrection life that is ours by the grace of God in Jesus Christ, you and I have been given new wine, but we can’t simply pour this wine back into the old wineskins; as people of faith we cannot let ourselves be content with old ways of thinking and doing, lest our faith become little more than sentimental philosophy, lest we become irrelevant in a world that needs what we know and believe now more than ever. Jesus is challenging us to live our lives as true children of resurrection; to make our way in this hurting world as people of relentless hope and unbridled joy.
Beloved, here is the good news: our God is the God of the living, and in God’s eyes, we are truly alive!
No matter what evil befalls us, in the end, love wins. I know that especially these days, that’s sometimes a truth hard to hold on to. But it is true: that in Christ, death does not prevail, and that life always has the final word. This is our reality, beloved; in this age and in the age to come.
I pray today that each one of us will have the grace to truly see that hope and receive it as our own.
Thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN!
c. 2016 Rev. Michael W. Lowry