(a sermon for November 10, 2019, the 23rd Sunday after Pentecost, based on Luke 20:27-38)
“You’re going to be a minister… maybe you can answer this question.”
It was a phrase that I would hear many times in my life; but on this particular night it caught me completely by surprise. First of all, at the time I had barely begun my seminary education and I was as yet unaccustomed to answering such questions; or at least those that did not give me 45 minutes and a blue-book to answer! And moreover it was 11:00 on a Saturday night (!) and I’d just come in for the late shift in my part-time job as weekend janitor and night watchman at the Bangor Daily News, most certainly an unlikely setting for theological discussion! But… as it happened, the man asking the question was not only the one I’d come to relieve that night but also my supervisor, so there was indeed ample time to talk.
And talk we did; as there, in the tiny maintenance office on the basement floor of the news building, my boss Roger shared with me his story. Seems that he’d been a widower for many years after a long and happy marriage, and that there’d been a lot of lonely days for him since his wife’s passing. But now, seemingly out of the blue, he’d met someone and much to each of their surprise, they’d fallen in love. I’ll never forget it; with his eyes full of light and happiness, Roger described to me in very simple but eloquent terms of just how much this woman had come to mean to him; about the unexpected feelings of joy and how his whole life had been renewed just by the fact of her being with him. They had even begun to talk about marriage and the good news was that their families and friends were as excited about this possibility as they were!
So it was all good… except that now, Roger was beginning to have some second, troubling thoughts. And with his eyes now revealing a hint of his heart’s anguish, he looked at me and asked simply, “Do you think this alright with God?”
He explained, “I married my wife in the sight of God and I did it for love and for life. When she was dying we promised each other that we’d be together in heaven; so if get married now, is that still going to happen? Or by getting remarried, am I going to be betraying the promises I made to her?” He paused for a long moment, as though he was letting that sink in; and then Roger said, “You know, I do love this woman, and I want to marry her… but if I do, what happens when I die?”
Now, remember, I’m just this greenhorn seminarian without a clue as to how to answer him! And desperately I’m trying to remember something, anything of value I might have heard in in one of my Old and New Testament classes, perchance to glean some small nugget of theological insight that could provide this man some definitive moral and ethical guidance; but alas, nothing was forthcoming. I mean, here’s this man, he’s pouring out his heart to me and looking for some answers; and I can’t even begin to give him any real insight as to what was good or right or acceptable where faith was concerned (and all the while I’m thinking to myself, some kind of minister I’m going to make!). But I did need to say something, I knew that much; and I realize now that what came out of my mouth was most certainly not the result of my seminary studies or was the product of my congregational heritage, and it certainly wasn’t based on any inherent wisdom on my part (!) but had to have come instead by the graceful movement of God’s own spirit in that particular moment.
“I don’t know,” I said finally, “but it seems that God loves you more than enough that He’d want you to be happy.” Of course, I never really did answer his question… but innocently and unknowingly, I think I gave him the right answer.
Actually, in our gospel text for this morning, a group known as the Sadducees came to Jesus posing much the same kind of question: to wit, if each of seven brothers were to marry the widow of the brother who died before him (as would have been customary according to Old Testament family law) then when the widow herself passed away, in the resurrection whose wife among all those seven men would she actually be? Hmmm? Of course, understand this was meant as something of a trick question, an impossible riddle without a real answer; in truth of fact, in our modern day parlance this would be considered a “gotcha” question, one designed solely to make Jesus look like a fool before those around him, and thus destroy his credibility among the people.
A little background: the Sadducees were this small group of mostly wealthy, well-educated and very conservative scholars who held places of great power in the Jewish religious hierarchy. But as opposed to the Pharisees, who spent their lives in pursuit of achieving something beyond their lives, the Sadducees did not believe in resurrection; mostly because resurrection is not mentioned in the Torah (that is, the first five books of the Old Testament), and for the Sadducees only the Torah held any validity or true authority. Any talk of eternal life, therefore, was viewed as false teaching and heresy, not to mention an affront to what they perceived as their own authority regarding the truth! So here’s Jesus out on the streets of Jerusalem – not long after his triumphal entry, in fact – teaching openly and with great conviction regarding the resurrection to eternal life, and of course, this infuriated the Sadducees; and they reasoned that by asking Jesus this utterly confusing question about marriage and resurrection they might just possibly trap Jesus into making some kind of heretical statement, thus discrediting him, while validating themselves and their authority in the process.
However, as he did so very often, Jesus by-passed the question in order to deal with the questioner; he wasn’t about to get drawn into the Sadducee’s games. But here’s the thing; he did give them an answer, and it cut right to the heart of the matter. And in essence, he’s saying to them, you’re missing the point! Now, our reading for today records Jesus as saying “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage… but in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage.” In other words, the whole idea of who’s married to who, and when, and how, isn’t really all that applicable when we’re talking about the resurrection! That’s sort of what you get more directly in The Message translation: “Marriage is a major preoccupation here, but not there,” says Jesus. “Those who are included in the resurrection of the dead will no longer be concerned with marriage nor, of course, with death. They will have better things to think about, if you can believe it. All ecstasies and intimacies then will be with God.”
Yes, says Jesus to these learned Sadducees, the law is essential, tradition is important, matters of life and death are crucial and human relationships are always precious and sacred in God’s sight; but in the resurrection, which is God’s gift and God’s act, all of that becomes irrelevant. In the resurrection, even death itself is irrelevant “indeed, they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.”
Even Moses understood this, says Jesus. Didn’t Moses, in the presence of the burning bush, speak of the Lord as being the “God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob?” No past tense spoken here – it isn’t that God was the father of Abraham, Isaac or Jacob, but is the father of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, now ands forevermore – for God isn’t the God of those who are dead and gone, but of the living, “for to him all of them are alive.”
It turns out to be such a good answer to the impossible question that even the Sadducees had to admit that Jesus had answered well, “no longer dar[ing] to ask him another question.” But even more than this, Jesus showed them and us a little bit about the character of God of and of his steadfast love. What we have in this text, friends, is a reminder that God has made a covenant with us; God has a relationship with his people that stretches back from generation to generation, and was in place long before you and me, long before Sadducees and Pharisees, long before the prophets, long before Moses. And at the center of that covenant is the promise that nothing will ever destroy that relationship; for when God enters into a relationship with us, nothing can end that: nothing, “neither death, nor life, nor angels, nor rulers, nor things present, nor things to come, nor powers, nor height, nor depth, nor anything else in all creation” (Romans 8:38-39) will be able to separate us from that relationship of divine love. Our God is the God of the living, not the dead, and because God loves us that much, we live… now and forever, abundantly and eternally.
The glorious truth of our faith, dear friends – this truth which we proclaim with song and in prayer through moments both of utter joy and inexpressible grief – is that death does not end us. And that’s because death does not change who God is, and has always been unto us: the giver and nurturer of our lives, the restorer of our identity as the persons and the people we are meant to be and have always been from the moment of our creation. That is our truly good news, but it’s also our challenge. Unlike the Sadducees, we do believe in the resurrection to eternal life – it’s at the center of everything we confess to be true about our Christian faith – but in truth, perhaps more alike to the Sadducees than we’d like to admit, most of us do struggle to understand all of what that belief means as we go through the joys and the challenges of this life, much less how it applies in the life to come; the very idea of resurrection is something we can’t even begin to comprehend in its fullness. But what Jesus assures us of in this passage is that whatever our concerns or doubts we can trust in the promise of resurrection, because God loves us more than enough that come what may, God is never going to let go of us!
Of our three children, Zachary was always the one who slept the least; it was certainly true when he was an infant, continued all the time he was growing up and, frankly, he’s still the one who’s most apt to be up late at night! But when he was very young, despite our best efforts to keep him in his own bed, he’d often end up in our room and cuddled up next to his mother and me. But aside from our bed always being very crowded on those nights, what I always remember about that is noticing how Zach would reach out to touch my face – stroking my hair, feeling my beard, getting a sense of my breathing against his own skin – and then, having done this, he would almost immediately let out with this contented sigh and drift off to sleep. It’s as if he needed to know in every way possible that we were there for him, that we weren’t going anywhere, and that he was safe… “all through the night,” as it were..
I’ve never forgotten that, and it always sort of reminded me of a piece I read years and years ago in which a mother tries to explain death to her child: “You fall asleep,” she says, “and God, your heavenly Father, with strong arms comes and takes you to your room, a room in heaven made just for you… for you are God’s child… you belong to God, and nothing can ever take you away.”
The Sadducees wanted to know to whom the widow was married in the resurrection, and in the larger sense to whom she belongs eternally.
And Jesus gave them an answer… she belongs to God… always has, always will.
And the good news? So do you, and so do I. So do we all, beloved, you and I who “are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.”
For life now and for the life to come, thanks be to God!
AMEN and AMEN.
© 2019 Rev. Michael W. Lowry