Powers and Principalities

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Sun, Nov 10, 2019

Children of the Resurrection

Duration:18 mins 54 secs

Our Second Reading for this morning comes from the Gospel of Luke, chapter 20, verses 27-38. Arriving in Jerusalem for the final week of his earthly life, at the end of chapter 19 Jesus cleanses the temple – an obviously disruptive and antagonistic event. The chapter concludes, “Every day Jesus was teaching in the temple. The chief priests, the scribes, and the leaders of the people kept looking for a way to kill him; but they did not find anything they could do, for all the people were spellbound by what they heard.” Chapter twenty contains four additional confrontations: a question about the authority of John the Baptist, a parable about wicked tenants who kill the owner’s son, and a question about paying taxes. Jesus answers those three, so in our text for today another group of leaders, the Sadducees, come with a final trap. Let us hear this Word of God.

27 Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him 28 and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 29 Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; 30 then the second 31 and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. 32 Finally the woman also died. 33 In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.”

34 Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 35 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. 36 Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. 37 And 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. 38 Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”

This is the Word of the Lord. Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: May the words of my mouth and the meditations of all our hearts be acceptable in your sight, O Lord, for you are our rock and our redeemer. Amen.

Hearing that text for the first time, I think the only natural response is, “What in the world?” So, let’s start at the beginning - the Sadducees. The Sadducees were one of several religious groups within first century Judaism. According to the first century Jewish historian Josephus, Sadducees were the sect with political power in the Temple, they tended to appeal to the wealthy of society, and the only religious rules they followed were those written by Moses in the Torah or the first five books of the Old Testament. And because Moses did not explicitly talk about resurrection, they did not believe in it – the resurrection of an individual here and now or of all people at the end of time.

So, what in the world are they doing asking a question about the resurrection? The whole situation is a set up. It would like if some committed vegans went to a celebrity BBQ chef in the midst of her restaurant full of people chowing down on ribs and asked for the recipe for pulled pork. It just doesn’t make sense. Why are they asking about resurrection? And what is this odd family situation that they are referencing?

Well, in the twenty-fifth chapter of Deuteronomy, one of the books attributed to Moses, we find a law about what should happen to a woman if her husband dies before she has given birth to a son. In this case, the man’s brother is to marry his brother’s widow. If and when they have a son together, the son is to be named for the dead first husband so that “his name might not be blotted out of Israel.” We see examples of this in the book of Genesis with Tamar and in the book of Ruth. The practice came be called levirate marriage after the Hebrew word levir which means “brother.”

Now, making sure that the dead man’s name is not blotted out of Israel meant that his property and any share of family inheritance would stay in his family. In a largely agricultural society, a family’s future and security depended on keeping property in the family. In an agricultural and patriarchal society, a widow without a son meant there was no one to inherit the family property.

The same patriarchal society also meant that a woman without a husband or a son was supremely vulnerable. She could not own property or a business. Therefore, widows are included consistently with orphans and strangers as those most in need of a community’s compassion and care. Thus, levirate marriage was also a means of caring for widows - making sure that they stayed connected to a family with property and a future. And in scripture we find both Tamar and Ruth claiming their rights under levirate marriage.

And yet, levirate marriage also reminds us that in ancient Israel, and in most other cultures for the vast majority of human history, women were regarded as essentially property of men for the sole purpose of procreation. Yes, a woman was the property of her father until he gave her to someone else to be her husband. You probably know that is why at weddings a father was asked, “Who gives this bride to be married?”

Then, if a woman did not produce a child and especially a son, she could be divorced without any recourse at all. She had no choice in the matter. And in the event that her husband dies before she produces a child, she has no choice but to marry her husband’s brother.

All this brings us back to the Sadducees’ question to Jesus about the resurrection. Remember, they do not believe in the resurrection, so it appears they are asking this question to illustrate why resurrection makes no sense to them. A woman has married a man with six brothers. Her husband dies, so she marries brother #2 who dies, and then she marries #3, then #4, then #5, then #6, then #7. All of the brothers die, but no children. Finally, the woman dies. And notice the Sadducees’ question, “In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be?” To which of the seven brothers will the woman belong in the resurrection? They assume that she will continue to be the property of someone. So, if there is a resurrection, how can she be the property of seven different men?

As we sit with that question for a minute, think with me about what you and I expect in the resurrection? Will it be like an everlasting church service in which we always sing our favorite hymns? Will there be angels sitting on clouds playing harps? Will there be streets of gold and mansions in the sky? Will there be golf courses with no sand traps or water hazards? Will there be shopping with no credit card limits? Will there be endless beaches to walk or mountain views in the fall to enjoy? Will there be video games with unlimited lives? Will there be new travels and places to visit every day? Will there be a reunion with loved ones we have so missed? Will relationships strained and broken in this life be made whole? Will our wounds and scars be left behind? Or is there something about our scars that makes us who we are and we do not want to lose? Will we be 21 again or 39 forever or the age we are right now? Yes, my friends, what do we imagine the resurrection will be like?

Now, I do not want to speak for you, but I suspect that your visions of heaven are not too unlike mine. And if we are honest, most of those visions include the continuation of this life into the next. It might be better or enhanced or enriched, but mostly the life to come is just like this life. Just like the Sadducees, we assume that if there is a resurrection that it must largely be a continuation of things as they are right now or the way we remember them to have been or wish they had been. That’s why the old saying, I am sure you have heard before, “I sure want to go to heaven, but I definitely do not want to go right now,” still rings so true. So, if there is a resurrection, how can that woman be the property of seven different men?

While he surely recognizes the trap, the Sadducees are setting for him, Jesus takes both their question and their scripture seriously. And yet, he invites them to see that they are asking the wrong question. As Pastor James Douthwaite writes,

So Jesus tells the Sadducees: you’re not thinking right. You’re trying to imagine heaven through the lens of how things are on earth. But it’s different than that. It’s more than that. It’s better than that. Marriage is an earthly thing, for companionship and for children to populate the earth. In the resurrection, however, there is no more death and everyone is a brother or sister in Christ – and so earthly marriage won’t be needed anymore. It will be better. Husbands won’t bury their wives or wives their husbands. Children won’t bury their parents or parents their children. No more separation or divorce. No more loneliness, no more need. There will be not many families, but one family around our one Father. Jesus’ Father. Who in Jesus we call Our Father. . . .

Do you see, my friends, the Sadducees are thinking that resurrection is just about what happens after we die - and therefore what happens in this life is the only preparation for what is to come. That is how most of us think about it too. But Jesus turns the question around. He says: God is God of the living. We are present with the Lord not just after we die, but in this life. Therefore, the life that is to come should be shaping and transforming our life, and the even the entire world, here and how. We should not be waiting for something spectacular after we die. We should be participating in God’s resurrection life today.

Now, in this answer Jesus is not speaking against earthly marriage. He is not saying that our relationships and our covenants with one another as husbands or wives do not matter or have eternal consequences. His answer is so much bigger than that. Because at the end of this week in Jerusalem Jesus will demonstrate in his own death and resurrection that God is already at work to make all things new. Professor Ron Byars writes,

Jesus’ resurrection serves God’s purpose to signal that God is likely to be found in cross-shaped places but will not be overcome by them. God is strong enough to pull us out of the cross-shaped places, and neither death nor hell will have the last word. Even those whom society discards as abandoned, even cursed, have an Advocate who is stronger than death and the forces that deal in death. And the risen Lord is God’s signature on a promissory note for the renewal of the whole created order: a new creation, a new heaven and earth, to be similarly transformed by God’s own power.

So, my friends, let us change the question. Let us not ask what we think the resurrection will be like someday, somewhere else. Let’s ask how we might begin living as children of the resurrection here and now. Where are the cross-shaped places in this world, in this community, in this church where we might go and work for new life? Where might we recognize pain and vulnerability and those without a voice and seek to stand with them? Where might we find despair and hopelessness and bring a word of resurrection?

Those are the questions I think Jesus would have us ask, for God is the God of the living and through Christ we are children of the resurrection here and now.

Thanks be to God.

Let us pray: