The sermon I preached at Immanuel Lutheran Church on Sun., Nov. 10, 2013.
“Children of the Resurrection”
25th Sunday after Pentecost; Proper 27C: Luke 20:27-38
Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him 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. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless.
Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” 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. 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. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”
Working with youth keeps me up-to-date on the teen movies and books that the youth are into or that touch on issues that teens and kids face today. One movie that came out years ago and yet still is a popular movie among many youth I work with is an old Lindsay Lohan movie that is loosely based on some events that occurred years ago in a high school in the Northern suburbs of Chicago. If you haven’t seen the movie, you can just guess what it is about by its title: “Mean Girls.”
In the movie, Lindsay Lohan plays a character who moves to the Chicago suburbs and begins to attend public high school for the first time after growing up in Africa as a missionary kid and being home-schooled her whole life. There is a scene toward the beginning of the movie that sets up how the rest of the movie will be played out: with a clique of mean girls that refer to themselves as the “plastics” who try to control who is or isn’t included in the “in crowd” – through all sorts of mean and nasty tactics. This early scene takes place in – what many of you – if you ever had experiences like I did growing up – may know to be as one of the worst places for cliques in high school: the school cafeteria during lunch period.
During lunch on her first day of school, as Lindsay Lohan’s character enters the cafeteria, she looks around, trying to determine where to sit. All of a sudden, she is approached by several of the “Plastics,” and the ring-leader, Regina, begins what first seems to be a friendly conversation. Regina asks Lindsay’s character why she doesn’t know her, and when Lindsay’s character explains that she was from Africa and was homeschooled, Regina answers: “Really, but you are like really pretty.” Taking this as a compliment, Lindsay’s character thanks Regina. And then something happens that Lindsay’s character had not expected. Out of nowhere Regina says in a sly and challenging voice: “So you agree…?” As you can probably imagine, Lindsay’s character is thrown off guard, and she becomes defensive. Regina continues to push her: “So you agree? You think you are really pretty?”
What seemed to be a nice and friendly conversation and compliment by Regina quickly turned into a trap: As you continue to watch the movie, it becomes clear that Regina did not really want to compliment Lindsay’s character… to Regina, Lindsay’s character was a threat – a new girl in school who seemed to be getting positive attention by others – which – to Regina – looked like competition for popularity and power. So Regina intentionally corners and sets Lindsay’s character up: by making what sounds like an authentic compliment and gesture turn into making Lindsay’s character sound arrogant and haughty around the others listening.
This reminds me of our text in the Gospel of Luke for today. Jesus is basically in his own kind of “high school cafeteria lunch period” setting. However, in order to understand how this is so in our text, we need to back up a chapter in Luke.
Jesus has recently entered Jerusalem – where crowds of people who had heard of his great acts – had greeted him with shouts of royal acclamations: “Blessed is the king! Hosanna in the Highest!” If you’ve been to church on Palm Sunday, you know the drill.
And not long after his entry into Jerusalem, Jesus goes to the Temple – not to worship – but rather to drive out the money-changers who were selling goods in the Temple at high prices and taking advantage of the poor. From there, Jesus remains in the Temple – teaching every single day. We don’t know exactly what he taught during that time, but it was likely similar to the teachings we hear throughout Luke: about how God’s love requires equality for all people – especially the poor and oppressed – and it possibly included denouncing several of the religious leaders (as we see earlier in Luke) for boasting in their honorable positions of power while “neglect(ing) justice and the love of God” and loading burdens onto the common people.
So you can imagine how many of the wealthy and powerful Jewish leaders felt challenged by Jesus as He was continuing to gain a large following. – Jesus was a threat to their own popularity, power, and lifestyle. And so, of course, we see at the end of Luke chapter 19 that many of the Jewish leaders and the leaders of the people began to look for ways to kill Jesus. The only thing that was stopping them by that point was the growing number of people who were spellbound by what Jesus was doing and saying.
And so here comes our “cliquey high school cafeteria setting:” As a means to try to find a reason to arrest and put Jesus to death, many of the religious leaders start to find ways to trap Jesus in his words while He is teaching His followers in the Temple. This occurs several times throughout chapter 20 in Luke: first the scribes and chief priests challenge Him about His own authority. When that wasn’t successful, they send spies to Jesus who try to trap him through questions about taxes. Again, they were unsuccessful. And this is where we come to our passage for today.
Here, in our passage, Jesus is being confronted by a group of Sadducees, yet another group of Jewish leaders. However, these leaders are a little different from the others: unlike many of the other religious leaders, these elite and aristocratic Sadducees did not believe in the bodily resurrection – they did not believe that after death, people would be resurrected and given new life.
And in order to trap Jesus, they pose him with a very ridiculous scenario and question in order to make Jesus and his understanding of the bodily resurrection look ridiculous: The Sadducees begin by referring to a levirate marriage law that is found in the book of Deuteronomy – which protected women who were widowed and remained childless by requiring her dead husband’s brother to marry her. (Now, to those of you women out there who are now starting to feel a little uneasy: while this may not sound like a “protective” and a life-giving law – remember that women at this time were property of men. When their husbands died, they lost all of their rights, their land, possessions, their status. This levirate marriage law would protect such women from loosing everything.)
So, referring to this levirate marriage law, the Sadducees ask Jesus: What happens to a particular woman who – when her husband dies – marries the dead husband’s first brother. When this brother dies, she marries the second brother, and when he dies, she marries the third brother, and so on until she’s gone through all of the seven brothers who end up dying and leaving her childless. So, the Sadducees ask: after she finally dies, whom does this woman belong to in the resurrection? … Kind of a ridiculous story and question, right?
But Jesus – who is a pro by now in responding to his challengers – keeps his cool and responds 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.” In other words, marriage in this age – in this time here on earth – is no longer relevant in the resurrection… and by golly: in the resurrection, women in particular, are no longer considered property of men and given up in marriage.
Now, without the rest of the context of what was happening in Luke at this point while Jesus is teaching in the Temple, we might look at this text and think that Jesus is talking about what literally happens in the resurrection… that in our life after death, we will not be reunited with those we married on this earth. – Which to many of us – but maybe not all – would not be very good news.
However, as we know, the Sadducees were not looking for a literal answer. They were looking for a way to trap Jesus. And in response, Jesus – in his usual way of speaking in generalities and in metaphors – wasn’t really giving a literal answer to the Sadducees’ ridiculous question.
In His answer to the Sadducees, Jesus does not lay out what exactly will happen in the bodily resurrection – in our life after death. As much as many of us may wish He did, Jesus does not tell the Sadducees and the other observers exactly how we will be resurrected, what we will look like, what age we might appear in, how we might be reunited with our loved ones – all of those questions we often ponder when we think about death and eternal life.
For Jesus, these details are not important – and my guess is, once we experience eternal life with God after death ourselves, they won’t be important to us either…. What IS important to Jesus is seen in the rest of Jesus’ response to the Sadducees: “those who are worthy of that age and in the resurrection cannot die anymore, because they are like angels, children of God, being children of the resurrection.”
At Easter and every time we say the Apostle’s and the Nicene Creeds, we proclaim our faith in the resurrection of Jesus Christ. – That in His resurrection, He conquered death and brings forth new life. And because of this great act that occurred 2000 years ago because God so loved (and loves) the world – we – as children of God and as children of the resurrection – are promised this, too. We are promised that we, too, will be resurrected from the dead and given new life eternal. Death does not win. It does not have the final say. And when we are resurrected, we will be reconciled to God and, in Christ, to one another (however that may look)… for eternity.
So, to Jesus, the Sadducees in our text for today were asking the WRONG question.
A few years ago, when a reporter asked former Royals baseball pitcher Dan Quisenberry about the future, he responded: “The (future) is much like the present, only longer.” The Sadducees had a similar understanding of this in regards to the future… of life after death. Their understanding was that IF there were a resurrection, the life after death would be much like the present, only longer.
But to Jesus, this is an important point to debunk. Eternal life will NOT be like the present only longer. As we all know too well, the present life on earth is full of death. It is full of hatred, racism, violence… pain, suffering, injustice. Many of us experience death – and Hell, might I add – here on earth… as we deal with depression, fear of deployment, lack of sufficient health care, abuse, fear of our children facing violence on their way to school, terminal illness, unemployment or lack of fair wages at our current jobs that do not enable us to feed our family every day. And many of us here today experience Hell in our own personal brokenness: as we continue to make decisions for our lives that we later regret because they weigh on us and eventually pull us down into a pit of what feels sometimes like death, itself. So what Jesus is stating in our text for today IS good news. Our future in the resurrection – in life eternal – will NOT be much like the present, only longer. Rather, in it, we will be freed from this captivity of pain, suffering, brokenness, and death for eternity.
Now, while finding hope in this different future in the resurrection is a crucial part of our Christian faith, it does not give us an excuse to maintain an “escapist” understanding of hope in the resurrection… We cannot just sit around on butts in this life here on earth – and waddle in our sufferings, in our pain, in our brokenness – and just wait for the future resurrection as we watch others throughout the world or even allow ourselves to experience violence and injustice in this present age. For, as Jesus finishes His response in our text for today: He proclaims: “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.”
And this proclamation has a twofold meaning: God IS the God of the living – both of the living in the future age to come in the resurrection – AND of the living in the present age. And in the same way, the promise of the resurrected life is not just for our future life after our bodily death, but it began 2000 years ago when Jesus entered and left this world in the flesh and it continues with us today in the present age: in the here and now.
As Katie Faerber, a teacher at the Geneva School in Florida writes: “We live in hope for new life with (God) after our physical death, but he also calls us to be new creations, engaging in the daily practice of death and resurrection. When we pray for his kingdom to come on earth as it is in heaven, we are asking God to bring to life all that is dead, to resurrect here and now.”
And as Nadia Bolz-Weber, founder and pastor of the Lutheran Church, House for All Sinners and Saints in Denver, explains in her new book Pastrix: “The Christian faith, while wildly misrepresented in so much of American culture, is really about death and resurrection. It’s about how God continues to reach into the graves we dig for ourselves and pull us out, giving us new life, in ways both dramatic and small… Smiley TV preachers might tell you that following Jesus is about being good so that God will bless you with cash and prizes, but really it’s much more gruesome and meaningful. It’s about spiritual physic. Something has to die for something new to live.”
We are currently in the midst an interesting time of year – both in the church calendar and in our own secular calendar. Last week we commemorated all the saints – including our loved ones – who have paved the Christian way before us and who have passed on from this world. And as we commemorated them, we celebrated the promise that we somehow will be reunited with them in the resurrection. We are also coming up on the holiday season: for some of us, this is a time of joy – where we gather with our loved ones over food and conversations. Yet, for others of us, this is a time of suffering – as the holidays become painful reminders of those we no longer can gather with. And, finally, we are also coming up on the time of advent in the church calendar, where we prepare for the coming of Jesus – who both came in the flesh 2000 years ago and who will one day return.
As we enter this time of year where death constantly collides with resurrection, let us remember the promise we have been given: that we are children of God, and children of the resurrection: both of what is to come and of what already is. So in our sufferings, may we find hope in the future of freedom from death; in our joys, may we find hope in the greater joys to come; and in all things, may we always live fully in the present: dying to our old selves, and being resurrected into new life here and now.