The God of the Living

A sermon for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost, Year C
Luke 20:27-38

I’m not surprised anymore.  The shock has worn off.  I dropped by one of the home center stores in Christiansburg this past week for a quick purchase.  I walked around a corner and found myself in a Christmas wonderland.

Long gone are the days of my childhood when no self-respecting retailer would have put up Christmas decorations until after Thanksgiving.  In 1937 in an effort to help the struggling economy by lengthening the Christmas shopping season, then president, Franklin Roosevelt, moved the observance of Thanksgiving up one week.  The outrage was palpable, so he moved it back.  Hard to believe.

Now, Thanksgiving is little more than a super-sized, calorie-filled excuse to gorge oneself halfway between Halloween and Christmas.  It’s a day to rest up before the shopping bonanza begins in earnest the next morning.  When was the last time you saw a real, honest –to-goodness Thanksgiving display anywhere outside a grocery store?  Halloween has been cleared away for Christmas.

Well, we here in the Episcopal Church are a little funny in comparison to the consumer culture around us.  It will be weeks before you get a hint of holiday greenery in this space and over a month before you’ll hear your first Christmas carol.  And you know what?  We like it that way.

We aren’t finished with Pentecost yet!  But this morning, we are one step closer to Advent.  Need I remind you that Advent is not a time in the church of just lighting candles and opening calendars?  When we get to the readings for Advent, people often scratch their heads, especially visitors.  The readings are full of prophecy and apocalyptic visions.  Advent prepares us not just for the first coming of Christ at Christmas, but the second coming of Christ, a belief we reaffirm each week in the Creed and the Eucharistic prayers.

In the meantime, in these last few weeks of the season after Pentecost, before Advent begins, you may notice the readings taking on a more ominous tone, especially the Gospel readings, setting the stage for what is to come in Advent.  We may yet even encounter Calvary before we can find our way back to Bethlehem.

The Gospel reading this morning is a great example of this sobering mood.  It is from the latter half of Luke’s Gospel and tension is growing between Jesus and the religious establishment in Jerusalem.  More often than any other group, Luke’s Jesus has conflicts with the Pharisees, but there are other religious sects and authorities that butt up against his ministry and teachings.  This morning we encounter the Sadducees.

This is the one and only appearance of Sadducees in Luke’s Gospel, while they play a much more visible role in both Matthew’s Gospel and Acts.  The Sadducees were a sect among the Jews of Jesus’ day that probably more resembled a political party than a religious club.  They were named after Zadok one of the high priests from the time of Solomon.  For our purposes here, we need to consider two of their core teachings: they believed that the only the Torah, the Law as laid out in the first Five books of their scriptures, held authority, and it was a literal authority.  They did not value the role of Rabbis to teach and interpret the scriptures.  Secondly, as a result of this strict adherence to the Torah, and because there is no explicit mention of the resurrection or the after-life in those first books, they rejected any belief in such teachings held by the Pharisees and Jesus’ followers.

The other piece of background information we need to is place this Gospel reading in the course of Luke.  This is the third encounter in Chapter 20 between Jesus and religious authorities trying to trap him with questions.  First the scribes and the chief priests demanded to know by what authority he was teaching – God authority or human authority.  Jesus stumped them by pointing back to John the Baptist as a prophet they revered and didn’t dare question.   Then immediately preceding today’s text, we are told that the same chief priests and scribes send spies in order to trap Jesus by asking him the question about rendering unto Caesar.  Jesus again is too smart for them, by leaving them with a question.  Just as an aside, these three encounters actually occur in the same order in Matthew, Mark and Luke and in roughly the same place in the narrative. It seems that these words were among the most retold of Jesus’ sayings.

And so into this already tense scene appear the Sadducees.  Unlike the Pharisees, these men had many profound differences with Jesus that separated them.  Indeed it is doubtful that they even respected his opinion.  They aren’t coming to him for an answer to their question – they are posing an impossible and absurd scenario in order to both embarrass and discredit Jesus.  Try hearing derisive laughter underneath this question.  They find the idea of the resurrection as both foolish and false, and they are out to ridicule anyone who believes in it.

Their attempt to stump Jesus falls flat, not because Jesus debates them based on the scenario they have presented, but because Jesus redirects both them and the crowd listening to the exchange.  Jesus points to the very nature of God and returns to first principles.  The Sadducees didn’t see the scriptures as a living document, but rather a source of ammunition for their arguments.  They quoted scripture in order to support their position.  Jesus, on the other hand, seems to value something greater in the scriptures – the life within it that brings life to those who read it and hear it.

They are asking Jesus a ridiculous and impossible question, and he, in turn, gives them a radical answer, just as he did in other similar situations when asked loaded questions.  Jesus won’t play their game of case law – who’s wife will the woman be? 

The very question should remind us of the nature of marriage at this time – women were less equal partners in a marriage than they were property to be exchanged and claimed.  To me this question is offensive in more ways than just one, but Jesus doesn’t address this view of women.  He refuses to be trapped by their question.  They want a simple answer so they can refute and embarrass Jesus and then spread the word around in order to discredit him.

Jesus instead answers with words that still shock and confuse us.  The unfortunate tendency for many Christians over the centuries is to take this teaching of Jesus out of this context, forgetting who is asking him and why.  Instead Christians will quote this passage verbatim, leading to all kinds of confused doctrine.

Indeed, Christian sects like the Shakers read this passage literally and, therefore, believed in absolute celibacy – there would be NO marriage in their communities because that’s what Jesus taught – right?

Well, as the Shakers have dwindled down to a handful of elderly practitioners and occasional converts, one must ask, is Jesus really telling us that the only worthy people are those who haven’t married?

Hardly.  Why would Jesus have gone to the wedding at Cana if he believed marriage to be only for the unworthy?

I can guarantee you this much – this passage is NOT about marriage.  It is about the nature of the children of God.

Jesus takes them back to the ground before the burning bush – a ground very familiar to the Sadducees.  How does God address Moses – as the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.  God speaks of them as if they were still alive, the Lord is still their God.  Jesus places the question not on the issue of marriage, but on how the Sadducees view God’s children.

By saying “those who are considered worthy of a place in that age,” Jesus is directly confronting their authority, implying that they were the unworthy ones.  For many in that society, marriage was an issue of status, of identity.  Jesus is yet again turning the tables – why be so focused on marriage, Jesus challenges them.  What difference will it make in the life to come – God’s children live on, they do not die.

God is not the God of the dead, but of the living.  Jesus said.  The woman they use as an example has more infinite worth to Jesus and to God, not based on who she is married to, not based on who owns her, but based on God’s nature as the God of the living.  The question for them, then, is not whose wife will this woman be, but why can you not see her value in God’s eyes.

I would be remiss this morning if I did not acknowledge Veteran’s Day – commemorating the day 89 years ago that the guns of World War I fell silent at the 11th hour on the 11th day of the 11th month of 1918.  Ever since then we have used this same day to remember all those who have served their country in military service.  The God of Jesus, as we have seen this morning, is the God of the living not of the dead.  This is a fact that we celebrate every cold Easter morning when we find the tomb empty and shout out Alleluia.  This is a fact we remember at every funeral service, pointing to the hope of the resurrection.  This is a fact that we commemorate every time we share in the Lord’s Supper – God is a God of the living, to God all of those who have gone before us are alive, sharing in the life eternal.  Thanks be to God, the God of the living, that it is not death but life that awaits us.  Amen.

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