Before this sermon, I announced that Cliff Fletcher, a long time stalwart of St. George's died. The sermon preached below was somewhat different, which will be reflected in the audio.
All Saints Sunday, November 6, 2016
Sermon: “The God of the Living”
Preacher: Rev. Ryan Slifka
Scripture: Luke 20:27-38
“Every cradle asks us “Whence?” and every coffin “Whither?” I heard these words spoken by the poet, writer, and professional undertaker Thomas Lynch in a recent interview about how we North Americans deal (or avoid dealing) with death. Every new life seems to beg the question as to where we come from. And every death seems to beg the question as to where we go when we die. “Every cradle asks us “Whence?” and every coffin “Whither?” These two questions remain deeply important for most people alive in the world today. And most people throughout human history “Whence” do we come from? And “whither” do we go?
And, at first glance anyway, our scripture story looks like a debate about the latter question. “Whither do we go?” What happens when we die. “Some Sadducees,” says this morning’s passage from the Good News According to Luke. “Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him and asked Jesus a question.” The Sadducees are one of the main groups we find opposed to Jesus’ ministry in the New Testament. These guys are the aristocrats, they come from a long line of priests, and they have political connections, especially with the Roman occupiers. And they didn’t believe in the resurrection of the dead. But Jesus, along with other Jewish groups like the Pharisees, and the Essenes, teaches about the resurrection. He believes in it, but the Sadducees don’t. Like us intelligent, modern people, they find the idea laughable.
Unlike us, though, who see resurrection as part of an outdated worldview. They are the biblical literalists of their day, only accepting the stuff that’s supposed to be written by Moses, the first five books of the Bible. Resurrection only finally shows up in some of the newer parts of the Old Testament. In the book of Daniel. So where we might dismiss resurrection today as an ancient superstition, the Sadducees see it as a newfangled superstition. Whence do we go? For the Sadducees, the answer is clearly “nowhere.” When you die, you die. That’s it.
And so the Sadducees set out to prove just ridiculous this is. By poking fun at it, and poking holes in its logic. So they conjure up a scenario. “Teacher,” they ask, “Moses writes for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wider but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up the children of his brother.” This is what Moses teaches in the book of Deuteronomy. A woman’s husband dies, and she has to marry her brother. It’s all about security, pure economics. Let’s say there are seven brothers, they imagine. The first marries, and dies, no babies. Second marries her, same thing. Dies, no babies. Then the third brother marries her, and same thing again. Dies, no babies. Then the fourth, then the fifth. The sixth and then the seventh. Bad luck, bad genes, who’s to say? Then finally the woman dies. Seven husbands, no babies. Then she dies. “In the resurrection,” they ask Jesus, “in the resurrection, whose wife will the woman be? After all, she had seven of ‘em.” If a woman marries brother after brother who dies, and has no children. Then dies. Who’s the lucky man in the resurrection? Resurrection day is gonna be awkward day. At least for these seven husbands.
It all sounds silly of course. They expect Jesus has an answer to everything. They see Jesus as a kind of fortune teller or psychic who has the future planned out. What every single little detail will be. It sounds silly, but isn’t this the way we think about spirituality, religion, faith traditions? That they are there to provide us with explanations? Here to provide us with blueprints to how the universe works? Clear answers and assurances to our unanswerable questions? I mean, how many books are there out there where people have near death experiences, then come back to report what heaven’s like? The book Heaven is for Real, for example, which is the report of a three-year old boy’s near death experience where he supposedly describes what heaven is like. This book sold 10 million copies. This is what we think religion is all about. “Is there a heaven?” “What’s it like?” “Will I be my 20-year old self, or my 40 year old self?: This is what the Sadducees think Jesus is up to. Speculation. They expect that he’s there to offer them a blueprint to life and death. A clear answer to the question “whither” do we go?
But I wonder if we have got religion, spirituality, faith traditions wrong. Or at least Christianity, the way of Jesus Christ all wrong, when we think of as a system of explanation. Or an answer to the unanswerable. Because when Jesus replies, he doesn’t respond in kind. He doesn’t say, “well, in the resurrection, husband A will have every second weekend. Husband B will have summer break, and husband C will have major holidays like Passover and Yom Kippur. Jesus responds like this: “Those who belong to this age,” he says, “they marry and are given in marriage; but those who are considered worthy of that age and in the resurrection of 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.”
You see, for the ancients, marriage was all about procreation, having babies, and continuing the family line. No need for that if there’s no death. Like the apostle Paul who says in in I Corinthians 15, that right now we “see through a glass darkly.” That death, and life after it is ultimately a mystery. One we can only scratch the surface of. The age to come that Jesus describes is a transformation which doesn't fit into any of our old ways of thinking. In teaching the resurrection, God’s future, full life with God beyond this life. Jesus doesn’t offer a simple answer or an explanation. He doesn’t offer an easy to digest pamphlet or program. Because if there’s life beyond death, it’s nothing like the life we experience now. It’s beyond our speculation.
Speculation or not, though, Jesus still teaches about the resurrection of the dead. The Apostles’ Creed, which we say every second Sunday here says “I believe in the resurrection of the body/and the life ever lasting. And our own beloved United Church of Canada’s New Creed from the 1960’s says “in life, in death, in life beyond death, God is with us.” The resurrection of Jesus Christ is at the heart of Christian faith. That Jesus who underwent death, was somehow raised to new life. And this is reason we believe that somehow there is the possibility for life that goes even beyond the obvious end point of death. We believe there is hope.
But here’s the thing. Jesus holds this hope. But he doesn’t build it on speculation. Or airtight evidence. Or common sense, or all the bestseller books in the world. “The fact that the dead are raised,” Jesus says, “Moses himself showed in the story about the burning 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.” If you remember, in the Old Testament, God speaks to Moses through a bush that is on fire. And God identifies herself as the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. I mean, this does nothing to provide evidence for the resurrection of the dead. But Jesus is saying that the unbreakable relationship that God had established with each of them is the proof. He has been so faithful to them in life, the promise, the relationship so strong and unbreakable. That it penetrates the darkness of the grave. It extends to them in death. “He is God not of the dead, but of the living.” Resurrection is all about God.
Resurrection is all about God. It’s not about us having a blueprint for the future. It’s not a theory, or an explanation. It’s not about us having faith in the immortality of the soul, or that there is a better place when we die. Resurrection in the end is all about God. And the power of God’s love. This is what we believe we have seen in the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. God is a determined lover who will not let the beloved go. God’s measureless love that will not be broken by death. Will not be confounded by human systems. Will not be destroyed by the pangs of sorrow or by the sands of time. What ever happens to us when we die is an ultimate mystery. But we believe in the resurrection because we believe in a God whose power for life can not be stopped. And will ultimately win out over every other fallen power in this world, and even over the power of death.
“Whither do we go?” Even though we go down to the dust, we shall sing God’s praise. The God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and Jacob. Miriam and Moses. The God of new life, second chances. The God whose love penetrates and brings light even to death. The God we meet in Jesus Christ. We believe in resurrection not because it's a fact, a theory, an answer or a given. We believe in resurrection because our God is a God of the living, and not of the dead.