11th Sabbatical Sunday
Questions about the Resurrection
Some of you may have heard a popular country song, sung by Tim McGraw entitled, “Live Like You Were Dying.” This song tells the story of a man in his forties who is diagnosed with a terminal illness. He decides then that instead of moping around, he will start truly living. He enjoys life by mountain climbing, skydiving, and bull riding. Even more important than the things he experiences are the things he becomes. He became a better husband and friend to the people closest to him. He says that he “loved deeper, and spoke sweeter, and gave forgiveness (he’d) been denying.” And he also wished for the listeners that, “someday I hope you get the chance to live like you were dying.”
I myself am a pretty careful and cautious person. Adventurous might not be the first word you’d use to describe me. I have never been faced abruptly, like the man in the song, with the reality of my own mortality. But I love that song, because it’s about celebrating life. The man in the song is rejoicing in the precious gift of life that he has been given, and is using it to its fullest extent. It makes you wonder what the rest of us are waiting on before we start enjoying God’s wonderful gift of life? The scripture this morning is about recognizing that our God is a God of life. And even when the end of this precious life comes, there is eternal life waiting for us with God.
This is also a story that shows Jesus’ tact and skill and handling those who set out to trip him up. The Sadducees come to ask Jesus a question. On the surface, the question seems to be about marriage, and who will be partnered with whom in the afterlife (you can substitute the word resurrection for the word afterlife here). But their question isn’t really about heavenly marriage- instead, the point of their question is to see where Jesus stands on the whole notion of an afterlife at all. The Saducees were not a group that believed in the resurrection. They did not carry the belief that there would be any life after the one a person was currently living.
In psychology there is a term called the “presenting problem.” This is the term used to describe the reasons a patient gives for visiting the doctor in on the intial visit. Many times it is true that the issues the client is facing go way beyond the scope of what they initially presented as the problem. For instance, sleepless night may be a result of how one deals with the stress of their daily life. The deeper problem is not simply that the person can’t sleep, but that he is not able to properly manage his stress level.
In this same manner, the problem that the Sadducees present to Jesus is not really the question they want answered. They want Jesus to explain his belief in resurrection; they are testing him to see if he does hold this belief. Instead they ask him a specific question; and in it they are referring to a tradition called levirate marriage. The Sadducees used as their sacred scriptures, the first five books of our Old Testament, which are commonly referred to as the books of Moses. In those books, specifically in Genesis and Deuteronomy there is a system put in place to ensure that a family’s line continues. It goes like this, if an eldest brother takes a wife, and then dies before they have children together, then next oldest brother is to take the woman as his wife, so that they might have children and continue the family line. In this way, the oldest brother lives on in the legacy of his wife’s children.
The Sadducees then ask Jesus an almost ridiculous example of this law. They wonder if seven brothers were to all have the same wife in this life, who would she be married to in the next life? Again, keep in mind, they are not as concerned with Jesus’ technical answer to this question as they are at taking a look at what Jesus has to say about an afterlife.
Jesus’ handles his response to the Sadducees in an easy manner, he doesn’t let them trip him up. His answer also tells us something wonderful about God, and God’s priority for the living. First Jesus tells them that their question will be a moot point when resurrection comes. Marriage is clearly something that belongs to this life, and is not such a concern in the afterlife. Marriage in the ancient world was much less about love and finding a lifelong partner or soul mate than we would think of it today. Instead marriage was about protecting your family’s assets and then having children and making sure your family continues after you die. Jesus reminds them that there is no death in the afterlife. Death is not something we will have to worry about anymore when we are enjoying eternal life with God.
One other thing is clear from Jesus’ response. Eternal life with God is a great mystery to us, and will remain so until we enter into it. Jesus does not describe the afterlife to us, only reminds us that we need not worry about death. Life with God beyond this life is a great and holy mystery, but we don’t need to spend any time worrying about it, instead we need to be living the earthly lives we’ve been given to the fullest extent.
The most important point that Jesus makes when responding to the Sadducees it that, “God is not a God of the dead, but of the living, for to him, all are alive.” Our God is a God of the living, not the dead. What would it mean for us to lives so that everyone would know that God is a God of the living and not the dead? How can we fully celebrate our aliveness? Like the man in the song, I think many people celebrate their aliveness by taking the time to do things they’ve always wanted to do, maybe that is traveling, or writing a book, or climbing a mountain. Maybe, like
However, I think celebrating God’s precious gift of life goes beyond making your life’s dreams come true. Celebrating life means treating others with kindness and respect as well. Loving carefully and celebrating those closest to us, instead of allowing them to be the brunt of our anger and frustration is one way we can celebrate life. The man in the song talked about, “loving deeper, speaking sweeter and giving forgiveness he’d been denying.” Acting more Christ-like is a fantastic way to celebrate this precious life that you’ve been given.
Before we even read Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees, we as Christians knew that God was a God of the living. How did we know? We knew because each year we celebrate Easter. Even though we’re in the middle of November, and moving rapidly toward Christmas (if you’ve stepped in a store lately you know what I mean), we are an Easter people. We celebrate each Sunday at the Lord’s Supper the meal that Jesus had with his disciples. We remember that it was his last before he was crucified and buried. We also remember that death could not hold Jesus Christ. On Easter morning, the women went to the tomb and discovered for themselves first hand that God is indeed a God of the living- when they discovered that their beloved Jesus was not longer dead, but was alive. Christ rose from the grave and therefore we know that God is not a God of the dead.
God is a God of the living. May we be truly alive in God’s presence with this earthly life, and also rejoice in the fact that there is eternal life to come. That eternal life is a holy mystery, we cannot know about it much at all, but we do know there will be no more death. And that is why we celebrate at Easter. The knowledge that there will be no more death when we enter in eternal life is the reason we celebrate at funerals. We celebrate at funerals even though we grieve, because we know that those we love have gone on to be with God. And so the resurrection is one of the great joys of Christian life.
Those of you who are not big fans of poetry will have to indulge me a little bit this morning because I want to leave you with the gift of a poem by Mary Oliver. The poem’s title is, The Summer Day, and it is written almost like a prayer.
Who made the world?
Who made the swan, and the black bear?
Who made the grasshopper?
This grasshopper, I mean-
the one who has flung herself out of the grass,
the one who is eating sugar out of my hand,
who is moving her jaws back and forth instead of up and down-
who is gazing around with her enormous and complicated eyes.
Now she lifts her pale forearms and thoroughly washes her face.
Now she snaps her wings open, and floats away.
I don't know exactly what a prayer is.
I do know how to pay attention, how to fall down
into the grass, how to kneel down in the grass,
how to be idle and blessed, how to stroll through the fields,
which is what I have been doing all day.
Tell me, what else should I have done?
Doesn't everything die at last, and too soon?
Tell me, what is it you plan to do
with your one wild and precious life?
What an appropriate question for us as we leave this sanctuary this morning, “What do you plan to do with your one wild and precious life?” My hope is that we will spend our wild and precious lives celebrating God’s goodness and showing that goodness to others. May God bless us as we live fully. Amen.