Scripture: Luke 20:27-38
I have an interesting history with this passage. It seems to pop up now and again in theological conversations I’ve had with people over the last several years. One of those conversations was just an out of the blue phone call I received when I was sitting in the office. “First Presbyterian Church of La Grande. This is Keith, how may I help you?” “You a pastor?” Since I was kind of shocked at abruptness of the question, it took me a second to answer, “Yes, yes, I’m a pastor.” “Well, my friend and I are having an argument. He says angels are male. I say they are female. Who’s right?” I’d never been asked a question like this before, so I had to think for a second, but this passage came to mind. “Did you ever consider that angels are neither male nor female? There is this passage in the Bible that talks about how in the resurrection we will become like the angels. There is no longer any marriage or death. When you read it, there is a subtle, possible implication in this passage that angels aren’t sexual beings, but created as eternal beings with no sexual identity.” After a pause, I get a, “Well, that doesn’t do me any good” with a click on the line.
Actually, there is a lot in this passage that doesn’t really do us any good if we get stuck on them, like are angels male or female. But if we start with the end of the passage, where the good news rests, it will make this passage come alive and have an impact on our lives and probably make us ask different questions. The good news of this text is that God is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living. Say that with me, God is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living.
So, keep that in mind as we start working on this passage. We hear a lot in scripture about the Pharisees. This is the first and only place in Luke where the Sadducees show up. Just like today, there are different camps that believe different things about who God is and what God is up to in the world. And one of the arguments between these two groups was “what is authoritative scripture.” Basically, the Sadducees believed that only the first five books of the Bible, the books of Moses, had any say in the theological life of the Jewish people. Since Moses makes no comment about an afterlife, there is no afterlife. To the Sadducees, when you died, you were dead. No heaven, no hell, no resurrection, just the grave. This life was the only one you are given.
But the Pharisees believed that God revealed the divine will not only in the books of Moses, but continued to speak to and through God’s people in their changing circumstances. So as time went by, the Psalms, the prophets, the history of Israel as we have now in most of our Old Testament became authoritative to the Pharisee camp. And from this new understandings of God’s promises evolved. Like the resurrection of the body You find a bit of an understanding for it over here in Daniel, and in a few versus in Ezekiel and the Psalms, and the prophet Isaiah writes poetic lines about being bodily present in presence of God. So they took this understanding of resurrection and looked at what was happening around them in the culture. Here is what they saw: The righteous suffered and the wicked seemed to prosper and they knew that a just God wouldn’t let that be the final word. From scripture, they concluded that God would raise the dead and the righteous would receive their reward and perhaps the wicked would be raised to receive punishment. Most of the general population believed in the day of resurrection and so did Jesus. And this teaching drove the Sadducees mad.
That’s the background of this scene between Jesus and Sadducees. It starts off with this crazy question about this women’s married life that speaks to some of the laws in the first five books of the bible. And we can’t get stuck here. Their goal in setting up this extreme example was to put Jesus on the spot. The crowds would see just how brainless such a belief was. How can the dead be raised, the Sadducees say, if those who are raised aren’t even able to tell who is married to whom?
Since we are going to focus on the good news of this passage, that God is not the God of dead, but the God of the living, Jesus’ response not only affirms the life after death experienced in the resurrection but also goes on to briefly teach about what that life will be like.
First, since God is a God of the living, life on earth and life after death are not alike. The resurrected life will not just be an extension or repeat of this life, thank God! We experience death and decay here. In the resurrection, we will be totally in the presence of the living God, completely enveloped in his presence and death and pain will be destroyed and all tears will be wiped away.
Second, there will be no marriage in the age to come. For some of you, that might be a relief. For others, you might be heart broken. You love your spouse. Again, God is a God of the living. Jesus doesn’t say we won’t know our present spouse in the age of the resurrection, but rather that our relationship will be different. I love Laura. I love Laura with all my heart. But we don’t have a perfect marriage. I thank God everyday that she is able to forgive me for my screw ups. But I can celebrate the fact that in the new life of the resurrection that my relationship with her will be so transformed that it will go beyond marriage. But that also includes my relationships with you, too! No one will be less than the other, no one will be greater than the other, but we will be focused on God. In the Message, Eugene Peterson says it this way: All ecstasies and intimacies then will be with God.
Third, there is no death. All these rules about what happens when you die and keeping blood lines don’t matter any longer. God is a God of the living, no more death, the resurrected will be like the angels in heaven, eternally serving, praising, and living in the presence of the living God. Now it doesn’t say the resurrected become angels, but are like them, no longer experiencing death because God is the God of the living. Our existence and nature becomes fully alive in the presence of God.
But in all these points, Jesus is debunking their argument based upon scripture outside of the books of Moses. This argument holds no water for the Sadducees. But Jesus then turns to the book of Exodus to say, and again I’m quoting Peterson: Even Moses exclaimed about resurrection at the burning bush, saying, “‘God: God of Abraham, God of Isaac, God of Jacob!’ God isn’t the God of dead men, but of the living. To him all are alive.” Now, this is really exciting and really hard to put our heads around. Here’s why: God, in defining Godself, uses the relationship experienced with these patriarchs of the faith to say who he is. And God uses the present tense: I am currently the God of Abraham, not I was the God of Abraham whom I dearly miss. In this argument about the resurrection, Jesus is saying that to God, Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are alive in the presence of God. And to say that they are living, it is necessary to conclude that they have been resurrected. Don’t ask me how this works, because you can go visit the graves of the patriarchs today. Their bones are in the dirt! The best way I’ve been able to even attempt to grasp this is in a lecture I heard Tom Long give he said that when we die, we enter God’s time, eternal time, resurrection time. If God is the God of the living, in our death, to enter God’s presence, we have to be fully alive, body and soul. Wow.
So, why does that matter? I said earlier that believing that God is not God of the dead but God of the living would have a impact on our lives. Here’s why: One of the reasons the Sadducees pushed against the teaching of the resurrection was that people who believed it pushed against the status quo. If this life was all that you had, you will compromise with the powers that be and hold on to all that you can get your hands on. And guess what? The Sadducees were the ones who pushed for alliances with the Romans and were generally the wealthiest members of the Jerusalem population. Don’t rock the boat. Don’t push back or it might mess with this comfortable life I’ve created. But what about those who pushed back, who said the Romans shouldn’t be in the temple, who pointed out the wrongs in this life, who demanded justice, who rocked the boat, who said God intended something better for the world he created? These were the ones the Romans nailed to a cross and they were the ones who believed that they would be resurrected and vindicated by God. Knowing that we will live fully in the life to come pushes us to live life fully now, not just for ourselves, but for our neighbors and all creation. We come to the point that lives can be lived with a certain amount of hope, a certain amount of daring in working for justice, a certain amount of adventure, a certain amount of confidence because God is a God of the living. We don’t have to let the things of this life control us, we don’t have to hoard and hang on, we don’t have give up when the path God is calling us down seems crazy. God is calling us to live, live the hope of the resurrection today.
So, don’t get stuck on all the details of this passage. Get stuck on God, for God is not the God of the dead but the God of the living and the promise of resurrected life in this passage invites us to live fully alive with God today. But at the heart of it all will be a people who live.
God in Christ is making you into his living people by the power of the Holy Spirit. Amen.
(Sermon preached by Rev. Keith Hudson on Nov. 13, 2016 at First Presbyterian Church, La Grande, OR)