Alive! (Sermon)


Deuteronomy 25:5-10 and Luke 20:27-38

Allen Huff

Jonesborough Presbyterian Church


5“When brothers reside together and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her, taking her in marriage and performing the duty of a husband’s brother to her, 6and the firstborn whom she bears shall succeed to the name of the deceased brother, so that his name may not be blotted out of Israel.

7But if the man has no desire to marry his brother’s widow, then his brother’s widow shall go up to the elders at the gate and say, ‘My husband’s brother refuses to perpetuate his brother’s name in Israel; he will not perform the duty of a husband’s brother to me.’

8Then the elders of his town shall summon him and speak to him. If he persists, saying, ‘I have no desire to marry her,’ 9then his brother’s wife shall go up to him in the presence of the elders, pull his sandal off his foot, spit in his face, and declare, ‘This is what is done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.’

10Throughout Israel his family shall be known as ‘the house of him whose sandal was pulled off.’ (Deuteronomy 25:5-10 – NRSV)

27 Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him 28 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. 29 Now there were seven brothers; the first married a woman and died childless; 30 then the second 31 and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. 32 Finally the woman also died. 33 In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.”

34 Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage, 35 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. 36 Indeed, they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.37 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. 38 Now he is God not of the dead but of the living, for to him all of them are alive.” (Luke 20:27-38 — NRSV)

         The Sadducees accepted as scripture only the five books of the Torah—Genesis through Leviticus, all the books attributed to Moses. As such, they found no scriptural basis for any doctrine of the resurrection. So, their question to Jesus is both absurd and disrespectful—one woman getting tossed around from brother to brother. Seven times. You can almost see them winking at each other when they say, Now, whose wife would she be in “the resurrection”?

         Never one to take that kind of bait, Jesus says, in effect, Bless your hearts, fellas, but you’ve opened yourselves to such a limited part of God’s revelation that you have only the most limited understanding. As wonderful as marriage is, in the life to come, it won’t even occur to anyone. We’ll be beyond things like that. 

         Birth, death, marriage, vocation, illness, national identity, the humanexperience itself—none of these will be a part of the life to come.

Facing the great unknown of death, many people have tried to define and describe what may lie after it. Books like Proof of Heaven, Touching Heaven, and Heaven Is for Real all try to prove an afterlife. And all those “proofs” are probably more personally lucrative for the authors than generally convincing for readers. Please forgive my cynicism, but a subjective claim to know what lies beyond the comprehension of our human minds tends to lead to abuse because, when those unprovable claims become sources of certainty, wealth, and influence, the ones making the claims find themselves desperate to protect them. And all too often, that protection takes the form of fear, manipulation, or even physical violence.

         Now, before some of you tune me out, I fully understand that our human conversations about heaven are rooted in a genuine and passionate hope. Anyone who entertains the notion of heaven does so because they—because We—trust that God is real and that the end of this life is the beginning of something brand new.

And then Jesus goes and make that conversation even harder.

         Think about it: One of the things that fills this life with wonder and joy is the fact that, through our imperfect and impermanent bodies, we get to participate in God’s miracle of making new human lives. So, what kind of “life” is it when the relationships that create new life don’t exist?

One of the things that makes this life so precious is the fact that it does not last forever. So, what kind of “life” is it in which there is no death?

And it really doesn’t give us much to go on when Jesus says that in the life to come, we’ll be “like angels and…children of God.” What kind of alive-ness is that?

This brings us back to the fact that we do not and cannot know. All we can do is to have faith that something different and wonderful awaits us. And by definition, faith precludes objective knowing. As Paul says, faith is trusting in that which we cannot “already see.” (Romans 8:24-25, Hebrews 11:1) 

So, what now? When we recognize that the Sadducees are asking a question about something that they wouldn’t understand any better even if they actually believed it, what now? What do we do with this passage?

Because of the vast differences between the cultures of today and those of 2 and 3 thousand years ago, we face that same question with all biblical interpretation. What do we do with these ancient stories? What good are they to us today? And how is it that scriptures within the Jewish and Christian traditions have remained edifying and inspirational for more than 2 millennia?

The lectionary is a three-year cycle of texts for preaching. The cycle revolves around the three synoptic gospels—Matthew, Mark, and Luke. For each Sunday there’s also a text from the Old Testament, a psalm, and an epistle. The Sunday school class I facilitate has been looking at lectionary texts for the last eleven years. That means we’ve gone through more than three cycles of the lectionary. And thatmeans that we’ve looked at some texts repeatedly—especially those for Christmas and Easter. It never ceases to amaze me how those same passages, not just after our multiple readings, but after 2000 years of reading, continue to speak. That, I tell everyone, is why we call scripture the “living Word.” These old, old texts written to people in situations unimaginably different from our own continue to have life, and to give life to those who pay attention to them.

One key to experiencing the new and renewing life of scripture is not to expect—and certainly not to force—a text to have a single meaning. When we allow scripture to have a life of its own, it never loses that life. It keeps encouraging, enlightening, challenging, confounding—it keeps speaking based on where we are in our lives.

It seems to me that this makes reading the Bible, especially reading it in community, a full-on sacrament—an experience of the living God.

Again, think about it: Long after those who first began sharing the memories, observations, and dreams that became the oral traditions, their stories remained alive. They got written down. They became the basis for spiritual reflection, teaching, and ritual. Those spiritual practices have never stopped evolving and becoming. That is to say, they’ve never stopped living.

You know, maybe, it is better to call life-after-death the after-life, to see it as the next step in discovering the full and true holiness of life in relation to the Creator. And to me, that suggests that we’re all in this life together to a degree that we just don’t comprehend right now.

The point of all this cryptic wondering is that whatever heaven is or isn’t, all we can do today is to trust that God is real, loving, and just. We can also trust that God’s redemptive power and intent so far exceed anything we can imagine that we recognize that even those whom we think are of little to no value–like women in the first century, or like “enemies” in any century–are part of the great Us that God sees and loves when God looks at you, and me, and all humankind.

The Sadducees wanted Jesus to sweat over one hypothetical woman. And she, even in her non-reality, has become uniquely alive. Through scripture, she still lives and changes lives because Jesus loves her no less than he loves the very real Sadducees who create her in their mocking foolishness. Indeed, because she represents all women who have no voice or identity apart from some husband or male relative, she is painfully real today in cultures where women have no rights, where men presume to control women’s thoughts, actions, and bodies.

It’s a beautiful and breathtaking irony, but the Sadducees gave unwitting birth to a powerful woman who will never die. And if she continues to live and to change lives, how much more alive and transforming is the human life that is you?

Through faith in God, may we never give up on wonder, on change, on possibility.

May we never give up on life.

May we never give up on resurrection.

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