Sunday, November 10, 2013

God of the Living

Luke 20: 27-38
November 10, 2013

            “I’ll be waiting on the far side banks of Jordan.  I’ll be waiting drawing pictures in the sand.  And when I see you coming I will rise up with a shout, and come running through the shallow waters reaching for your hand.” 
This is one of my favorite gospel tunes!  If you want to hear a wonderful version of it, check out Allison Krauss and the Carter Family sing it on her album, I Know Who Holds Tomorrow. 
            It is a song of reassurance from an aging husband to his wife about dying, making that last journey from this life to the next.  He tells her that the lures of this world no longer make him want to stay, but his one regret will be leaving her behind.  So if he goes first, then he’ll be waiting for her on the far side banks of Jordan.  He’ll wait there until she makes that journey too. 
            The sentiments of this song are more than just comforting and reassuring.  I think they reflect what so many of us believe about dying.  When we die, we’ll be met by the people we’ve loved who have gone before.  We’ll be met by our saints, the saints we gave thanks for last Sunday.  They’ll be waiting for us on the far side banks of Jordan.
            In trying to think more intentionally about this idea, I took a poll on my Facebook page the other day.  Some of you may have seen it.  Some of you responded.  I wanted to hear people’s thoughts about the life after this one.  So I borrowed a question asked by James Lipton, the creator and host of Inside the Actor’s Studio.  Lipton would ask each renowned actor on his show the same question, “If heaven exists, what do you want to hear when you get there?” 
            I received a variety of responses from a diverse group of my friends and family.  A few people responded that they hoped to hear music.  One of my friends wrote about wanting to hear the word, “Rest.”  But the majority of the people who answered my question said they hoped to hear the voice of a loved one: the voice of their dad or their mother or their grandmother.  One of my friends, making the connection to Eric Clapton’s song, Tears in Heaven and the lyric, “would you know my name if I saw you in heaven,” said she hopes to hear her mother say her name. 
While my statistics professor from college would be aghast at the unscientific manner in which this poll was taken, I think that the answers I received reflect the hope of that gospel song.  Regardless of our religious beliefs or lack thereof, many of us hope that when we die we are reunited with the people we love. 
And that hope is why it’s easy to be unsettled by this passage from Luke.  It helps us then to try and understand what’s happening in this story.  For once it’s not the Pharisees that confront Jesus, it’s the Sadducees.  As the text tells us, they came to him already not believing in the resurrection of the dead and then questioned him about that very topic.  They wanted to put Jesus on the spot, find another reason for discounting him and his claims about God and the kingdom, and basically make him look foolish.
The Sadducees were one faction in Jewish society.  They were of the priestly class.  Many of them were aristocratic and wealthy.  They believed that the word of God stopped with the Pentateuch; the first five books of the Bible – Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers, and Deuteronomy.  If the resurrection wasn’t found in those books, then it wasn’t going to be found.  It did not exist. 
The Pharisees, however, did believe in the resurrection of the dead.  Their understanding of God’s word didn’t stop at the end of Deuteronomy.  They also included the prophets and the writings that can be found in the rest of what we know as the Old Testament.
These two groups – the Pharisees and the Sadducees – had been arguing over the resurrection for a long time.  Asking Jesus about it was a perfect way for the Sadducees to stir up that divisive argument all over again.
So they try to bait Jesus by asking him a ridiculous question.  They really just wanted to make Jesus look bad. 
The question they ask is based on a rather obscure law found in Deuteronomy about the perpetuation of a family line.  If a man marries a woman, but dies, leaving her childless, then it is the responsibility of the man’s brother to marry her.  That way they can have children and the family name, which always came through the man, would continue.  The first husband will not be forgotten in Israel, because through his brother, he had children.  This probably sounds very odd to us, but that perpetuation of line, of name was essential when that law was given. 
So basing their question on that law, the Sadducees pose the question to Jesus about seven brothers marrying the same woman.  The brothers are fulfilling their responsibility to the law and to the first brother.  But all of them die, including the woman.  Here’s the sticking point, in the resurrection who will the woman be married to? 
This is not the first time that Jesus has been baited.  For Luke, this is the third and final question asked of Jesus that ultimately sets the powers that be against him.  But with each question Jesus modeled how to answer the true intent of the question without giving way to frustration over the questioner’s methods or reason for asking. 
This time is no exception.  Jesus knows they’re trying to set him up, but he doesn’t use that as an excuse to evade the question or dismiss it.  He says, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage, 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.” 
Jesus tells them they’re comparing apples to oranges.  There is no comparison.  In this age, in this life, on this earth, marriage is a part of life.  At that time, it would have been an absolute necessity – again for continuing the family line and name.  But in the age to come, marriage won’t be a part of that life.  There won’t be an issue of which of the brothers is the true husband. 
The Sadducees imply with their question that the belief was that if resurrection was real, it was merely a continuation of life as usual.  As David Lose expressed in his weekly column, the resurrection is “an eternity of more of the same.”  But Jesus discounts that understanding.  This age will be nothing like that age.  There won’t be marriage.  More importantly, there won’t be death.  The people of that age will be like the angels.  They will be children of God.  Death will no longer be a consequence of living.  Death will no longer be a consequence of living. 
And furthermore, Jesus goes on, you can look to Moses to find proof of the resurrection.  You can look to the very Pentateuch that you hold onto so tightly.  Moses himself said that God was the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.  In our minds these patriarchs died long ago, but God is the God of the living.  These three must be alive for that reason, because God is the God of the living. 
So Jesus answered their question by pointing out their error of thought about the resurrection, and by appealing to the very scripture they thought proved resurrection wrong.  While all of this is great, it still leaves me wondering about my original question.  Will I be reunited with the people I love or not?  Will my friends hear the voices of their fathers and mothers and grandparents?  Will someone be waiting for me on the far side banks of Jordan?
It seems to me that Jesus wasn’t denying this.  He doesn’t really address it.  What I do think he says is that in the resurrected life will be fundamentally different from what we know now.  But does that mean that there won’t be relationship?  How can there not be relationship when what Jesus did for us in his resurrection was restore right relationship?  His life and his death and his resurrection restored right relationship for us with God and with one another. 
So I’m going to cling to my hope that in the resurrected life, I will not only be in wonderful right relationship with God, I will also be in relationship with the people I have loved and lost here in this life.  Isn’t that what our hope is all about?  That in the resurrected life, we will finally live in the way we couldn’t achieve in this life.  The resurrected life, although we have no way to describe it because we aren’t there yet, will not just be more of the same.  The resurrected life will bring us into full relationship with God and with all God’s children.  In this we have our hope.  In this we put our trust.  Because we believe that God is the God of the living.  Let all God’s children say, “Amen!”

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