27 Some of the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to Jesus with a question. 28 “Teacher,” they said, “Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and raise up offspring for his brother. 29 Now there were seven brothers. The first one married a woman and died childless. 30 The second 31 and then the third married her, and in the same way the seven died, leaving no children. 32 Finally, the woman died too. 33 Now then, at the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?”
34 Jesus replied, “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. 35 But those who are considered worthy of taking part in the age to come and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, 36 and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection. 37 But in the account of the burning bush, even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.’ 38 He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.”
39 Some of the teachers of the law responded, “Well said, teacher!” 40 And no one dared to ask him any more questions.
Three friends were sitting together, thinking deeply, and reflecting upon their lives when the question came up, “What do you want people to say about you at your funeral?”
The first guy said, “I want people to say that I was a great humanitarian; that I loved and cared for everyone in need.”
The second fellow said, “I want people to say that I was a wonderful father and husband who did everything out of love for my family.”
The third guy said, “Are you kidding me? I want people to say, ‘Look! He’s moving!’”
Today we are talking about resurrection. I believe in life after death, and I hope that you do as well. This morning I hope to show you that what we think about life after death is important because our belief about the afterlife will shape our life before death.
Our text for today is part of a long series of “test” questions. Chapter 19 ended with Jesus riding into town on a donkey and the people welcoming him into town as a possible king or messiah. He then begins to step on some toes by entering into the temple and “cleansing” it by overturning the money changers’ tables and releasing the animals that were being sold for sacrifices.
So it makes good sense to me that people want to ask these questions, trying to test Jesus to see if he really is the Messiah promised by God. It isn’t at all surprising that different groups come to Jesus and ask him different questions. If placed in a modern-day context, the Republicans would probably come to Jesus and ask him about the Affordable Care Act and the Democrats would probably come to him and ask what he was going to do about immigration reform. The Mennonites would want to know about Jesus’ position on the war in Afghanistan and the Church of the Brethren would want to know Jesus’ position on the correct way to perform a baptism. This is totally normal when a new potential leader is to be inaugurated.
In such a situation you will also find people who oppose the potential leader and they try to trap them, to discredit them as a leader, and therefore make sure that person will not rise into the position being considered.
One such group was the Sadducees. The Sadducees were a sect of Judaism that only believed that certain parts of the Hebrew Bible were authoritative. You will hear the Hebrew Bible called the Tanakh, which is an acronym (the Hebrews were making acronyms long before we Mennonites caught on to the trend). Tanakh stands for: Torah, Nebi’im, and Ketubim. The Torah, we know, is the first five books of the Hebrew Bible, the books of Moses or the Law. Nebi’im is the Hebrew word for prophets. And Ketubim simply means “the writings” and would refer to what we might call the Wisdom Literature, like the Psalms and Proverbs.
The Sadducees only believed that the Torah was inspired by God. Now if you read through the first five books of the Bible, you may notice that there is something missing: the mention of the afterlife. There is no discussion of heaven and hell, reward or punishment. You have to get to writings like the Psalms to get a bit of a glimpse of what the Hebrew people might have thought about the afterlife, and even there, it isn’t too clear.
This does not mean that Moses and those who came before him did not believe in some sort of life after death. I would argue that the Torah is more about how one is to live as a good Hebrew and is not intended to be a theological discourse on the nature of eternity. But there were groups, like the 1st century Sadducees, who believed that since there is not a clear teaching on the afterlife in the Torah, there is no such thing as the afterlife. For the Sadducees, life after death was just a bunch of liberal bunk believed by those who took the Prophets and Wisdom Literature to be the word of God.
The Sadducees are the group that approaches Jesus in our text for this morning. They ask Jesus this question about a man marrying a woman and dying before they have children. Then the next-oldest brother was to marry the widow of the brother and the first-born out of that marriage would inherit the estate of the first brother who died without having children. This is called the Levirate Tradition (see Deuteronomy 25). But in the Sadducees’ question, the second brother does not have any children, either. So the next brother, and then the next, and the next marry her, until all seven brothers marry the woman and none of them have children.
Now my question is: what was this woman doing to have seven different men die before she did? I’m not blaming her of any foul play, but it doesn’t look good.
But the question posed by the Sadducees was of a different nature. They wanted to know whose wife she would be at the resurrection.
Remember, these Sadducees didn’t really believe in a resurrection. The question was meant to trap Jesus to make him look silly, and to discredit him as a potential messiah.
Jesus is so good in these situations. Essentially he says, “You’re asking the wrong questions. You don’t even get it.”
The resurrection is not identical to this life. No, the resurrection is the recreation of this world, this world made right, this world returned to God’s plan for creation.
I think that it is important to look at resurrection today to get a glimpse of what life after death will be like because one’s view of the afterlife informs how they live their current life.
Take for instance those Sadducees who did not believe in an afterlife. To them, life was about achieving more and greater things here on earth. For sure, they believed that God had given them the Torah and intended for them to adhere to the teaching. And the reason for adhering to the Torah was to receive earthly blessings for you and your descendants. If you follow God’s rules God will bless you.
We might site the book of Job as teaching the opposite of this. Job teaches us that even the righteous suffer and sometimes the unrighteous excel. But guess what. The Sadducees did not believe the book of Job to be from God, so good luck convincing them of anything but this divine system of earthly rewards.
There are others, even today, who would call themselves Christians yet don’t emphasize life after death. Though he never denies life after death, African American theologian James Cone has written that he believes African American Christians should live like there is no life after death (see his work on eschatology in Black Theology & Black Power, pg. 121ff.). His reason is that too many African Americans living during times of persecution simply looked at their life of suffering as something to endure until they die and can go to heaven to be with God. Again, Cone did not deny life after death, but he was suspect of any theology that only focused on the sweet by and by.
The phrase that comes to mind in the situation that Cone describes is that some people are of such a heavenly mind that they are of no earthly good. Cone would later go on to say in a later writing that he overstated his point in his earlier writing, but his point is still valid. Are we of such a heavenly mind that we are of no good here on earth?
I think we would all agree that we are not simply called to endure any suffering here on earth. If we have the ability to do something about our suffering or the suffering of others, we should. That is why we work to teach the uneducated, feed the hungry, and clothe the naked. But if you have a view of the afterlife as simply an escape from this world, you might simply allow the suffering of others because things will be better for them in heaven.
Another mistake that we as Christians make is that we often simply think of our afterlife as one of a disembodied soul floating around heaven. Indeed, the Bible does talk about our souls. As human beings created in the image of God, we have something within us that does not cease to exist when our heart and lungs stop working. Something goes on and we can call that our “immortal soul.”
Some pictures of heaven have our immortal souls just floating around heaven, or in the clouds, strumming a harp all day, for all of eternity. Cartoons have been very formative in this misunderstanding, as has the Greek philosopher Plato.
In his philosophical work, Plato spoke of this world as nothing more than an illusion. He claimed that everything that we see here is just a shadow of what really exists. If you see a tree, it is really just the form of a tree. A real tree can only be known and seen in the afterlife. Our bodies are the same. They are only an imperfect and temporary manifestation of the perfect form that is our soul. And it is the soul that will live on forever while the body is disposed of. In other words, all that you see is not real and will one day parish. It’s all gonna burn.
This approach to the afterlife has influenced a lot of Christians. Unfortunately, I believe that this Platonic version of Christianity has allowed Christians to forget our original mandate from God to care for creation. If it is all just going to burn anyway, why worry about the mountains and the streams, the ozone layer and global warming? Or why take care of our bodies, eating well and exercising. It’s just a shell for our immortal soul, right?
But this isn’t really biblical. If this sounds kind of like what you have heard before that is because Platonism became popular during the period of the Middle Ages and the theologians of those days took the teachings of Plato and adopted his belief that the material world is bad and only the spiritual world is good.
The concept that all we see and know is somehow bad and is going to burn, even the bodies that we are currently living in, is not biblical. It is Platonic. The Bible teaches that when God created man and woman, God looked at what he had made and said, “It is good.” Granted, we do some very bad things with our bodies, but our bodies themselves are not bad. The same is true with nature and the earth. God created the earth and said, “It is good” and put us in charge as stewards of these resources.
I think we can do a better job of living this life if we actually look at what the Bible teaches about the afterlife. In his book, Surprised by Hope, New Testament scholar NT Wright talks about how the Bible presents life after death. He says that there seems to be a time, an interlude, between death and the resurrection of all who are in Christ. He says it is appropriate to call this life after death. During this time it is possible that a disembodied soul will ascend to be with Jesus in heaven. This may be what Jesus means when he tells the thief on the cross, “Today you will be with me in paradise,” and what Paul means when he talks about how he would prefer to die to go and be with Christ immediately. But Wright notes that the story does not stop there as disembodied souls in heaven. He goes on to describe what he calls “life after life after death.”
When Wright speaks of life after life after death, he is speaking about the exact same thing that Jesus is speaking of in today’s text: the resurrection. Wright draws our attention to the book of Revelation where Jesus proclaims: “Behold! I make all things new.” John the Revelator also describes a vision as being of “a new heaven and a new earth.” There seems to be a joining of the two to the point where one cannot tell where heaven stops and the earth begins. There is a unity between God and humanity that has not been known since the days when God and humanity were in full communion in Eden. And those who have passed away and, to use Paul’s language, were “in Christ” will be raised from the dead, given new bodies. Not a disembodied soul floating on the clouds playing a harp. Real bodies on a real earth, resurrected and in full communion with their maker for all of eternity, just as God originally planned for them to be. Wright concludes: “The point of the resurrection … is that the present bodily life is not valueless just because it will die … What you do with your body in the present matters because God has a great future in store for it.” This body, this world has a future. Yes, God will fix the brokenness, but God isn’t scrapping everything and starting over.
Last week I discovered something that was a little bit disturbing. As I was getting ready for church last Sunday I attempted to tune in a local radio station to catch up on the morning’s news only to stumble across something shocking. There is a station in Staunton that has already started playing nothing but Christmas music. I’m not sure exactly when they began this holiday format, but I am guessing that it began on or around November 1.
For some reason this caught me off guard.
I also went to a book store later that same week and they had an entire corner devoted to the sale of Christmas items: Santa hats, green and red candy, and little elf dolls. All the things that one needs to remember the birth of our Lord. The weird thing about the book store’s Christmas display is that I was in that store for close to an hour before I even noticed the Christmas display. I think that I have become so used to the commercialization of Christmas and stores looking to make a buck off the birth of Jesus that I just didn’t notice.
But I picked up on the radio station’s playlist immediately. I have been culturally conditioned to believe that Bing Crosby can only dream about a white Christmas after we have carved the turkey and indulged in pumpkin pie. I am sure that the radio station has financial motivation behind playing these songs so early in the year – they are, after all, a business. But in spite of my initial shock and dismay, I have come to embrace the playing of Christmas songs earlier and earlier in the season.
The reason that people buy stuff early is because we live in a consumeristic society. The reason we listen to Christmas music on November 3rd is because we long for the spirit of Christmas. We know that there is something inherently good about Christmas in spite of all of the consumerism. We desire peace on earth and good will toward men and women. We desire to start living out Christmas as soon as possible because we sense that this is how things should be.
My friends, this is resurrection. When Jesus was raised from the dead on that first Easter Sunday we got a glimpse of what we can expect. The evils of this world, all that is wrong with this fallen earth, were thrown at Jesus and he got right up and said, “Is that all you’ve got?” Jesus defeated the principalities and powers, defeated evil itself because after they have crucified you, what more can a person do? Resurrection is a reminder and a promise that Good triumphs over evil. And we are to look for resurrection all around us.
The fact that Jesus was bodily resurrected says that these bodies and this world matter. We will be transformed, but not permanently disembodied. And because God is making this world new again, we don’t look at this world as passing away and to be thrown out like Plato did. We look to see that which is good and from God. And as Christians, we point to the ultimate resurrection by pointing to that which is good. Resurrection is a reminder that there are good things in this world and those good things will endure. Faith, hope, and love endure. And the greatest is love.
This is why we get excited during October and November, excited to live in the beautiful Shenandoah Valley. We see the beauty of God’s creation all year long, but set on full display during the fall. And I say, That is a taste of what is coming. That is resurrection. That is a glimpse of the world set right.
When we see beautiful art, or hear beautiful music, we stop and pause because there is just something so right about it that we cannot even attempt to name what it is. It is just good. It is resurrection. It is a reminder that God has something good in store for his people and his creation and the goodness around us will endure.
So those Christmas songs began filling the air waves on November 1, and I say it is about time. Not because I like songs about chestnuts and red-nosed reindeer. But because those Christmas songs in November remind me of resurrection. Christmas songs are only special because of what they point to. And when we look around ourselves, we can find a lot of God’s goodness pointing us to the day when all will be good again.