Grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus the Risen Christ Amen.
It’s easy to demonize the Sadducees, the religious leaders in today’s text. Indeed throughout the gospels they and the Pharisees are trying to trick, trap and otherwise confuse Jesus and his followers. Yet, I am not so sure we should throw the baby out with the bath water so to speak. It is their questions, their nagging, annoying and probing questions that bring to light some of Jesus’ most profound and insightful teachings. Furthermore, if we look at these questions and examine their doubts we often find that they are a voice for our own questions and doubts. Today is no exception. There is perhaps no bigger question in all of Christianity than that of the resurrection of the dead. We will profess our belief in that resurrection in a few minutes yet, I suspect I am not the only one who is a little unsure when it will happen, how it will take place, and what it will look like. Indeed I imagine we all struggle with the uncertainty of what the bodily resurrection means for us. It is in these moments that the distinction between faith and certainty are most clear. This lack of certainty inevitably leads to questions, serious questions, even cynical and pessimistic ones. One can become jaded and even hostile to the promises of God.
Such is the nature of the Sadducees’ question before us today. In the text they question Jesus about the practice of levirate marriage set down by Moses. According to this practice a widowed woman without children would marry the brother of the deceased husband in an attempt to produce children in the name of the deceased husband, and in so doing carry on the family line. So the Sadducees present Jesus with the following case study. Woman A, marries Man B but Man B dies before they have children. So Woman A marries Man C who is the brother of Man B. However, before Woman A and Man C can have children Man C also dies. Therefore Woman A will now marry Man D who is the brother of both Man B and Man C. But Man D dies before Woman A and Man D can have children So, well…. You get the point. So then their question to Jesus is this: in resurrection which man will be this poor woman’s true husband? A perplexing riddle indeed… Perhaps it would be clearer if I told you another story first:
Let’s say you are driving a bus for Everett Public Transit. The bus is empty as it rolls up to the first stop. At the first stop 10 people get on. At the second stop 4 people get off and 7 get on. At the third stop 8 people get off and 5 people get on. At the fourth stop 9 people get off and 13 get on. Does everyone have all that? Alright, now my question is this: what is the bus driver’s name? Well, you were driving the bus remember so what’s your name? You tell me!!
Now why did I tell you this, besides to perhaps annoy and confuse you? Well, in each of the two scenarios it is easy to forget an important piece of information. In our bus scenario many of you may have remembered who was driving, but keeping tabs on the passengers was likely a distracting part of the story that made it more difficult to remember. Similarly, the Sadducees try to confuse Jesus with the details of 7 separate marriages and ask him which one is valid at the time of the resurrection. However they themselves forget that they are presupposing that ALL eight of these people are to be resurrected. They are all to have new life in the Body of Christ. They are as the text says: like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.” They will experience true and lasting wholeness for all time. So that in the joy of the resurrection, not even the blessed institution of marriage given to us by God will define our existence. Indeed, the Sadducees got bogged down in the details of the law and forgot what is truly important. It is, in the end, not who we make ourselves to be through relationships but who God is and what He has done for us that ultimately matter.
Now don’t misunderstand me. First, I fully endorse marriage, it is a lovely institution given to us by God to strengthen families and communities and we should not cast it off even as we look to our own resurrection someday. Secondly, I do not wish to simply dismiss questions about the resurrection that still naw at us on this side of eternal glory. To do so would be cheap and disingenuous. After all, while we may laugh a little at the Sadducees we too might wonder, what will my spouse or parents look like? Will they remember me? Will we finally be reconciled? Will I even be me?
Furthermore, as we live in this world filled with brokenness we too are prone to skepticism and question whether there is any resurrection hope to cling to at all. Indeed we struggle to find hope in our own community in which hundreds deal with the reality of soul crushing poverty and drugs that steal their lives away. We struggle to find hope in our graying and declining churches that were once full to the brim. And maybe especially, we struggle to find hope in our own lives in which we all too often find instead, a lack of purpose and meaning. It is a situation not to different from that of Job in the first lesson.
For I know my redeemer lives, Job exclaims. Yet his confession of faith is not one that is made on solid ground. Indeed, it is not a statement trumpeted from the pinnacle of a mountain but is rather a defiant cry from the depths of Job’s despair. You see, God has allowed for Job to become ill, lose his livelihood and even his family. Yet he has the faith to say: “then in my flesh I will see God!” But how? How can he possibly be so sure?
It reminds me of a patient I visited during my summer of chaplaincy in the Twin Cities. She was a woman in her early 80’s on the oncology ward. As we sat and talked she related to me her circumstances. She had been in and out of the hospital for quite some time with a rare form of leukemia. “The doctors have tried everything” she said (tears welling),” and they are out of ideas…” she paused “and I want to go home for the last time”. She told me how she had made a bucket list and was sad to say she wouldn’t finish it. “Although,” she said “at the top of my list is getting to live out my last days at home”.
I asked her how she felt about this tragic end to her life. She paused for a moment and said “God has been using it to teach me.” Teach you what? I asked skeptically. “I have learned to appreciate the little things, the blessings God gives us every day,” she said with a smile. She went on, “He has also been using me to help others. I have read wonderfully encouraging books about heaven and have shared them with my friends”.
I was blown away… how can this woman be coping so well at the end of her life? This cruel and painful cancer had made her a prisoner in the hospital and the victim of a myriad of blood transfusions and other procedures. How could she be so hopeful?
I’ve thought about it, and to be honest given all she had been through I still don’t quite understand. Until I am in her shoes I don’t think I can. What I do know though is that the faith she shared with me that day was contagious. She reminded me that God’s loving presence does not waver in the face of adversity on the contrary it intensifies and fills a dim hospital room with the radiating glow of hope. This woman, whom I had just met, helped me to remember that in the end it’s not evil but God that has the final word, indeed as Paul triumphantly proclaims to the Corinthians “O death, where is thy sting?”
So as we go forth today, do not fear your questions and your doubts. There is much we do not know about the life that is to come and questions are normal part of growing in our faith. Indeed, to stop the questions and “simply believe” cheapens faith. That being said, do not doubt, but take heart that you have been chosen by God, you are a child of resurrection. When you despair and questions overwhelm you, and they will, look to God’s Word of promise in scripture and the sacraments. But also look to one another as the Holy Spirit works to bring about faith in us in surprising and unexpected places, even on the oncology ward. These glimmers of hope may only last for a moment but it is in these moments that our fears are stilled and our faith is rekindled. It is in these moments that we catch a glimpse of the Promised Land and of the life that is come. Amen.