11 November 2007

Sermon for the 24th Sunday after Pentecost - "Threatened by Resurrection"

Our gospel reading for this morning comes from the last section of Jesus’ teaching and ministry in Jerusalem. In fact, this question from the Sadducees was the last question anyone asked Jesus in the Gospel of Luke. Jerusalem has been described as a one-industry town: the Temple was as much a part of Jerusalem as the casinos are a part of modern-day Las Vegas, and like the casinos, Temple business was a part of everything that happened in Jerusalem. The Sadducees ran the Temple, so their power in Jerusalem was strong. But power and the games we play to hold on to power are worthless in the kingdom of God, so Jesus refused to play the game when the Sadducees came calling. There is no hypothetical “god of the dead;” but there is a God who is concerned for the living, and that God, Jesus said, is here with you right now. Let us pray:

Strong and mighty Lord, forgive us for the meaningless trivia and petty idolatries that seduce us and pull us away from Your goodness and righteousness. We try to hold on to power: You come bearing life that is truly life, in the kingdom to come and also right here and now. Destroy whatever distracts us from Your good life, so that we might live with You in goodness and mercy all of our days. In Your strong name we pray, Amen.

How many of you remember the children’s song, “I Just Wanna Be A Sheep – Baaaaaaa”? You know the verses, then:

I don’t wanna be a Pharisee / I don’t wanna be a Pharisee /

‘Cause they’re not very fair, you see / I just wanna be a sheep – baaaa!

I don’t wanna be a Sadducee / I don’t wanna be a Sadducee /

‘Cause they’re all so sad, you see / I just wanna be a sheep – baaaa!

Cute, for sure – but not very accurate. It may or may not be important, but as we enter our time together this morning, let’s take a moment to talk about Pharisees and Sadducees – it will be worth our investigation.

The Pharisees were a small sect within Judaism in the time of the New Testament. They are mentioned by Josephus, the Jewish historian who worked for the Roman government around the time of Christ, but other than Josephus there’s not much outside the New Testament to tell us who they were. The Pharisees believed that the Law, or Torah, came in two forms: the written Torah, preserved in the five books of Moses (Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus, Numbers and Deuteronomy in our Bibles); and the oral Torah, additional teachings based on the Torah as interpreted by elders and scribes all the way back to the time of Moses. The Pharisees believed these interpretations of the Torah were binding on all Jewish people, not just the priests, and they believed in strict observance of the Torah, both in its written form and in the oral form, which they described as “the way,” or “halakh” in Hebrew. The Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead, the eventual judgment of all people by God and in angels and spirits.

The Sadducees, on the other hand, were an even smaller sect within Judaism at the time of Christ. Josephus also mentions them, but like the Pharisees there’s not a lot of evidence about who they were and what they believed. We believe that the Sadducees were what you’d call the priestly aristocracy[1]: the Temple and much of its profit kept the Sadducees in power. During the last period of Irael’s freedom, about 160 – 60 B.C., the Sadducees were the “ruling party” because the Hasmonean dynasty respected the priests as the representatives of the people and the workers in the temple. When the temple was destroyed in 70 A.D. by the Romans, the Sadducees disappeared along with it. The Sadducees believed that Jews were required to observe only the written Torah, and they did not believe in angels or spirits, the judgment or the resurrection of the dead.

So when Jesus came teaching forgiveness and mercy, instead of strict observance of the Law and separation from the world around oneself, the Pharisees got pretty worked up. They had put all their trust in the belief that God had appointed Israel as a separate people, a nation that needed to focus on keeping away from the riff-raff and undesirables around them; but Jesus said, love your enemies, do good to those who persecute you, pray for those who abuse you. Jesus told the Pharisees to serve the foreigner and the outcast and the tax collector and all those people they had been so scrupulously avoiding for so long. And when Jesus came teaching that the Temple should be a house of prayer, not a den of robbers, the Sadducees found themselves confronted as well. Jesus attacked the very things upon which the Sadducees had based all of their power and social standing, and so in today’s reading from Luke the Sadducees tried to mount a challenge to what Jesus was teaching.

Some of you might have heard of the Gordian knot. Legend has it that a knot binding an old king’s chariot in the town of Gordium was blessed by the gods, and the one who untied the knot would be the king of the Persian Empire. According to the legend, Alexander the Great came to the town of Gordium in 333 B.C., and when he couldn’t untie the knot, he took his sword and sliced it right through the middle, thus “untying” the know. In some ways, the legal dilemma the Sadducees presented to Jesus was a Gordian knot – seemingly impossible to untie. But Jesus didn’t just cut right through the Gordian knot the Sadducees presented; Jesus used their own weapon against them – the Torah. In Exodus 3.6, God said to Moses “I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.” The Sadducees came to Jesus intending to trap him with the logical impossibility of the resurrection of the dead, but Jesus used the Torah to spring the trap and expose it.

But is this really about resurrection? Were the Sadducees genuinely concerned about the marital status of a woman who somehow managed to outlast a string of seven brothers? Of course not – the presenting issue is never the real issue. The issue for the Sadducees was power and control, like it was for the Pharisees, like it was for Eliphaz, Bildad and Zophar in the book of Job, like it was for Job himself, like it is for us. Power and control are what we’re fighting to maintain, but Jesus says “The God of the living and the dead is in control – and the sooner you believe this, the sooner we can stop this charade and get down to what really matters.”

I mentioned Job just a minute ago – it’s worth our time to go to the reading from Job for today and consider its impact. Job was a man of great character; he is described by both God and Satan as a “blameless and upright man who fears God and turns away from evil.” But Satan argued that Job had reason to be so blameless and upright: after all, hadn’t God surrounded Job with every blessing imaginable? Take enough of those blessings away, insisted Satan, and Job will curse you to your face. And so it happened. Job lost all of his property, his children, and eventually his health. He became a man so pitiable that when his friends came to console him, they could only sit in silence with him so that he wouldn’t be alone. And if they had stopped there, things might have been okay. But even in the face of such unbelievable suffering, Job’s friends and even Job himself couldn’t leave power and control alone. Job’s friends started to insist that Job must have done something to deserve such punishment, while Job insisted otherwise and pleaded his case before God. Finally, we arrive at today’s lament from Job 19, where Job insisted that someday a Redeemer would find justice and fairness for his plight.

If we were telling this story, of course, that’s exactly what would happen. But Job doesn’t end like that. God does finally respond to Job’s complaints, but God never apologized and God never suggested that what happened to Job was fair. Job wanted vindication and revenge: God never allowed either one to happen. And at the same time, God said that Job was right about his situation and Job’s friends were wrong to try to find the cause of all Job’s suffering. Finally, God did restore good health and fortune to Job, but not as a vindication of Job’s suffering: God just up and did it because that’s what God does.

It’s a remarkable story in many ways, but what it draws out of our Gospel reading today are the issues of power and control. Like Job, the Sadducees were trying to assign fairness and justice to a situation which is dictated by neither of them. Like us, the Sadducees were trying to show Jesus how manifestly unfair it would be to resurrect the dead with no regard for what that might do to the social order. The Sadducees were threatened by the resurrection because they couldn’t control it and it wasn’t fair. Are we so different?

Life is not always a question of what’s fair and right. Yes, if you don’t steal you’ll never go to jail for robbery, but that doesn’t mean you’ll never get cancer or lose a house to a fire or something even worse. God Himself admits at the end of the book of Job that the creation isn’t fair. But life is good, and God has intended for life to be good, both now and in the life to come which God has promised.

The good news today is that resurrection does happen, even in the church! If we’re threatened by the resurrection, as the Sadducees and Pharisees of Jesus day seem to have been, it’s our problem, not God’s – and yet Jesus takes the problem upon Himself because it’s the only way to cut through the Gordian knot of our sinful bondage to power and control. “No, resurrection isn’t fair,” Jesus says, “but it’s yours nonetheless: what are you going to do with it?” Will you reject the gift because it threatens the life you’ve so carefully constructed? Will you turn away from God’s goodness because it offends your sense of who you are? Will you refuse the invitation to graceful living because of the company you might be forced to keep? These are the kind of things that God stirs up in us when God gets busy with resurrecting the dead and calling sinners to be saints. Resurrection threatens every power in our existence because it’s the one thing we cannot control, but only experience and, in the end, accept or deny. Resurrection is not always pretty, and it’s certainly not fair, but it is good. More importantly, resurrection is what God promises, and belief that God will deliver on that promise in the life to come makes the effects of that promise happen right here, right now. As we believe that God will raise us in the life to come, so we feel the power of the resurrection in the life we have now, and the more we believe, the more we surrender to its power and live the life God has always wanted us to live. The hope of the resurrection to come breaks all power and control over the live we live now, and that hope cannot be denied to those whom God has called through the Holy Spirit in the name of Jesus Christ.

So, today you are threatened with resurrection: how will you respond? Will you, like the Sadducees, insist on what’s fair and right and just and miss what is good? Or will you let the hope of what God has in store give you the goodness God wants for you now? I pray you’ll surrender to the God of the living who lives within you right now and promises grace and mercy in this life and in the life to come. And as the apostle Paul once wrote, “may our Lord Jesus Christ himself and God our Father, who loved us and through grace gave us eternal comfort and good hope, comfort your hearts and strengthen them in every good work and word.” And all God’s people said, “AMEN.”

[1] Dictionary of the Bible, John L. McKenzie, S.J. © 1965, MacMillan Publishing Company. p. 758

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