God is a God of the Living

Sermon Preached November 11, 2007
Proper 27C / Veteran's Day

A couple of weeks ago, we heard in Luke’s gospel, a parable about a Pharisee and a tax collector. Now today, we are introduced to a group of Sadducees. Just who were these people and why were they so often critical of Jesus’ ministry? The Pharisees and the Sadducees were two of the best-known Jewish sects. They were around since at least the 2nd century BC and their influence was felt until the destruction of Jerusalem by the Romans in 70 AD[i]. The Pharisees were primarily concerned about the right practice of Jewish law. That is why in the reading two weeks ago, the Pharisee was described as one who was praying, tithing, and fasting – all associated with the proper observance of the Jewish law. As it relates to this morning’s reading, one of the differences between these two groups of Jews that is important to understand has to do with their understanding of death and the after life. The Pharisees “believed in the resurrection from the dead and the existence of spirit beings such as angels and demons.” In contrast, the Sadducees, “denied the resurrection of the dead, as well as the existence of spirit beings. The Sadducees believed. . . that the soul dies with the body. Therefore, they taught that there were no rewards or punishments after death.”[ii] And, for the Sadducees who had everything they needed and then some in the present life, they really didn’t need an after life. They saw that all they had now was evidence that they were insiders with God – a 1st century Prosperity Gospel.[iii] Because the Sadducees did not believe in the resurrection, their question to Jesus in today’s gospel was really just an attempt to trick Jesus.

They present a scenario in which a childless woman is widowed, and, according to Jewish custom, the dead man’s brother is to marry the widow in an attempt to “raise up children for his brother.”[iv] This practice is described in the book of Deuteronomy:

“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, and 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.”[v]
The Sadducees then take this scenario to an almost ridiculous extreme suggesting that the woman remains childless with this brother and, in fact, with each brother until she has, in fact, been married to all seven and still dies childless. Now, they ask Jesus, “In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be?”[vi]

The Sadducees expect that Jesus will not have an answer for them which will, in their estimation, prove that the resurrection of the dead is not a reality. But instead, what Jesus tells them is that God “is God not of the dead, but of the living.”[vii] God is a God of the living. Death and resurrection are not about reward or punishment. The resurrection is not about making up for the inadequacies of this life. One commentary says that resurrection is:
“a declaration that God’s love will not be thwarted, not even by death. . . . [Jesus] resurrection is the declaration . . . that those who stand for God cannot be defeated, even by death.”[viii]
So, for Jesus, the Sadducees question reflects their ignorance about what is important. For God is not ultimately interested in marriage, in mother- and father-hood, in brother- and sister-hood, but rather, God is interested in life which can only be fully known and fully experienced through our relationship with God, not through relationship with other persons. “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage,” Jesus says.[ix] This is the way life is. But those who live in anticipation of resurrected life understand that, flawed as our human relationships may be, they are just fine as long as our first priority is on our relationship with God in Jesus Christ.[x]

Today is November 11th – Veterans Day - a date set aside to celebrate the day on which the Germans signed the Armistice in 1918, marking the conclusion of World War I. It was President Woodrow Wilson who in November of 1919 issued his Armistice Day proclamation, in which he wrote,

“To us in America, the reflections of Armistice Day will be filled with solemn pride in the heroism of those who died in the country's service and with gratitude for the victory, both because of the thing from which it has freed us and because of the opportunity it has given America to show her sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nation.”[xi]

It would, however, be nearly two decades, 1938, before Congress passed a bill that that set aside each November 11th as a civic holiday promoted “to the cause of world peace and. . . hereafter celebrated and known as Armistice Day.” Sixteen years later, in 1954, Congress passed an act to change the name to Veterans’ Day and President Eisenhower invited all U.S. citizens to take time on this day to remember “all those who fought so gallantly” and to rededicate ourselves “to the task of promoting an enduring peace.”[xii]

Veterans’ Day only occurs on a Sunday every 6 or 7 years and is, in fact, a civic, not a religious, observance. Yet in light of President Wilson’s original intentions for Veterans’ Day as a time to “show sympathy with peace and justice in the councils of the nation,” in light of President Eisenhower’s urging to rededicate ourselves “to the task of promoting an enduring peace,” and in light of our promise, made in the Baptismal Covenant, to “strive for justice and peace among all people, and respect the dignity of every human being,” I think it is appropriate to make mention of the holiday today and I invite you, at this time, to name those whom you know that have lost their lives serving in our military. . . . Since March 19, 2003, when the United States entered Iraq, 3,168 American military have lost their lives in Iraq[xiii]. Among the dead are Benjamin D. Tiffner, Lui Tumanuyao, Christine M. Ndururi, Kevin Bewley, Daniel J. Shaw, Carletta S. Davis, John D. Linde, Derek T. Stenroos, and Adam J. Muller who died in Iraq this week.[xiv]

Into your hands, O God, we commend these our brothers and sisters, as into the hands of a faithful Creator and most loving Savior. In your infinite goodness, wisdom, and power, work in them the merciful purpose of your perfect will, through Jesus Christ our Lord. Amen.[xv]

Jesus says, “. . . 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. Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”[xvi]

This reference to the story of the burning bush is meant to remind the Sadducees (and us) of that great moment in which God first reveals himself to Moses as the great I AM – “God said to Moses, ‘I AM WHO I AM.’”[xvii] One commentator points out that this “is not who God WAS but who God IS. God has no past tense. The dead who die in the Lord are not lost to God the way they are to us, trapped as we are” in the time constructs of our own making.[xviii] Instead, God is a God of being, a God of presence – a God, not of the dead, but of the living, a God of the living and resurrected Christ. And, it is “this notion of God’s ultimate victory in Christ that ought to give us courage to stand for peace even at the cost of our lives.”[xix]

[i] Bryan T. Huie, “Who Were the Pharisees and the Sadducees?” Here a Little, There a Little (March 16, 1997, revised March 13, 2007) accessed online on November 9, 2007.
[ii] Huie.
[iii] “Proper 27 – Year C,” Preaching Peace accessed online on November 9, 2007.
[iv] Luke 20:28.
[v] Deuteronomy 25:5-6.
[vi] Luke 20:33.
[vii] Luke 20:38.
[viii] Preaching Peace.
[ix] Luke 20:34a.
[x] “This Week in Preaching: Luke 20:27-40,” The Center for Preaching Excellence (Calvin Theological Seminary) accessed online on November 9, 2007.
[xi] Quoted in “Veterans’ Day,” Miami-Dade County Public Schools accessed online on November 9, 2007.
[xii] “Veterans’ Day.”
[xiii] “American Military Deaths Since May 1st, 2003,” Anti-War.Com accessed online on November 9, 2007.
[xiv] Anti-War.Com.
[xv] Adapted from The Book of Occasional Services, 2003, (New York: Church Publishing, 2004), 176.
[xvi] Luke 20:37-38.
[xvii] Exodus 3:14.
[xviii] “This Week in Preaching: Luke 20:27-40.”
[xix] Preaching Peace.