Sermon, Sunday 6 November 2022 – Children of the Resurrection – Tessa Lang

From Job 19: 26 & 27 “…yet in my flesh shall I see God: Whom I shall
see for myself, and mine eyes shall behold, and not another;”
And
From St. Luke 20: 36 “…Neither can they die anymore: for they are
equal unto the angels; and are the children of God, being the children of
the resurrection.”

Welcome to the third Sunday before Advent; in some years it falls on
Remembrance Sunday, and in most years, it is chilly and damp, today
being no exception to the rule. In comparison, the spiritual weather on
offer is rather dazzling, as the readings invite us to remember the living
God, present to us throughout our life even in times of suffering and
uncertainty; the living God who bestows eternal life through the gift of his
sacrificed and risen son, Jesus Christ; the living God who ministers to
and through us by the holy spirit. As if that is not sufficiently marvellous,
both Old Testament Job and New Testament Luke assert and claim the
certainty of life after death. Christians, in a word: resurrection, a core
doctrine traceable back to Exodus, through the Prophets and the psalms
of David to its fulfilment in the New Testament, which creates and
sustains an unbreakable bond between God and his children of the
resurrection.

Think back to “The Week that Changed Everything”, our play for Passion
Sunday this year. In Luke chapter 20, we return to Wednesday the 13th
of Nisan, Jesus’ final day of preaching in the Temple before his Last
Supper, arrest, and Good Friday sacrifice upon the cross. Jesus, never
one to shy away from disputation, combines his popular preaching with
actual rampage within Temple courts, knowing all the while that these
religious and community leaders were united in one aim: to destroy him.
Those are Luke’s very words. Their blood-thirsty determination to cling
onto power and privilege was factored into God’s plan. Jesus knew this,
as do we in retrospect; the scribes and pharisees, high priests and
Sadduces did not. From the beginning of the chapter, they keep gunning
for him, trying to undermine his authority and trap him saying something
legally actionable…something to turn the crowds against him.
Back at the Temple on Wednesday, the elders and priests are no match
for Jesus, who ignores the shabby flattery of their approach and turns
their thinly veiled attacks aside. He wields a pointed parable about
greedy and dishonest husbandmen punished by the freeholder of the
vineyard with its utter destruction. The throng to whom he preached
knew exactly whom he was describing as vines symbolise the Hebrew
nation and its fruitful union with God; Josephus the first century historian
described a massive golden vine decorating the soaring entrance to the
Temple Sanctuary. The people also understood that vinedressers or
husbandmen represent its leaders. Though angry at the public ridicule,
those leaders feared for their safety if they moved against the
troublesome rabbi.

Up step the Pharisees, certain they have him in their sights with a tricky
question: is it lawful to give tribute unto Caesar? Jesus easily disarms
their cunning plan by distinguishing between debts owed to society no
matter how unwelcome and unjust (as in the form of taxes levied by
Caesar, paid in coins bearing his image) and the worship due to God.
The crowd approved of his answer, so the pharisees were also forced to
hold their peace.

By the time we arrive at today’s text, Jesus faces heavy guns, the
Sadducees, arguably the most influential of the cabal of religious and
civic authorities operating in 1st century Jerusalem. Roman authority
denied them the power of life or death, which must have galled and
made them even more strict. It also made them cunning in framing
events to obtain the Romans’ approval; Ciaphus the High Priest and
Sadducee member of the Council provides a textbook example of how
both sets of laws and processes could be manipulated.
Ultra conservative, Sadducees populated the top echelons of the elite,
enforcing a legal code based solely on the law of Moses as set out in the
5 books of the written Torah– the Pentateuch (Genesis, Exodus,
Leviticus, Numbers & Deuteronomy). They ruled out the writings of the
prophets – all 8 books – Isiah, Jeremiah, the lot: as well as any further
interpretation of the law in 11 books of Writings including Psalms,
Proverbs, and Job. They excised angels, direct contact with God whilst
alive or a positive afterlife. Resurrection was a heresy. Upon death, the
soul alone was consigned deep within the earth, in Sheol, a murky
underworld. This rather narrowed their focus to the here and now and
made a priority of obtaining and retaining the best before the game was
up. In the meantime, the authoritative word of God was a one and done
offer. And they were the ones best placed to understand, uphold, and
enforce it.

Which gives rise to a mini side-sermon: on a recent Radio 4 report on
mid-term elections in the US, I was horrified to hear precisely the same
arguments from right wing Republicans: an assertion of a particular edit
of the Bible as the source of authority and national success. And that
they were the ones best placed to understand, uphold, and enforce it. In
the 1st century, one as turbulent and divided as our own 21st, the
Sadducees and their allies presided over the fall of a great nation, and
destruction of much of its heritage. Here in our country, right wing
ideology – though far from centred on scripture however cynically, or the
worship of anything but power and money and the imperial past – has
produced profound degradation of the environment, rising inequality and
deprivation, dangerous levels of debt, and damage to our standing in the
global community. Of course, alternative analyses are available.
Where and whenever practiced, self-proclaimed righteousness and
authority produce results far removed from the everlasting holiness,
endless love and mercy, creative and transformative power of God that
Jesus preached. To the Sadducees, he was blasphemous in his
emphasis on love and forgiveness over law and deeds; by his
association with known sinners; his neglect of ritual cleansing in favour
of one permanent baptism; his habit of healing and helping the poor,
diseased and disabled on the Sabbath. These acts were an affront and
it now fell to them to bring him down – starting with an ad absurdum
assault on the fallacy of resurrection.

They begin by referring to a portion of Deuteronomy concerning laws of
human relations as they apply to the duty of a husband’s brother. Should
a married brother die and leave a childless widow, an unmarried brother
must take the widow in levirate marriage (from the Latin for brother-inlaw).
For this to happen even occasionally, with weight of a legal
obligation, seems strange enough to us. But in the days of full-on
patriarchy, the practice was intended to prevent extinction of the family
and loss of family property; hopefully, also to provide protection for the
widow. One objective is met by producing children of a levirate
marriage. But first, the deceased husband’s property literally must be
paid for to return it to the inheritance of the family, or else it was forfeit
and the widow dispossessed. Enter the Go’el or Kinsman Redeemer,
who must be a blood relative through the father’s line, be able to pay the
price in full AND be willing to fulfil the obligation. Doesn’t this sound like
the very model of our redeemer? … As described in law around 1400
BC before the Israelites entered the Promised Land!
We also have a happy and significant example of the go’el in the story of
Ruth, a Moabite widow of a Jewish man and devoted daughter-in-law to
Naomi, who advises her to make a levirate marriage to Boaz from the
blood family of Ruth’s late husband. This union results in Ruth being one
of only five women mentioned in Jesus’ genealogy as recorded in St.
Matthew, which asserts Jesus’ lineage from the House of David, long
accepted as the source of the Messiah who will liberate the Jews. It links
in Joseph as his legal father, as well as Mary, who undoubtedly would
be from the same tribe and whose father is mentioned in Matthew’s list
of patriarchs. For a gentile woman to play a foundational role by
producing Obed the father of Jesse, who was in turn David’s father,
indicates to Christians that God intended to include all humankind in his
salvation plan. Matthew’s account of the nativity serves as Jesus’ birth
announcement sent from God first to Israel via the House of David, and
then to all his children.

Alas, the Sadducees’ case of levirate marriage does not end so well.
The family in question starts with 7 brothers, one of whom has a wife but
no children of the marriage. When he dies, the second brother marries
his brother’s widow, according to Mosaic law. Then he dies without
fathering a child. The third brother steps up and on it goes, until at last
the widow, still childless, has outlived all possible brotherly replacements
and dies herself. It is a far-fetched premise to set up the Sadducees’
trick question: In the resurrection, whose wife would she be?
This is the kind of Bible passage inviting the imagination to rush in where
a preacher shouldn’t tread. Let’s remember that this far-fetched case
was engineered for a malevolent purpose by the Sadducees then
included by Luke to deepen our understanding…I shall forgo framing it
as demeaning to women, or as negligence in the face of multiple
suspect deaths, or a caution against keeping it in the family. As ever,
other interpretations are available. Instead, let’s consider the words of
Jesus.

He replies with a simple, direct explanation in which I can sense a
disappointment at their inability to understand the scriptures or have faith
in the power of God. For they have missed the point entirely when they
base their question on what pertains only to this world. Once dead to
this world, resurrection redeems us from its sin and limitations, and
ushers us into an unimaginably superior enjoyment of fullness of
life…here we are alive solely for the purposes of God in the image and
model he has ever provided. We are elevated in love and partnership
with all other children of the resurrection and with our God. We are
immortal. There is no need to limit our sacred bond of love and
connection to a marriage partner or to procreate children for purposes of
inheritance and survival of the race. We are like angels, forever dwelling
at a higher, fuller, more sublime level, free from death and the ordeal of
mortal life. We have graduated from earth school to permanently enter
and participate in God’s beloved, eternal family, shedding a finite
existence for one without limitation. In 3 short verses, Jesus sets out a
mind-blowing vision of what is to come for those “accounted worthy”.
Because his adversaries clearly are not worthy, Jesus cannot leave
them without one final attempt to redeem them with a portion of scripture
they would acknowledge – Exodus 3:6– when God speaks to 80-yearold
Moses out of the burning bush, identifying himself as the God of
Moses’ father, and the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, all long
deceased but alive in him forever. It is a reminder that God is ever
present, that death does not end existence; there is another life in his
presence. God will keep the unconditional promise he gave to Abraham
to send a Messiah to save Israel and to bless for the whole world. It is a
permanent pledge to forgive, protect and restore. No wonder Moses hid
his face in fear and wonder. Sadly, the scribes and Sadducees did not
recognise the living God in their midst.

The well-known Malcolm Muggeridge quote “I have one foot in heaven
and one foot on earth, and the foot on earth is on a banana peel”
captures the challenge of being open to the presence of God in the
midst of the uncertainty, loss and chaos of everyday life life…to experience
redemption, like Job, often at times of greatest suffering…to resurrect
faith and hope when mindful of doubts and shortcomings…to unleash
your imagination of what is possible with the Lord. What he promised
that Wednesday is resurrection as the birth right of every child of God.
That is something to remember when stepping on the next banana skin
and feeling all about you shift. “For he is not a God of the dead, but of
the living: for all live unto him.” Amen

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