Sermon for the Twenty-Second Sunday after Pentecost – November 10, 2019
Job 19:23-27a, 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17, Luke 20:27-38
Dear friends, grace to you and peace from God our Father and our Lord Jesus Christ.
These are nice scriptures for us to hear after a rougher-than-usual All Saints Sunday last week. I really felt for our assisting ministers. It was hard to get through that list of departed saints, not just because of who was on the list – some of the beloved matriarchs of our congregation – but also because of how recently several of them died. In fact, we aren’t even done burying them all yet.
Not only that, but death has cast its pall over our whole community in the past few weeks after some “high profile” (for lack of a better term) deaths of beloved community members. I was talking to one of my funeral director friends on Thursday and he commented that these kinds of deaths are felt throughout the community, and I’d say he’s right.
There has been plenty of death in our congregation and in our community recently, and I know that some of you are keeping vigil for loved ones even now. How wonderful it is then that our scriptures for this morning are Easter scriptures. They aren’t literally the readings we hear on Easter, but they are full of resurrection! They are full of life and hope and the promise of eternal life.
First we have Job making a rare lectionary appearance. Job has had everything stripped away from him. He has lost his children and his friends and his wealth and his health. In his utter devastation he turns to God, saying “I know that my Redeemer lives, and that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after my skin has been thus destroyed, then in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see on my side, and my eyes shall behold, and no other.” “I know that my Redeemer lives” – what a proclamation of hope in the midst of so much grief and loss. Someone should write a hymn with those words!
Next we have our reading from Second Thessalonians. The Christians in Thessalonica faced their own struggles against sin, death, and the devil, such that some of them were confused about how and when it was that they would be gathered into Christ Jesus. Some were saying it had already happened. In theological circles we call this “overrealized eschatology.” (With a big name like that, you know it is bad!) Paul tells them to not be deceived by those who say that the day of the Lord is already here. He encourages them instead to live in faith, knowing that they have been chosen as the first fruits of a salvation that is only beginning to blossom. Paul tells them they have some hard stuff to go through right now, but that through Christ God has given them “eternal comfort and good hope.” The final day is yet to come!
And then we have our gospel reading. We have some work to do to unpack this text. As we heard, the Sadducees went to Jesus with a question about the resurrection. The first thing you need to know about the Sadducees is that they don’t believe in the resurrection. Luke tells us this right off the bat: “Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection…” This detail helps us to hear the question for what it truly is: it is a question posed to mock the whole idea of life after death.
To do this, the Sadducees point to the Jewish practice of levirate marriage. This practice, spelled out in Deuteronomy, meant that if a man had a brother who died without having had children, leaving behind a childless widow, that man was to marry her and have children with her – both as a means of carrying on his brother’s line and as a means of security for the wife. It sounds utterly strange and a little incestuous to us today, but this was a way of caring for widows in a time where there was no life insurance and no social security.
The Sadducees, thinking themselves to be oh so clever, came up with a scenario based on this practice that they thought would illustrate how absurd the idea of the resurrection is. They asked Jesus, “What if a woman marries seven different brothers – each of whom die without giving her a child – and then she dies. In this supposed afterlife, whose wife will she be?” You can almost see the smug grins on their faces. They think they’ve debunked the whole idea of life after death!
But Jesus isn’t impressed. I mean, having come from heaven, he would know, right? Jesus tells them that they’re thinking in human categories that don’t fit in the afterlife. The whole levirate marriage custom is a custom for this age to care for widows. In the afterlife there will be no need for such customs. In the afterlife we will be like angels. We will be children of the resurrection. In the afterlife, things will be profoundly different than they are in this age. This doesn’t necessarily mean we won’t know each other in heaven – it just means that these earthly customs will no longer be needed.
Jesus goes on to point these Sadducees to the story of Moses and the burning bush. The Sadducees, you see, only accepted the first five books of the Old Testament. This story is in Exodus, so he’s appealing to sources they would have seen as authoritative. Jesus says to them, “The FACT that the dead are raised,” (note Jesus uses the word “fact”!) “Moses himself showed!” In that story, when God spoke to Moses through the burning bush, God said, “I AM the God of Abraham, I AM the God of Isaac, I AM the God of Jacob.” God doesn’t say, I WAS their God back before they died. He says I AM their God. “For to him,” Jesus says, “all of them are alive.”
When the Sadducees tried to debunk the resurrection, Jesus – who would know, right? – tells them the truth about eternal life. He points out that the promise of the resurrection can be found all the way back when God revealed himself to Moses.
We have Sadducees today too, by the way. One of them is president of Union Seminary in New York. Another is a clergyman who sells a whole lot of books. Watch out for them. Don’t let anyone rob you of the hope Christ Jesus came to give you.
This Easter hope we hear in our scripture readings today gives us strength when we, like Job, face all kinds of difficulties in life, when we are stripped of the things we cherish most. This Easter hope gives us peace when we, like the Christians in Thessalonica, are struggling against sin, death, and the devil, when we are confused about where Jesus is in our lives. This Easter hope gives us courage to live bravely and boldly as we trust in our Lord and Savior and his ultimate victory over death.
I have a pastor friend who was diagnosed with cancer six months ago. He’s been keeping his friends posted on his treatments through regular email updates. Well, he sent an email out just this week to let everyone know that he has decided to stop his treatment. He and his wife of 42 years sat down with his oncologist. He asked a few questions. On the drive home he told his wife they could wait to make their decision after a good night’s sleep. But his wife could see what he was thinking. She knew his heart. She knew his desire. She said to him, “It’s OK. You can stop treatment.”
Such courage from him, being ready to die, but also willing to continue those nasty treatments if she needed him to fight a little longer. Such courage from her, loving him so much that she is willing to let him go. These are two people who love the Lord Jesus. These are two people who are being made strong through the promises he has made them.
So you see, the promise of eternal life breaks into our lives on this side of the grave, giving us comfort, giving us strength. The promise of Easter comes to us even now, giving us hope, giving us peace.
Take hold of this promise, friends. Trust in the promises our Lord Jesus has made to you. We have been made worthy of heaven through Christ! We are children of the resurrection! That’s the promise Christ made to you in your baptism.
Because of this, you can live bravely and boldly.
Because of this, you can love sacrificially.
Because of this, you can live in the comfort of knowing your departed loved ones are alive to God.
Because of this, you can know peace in the midst of trouble, and joy in the midst of sorrow.
Because of this, even if that which you cherish most in life is stripped away from you, you too can say, “I know that my Redeemer lives!”
Thank be to God. Amen.
Rev. Jeffrey R. Spencer
Oak Harbor Lutheran Church