This week we are thinking a little more about the resurrection.
The Sadducees, as we see here, did not believe in the resurrection. They believed in God; they believed in the first five books of the Old Testament – the Mosaic law. And they believed that death was the end.
I’ve got a lot of time for the Sadducees. They are serious, thoughtful, hard-nosed rationalists. They are going to face up to death with no sugar-coated pill. They would not have been willing to buy into the half-baked sentimentalist claptrap about people dying and going up there to sit on clouds and be with those we have loved for ever.
So they challenge Jesus about the resurrection. They say to Jesus, ‘OK, if there is resurrection, when we are there who will we be with?’ They tell of this unfortunate woman who marries an even more unfortunate man. He dies before they have children. The law of Moses said that she needed to marry his brother. It makes sense. First, it ensured that she as a childless widow was looked after and second, and this was very important – especially if you didn’t believe in a resurrection – the first child born to the widow was to take the name of the dead brother. His name would live on. Unfortunately, the second brother dies. So does the third and the fourth. The fifth, sixth and the seventh brothers are now seriously worried. There is a story in the apocrypha about a girl who has been cursed by a demon, so that every man she marries dies on their wedding night before their marriage is consummated. In the same way here all the brothers do die; she dies. So, say the Sadducees to Jesus, who is she going to be with? Whose cloud is she going to sit on? The first brother’s, the second and so on?
It might seem very artificial, but they are making a point. It might even be something that some of you who have been happily married to more than one man or woman are asking – which one will I be with in heaven?
But Jesus challenges the Sadducees. In Matthew’s version of this reading, he tells them that they are wrong because they do not know the scriptures or the power of God (Matthew 22.29). And he speaks about the reality of the resurrection, the grounds for the resurrection and the shape of the resurrection.
THE REALITY OF THE RESURRECTION
One of the biggest needs for the church in our generation is to rediscover a practical belief in the resurrection.
We speak of the resurrection, but we live as if there is no resurrection.
We live for this world. Our hope is to be comfortable and successful in this world. We make sacrifices, but we do so for a this-worldly reward. The swimmer is at the pool morning after morning, putting themselves through hell, to win the medal and to get the honour. At a lesser level we go on our runs or do our exercises, even when it hurts, in order to become fit and strong, in order to be healthier and live longer! And we try to seek immortality in this world – whether that is through continuing our name or our genes. That is why the story of the woman and the 7 brothers is so important to people who do not believe in the resurrection (although it is very male centric); or by building monuments and proving to the world that we matter.
And if it is all about this world, why should I go to that place where I am prepared to face my poverty in spirit? Why should I not just party, especially in the face of death and tragedy? Why should I think of other people as better than myself? Why should I pursue righteousness, especially if it gives such little material reward? Why should I show mercy to people who have treated me as scum? Why should I be a peacemaker? It just means that it is my head that will get shot off. Why should I stand up for Jesus if it means that I will be mocked and rejected? And if it is all about this world, why should I deny myself, take up my cross and follow Jesus.
Without the resurrection, it is idiocy to live the Jesus way.
But Jesus speaks of the resurrection as a reality. And he lived it as a reality. He was willing to give up everything, even his life so that those who were his enemies in this age might, in the new age, in the resurrection, become his friends for eternity. He went through the pain and the shame of the cross for, Hebrews tells us, ‘the joy set before him’.
2. And Jesus speaks here of
THE GROUNDS FOR THE RESURRECTION
Jesus does not argue the resurrection from what would be called natural theology. He doesn’t look at the cycle of Spring and Autumn, life and death and rebirth.
He does not argue for the resurrection based on personal experience. He doesn’t say the resurrection happens because so and so had a near death experience, and this is what they encountered. No doubt, God uses books like ‘Heaven is for real’, but it is not the argument Jesus uses.
Instead notice how Jesus places his deep conviction for the reality of the resurrection on the Word of God. He is radically word-centred, bible-centred. He argues that the reason we can be sure that there is a resurrection is because God has revealed himself, in his Word, through Moses, as ‘the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob’ (v37). And Jesus says God cannot be the God of anything dead. If God touches anything, if God knows anyone, it will be alive.
You may, in your more philosophical moments, have wondered whether something exists if nobody is looking at it or thinking of it. If you shut your eyes and blocked your ears and stopped thinking about me, would the preacher cease to exist?
Sadly, I’m not going to go away that easily!
But with God it is different. If God knows something it exists. God declares himself the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob and so they exist, even if they have physically died.
And if God does not know something or someone, it may by the grace of God have a shadow existence, but it does not really exist.
That is why the words on the day of judgement, when God says to some ‘I never knew you’ are so devastating. And that is why those words at the end of 1 Corinthians 13 are so reassuring: when we are told that in the age to come, ‘we will know [him] as we have been fully known’.
Jesus is radically bible-centred, word-centred. That is liberating because it cuts through all the uncertainties of our human knowledge. I was helped when I read Karl Barth’s argument for the existence of creation. He said, ‘I do not believe that there is a creation out there because I can sense it. My senses could be all wrong. It could be one big dream. No. I believe that there is a world outside of my head because my a-priori, my base assumption, the thing that I will live for and the thing that I will die for, is a God who has revealed himself in his Word. And because God has spoken and has told us that he has created a world, then there must be a world.
Of course, for us as Christians who live after the death and resurrection of Jesus, there is an additional reason to believe in the resurrection. Jesus has been there and has done it. He has gone into death and he has come out the other side. And people saw him, their lives were changed and history was changed. And you can read about it here.
3. And Jesus speaks of
THE SHAPE OF THE RESURRECTION
He speaks of the reality of the age to come.
He gives us a glimpse through the window into the resurrection age.
We will be like angels. (v36)
Some of the early commentators speak of how angels are beyond sexual desire and so there is no marriage. But Matthew’s version of this incident (Matthew 22.23-32) seems to imply that as angels there will be no marriage because we will be beyond male and female. And Luke seems to be saying that the key thing about angels is that they do not die, and so there is no need for marriage or procreation to preserve our name or our genes.
And we will be God’s children (v36).
Of course, if we have fallen on our knees in recognition of the astounding fact that to be worthy of this age (v35) means that we receive this age as a gift, we are God’s children now. But John writes of how, on the day of resurrection, we will be revealed as children of God. And he goes on, ‘But we know that when Christ appears we shall be like him for we shall see him as he is’ (1 John 3.1-3)
Of course it is really difficult to speak of what it will be like in the resurrection. Paul in 1 Corinthians 15 says to those who ask, ‘What kind of bodies will we have in the resurrection?’ ‘You fool! Can an acorn under the ground even begin to imagine its future glory as an oak tree? Of course not. We cannot begin to imagine it.’
But we do know that our hope and our destiny is glorious.
CS Lewis speaks of how on that day, when we see each other, we will be a bit shy and a bit afraid of the other. Because we will see the other in their glory and radiance, as God intended them to be. It will be like being in the presence of a mega celebrity, of royalty.
Joni Earickson, who as a teenager was paralysed from the neck down in a diving accident, and who has written several books about her Christian faith, writes, “I have hope in the future. The Bible speaks about bodies being glorified. I know the meaning of that now. It's the time after my death here when I, the quadriplegic, will be on my feet dancing”.
Psalm 16, another passage in the Old Testament which points to the resurrection, speaks of how, in the presence of God, there will be fullness of joy (Ps 16.11). At Friday prayers, both John and Ann were saying how relatives had had that verse engraved into their headstones.
We need to ask God to give us a renewed conviction not only in the reality of the resurrection but in the awareness that it is all about the resurrection.
Because it is the conviction of the resurrection that will transform God’s church and liberate us to live for God here on earth.
The story is told about Basil Hume, the former cardinal of Westminster, who went to see his great friend, the abbot of Ampleforth. He told him that the doctors had given him only 6 months to live. ‘Oh Basil’, came the reply, ‘I am so pleased for you’.