Tag Archives: heaven

Sunday, May 7th

FOURTH SUNDAY OF EASTER

Acts 2:42–47
Psalm 23
1 Peter 2:19–25
John 10:1–10

PRAYER OF THE DAY: O God our shepherd, you know your sheep by name and lead us to safety through the valleys of death. Guide us by your voice, that we may walk in certainty and security to the joyous feast prepared in your house, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

“Though I walk through the valley of the shadow of death…”

That phrase has taken on more urgency for me over the last decade during which both Sesle and I have lost our parents and now stand with no further familial buffer against the encroaching shadow. The loss of our grandson, Parker, was a cruel reminder that, in reality, there is no buffer. Death leaps over generational lines with the agility of a tiger to snatch lives fresh from the womb, lives that have yet to offer their tender buds to the world. Daily news clips from Syria and northern Iraq bring us graphic images of whole populations that understand with clarity we can never hope to achieve how “even in the midst of life we are in death.”  The Bible doesn’t offer any escape from all this. Death is our only exit. No one gets off this planet alive. But the Bible, and the 23rd Psalm in particular, assures us that we need not pass through that door alone. “Thou art with me, thy rod and thy staff, they comfort me.”

I am not much interested in whether and to what extent the psalmist believed in a resurrection of the dead or any kind of human existence beyond the grave. It was apparently enough for this psalmist to be confident that whatever the end might hold, s/he could count on facing it in the company and protection of the Lord, his/her shepherd. That was enough. Moreover, it must still suffice even in the light of Jesus’ resurrection. For the truth is, none of us know exactly what resurrection is or what new creation looks like. When the Biblical authors speak of it, they must resort to lurid apocalyptic images, parables, limited analogies that, taken too far, always break down. Jesus tells us that those accounted worthy of the resurrection to eternal life are “like angels in heaven.” But what does that mean? Paul tells us that our resurrection life will be as different from our current existence as a flowering plant is different from the seed that gave it birth. So how can we hope to form any reliable image of “the life everlasting” we confess in the creeds?

I find myself confronted with two opposite and unsatisfactory resolutions to this tension. On the one hand, I find a tendency to say more than what we actually know about resurrected life. “Grand dad is looking down at us.” “Happy Birthday Mom on your second year in heaven.” “Good to know that Jeremy is watching over his younger siblings.” I don’t suppose there is any real harm in such sentiments. They can, however, reflect a naïve and inaccurate view of the resurrection’s magnitude and effect. Nothing will be gained if I am resurrected as the same selfish, insecure, bigoted and vindictive cuss I have always been before. If we bring into eternity our old selves with all the wounds, wrongs and bitterness that put us at each other’s throats for all of history, it won’t be anything like “heaven.” If I am going to live faithfully, obediently and joyfully together with all people in a new creation, I need to become a fundamentally new person. I will have to be different-so much so that my new self might not even be recognizable as the old. What, then, does that mean? Who am I without my memories of the events, both proud and shameful, that made me who I am? Will there be enough continuity between who we are and who we will be that we can recognize each other in the new creation? Does that even matter?

At the other end of the extreme I have known plenty of thoughtful and faithful believers who are ready to dispense with any concrete notion of resurrection from death. For them, repentance and faith are death and resurrection enough. The kingdom of God lived out in love under the sign of the cross is as much heaven as they need. It is enough for them to know that they die into God. Borg, Marcus J., Speaking Christian, (c. 2011 by Marcus Borg, pub. by HarperCollins) p. 201. I have some sympathy with this approach. After all, eternal life is not solely or even primarily a distant future reality, particularly as it is described in the Gospel of John. Indeed, what makes life eternal is not its duration, but its quality. Life that is conformed to eternal Trinitarian love is itself qualitatively eternal. For people like myself, who have lived full lives filled with the love of a good marriage, the satisfaction of productive and  meaningful work, the joy of seeing my children grow up into faithful adults contributing much to the health of creation, this life might conceivably be enough. But what about Parker, who did not ever have the opportunity to learn to walk, talk, fall in love, get his heart broken and grow into a man? What about the millions upon millions whose lives from childhood on are consumed merely with day to day survival? It seems to me that the Triune God, the God who is love from eternity, could hardly bear to leave these unfinished, unreconciled, unfulfilled lives in the grave. I cannot imagine a new creation in which these “least,” these forgotten by everyone but God, are not taken up and woven into its fabric.

At the end of the day, it seems to me we must continue to confess the resurrection of the dead and the life of the world to come-even though we don’t quite know what we are talking about. It is enough to know that the God who called again from death the great Shepherd of the sheep and who brought us all this way will not abandon us at the end, but instead will continue to give us life. It is enough to know that the God who at the dawn of time scooped up a hand full of dust and breathed into it God’s life giving Spirit will again scoop up the dust we must all become and make of us new creatures. “And so we shall always be with the Lord.” I Thessalonians 4:17. That isn’t nearly all I would like to know. But it’s enough for me to live confidently in the valley of the shadow of death.

Here’s a poem expressing hope for memory that is deep enough and compassion strong enough to hold for eternity all that is true, beautiful and good.

Stories in the Trash

This here quilt’s all I still got of Grandma’s.
Watched her make it when I was a kid.
I’d come tearing through the house,
Always on the way to somewhere else,
And there she’d be sitting on the floor,
Surrounded by old coats, cast off clothes,
Bed sheets, coverlets and table cloths.
It all finally came together in this quilt.

Course, that’s a long time ago.
Quilt’s dirty, worn and not fit for much.
But I expect I’ll hold onto it just the same.
Seems somehow sacrilegious,
Just throwing it into the dumpster.
I’ll leave that job to the kids.
They’ll waste no time in tossing it.
To them it’s just a rag with no story.

I’m not an especially religious man.
Don’t know much about God.
As for the Bible, just a verse or two.
Don’t know or much care if any of it’s true.
I sort of hope, though, there’s Someone
Who remembers the stories in things,
Someone who doesn’t forget
What all the old stuff in the garbage means.

Anonymous

Acts 2:42–47

Like Acts 4:32-35 and Acts 5:12-16 this passage gives us what some would call an “idyllic picture” of the early church. See Flanagan, Neal M., O.S.M. The Acts of the Apostles, New Testament Reading Guide (c. 1964 by The Order of St. Benedict, Inc.) p. 31. Indeed, there is a tendency among mainline commentators to dismiss this description of the church’s communal existence as Lukan embellishment intended to inspire rather than reflect historical reality. The Anabaptist tradition, however, has taken these texts quite seriously. HutteriteAmishAmana and Bruderhof communities have, each in their own way, put into practice the vision of communal life set forth in the Book of Acts. These countercultural movements are often criticized in mainline circles for their clannishness, lack of engagement with the outside world and parochialism. Yet one cannot help but observe that these mainline criticisms of the Anabaptists sound suspiciously similar to criticisms Jesus warned his disciples to expect from the world-precisely because they do not belong to the world. John 15:19. There is nothing more repugnant and threatening to any society than a community within it that does not share its values, priorities and loyalties. Witness Roman imperial culture’s discomfort with the early church and Christendom’s fear of and hostility toward the Jews. Maybe we mainliners are uncomfortable with the communal Anabaptist groups because they remind us just how thoroughly indistinguishable we are from the rest of society at large. We are fond of touting as a virtue the fact that one “doesn’t wear his/her religion on his/her sleeve,” which is another way of saying that you would never guess that s/he was a Christian if you didn’t ask. Does anyone besides me see a problem with that?

A pastor participating in an online discussion I look in on occasionally recently commented on the perennial conflict between children’s sports events and Sunday morning worship. This pastor suggested that, rather than sitting in a church building and insisting that people come to us, we need to bring church to where the people are. Her specific suggestion was that the church hold a brief worship service on the soccer field prior to the game for all who desire to worship, but do not want to pull their children out of the game. I have no doubt this suggestion was made in the spirit of the great commission with the best of intentions. Nevertheless, I have to wonder whether making discipleship easier, less costly and more convenient is a faithful path for us to be following. Do we gain anything by continually downsizing the call of discipleship to fit within the ever shrinking gaps in our increasingly busy schedules? The early church called upon its members to give up their lives for the sake of Jesus’ name. Now we cannot bring ourselves to ask them to forfeit a soccer game! If we don’t believe seeking Jesus in the breaking of the bread is worth a soccer game, is it at all surprising that we cannot convince anyone else that church is at all worthwhile?

It is worth noting that, as outsiders viewed the community in the second chapter of Acts, “Awe came upon everyone…” and “day by day the Lord added to their number those who were being saved.” Vs 43 and vs. 47. I believe that there are many people out there looking for an alternative to the shallow existence our culture of death offers us. The problem is, they simply are not seeing that alternative in the church. We have become so preoccupied with marketing the gospel at fire sale prices to folks who don’t care that we have obscured its lure from the eyes of those who do. Perhaps it is time for us mainliners to take a second look at our lesson from Acts.

Psalm 23

This psalm came up last in the lectionary on Sunday, March 26th. I refer you to my post of that date for my general comments. Specific to its meaning for this “Good Shepherd” Sunday, I note that sheep are not pets and they are not given the protection of the shepherd because they are cute and cuddly. Inevitably, the shepherd will call upon them to give up their lives-just as he puts his life in jeopardy for their sake. The church cannot read this psalm without recognizing the prospect of martyrdom on the horizon. There is no room for sentimentality when preaching on this psalm or any depiction of Jesus as the Good Shepherd.

Our familiarity with this psalm can blind us to its discordant images, namely, the shepherd who cares for the sheep and the host who practices hospitality to strangers. In this regard, Professor Bernard W. Anderson has observed: “This problem begins to resolve itself when we project ourselves imaginatively out of our industrial milieu into the pastoral way of life which still prevails in some parts of the world today. The shepherd can be portrayed from two standpoints. He is the protector of the sheep as they wander in search of grazing land. Yet he is also the protector of the traveler who finds hospitality in his tent from the dangers and enemies of the desert. Even today the visitor to certain parts of the Middle East can see the scene that lies at the basis of this psalm: the black camel’s hair tent where the traveler receives Bedouin hospitality, and the surrounding pastureland where the sheep graze under the protection of the shepherd. In Psalm 23, Yahweh is portrayed as the Shepherd in both aspects of the shepherd’s life: as the Leader of the flock, and as the hospitable Host.” Anderson, Bernhard W., Out of the Depths: The Psalms Speak for Us Today, (c. 1983 by Bernhard W. Anderson, pub. by The Westminster Press) p. 208.

St. Augustine’s truly delightful treatment of this psalm as a paradigm of discipleship wherein Christ accompanies the believer from baptism into eternal life is well worth reading.

1 Peter 2:19–25

The lectionary folks, in their paternalistic wisdom, have excised verse 18 from the text so that the congregation hearing this reading would never guess that the admonition to suffer patiently is given to slaves of abusive masters. Granted, this is a problematic text. I wouldn’t blame the architects of the lectionary for leaving it out altogether. But ripping it from its context and making it appear to say something quite other than what it says is, not to put too fine a point on it, a lie.

I plan to stay away from this lesson. If I were going to preach on it, however, I would lay my emphasis on verse 19: “For one is approved if, mindful of God, he endures pain while suffering unjustly.” Mindful, that is to say, of the God of the Exodus. In this context, submission must be taken merely is non-retaliatory. The slave is not called upon to accept slavery. God does not approve slavery, much less abuse of slaves. Yet the struggle for liberation lies in faithful witness to a reign of God not yet complete. Such witness invariably involves suffering. The flip side of recognizing the humanity of the slave is the slave’s recognition of the humanity of the master. In the reign of God, the last are first and the first last. Still, even one who finishes last still finishes. Liberation, not retaliation is the goal.

Finally, it is important to understand that slavery in antiquity, though a lamentable condition, was far different from the slavery that existed in the United States in the nineteenth century. Slavery in the first century Roman Empire was not race based. Racial and ethnic groups were not singled out as inferior or “natural slaves” as was the case for African Americans. If you were a slave in the Roman Empire, it was likely because your parents sold you to satisfy a debt or you were on the losing side of some military conflict. Though few and far between, there were opportunities for slaves to win their freedom and achieve high office in the Roman bureaucracy as the philosopher, Seneca attests. Seneca the Younger, Letter 47. It is impossible to imagine anything like that ever happening in the pre-Civil War south. Thus, there can be no meaningful comparison between slavery in antiquity and that which existed in the southern states prior to the Civil War.

John 10:1–10

In the prior chapter, Jesus gave sight to a man born blind which, in turn, brought on a confrontation. The blind man was finally excommunicated from the synagogue for his dogged insistence that Jesus was responsible for his newfound sight. In the end, the man healed of his blindness worshipped Jesus. This sets the stage for Sunday’s lesson in which the question is posed: Who is the true Shepherd and what is the true community to which the Shepherd grants/denies admission? Clearly, the religious leadership claims to wield such authority and did so with respect to the man born blind. Now these so-called shepherds and the flock they claim as their own are contrasted with the Good Shepherd who also lays claim to the flock.

Jesus employs the image of a sheepfold where several flocks of sheep are lodged for the night. In the morning, the true shepherd can enter and call out his sheep who will follow him as they recognize his voice. Marsh, John, Saint John, Pelican New Testament Commentaries, (c. 1968 John Marsh, pub. Penguin Books, Ltd.) p. 395. Jesus is therefore setting out his claim to be the true shepherd of the people of God. Unlike the coercive power exercised by the religious authorities to keep the sheep in line, Jesus draws his sheep by the sound of his voice which is immediately recognized as genuine. He has no need to employ threats to drive them on. His sheep acknowledge him as their Shepherd and follow him willingly. This image of the shepherd has deep scriptural roots. It is applied throughout the Old Testament both to Israel’s kings and her God. See, e.g. Jeremiah 23:1-8Ezekiel 34Psalm 23Psalm 80.

It is passing strange, then, that Jesus should switch from this familiar and powerful shepherd metaphor to that of the “door of the sheep” in the interest of clarity. For my money, the shepherd image is much easier to comprehend than that of the door. Vss. 1-6. Yet Jesus goes on to distinguish himself from the thieves and robbers who came before him by calling himself a “door.” If the door retains its meaning from vs 2, i.e., the recognized entrance through whom only authorized persons can pass, then this reference to “thieves” and “robbers” could be taken as a) a reference to the leaders of the synagogue that reject the Jesus movement; or b) a warning for the disciples to beware of anyone coming into the church by another name such as false teachers. Brown, Raymond, The Gospel According to John I-X11, The Anchor Bible, (c. 1966 by Doubleday) p. 388. It should also be noted that messianic pretenders prior to Jesus had been characterized both by the Romans and the leaders of the post 70 A.D. Jewish community as “robbers” or “brigands.” Ibid. p. 387. That characterization does not seem to fit the context here, however.

The meaning of the term “door” seems to have changed from verse 2 in verses 7-10. In the latter verses the door is not the entrance through which the shepherd comes to call the sheep, but the door through which the sheep go to find pasture. The door, then, serves a double purpose. It is protective of the flock in that it screens out the thieves and robbers who would harm the sheep. It is also the opening out into good pasture through which the sheep may pass. For what it is worth, one commentator observes that in some Middle Eastern grazing areas it is the custom for the shepherd to sleep in front of the sheep door, his body serving as a barrier to any sheep that might otherwise wander out. Bishop, E.F., “The Door of the Sheep-John 10:7-9,” 71 Expository Times (1959-60) pp. 307-09. That would give concrete expression to Jesus’ saying that the Good Shepherd “lays down his life for the sheep.” Vs. 11 (not included in the reading). But whether that practice existed in the first century or whether this is what Jesus actually meant is anyone’s guess.

Professor Raymond Brown suggests that the change of metaphors comes about as a result of Jesus’ change of emphasis. Verses 1-3a concern the way the Good Shepherd (as opposed to impostors) approaches the sheep. Consequently, the emphasis is on the gate. Verses 3b-5 concern the relationship between the Good Shepherd and the sheep and so focus on the shepherd. Brown, op cit. 395. I think that for preaching I will focus either on the “door” or on the “shepherd.” Mixing these two metaphors seems to have confused the dickens out of Jesus’ original hearers. If Jesus couldn’t make this work, there is a good chance it will prove rough sledding for me as well.

Sunday, December 6th

SECOND SUNDAY OF ADVENT

Malachi 3:1-4
Luke 1:68-79
Philippians 1:3-11
Luke 3:1-6

PRAYER OF THE DAY: Stir up our hearts, Lord God, to prepare the way of your only Son. By his coming give to all the people of the world knowledge of your salvation; through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord, who lives and reigns with you and the Holy Spirit, one God, now and forever.

This Sunday’s lessons promise justice. The prophet Malachi assures Israel that the Lord will appear as a refiner’s fire purifying the earth for a new age. Zechariah sings of the day when God will deliver Israel from her enemies that she might “serve him without fear, in holiness and righteousness…” Paul expresses his confidence that God, who began a good work in us, “will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” John the Baptist proclaims the leveling of mountains and the exaltation of valleys at the advance of the One who is to come. That’s all good news-until you start thinking about it.

Malachi sounds this sobering cautionary note: “but who can endure the day of his coming, and who can stand when he appears?” If the reign of God were to come tomorrow, I am not at all convinced that I would be prepared to meet it. The problem with heaven is that it will be hell for those of us who are not ready to live there. How many of us really want a creation in which all things are reconciled in Christ Jesus? All is a big word. I have no desire to be reconciled with Keith, the kid who bullied me to the point where I hated getting up in the morning and did not feel safe even in my own back yard. Not that I wish him any harm. I’m over that. In fact, I was glad to learn that Keith now has a flourishing dental practice in my home town. I think it’s great that he ended up in a profession where he can both satisfy his sadistic impulses and benefit society. Would that all the world’s sociopaths were so well integrated. I hope he lives long and prospers, but I don’t particularly want to see him again. Then, of course, there are the notorious evildoers: Hitler, Stalin, Osama Bin Landin, Bull Connor and others in the scoundrel’s hall of fame. Heaven would hardly be heaven if these folks were parading about in the presence of their victims. I cannot imagine or accept their reconciliation. Clearly, they must be burned away in the refining process. Justice requires no less-or at least that is so for justice as I understand it.

The trouble is, I don’t understand it. My perception of justice is too self-centered and myopic. I cannot see what is truly just from God’s perspective. For that reason, we all need to be careful about demanding justice. Sometimes you get what you ask for and it is not what you expect. The line between good and evil does not run neatly between righteous and unrighteous people, good nations and evil nations. That line runs through the middle of every human heart. The evil we hate and deplore in others is often a reflection of what lies in the depths of our own hearts. The cleansing fire of God’s justice comes not merely to eliminate people I don’t like. It comes to deal with the grudges I can’t let go of; resentment of enemies I can’t find it in my heart to forgive; my lust for recognition that never seems to be satisfied; and the lies I tell myself about myself in order for me to live with myself. Justice has a lot of refining to do with my own soul before I can live justly under God’s reign.

I am beginning to understand the Roman Catholic doctrine of purgatory. Though it has little or no support in the scriptures, it makes good sense. Clearly, it will take more than a life time to purge my soul and make me capable of sharing in the love of the Father for the Son and for the rest of creation. But whether I must undergo thousands of years of purging or whether I am changed “in a moment, in the twinkling of an eye,” it amounts to the same thing, namely, change. After undergoing such a radical transformation, after being refined in the fierce fire of God’s judgment, after being cleansed of the pride, resentment, anxiety and envy that have shaped so much of my life, will there by anything left of me? Is there enough of the mind of Christ in me to constitute a new person?

Saint Paul gives me some comfort here with his assurance that God, who began a good work in me at baptism, will bring that good work to completion in the Day of Jesus Christ. God will see to it that God’s eternal destiny for me (not necessarily my own hopes for eternity) will be fulfilled. The man I might become after passing through the refining fire of God’s judgment may not be recognizable to me. But he will recognize the Lord who has been present to him throughout his lifetime. And that, Saint John tells us, is the stuff of eternal life. Perhaps that is why Jesus told us in last week’s gospel not to fear the dissolution of creation and to raise our heads in hope even as the signs of our own destruction are all around. However fearful the judgment might be, it is a cleansing judgment, a refining fire, a wound designed to heal. It is the storm that necessarily precedes the calm.

Here’s a poem by Leonora Speyer.

Squall

The squall sweeps gray-winged across the obliterated hills,
And the startled lake seems to run before it;
From the wood comes a clamor of leaves,
Tugging at the twigs,
Pouring from the branches,
And suddenly the birds are still.
Thunder crumples the sky,
Lightning tears at it.

And now the rain!
The rain—thudding—implacable—
The wind, reveling in the confusion of great pines!

And a silver sifting of light,
A coolness;
A sense of summer anger passing,
Of summer gentleness creeping nearer—
Penitent, tearful, Forgiven!

Malachi 3:1-4

Nothing is known about the prophet Malachi, whose name in Hebrew means, “My messenger.” The prophet probably lived between 500 and 450 B.C.E. after the Jewish exiles from Babylon had returned and rebuilt the temple in Jerusalem. For more information about the prophetic book bearing his name, I refer you to the Summary Article by Michael Rogness, Professor of Preaching and Professor Emeritus of Homiletic at Luther Seminary, St. Paul, M.N.

Malachi was fiercely dedicated to the reconstructed temple and highly critical of the priesthood he accused of corrupting its worship. Malachi also criticizes the people of Israel for their failure to support the temple, for offering sick and blemished animals for sacrifice and for a general lack of faithfulness to Israel’s covenant with her God. In the concluding chapter Malachi answers his critics who claim that God has abandoned Israel. God is sending “my messenger” before him who will “suddenly come to his temple.” Vs. 1. The question is not whether God will come, but whether Israel will be able to stand in God’s presence. Vs. 2. “For [God] is like a refining fire,” a “purifier of silver.” This God will “purify the sons of Levi and refine them like gold and silver, till they present right offerings to the Lord.” Vss. 2-3.

The news is good in the sense that the ultimate result will be that “Judah and Jerusalem will be pleasing to the Lord as in the days of old and as in former times.”  Vs. 4. Yet the purification process promises to be painful. The refining fire will consume all the dross and impurities from Israel. There will be a terrible cost for this purification. So also John is sent to “preach a baptism of repentance for the forgiveness of sin.” The intent is to save Israel, but salvation cannot come without a painful transformation. That continues to be the case. To be baptized into Jesus Christ is to be baptized into Christ’s death. We are called daily to die to sin and rise up again to a new life of faith in Jesus. In the refining fire of the church, a community dedicated to following Jesus, we learn the hard lessons of forgiveness, compassion, faithfulness and hospitality. In other words, we are sanctified and made holy. It is a slow process, a painful process, a process that will not be finished this side of the resurrection and not by us. See Comments on Philippians 1:3-11 below. Yet it is a joyful process in which we discover just how wonderful it is to be a creature reflecting the glory of his or her Creator.

Luke 1:68-79

You need to know the story behind this song before you can understand it. These are the words of Zechariah, the father of John the Baptist. He was a priest of the temple in Jerusalem in the time just prior to Jesus’ birth. When his division was on duty, he was selected to enter into the temple and burn incense before the holy of holies. While he was performing this duty, an angel appeared to him and told him that his wife, Elizabeth, would bear a son and instructed him to name the child John. Understandably, Zechariah was incredulous. He was an old man and his wife was also long past child bearing years. They had never been able to have children before. So Zechariah asked the angel, “How shall I know this?” The angel identified himself as Gabriel, “who stand in the presence of God.” Gabriel told Zechariah that he would be unable to speak until the birth of the child because he doubted this good news. So it was that Zechariah emerged from the temple speechless. Luke 1:5-20.

Elizabeth conceived and bore a son. Her relatives and neighbors began calling the infant “Zechariah” after his father, but Elizabeth corrected them: “Not so,” says Elizabeth. “His name is John.” Everyone protests that no one in her family has ever borne that name. Then they turn to Zechariah who would have had the final say in this matter. Much to their surprise, Zechariah asks for a writing tablet and inscribes on it these words for all to see: “His name is John.” At that instant, Zechariah’s tongue is set free and he breaks forth in the song that is our psalm for the day. Luke 1:57-66.

Though the birth of John is the occasion for this joyous song, the song’s focus is on the mighty works and promises of God. The promises made to Abraham and to David are evoked by Zechariah’s words. The “horn of salvation” (Vs. 69) is a symbol of might. See Deuteronomy 33:17. The covenantal language throughout the song unites the promises made to Abraham with those sworn to David. Vss. 70-73. The “horn of salvation” raised up within the house of David will make the Abrahamic promises of blessing to all peoples a reality. This “horn of salvation” is Jesus. John’s identity and role is spelled out in this hymn only in relation to Jesus before whom John will go as a prophet of the Most High. John will prepare the way by giving people “knowledge of salvation in the forgiveness of their sins.” Vs. 77.

A couple of things are worth noting here. First, there is an interesting interplay between Zachariah’s inability to speak and Elizabeth’s speech concerning the naming of her son. Elizabeth’s naming of John is totally ignored by her relatives and neighbors who turn to Zechariah-who has no ability to speak! It is as though poor Elizabeth has no voice. But when the speechless man gives his full support to the voiceless woman, this beautiful song of liberation bursts forth, promising an end to oppression and violence, the dawn of a new day and a path that leads to peace. This is not the first time Luke’s gospel gives a prominent voice to women. We will see throughout the readings we encounter this year a deep concern for women and an intentional effort to give them a voice in the gospel narrative.

Second, it is important to note the wealth of imagery in this song taken from the Hebrew Scriptures. I cannot emphasize enough how critical it is to read the New Testament in light of those Hebrew Scriptures. Unless you fully appreciate the wealth of promises, the richness of hope and the textured narrative embedded in the Hebrew Scriptures, your view of the New Testament will necessarily be truncated and distorted. I am convinced that the most heretical book ever published is the New Testament printed apart from the Hebrew Scriptures.

Philippians 1:3-11

A word or two about Paul’s letter to the Philippians is warranted since we will be hearing lessons from that book this week and next. The first thing to note is that the letter to the Philippians is not one, but actually three different letters sent by Paul to the church at Philippi at different times. These letters were collected together and over time became integrated as a single document. The three letters in their likely chronological order are as follows:

ž  Phil A = Phil 4:10-20   (a short “Note of Thanksgiving” for monetary gifts Paul received from the Philippians)

ž  Phil B = Phil 1:1 – 3:1; 4:4-7; (a “Letter of Friendship” written from prison, probably in Ephesus)

ž  Phil C = Phil 3:2 – 4:3; 4:8-9; 4:21-23   (a stern warning against the rival missionaries who require the circumcision of Gentiles)

It is impossible to determine the timing of the first letter other than to say that it was between the start of Paul’s missionary activity beginning around 45 A.D. and his arrest in Jerusalem around 60 A.D. There is no mention of Paul’s imprisonment in this letter. It appears that the Philippian congregation sent a gift of money in support of Paul’s mission work in Ephesus by the hand of one of its members, Epaphroditus. This evidently was not the first time the congregation had sent support to Paul and he is overwhelmed by this church’s generosity. Though Paul does not depend on material support from his congregations, knowing that God will supply his needs, he nevertheless rejoices in such support as it benefits his mission as well as the spiritual wellbeing of the supporting congregation. After delivering the Philippian church’s gift to Paul, Epaphroditus stayed with him to help in his mission to Ephesus. As a result of civil unrest generated by Paul’s preaching, Paul is arrested and imprisoned. (Acts 19:23-20:1; I Corinthians 15:32; II Corinthians 1:8-11). To make matters worse, Epaphroditus becomes gravely ill. The Philippians are greatly distressed by both of these developments. Upon Epaphroditus’ recovery, Paul sends him back to the Philippians with the second letter assuring them that, in spite of the circumstances, he is well and that his imprisonment is furthering the cause of the gospel. The final letter appears to be a fragment from a larger letter, the remainder of which has been lost. Paul is writing to warn the Philippians of some rival missionaries who are teaching the Gentile converts that they must be circumcised in order to join the church. This issue is treated further in Paul’s Letter to the Galatians.

Our reading for this Sunday comes from the second letter, Phil B. Though there is some dispute among scholars over where Paul was imprisoned when he wrote this letter, it is clear that Paul was imprisoned at the time for activities related to his preaching. I find most persuasive the conclusion that Paul was in Ephesus at this time. It is noteworthy that Paul begins his letter not with a description of his own dire circumstances as a prisoner, but with a word of thanksgiving for the support and partnership he has received from the church at Philippi. If you read further on in this first chapter of Philippians, it becomes clear that Paul’s position is precarious. The proceedings against him could possibly lead to a death sentence. Though Paul would prefer release from prison and further fruitful ministry, he is prepared to die for his witness to Jesus. He is confident that his little church in Philippi is safe in the arms of Jesus and that God “who began a good work in you will bring it to completion at the day of Jesus Christ.” Vs. 6.

I think this is about the most comforting word in the Bible. After all, life is full of loose ends. There are things I wish I had said to Mom and Dad when they were still alive. There are activities I wish I had done with my children, places I wish I could have taken them, time lost that I know I should have spent with them. Although I would like to believe I have grown in wisdom and understanding, I know that I suffer from the same insecurity, fear and anger I have known all my life. There are days when I ask myself, “Peter, are you ever going to grow up?” Now, well into the top third of my statistically determined life span, it is clear to me that I have not the time, energy or wisdom to tie up all the loose ends in my life. So it is good to know that, where I can make only a very poor beginning, Jesus promises completion. I can die before the work is finished knowing that Jesus will heal what is wounded, reconcile what is estranged and restore what has been lost.

In this season of Advent our focus is on what Paul calls “the day of Jesus Christ.” Vs. 6. I think that Paul’s word here must be set against warning of Malachi. Yes, the prophet Malachi is correct. God’s messenger comes as a refining fire to burn away all the chaff. That will not be pleasant. But as unpleasant as the refining process is, the objective is to heal, purify and perfect. Burning away the impurities is simply part and parcel of bringing to completion the good work begun at our baptism into Jesus Christ. Malachi poses the question: “Who can endure the day of [God’s] coming and who can stand when he appears?” The answer, according to Paul, is everyone who clings in faith to Jesus’ promise to use that fiery day to complete in us what he began.

Luke 3:1-6

Luke’s introduction of John the Baptist begins with a roll call of all the movers and shakers in the ancient Mediterranean world. Tiberius, emperor of Rome, was the successor to Augustus Caesar, the man credited with imposing the “peace of Rome” over the world (or a good portion of it anyway). Tiberius was a great general responsible for expanding the imperial borders. As an emperor, he was much less effective. He was known to be moody, timid and disinterested in affairs of state. In many respects he was an inept leader riding the coattails of his illustrious predecessor. Pontius Pilate, who we will meet later on, became prefect of Judaea in 26 A.D. According to the Jewish historian, Josephus, he was ordered back to Rome after harshly suppressing a Samaritan uprising in about 37 A.D. Herod the “tetrarch” (meaning ruler of the fourth), was a son of the infamous Herod the Great, known in Matthew’s gospel for the slaughter of the children of Bethlehem. Also known as Herod Antipas, he was responsible for the imprisonment and execution of John the Baptist. Unlike his father who ruled all of Judea, Herod Antipas ruled only the region of Galilee. Philip the Tetrarch was also a son of Herod the Great and a half-brother of Herod Antipas. Philip inherited the northeast part of his father’s kingdom, Judah. Little is known about Lysanias other than that he was probably another regional ruler appointed by Rome as were Herod and Philip. His territory was to the north of Judah. For a thorough discussion of the political movers and shakers of this era, see Marshall, Howard I., Commentary on Luke, New International Greek Testament Commentary (c. 1978 by Paternoster Press, Ltd.) pp. 132-134.

High priests were selected and appointed by the Roman authorities, often with little input from the Jewish people. This practice did much to discredit the priesthood in the eyes of the Jewish people as a whole. So also did the onerous taxes collected for the support of the temple and the commercial activity in the temple courts-much of the proceeds of which went directly to the coffers of Rome. Thus, Jesus’ act of cleansing the temple not only offended Jerusalem’s religious elite. It was also a shot across the bow of Rome. Annas was high priest until 14 A.D. when he was deposed by the Roman authorities and replaced with his own son in law, Caiaphas. Schweizer, Eduard, The Good News According to Luke, (c. 1984 by John Knox Press) p. 69. It seems clear from the passion accounts in the gospels, however, that Annas continued to exercise a significant degree of authority behind the scenes. Indeed, Luke goes so far as to name both men as high priests, though technically there could only have been one. Ibid. 70.

“The word of the Lord came to John the son of Zachariah in the wilderness…” This is a common formula used throughout the Hebrew Scriptures. See, e.g., Jeremiah 1:1-3; Ezekiel 1:1-3; Micah 1:1-2. Because word and action are largely the same when it comes to God’s speech, it might be better to translate the phrase: “The word of God happened to John.” Ibid p. 70. The word of the Lord comes to a prophet, but never in a vacuum. The word comes in specific times, in certain places and during the reigns of particular kings. These contextual settings are important because ours is a God that takes history seriously. The word of God is always addressed to a specific audience in a specific circumstance. To put it differently, God is one who gets involved with the messy details of our lives. So much so that the Gospel of John can say that God’s Word ultimately becomes flesh and blood, entering into the messy business of birth, childhood, adolescence, suffering and death. The world into which this Incarnate Word comes is a violent, corrupt and dangerous place. This is not a fairytale we are about to hear. Yet because this is our world, a world filled with destructive evils we have made for ourselves and because we cannot seem to escape the consequences of what our hands have made, the news of Christ’s coming into the midst of our self-made mess with the healing touch of God is incredibly good.

John the Baptist is introduced with a passage from the first chapter of Isaiah. These words were addressed to the exiled Jews living in Babylon in the 6th Century B.C.E.  The prophet sees in the immanent fall of Babylon to Persia a God given opportunity for his people to return home to Palestine. The “highway” through the desert refers to the way God is making from Babylon to Jerusalem for the exiles’ return. The people in Jesus’ time were exiles in their own land. They were governed by rulers appointed from Rome and the produce of their nation was being extracted by Roman taxation. Roman troops, ever present throughout Judea and Galilee, did not hesitate to crucify anyone who dared challenge Rome’s authority. Into this violent and conflicted land the word of the Lord came to John. What then will this word be? What powerful forces will it set in motion? What news will break forth from the mouth of this prophet? We will find out about that next week!

It is also worth noting that, after Luke goes to great lengths filling us in on the identity of various powers that be governing the empire from Rome to Galilee, he turns our focus abruptly away from all these “movers and shakers” to the wilderness. It is here that God speaks. It is here where the news is being made. The events that are about to shake the universe to its core are not being debated in the Roman Senate or decreed in the Temple of Jerusalem. They are being announced by a strange preacher in the heart of the wilderness where nothing newsworthy happens-or so we have been led to believe. Luke would have us know that the real news isn’t what gets printed in the papers. It is happening in the last places you would expect: in the wilderness; in a drafty old barn; on a rocky hill outside Jerusalem where miscreants are put to death; in the darkness of a tomb.

 

Sunday, November 10th

Twenty-Fifth Sunday after Pentecost

Job 19:23–27a
Psalm 17:1–9
2 Thessalonians 2:1–5, 13–17
Luke 20:27–38

Prayer of the Day: O God, our eternal redeemer, by the presence of your Spirit you renew and direct our hearts. Keep always in our mind the end of all things and the day of judgment. Inspire us for a holy life here, and bring us to the joy of the resurrection, through Jesus Christ, our Savior and Lord

The Sadducees in this week’s gospel lesson were probably more interested in ridiculing and humiliating Jesus than learning anything new about the resurrection of the dead (something they didn’t believe anyway). Even so, the questions they raise are genuine concerns for people who do believe in the resurrection. Will I be raised as the same individual I am today, with all of the same experiences and memories? What will happen to the memories I would give anything to be rid of? Will I recognize and be recognized by the people I have loved? What about people I would rather never see again in this life or the next? And, yes, what about my marriage? Will a lifelong relationship that has come to define me amount to nothing in the new creation?

I used to dismiss these concerns as empty and pointless. After all, we are probably no more able to comprehend life on the other side of the resurrection than a caterpillar is able to imagine life as a butterfly. So why bother puzzling over questions that nobody can answer and probably don’t matter anyway? If God can be trusted to raise the dead, can’t God also be trusted to iron out all the resulting complications? While the left side of my brain continues to assure me that questions about life after resurrection are indeed beyond the reach of my intellect and imagination, my right brain has become restive. Whether it is due to the growing body of evidence for my own mortality, the recent deaths of my parents or a combination of both, I find myself more sympathetic toward people seeking a better understanding of what eternal life entails. Thirty-two years of ministry has also convinced me that the church must speak to these concerns. If we remain silent, we abandon the field to tarot card readers, boardwalk mediums and ever popular TV spiritualists of the John Edward variety. They are only too happy to exploit grief, loneliness and uncertainty for their own personal gain.

Our creeds confess “the resurrection of the body.” Understand that biblical faith knows nothing of an eternal soul. Whatever we are made of-body, soul, mind, spirit or anything else-all of that ceases to exist at death. If there is life beyond the grave, it is not because some eternal part of us survives death and continues to exist in some form thereafter. The Bible knows nothing of any “spirit world.” The only hope there is for life after death is God’s promise to breathe life back into the lifeless dust we have become. The gospel therefore does not promise an escape from death. There is no way around death; there is only a way through it. The way through death is union with Jesus in his own death: “For if we have been united with him in a death like his, we shall certainly be united with him in a resurrection like his.” Romans 6:5.

A good friend of mine once told me that he views death as nothing more than “passing through a door into heaven.” While I admire the confident faith that I know lies behind that assertion, I cannot agree with the assertion itself. I pass through any number of doors on any given day and they seldom have any effect on me. I carry through each door all of the same prejudices, grudges, ignorance and nastiness that I was born with or picked up over the years. If I simply carry all that with me into the new creation, it won’t be new for very long. Something has to happen to me before I can live peaceably under the gentle reign of God. Before I can live in the new creation, I have to become a new creation myself. That won’t happen through gradual moral improvement. Nothing short of death and resurrection is required. What is raised from death must necessarily be qualitatively different from what has been consigned to death. I must be raised as a new person capable of loving as I am loved. It won’t be “the same old me.”

Something of that death and resurrection is what should be happening with repentance, confession and forgiveness. Martin Luther calls it “drowning the old Adam.” St. Paul describes it in this way: “forgetting what lies behind and straining forward to what is ahead, I press on toward the goal for the prize of the upward call of God in Christ Jesus.” Philippians 3:14. The important thing to remember here is that the new person is God’s project from beginning to end. Repentance and confession are not spiritual exercises that transform us. Rather, they are the tools by which the Holy Spirit accomplishes the good work of our re-creation. We cannot even know what that work will look like in the end. As St. John puts it, “we are God’s children now; it does not yet appear what we shall be, but we shall be like [Christ] for we shall see him as he is.” I John 3:2. That might not be everything we would like to know, but it is enough.

There is one other concern that comes up frequently in my discussions with people about death and dying. What exactly happens at death? Do we go directly to heaven or do we remain in death until the last day when the dead are raised? Again, I used to be more dismissive of these concerns. Who knows? What difference does it make? When you are dead, ten days might as well be ten-thousand years. But I sense that there is more here than idle curiosity. I think we are looking for assurance that we and our loved ones who go before us will be held together somehow even in death. Thus, although the Hebrew Scriptures generally do not acknowledge any sort of life after death, still Israel believed that God was somehow present even when “my flesh and my heart may fail…” Psalm 73:26. When Jesus responded to his opponents’ denial of the resurrection, he did so by citing God’s self identification as “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob.” Luke 20:37. He then went on to point out that God “is not God of the dead but of the living; for all live to him.” Luke 20:38.

I do not know exactly what it means for the dead to “live to God.” I don’t believe for one moment that it refers to some ethereal “spirit world” made up of disembodied souls. Again, there is not one scrap of scriptural support for the pagan notion of an immortal soul. But, in addition to the resurrection of the body, our creeds confess “the communion of saints.” The author of Hebrews speaks of the Old Testament heroes of faith as “a cloud of witnesses” surrounding us with encouragement and support. I don’t know how to reconcile faith in the “resurrection of the body” with our confession of the “communion of saints,” but I believe we need to hang onto both these expressions of our faith without surrendering one to the other.

Personally, I don’t have any need to understand how it all fits together. I don’t need to know how it works. After all, I don’t understand how my computer is printing these words on the screen before me as I type them on the keyboard; nor do I understand how it will eventually spew them out onto the World Wide Web. All I know is that my computer has always faithfully performed these tasks for me in the past and most likely will keep on doing so. But for those of you who might benefit from more conceptual clarity, I share with you the reflections of author and theologian Robert W. Jenson from the second volume of his Systematic Theology:

“The key insight is a simple one: a saint now in heaven is not an otherwise constituted entity who anticipates resurrection. God’s anticipation of the saint’s resurrection is the heavenly reality of the saint. For God’s anticipation of creation’s life in the Kingdom, of our deification and our vision of his glory, is the whole being of heaven. The saint’s present reality is in no way attenuated by this doctrine; what God anticipates indeed belongs to the “whither” of this life but is just so accessible to him and so real in its own mode.” Jenson, Robert W., Systematic Theology, Volume 2 (c. 1999 by Robert W. Jenson, Oxford University Press), p. 368.

Perhaps that is what Jesus meant when he said of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob that “they all live” to God.

Job 19:23–27a

For my take generally on the Book of Job, see my entry of Sunday, June 24, 2012. In thinking through the lesson for this coming Sunday, I found particularly helpful Claus Westermann’s book on Job. Employing form-critical analysis, Westermann identifies the dialogues throughout Job as “consoling conversation.” Westermann, Claus, The Structure of the Book of Job-A Form-Critical Analysis (c 1981, Fortress Press) p. 10.  These interchanges involve one who laments his/her misfortune and one or more persons offering comfort and consolation. He further notes that “What it comes down to is that a repeated exchange of words belongs to the process of consolation. In real situations of consolation-as experience demonstrates thousandfold-it almost never happens that the sufferer speaks only once and the consoler replies only once.” Ibid. Furthermore, it is “essential to the process of consolation that the one doing the lamenting be allowed to express himself.” This process, which ought to result in comfort to the afflicted one,  goes awry in the Book of Job. “Disputation has intruded” into the process of consolation with the result that what began as a comforting visit becomes a hostile argument. Ibid. As one reads through the cycles of dialogue in Job, it becomes clear that the target of Job’s lament gradually shifts from his friends to God. Even so, the tone of disputation continues driving all parties away from any prospect of resolution or closure. The spiral of pointless argument is broken only when God intervenes speaking from the heart of the whirl wind.

This is in fact how many encounters with suffering turn out. When people are smarting from a traumatic loss, say for example, the death of a loved one, they often appear hostile and even unreasonable. They might lash out at their loved ones for being unsupportive or the pastor for being inattentive or the church for failing to be sufficiently compassionate. They might even blame God for failing them. Defensiveness tends to be our default posture. You might point out that the family came from all corners of the country to be present at the sufferer’s time of need; that the pastor did everything possible to make the funeral service meaningful and comforting; that the congregation is being supportive in every possible way. You could point out that God has blessed the sufferer throughout his or her life and that this loss is common to everyone at some point. It is therefore entirely irrational to suggest that God is singling him or her out. While all of that might be true, it misses the point. Grief is a matter of the heart, not the head. Consolation is a journey toward healing, not an argument designed to establish propositions. Job’s three friends started out on that journey well enough. They sat with Job in silent solidarity, weeping and mourning with him for seven days. Job 2:11-13. Only when they opened their mouths did everything begin to go downhill.

By the time we reach Chapter 19 form which our lesson is taken, the conversation between Job and his friends has deteriorated into a shouting match. In the previous chapter Bildad, one of the consolers, lashes out at Job in a fit of rage: “Why are we counted as cattle? Why are we stupid in your sight? You who tear yourself in your anger—shall the earth be forsaken because of you, or the rock be removed out of its place?” Job 18:1-4. Bildad and his friends are angry at Job because Job refuses to humble himself before God and seek forgiveness for what must be some significant sin. They have carefully laid out for Job the theological underpinnings for their conclusion that his suffering is the consequence of his own wrong doing. But none of their well reasoned arguments resonate with Job. He continues to speak the language of lament even as they persist in the language of reasoned disputation. The parties are truly talking past each other.  In desperation, Job cries out “How long will you torment me, and break me in pieces with words? These ten times you have cast reproach upon me; are you not ashamed to wrong me? And even if it is true that I have erred, my error remains with me. If indeed you magnify yourselves against me, and make my humiliation an argument against me, know then that God has put me in the wrong, and closed his net around me.” Job 19:1-6.  By this time, Job has given up on finding any consolation from his friends and turns his lament upon God. As much anger and confusion as there might be in Job’s lament, there is also a desperate hope: “For 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 not another.” Job 19:25-27.

This particular verse is well known as it is commonly read at funerals. While I believe that is an appropriate use of the text, it should be understood that it is not a reference to the resurrection of the dead, a belief specifically formed only in the latest Hebrew writings such as Daniel. Job is very much hoping for God’s vindicating judgment to be manifest in his own lifetime. Now that the counsel of his close friends has turned to judgment and accusation, Job has nowhere left to turn other than to God. In the end, God does vindicate Job, pointing out to Job’s counselors that Job’s lament, not their many disputations, constituted faithful speech to and about God. God is not glorified by elaborate conceptual arguments defending his honor. God is glorified by the faithful lament of one who takes God seriously enough to challenge him.

Clearly, consolation requires compassionate listening and suspension of judgment. Job’s counselors failed because they put their own needs to defend the honor of God and maintain their belief in an orderly moral universe before the needs of their suffering friend. Sadly, that is a mistake frequently made even today. So next time you encounter a lamenting friend, remember Job. In addition to providing us with a lesson on how not to offer consolation, this text emphasizes how freely and openly Israel entered into prayer with her God. Though mindful of her own instances of unfaithfulness to her covenant with God, Israel was not afraid to let God know when she felt God was failing to come through on his side of that covenant.

Psalm 17:1–9

This psalm is a lament and prayer for protection from enemies. Some commentators suggest that this is the prayer of a person on the eve of trial in a significant dispute that might cost him/her dearly. The psalmist points out to God that his/her conduct has been faultless and even invites God to “try” and “test” him/her to show that s/he is blameless. Because God is faithful, the psalmist confidently calls upon him for protection and vindication from his/her adversaries. Such vindication will take the shape of a judgment in the psalmist’s favor against his/her opponents.

While this interpretation is plausible, I wouldn’t bet the farm on it. Given the graphic images of violent attack in verses 10-12 of the psalm (which is not part of our reading), I believe it is just as likely that the psalmist is facing hostility from neighbors in a lawless area of Palestine. The psalm is obviously adaptable for a variety of circumstances. For this reason, it is difficult to date it. As is nearly always the case in Israel’s prayer tradition, the psalmist’s plea for protection is grounded in God’s covenant promises to Israel. No person has any autonomous right to make a claim on God. God owes no one anything. Nevertheless, because God has bound himself to Israel through specific covenant promises, Israel may freely “call God to account” and rely on God to exercise faithfulness to those promises.

2 Thessalonians 2:1–5, 13–17

The relationship between the form and substance of II Thessalonians and 1 Thessalonians has led most commentators to believe that II Thessalonians was composed by a Christian leader writing to a later generation in the name of Paul and his colleagues. However that might be, this second letter echoes Paul’s admonitions to the Thessalonians in the first letter not to concern themselves with “times” and “seasons” for the triumphal return of Christ. I Thessalonians 5:1-11. Here, too, Paul urges the church “not to be quickly shaken in mind or excited, either by spirit or by word or by letter purporting to come from us to the effect that the day of the Lord has come.” Vs 2. He then continues to discuss the appearance of “the man of lawlessness” and the “rebellion” preceding the second coming. This particular section of scripture has given rise to much speculation and is one of the texts that appear to have inspired the Left Behind series. Paul (or the anonymous author) does not explain who the “man of lawlessness” is, nor does he say much about the force that is “restraining him now” discussed in the omitted verses 6-12. Evidently, he assumes that the readers know perfectly well what he was talking about and they probably did. We, alas, have no clue. That is what happens when you read someone else’s mail.

Rather than get caught up in trying to unscramble this egg, I prefer to focus on the concluding verses 13-17. There Paul assures the Thessalonians that they have been elected by God for a better purpose than wrath and punishment. They have been called through the gospel “so that you may obtain the glory of our Lord Jesus Christ.” Vs. 14. The focus, then, is comfort for those who have been called. These are the persons to whom the letter is addressed. It is not appropriate to turn this letter of comfort for the elect into a threat against people to whom it was not even addressed.

Luke 20:27–38

Our gospel lesson relates an encounter between Jesus and the Sadducees. It is important to remember that, while the New Testament sometimes lumps the Pharisees and Sadducees together, they represent very different strains of Judaism. The Pharisees and Sadducees each had their own reasons for opposing Jesus. In the case of the Pharisees, the disputes were largely theological. They saw Jesus’ inclusion of “sinners” among his followers as undermining the Torah and the oral traditions designed to ensure strict obedience to its provisions. By contrast, the Sadducees were members and supporters of the priestly caste in charge of maintaining the sacrificial worship practices of the Jerusalem Temple. They were conservative insofar as they insisted on strict adherence to the ritual practices laid out in the Pentateuch (the first five books of the Hebrew Scriptures). They also rejected the oral legal traditions championed by the Pharisees as unwarranted innovations.  Because there is no mention of the resurrection of the dead in the Pentateuch, they maintained that there would be no such resurrection. Nevertheless, the Sadducees were more liberal in their willingness to adopt Hellenistic lifestyles. They enjoyed support from the Roman occupation forces which, in turn, benefited from a substantial cut of Temple revenue. Thus, Jesus’ act of cleansing the Temple and disrupting the commercial transactions that made it a cash cow for Rome constituted a direct threat to their wellbeing. The Sadducees’ opposition to Jesus was thus politically and economically motivated. It was likely the Sadducees who engineered Jesus’ arrest and advocated for his execution. For a useful and concise discussion of the differences between the Pharisees and the Sadducees, see The Jewish Virtual Library.

If the representatives of the Sadducees thought that they could humiliate Jesus before his disciples and in the presence of the people with their clever hypothetical, they seriously underestimated him. Jesus dispenses with the hypothetical summarily by pointing out that those attaining resurrection from death are “equal to angels and are children of God.” We should not read too much into this response. It is not intended to do much of anything but let the Sadducees know that their hypothetical is silly (though for thoughtful believers in the resurrection, it might raise serious concerns as noted in my introductory remarks). The real meat of Jesus’ response to the Sadducees is in his citation to God’s self identification as the God of the patriarchs. If the books the Sadducees acknowledge as holy are from the distant past and the people with whom their God identifies are all dead, it follows that their faith is also a dead relic of the past. In fact, however, God is alive and so are all who put their trust in him. No doubt the scribes (associated with the Pharisees) got a chuckle out of seeing their rival Sadducees trounced by the backwoods preacher from Nazareth. The laughter will be short lived. Their turn comes in verses 41-47.