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Sermon preached at Immanuel Church-on-the-Hill in Alexandria, VA November 10, 2013.

25th Sunday after Pentecost; Year C (RCL): Haggai 1:15b-2:9; Ps. 145:1-5, 18-21; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17; Luke 20:27-38

         

    Come, Holy Spirit, fill the hearts of your faithful, and kindle in us the fire of your love. Send forth Your Spirit, and we shall be created, and you shall renew the face of the earth. Amen .

     Life is full of questions. If a parsley farmer is sued, can they garnish his wages? Can you be a closet claustrophobic? If a funeral procession is at night, do you drive with your lights off? When companies ship Styrofoam, what do they pack it in? Why isn’t there mouse-flavored cat food? And finally, why do they report power outages on TV? These are, as Jimmy Buffett might say, questions that bother us so.

     There are, however, far more personal questions which often preoccupy us. What will happen tomorrow? Can the ‘Skins run off seven straight victories like last year to still make the playoffs? Where will I be five years from now? But probably, the most important and equally puzzling questions of all are: What happens when we die? And what will heaven be like?

     As human beings, we are uniquely aware of our own mortality. It is something that confronts us each day as we grow older, and as family and friends pass on before us. This is a question that thinkers, theologians, scientists, and philosophers have all discussed and debated for thousands of years. But in the Bible, the words of Jesus give us hope.

     The emphasis of today’s reading from Luke is not about how and when our age will end. It is about what our futures will be once this age passes away and the time of human life is ended.

     At the time of this story, Jesus is in Jerusalem in the days before his crucifixion. He is confronted by Sadducees, who ask him point-blank, even snarky, questions about resurrection. What you need to know about the Sadducees is that they were descended from nobility and the priestly groups; not great in number, but educated, wealthy, and influential. They believed in strict adherence to the Torah, the Law of Moses, in the first five books of the Bible. They believed these scriptures, and ONLY these, represented the true word of God. Sadducees did not believe in resurrection after death because there is no mention of it in the Torah. So, in questioning Jesus, the Sadducees were not really interested in the resurrection. Their real purpose was to attempt to compromise Jesus’ authority.

    Under the Law of Moses as mentioned in Deuteronomy 25:56, a man whose brother died without children was required to marry his brother’s widow. The firstborn child of that union was to bear the name of the deceased brother so that the brother’s lineage would continue. This law also benefitted the widow because it gave her financial security for the future. Procreation was necessary then as it is now, but you can see that it will not be necessary in the new life in Christ, because we will no longer die.

     See, Jesus knows God’s will in a way we humans cannot -- no matter our education or training. His understanding of God’s will is superior to ours or his opponents. Jesus’ reply to the Sadducees simply affirms that there will be a resurrection where the new life will be much different from what we think it will be. In the new life after the resurrection, there will be no confusion, suffering or pain, but rather there will be hope, peace, joy and fullness.

     We tend to think that new life will be like life is now, complete with marriage. But Jesus makes clear that while we will recognize our loved ones, including spouses who have gone before us, there will be no marriage in heaven. We are to love one another just as God loves us and share God’s love for people in a way that excludes no one. In effect, marital love is extended and perfected, so that what’s best about human relations in this life is made available in an even fuller and richer way to all of us in the next life. In the New Testament, immortality and resurrection become linked in a “now” and “future” relationship.

     We can’t understand things we have not seen. What we see is not all there is, and what we experience is not all that God has in store for us. We have to accept things by faith, just like we have to accept God’s Word by faith. Even the world’s greatest preachers have trouble understanding the Word of God. Billy Graham once had a struggle with the truth of God’s word, but one evening he knelt by a tree stump and declared to God that he would accept God’s Word by faith. Most of you know the rest of that story.

     It’s sometimes hard for us to believe in the big things in life when we have so many little issues and struggles that we let take up space in our lives. When we are worried about laundry, yardwork, homework, bills, it’s not easy for us to step back and grasp everlasting life. We can only imagine what heaven will be like. Some people imagine it as a beautiful place with endless good times. Others imagine it as a place where there will be no sickness, old age or pain. Our ability to imagine what heaven will be like is our way of expressing our faith that our loved ones are alive and well and are getting along with each other.

     In his book, “The Business of Heaven,” C.S. Lewis tells a story about a woman thrown into a dungeon. Her only light came from a barred window high above. She gave birth to a son, who had never seen the outside world. He couldn’t reach the window to see outside, so his mother told him about green fields and beautiful waves crashing on the shore-but he couldn’t imagine what she was describing. Eventually, she persuaded the guards to give her some paper and charcoal so she could draw pictures to show her son what the outside world was really like, but what the boy came to understand was that the world beyond the walls looked like black lines on a white piece of paper.

     The reality of trying to know heaven keeps returning to us, and it is stark. We have to let go of today’s relationships and trust God to give new relationships. Otherwise, our ability to accept the good news of resurrection and life after death is limited--just like black lines on white paper.

     Loved ones are gone. We wonder where they are and what they are doing. My mother died in 1987 at home in my father’s arms. While I mourn her death, even today, I am immensely grateful for her, the things she taught me, the love she showed and shared with me, and that she was with my Dad when she moved from strength to strength, from this life to the next. Rarely a day goes by that I don’t think about her. I have sensed her presence at interesting times, but know not how or even why.

     My mother and I shared a word, it was “PUH,” which was, for us, a term of exasperation. Whenever we were frustrated, the word “Puh” would utter forth from our mouths. My mother even had a small toss pillow with the word “Puh” on it, and sometimes she would throw it in frustration.

     One night in my former life, I was coming home late, completely frustrated, speeding along Rte. 123, likely heading into a speed trap for a ticket, or even possibly a accident. A car pulled alongside of me and kept pace. I didn’t want to look over and I grew even more impatient. When the car pulled ahead, and then over into my lane, I saw that the license tag spelled “P-U-H.” I laughed. Then I said, “Hello, Mother,” broke into tears and finally slowed down. She was there and I knew it, and was grateful.

I don’t begin to understand where she is or what she might be doing, but the Scriptures, especially the passage we today, comforts me. My hope is that you find the same comfort for your own circumstances.

     Jesus does not tell us what lies ahead for us in heaven. He does say that heaven is not a continuation of what we know here on earth, so we don’t need earthly things such as marriage or prosperity. We are to continue being children of God here on earth so that we may rest in God’s arms when we die. Those willing to give their lives to God now will find that God will be there for them when the journey of their earthly life is over.

     Overcoming death was as important for God as conquering sin. So think of Jesus as the gate who holds both the keys to Death and to Hades. These are places that are not bound shut to the Lord, for they are places he has been and passed through. We hope to follow the Christ into the heavenly rest where new life is never-ending.

     If God is our God, and God is not a God of the dead, then we are his people and death is not the end of the story. It is the beginning. Let there be no question about that.

     We’ve all heard the phrase “today is the first day of the rest of your life.” It will be especially true on the day that we die. For when we end life here, our Lord does not abandon us. He will be there to greet us. To be absent in this body is to be present with the Lord. We have Christ’s promise of the reality of the resurrection through Christ’s own death and resurrection. Because he lives, we too shall live. Living without the doctrine of resurrection, or the hope that it offers, cheapens this life. Let me ask you one last BIG or important question... Why would we want to do that?

     Let us pray:

     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 now, and bring us to the joy of the resurrection, through Jesus Christ our Lord and Savior.

     Amen.

Comments

( 1 comment — Leave a comment )
(Anonymous)
Nov. 15th, 2013 01:49 pm (UTC)
Thank you, David.
( 1 comment — Leave a comment )