Sunday, November 10, 2013

In the Weeds

In the Weeds
A sermon delivered by Rev. Peter T. Atkinson
November 10, 2013
at Gordonsville Presbyterian Church, Gordonsville, Virginia
Luke 20: 27-39
Let us pray,
Help us to see despite our eyes
Help us to think outside of our minds
Help us to be more than our lives      
For your eyes show the way
            Your mind knows the truth
            Your being is the life.

 27 Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him 28 and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 29 Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; 30 then the second 31 and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. 32 Finally the woman also died. 33 In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.”
34 Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 35 but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. 36 Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. 37 And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38 Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.” 39 Then some of the scribes answered, “Teacher, you have spoken well.” 40 For they no longer dared to ask him another question. [1] 

This passage may be one of the most pleasingly useful ones for us in our day and age because Jesus finds himself in a situation where we often find ourselves, or I'm not sure about you all, but I certainly find myself in this situation. You are surrounded and confronted by non-believers, you get a question that is leading, its deliberately leading you into the weeds, just to get you lost, contradictory and hypocritical. There seems in today's world that there is no one more sure of what Christians believe than non-Christians. Many if not most non-believing people, are ex-Christians, who have been turned off by the faith by something. Sometimes a person, sometimes an intellectual issue that somehow they felt caused them to be outside of the established faith, and therefore decided to completely turn their back on all trappings of religion. Not all of course, but some, I'll call them evangelical Atheists, are people who have become or at least are Atheist and now want everyone else to be, too. They do this confronting often; they assume they know what you believe, and then they ask a question that they are sure will put your faith in binding contradiction with itself, and then they wait. They wait for you to start stuttering or saying "well" or back tracking, or admitting to yourself and to them that your faith is based on flimsy truth and flawed logic, all justifying their non belief, and their rational superiority, their intellectual supremacy, and their completely condescending attitude over you and anyone else foolish enough to believe in such ancient superstitious ideas, like God. You often ask yourself, if they were so confident, why would they care so much to get you to agree with them? It's as if their doubts about what they claim to rationally believe without question, are reinforced by your faith in something else, leaving them with shaky confidence at best, and so an aggressive chip is sitting squarely on their shoulder called doubt and distain. I'd say this very aspect, their shaky confidence, is important to remember, and Jesus does remember it here in this exchange.
Let's look at the situation Jesus is in. The passage tells us that some Sadducees came up to Jesus and started asking him questions about what the Resurrection would be like, but it also tells us that Sadducees do not believe in the Resurrection. They know it, Jesus knows it, now we know it because it states it so plainly. They ask him about a situation where seven brothers marry the same woman. Under Mosaic law, which they uphold literally,  it was traditional for a younger brother to marry his older brother's widow, should the older brother die. They make up a scenario where this happens seven times, just to ask Jesus, which one of the brothers will have her as wife in the Resurrection. It's totally a trap question, and they do not expect Jesus to have an answer to it. It's actually kind of a childish question in a way. I'm reminded of some of the whoppers that Sunday School teachers get asked. Stuff like: if God is all powerful can he create a rock that is so heavy that even he can't lift it? How do you answer questions like that? They take human logic and turn it on its side. Faith in the light of such a question certainly seems irrational and then foolish, and that is the point of the question, trying to make the teacher foolish. I remember when I was in science class in tenth grade, I had Mr. Aukermann, I was never really all that into science, so making people laugh and the teacher look foolish was a much more interesting pastime. This class was biology, and he was talking about proteins one day, amino acids, and traits and genetics and stuff like that. Now I remember always trying, in my best smart aleck sort of way to ask him questions that were ridiculous,  silly questions, but I loved doing it because he would always take the questions seriously and give me, or at least try to give me a serious answer, despite the juvenile giggles that fueled my adolescent confidence. On that day I asked him, "Hey Mr. Auk, if proteins are what determines our traits, and meats like steak are filled with proteins, if I eat a lot of steak would I eventually turn into a cow. Every class clown, has a side kick, and he is now saying, doubling down, "Oh yeah, teach, that's a great question." Now the teacher should have answered, fighting smart aleck with smart aleck, something like you may not turn into a cow, but you may become a fat pig, ended it and moved on. That's what he should have said, but instead he got into the weeds, he started explaining how amino acids break down the proteins, and that the traits are lost. . . he spent 20 minutes, giving me a legitimate answer, stopped only by the bell. . . teenage success, mission accomplished, derail the teacher one whole class period. That's what these questions are meant to do, derail the message and make the teacher look foolish, getting them to enter the weeds, and get themselves lost.
The Sadducees even begin by calling him "Teacher." I couldn't help but reading that, hey if you are so smart, and are teaching all these people, if  you got a lesson for me, riddle me this one batman: If a woman has 7 different husbands who die, then she dies and they all are present and resurrected, who is she married to? You can almost hear one of the other Sadducees, saying, "Oh that's a good one, yeah teach, which is it?"
Now we have to look at what Jesus does, how he answers. He dismisses the question. He says that they don't understand how the resurrection works. It's bigger than your little games. That's the key isn't it? It's bigger. Look at what he says specifically:

Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 35 but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. 36 Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. 

He doesn't go into the weeds with them. He simply tells them that your conception is way too small, heaven is different from here. You are looking at things on your own terms, and your terms are way too limiting.
How about that for handling a condescending question? It takes it and flips it, it flips the high ground. Condescending literally means "with going down," as if talking down, from the large brained, got it all figured out, down-hill to the small brained, believing in nonsense. Jesus turns the ground upside down, and lets them know that their thinking is actually the small thinking. The established thinking, the herd thinking, is the limited close minded thinking.
The next part of Jesus' response even goes farther. Now the Sadducees were a class of priests in Judea, who were in charge of keeping the temple. They were high priests. They believed very highly in a literal interpretation of the Torah. It is this literal tradition that gave them their place in society. It is this literal tradition that they claim to be questioning Jesus on the Resurrection. And then it is this literal tradition that they base their question about the marriages on.
An interesting fact about the Sadducees is the derivation of their name. In Hebrew the closest word to Sadducees, which is thought to be the same root as their name is Sadiq, which means "Right, just." They are the ones in society who are right, according to the meaning of their name. Imagine the added condescension then in their question. Jesus, teacher, how are you teaching what you teach, it goes against the torah, it goes against tradition, it goes against us. It is to these people that Jesus evokes himself the source of their authority, the Torah, bold move.
Jesus says:

"And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38 Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.” 

The story of the bush, that's the burning bush. Dead are raised? Why is that? Where is that in the story? What is Jesus talking about? Now we know that Jesus answered their question enough at least for them because it says right after this in v. 39, "Teacher you have spoken well." They don't challenge him. Why not? Why don't they?
The name of God is important in Jewish Tradition. It was never to be spoken, actually in the language the way it is spelled it is technically unpronounceable. It is the sound of wind. Sometimes in English it's transliterated Jehoveh, or Yahweh, but it's more like yhvh. The idea of not speaking it, is that you can't control it. Naming something, speaking a name,  can limit it, and control it, but God can't be contained that way, not in a word, not in a building, not in one idea. The name of God, best translated from that story about the bush in Exodus is I am, in English. God is the is. The eternal present. All places and all times. There always is an "is." Now is "is", and now is "is", and there is another one, and another one. The is of a minute ago is not defining or limiting on the is of now. I know it sounds weird, it sounds like philosophical nonsense, but it is all about the idea that God is bigger than any one idea, bigger than any one moment or event, but is every moment and event, and is then also bigger than the limits we seek to put on God, bigger than the Sadducees concept of God, the one they have been selling. God is not of the dead but of the living, and if he is God still of Abraham and Isaac and of Jacob. . . and Jesus says, now, he is. . . to him, who lives eternally in the present, they also are still alive to him. To think other wise would certainly be limiting God, and the Sadducees certainly would never want to do that, at least not publicly. They'd instead wait their time.
Now obviously its different in a situation that we are in now, when atheists put us on the spot, trying to paint us into a corner, lead us into the weeds with a question to make us feel foolish and silly. We can't necessarily catch them back in an area of inconsistency on their part, but we can take something from what Jesus does, and that is we need not enter the weeds. Number one, I've talked before how I'm not sure that apologetics, trying to prove the rationality of God and Jesus is the best use of our time, that Jesus doesn't defend himself at his trial, so why would we feel like we need to be his trial lawyer. Words aren't going to produce belief anyways, it takes the cross to do that. We don't necessarily need to do that, but to put it in sports terms, this is defense not offense right. We're the ones who have been cornered, and backs against the wall. Maybe it's miracles like walking on water that people can't believe, or maybe it's the world created in 7 days, maybe it's fitting all the animals on Noah's ark, maybe it's any number of things. Someone points to something like that and says, "How can you believe something like that." Our first inclination is to go into the weeds and fight each battle, but Jesus seems to suggest that the only argument we need is the God is bigger argument. God is bigger than any of those details, just as Jesus does in this passage. I can't speak to the details of that, but I know Jesus is working in my life. What do you mean? You are a Christian right, you believe this and you believe that, always experts on what we believe, aren't they. . . I believe that God is. . . it's enough and it's bigger than you can imagine, and bigger than you can refute, and it gives me life, it redeems my life, it sustains my life. The power of faith is pretty impressive. But what it really does is it seeks to invite them back in. They have been turned off by something, maybe it was someone who was close minded and they think all Christians are closeminded, maybe it was a detail that doesn't jibe with their scientific view of the world, great, fine, invite them back in, God is big enough for them, too. Don't be one more thing that pushes people away by putting limits on God.
I was in a situation like that this week. A friend of mine said to me because I was saying how God's sovereignty is central to my worldview, and hope. He said:

"To me the idea that human action is secondary to God's control is frightening. I prefer to believe that we are in the driver's seat, and that we shape our own destinies. Perhaps this is naive. But why would God be controlling our lives? are we his entertainment in some elaborate game he invented to amuse himself?"  

Now like the Sadducees not believing in the Resurrection, I know that he doesn't believe in God, so it's interesting to me how he can be afraid of something he doesn't believe in. He was sure that I would try to explain to him about why it's not an elaborate game, and about God's glory, and love, but instead I said. . . that depends on your definition of God. Whether or not  you believe in a human god with a beard sitting on a cloud, watching us and pulling the strings, or whether you believe that God is the creator of all things, or whether you believe that God is simply a manifestation of what is true. . . I told him instead, I believe in a God who "is." Jehoveh, Yahweh, yhvh, I am. What "is" is big enough to encompass all truth, and would have to by definition. . . interesting to think which one of us is living in superstitious human notions of reality, but that's not the point, the point is that possibly, and it may not do anything, but possibly I opened the door for him to look at God a little differently from what he rejected at best, or at least I didn't again shut another door. God isn't limited to the notion of God that he rejects, instead what do you believe in, start there. . . Jesus meets people where they are and invites them in, God does the same. . . that's being "I am" the "is" everywhere at once. It's not a mental trick, or a way to be falsely inclusive, it's simply true, and good for all of us to remember.
As some of  you know I wrote a poetic gospel while I was in seminary called "Song of Salvation" I closed it like this:

But on the third day, the stone was rolled away
And His body was raised,
Satan was wrong, death isn’t as strong,
Instead God shall be forever praised.
So we are saved, at least from the grave
The Bible allows us to know it
But there is more, for us to learn for sure
For God is also a great poet. 

And any artist knows that his creation grows
Under his watchful care
So you and me, should struggle to see
And keep searching for what is there. 

Don’t miss a miracle trapped in the literal
Instead thank Him for every breath,
His power is all, and even after our fall
God is still stronger than death. 

And so victory was won with subtlety
But many still cannot see
But perfection takes time, and through reason and rhyme
One day all will truly be free. 

Don't miss a miracle trapped in the literal. . . It's good for us to remember lest we feel we all have it figured out. Why go in the weeds, why alienate people by trying to convince them, instead bring people together with the amazing limitless nature of God, rigidity has failed, like it does for the Sadducees in the midst of Jesus, close minded tradition in the midst of Emmanuel, God with us, is like waiting at the Red Sea for it to open there again, when God has moved from was to is.  The way of Jesus is amazingly unifying. . . and Jesus shows us that way, again, and again, eternally. Thanks be to God! Amen.

[1]The Holy Bible : New Revised Standard Version. 1989 (Lk 20:27-40). Nashville: Thomas Nelson Publishers.