by Mark P. Bangert
John H. Tietjen Professor of Pastoral Ministry: Worship and Church Music, Emeritus
It's not that we are unprepared for the factoid that this Gospel cradles…after all, the promises we hear from committed lovers always contain the words "till death parts us," or "as long as we both shall live." Maybe the wedding world has successfully inoculated us against any mention of the "D" word during those slicked up moments of fairy-tale bliss we call weddings, so that the words of the vows never make their way to our processing centers in head or heart.
So the church year rolls around to this account of Sadduceean trickery, and we are jolted by the pronouncement of Jesus that there will be no marriage in "that age." Why jolted? Because with the somewhat unheralded pronouncement Jesus momentarily unveils the age of the resurrection with a detail—a detail that makes us hunger for more, not because of curiosity but because we are really wanting to know what comes next. What about "that age?"
To be sure, the Gospel, as Peter Vethanayagomony reminded us on Monday, is about Sadducees, made anxious by Jesus' growing popularity and his politically-charged message, and who are trying to trick him with questions more fitting for a Ph. D. exam in systematic theology. Of course, they are twisting Mosaic provisions for childless women into an opportunity for ridiculing the notion of life after death.
To be sure, their cleverness, even though they didn't believe a word of what they were proposing, their cleverness is at once admirable but also revolting, especially to us who regularly shout "Christ is risen." Could it be, when the shouting stops, however, that their cleverness parallels our own efforts to imagine ourselves into the future?
For, if we take the time to ponder "that age" at all, we find ourselves trying to construct "that age" with the stuff of this age. In fact, since the details are so scarce anyhow, surely "that age" will have health insurance, ample life insurance, body building, life-support machines, frozen corpses, botox and viagara—life on our terms, thank you. This is beginning to look attractive. And, if we have all those things at hand already, well, that's OK; aren't we supposed to live the resurrected life now?
But just in case there is more to come, let it be, dear Lord, like here but fixed somehow—a Cubs team that will win, a place where God resides, like in a huge office with an address for purposes of sollicitation, surrounded by children all above average and the rest of us with bodies beautiful.
Let us confess our faith in the resuscitation of the dead. From the stuff of this age we go about constructing "that age."
Then the jolt of the Gospel: in that age no one marries, no one is given into marriage. A detail that's not part of our plan. What happens if we venture down that road a little farther? Does that mean no children? Does that mean—can you bear it? —no sex? Let's go back—it's too scary there.
That we risk naming the implications of no death, of no marriage shows our childlike, playful trust in a God who enjoys our every effort. But it shows too a certain hesitancy to trust promises that no matter what comes next it will be far beyond our mind's grasp.
Pushed to the point of yearning for a clearer sense of "that age" we fall back on the worn images of angels playing harps, heaven populated by dogs and cats, gold streets, and chubby cherubs.
Tempted to construct "that age" from this, to satisfy ourselves with worn-out visions, we end up with a God, as J.B. Phillips put it decades ago, a God who is too small. Even as the God of the Sadducees was too small.
Cradled in the Gospel is an invitation to sense, to somehow apprehend a larger God, an invitation to imagine "that age" apart from this. The church year is supposed to help, but the next weeks take us quickly into Christ the King (too often used as an excuse to do rah rah for our side), and then to Advent when all kinds of forces tempt us to translate end time into this time with the help of commerce. So the opportunities pass us by and our God stays small.
In Matthew and Mark Jesus in this story is made to say to the Sadducees (and to us): "You do not know the power of God." That's hard to hear, but what of it?
In the previous chapter of Luke Jesus makes his grand entry into Jerusalem, eliciting praise from the faithful and from the stones if need be. With that came the first wave of "that age." But there's more: Jesus goes to the Temple, there making it clear that in "that age" bartering is out the door-- no more old order trading for grace. "That age", further, is built upon the cornerstone Jesus—the one rejected by the constructors of this age. Within a matter of verses Luke then helps us see "that age" fully arrived through the death and resurrection of God's chose one, Jesus.
Of course, we know these things—even acclaiming them with the words "Christ has died, Christ is risen, Christ will come again." And yet God is still too small. Is that harsh to say? Maybe, but as long as the no-marriage clause jolts, we are paralyzed, unable to imagine, held back from penetrating the mystery.
The hymn writer woos us into action, getting us to sing, "splendor, light, and life attend thee, beauty springs out of naught, evermore from thy store, newborn worlds rise and adore." Newborn worlds.
A little larger now…"that age" this God of ours who has surprises up the sleeve. . .
Is it possible to imagine something far beyond a faithful spouse and great sex? Go ahead.
Is it possible to imagine perfect peace? Go ahead.
Is it possible to imagine no pain? Go ahead.
Is it possible to imagine newborn worlds, newborn universes where God is not lost? Go ahead.
Is it possible to imagine all people praising together and liking it?
Larger now…this God of ours.
The irony of it all is that God comes into perspective precisely because of God's love for that which is small. Do you want to experience how God does not get lost in the universe, or in any universe? Look in the manger. Do you want to grasp the power of God in fragile word? Visit the tiny assembly of Emmaus disciples and follow Luke's mapping of the word to the very ends of the earth, even to Rome. Do you want larger and clearer visions of "that age"? Savor the bread of heaven, and peer deeply into the chalice of ecstasy—that which invites you to stand outside of yourself.
God loves the small so that we might know God large, so that we might imagine "that age"—the age, joltingly, that is already here.