by Kurt K. Hendel
Bernard, Fischer, Westberg Distinguished Ministry Professor of Reformation History
Dear people of God,
I hope that you are not expecting to hear a sermon on Levirate marriage and its implications for our lives here or for the life to come. If that is what you are anticipating, I want to alert you that your expectation will not be fulfilled. That is because I am following Jesus’ example in the Gospel reading. In his response to the Sadducees’ question, He does not offer a lengthy discourse on marriage laws and practices. The Sadducees also did not expect such a discourse. As a perceptive listener and as an effective rabbi Jesus was aware of the questioners’ motivation, and He addressed the ultimate concern that they raised, namely, the question of the resurrection. In His response to the Sadducees, Jesus corrected and rejected their erroneous belief by making a promise, a promise that they clearly did not want to hear and that they chose not to trust. Trusting God’s promises is often a challenge.
I believe that it was Jesus’ intention and the goal of the Gospel writer to highlight Christ’s promise and to invite their hearers and readers to trust this and, by implication, the other diverse, often challenging but always life-giving promises of God. The God of the Hebrew Scriptures and of the New Testament is clearly a God who makes promises, over and over again, and who keeps those promises, over and over again. This is certainly a faith statement, but it is true. It is also true that God’s people throughout the centuries, not only the Sadducees of Jesus’ time, have often been reluctant to accept, to celebrate, to affirm, to trust God’s promises. The nature of those promises and our human condition explain why this also happens over and over again.
God’s promises are often challenging, contrary to human experience and reason, foolish in the light of human wisdom, even an offense and a stumbling block. Build an arc, Noah, and you and your family will be saved. Even though you think that you are barren, Sarah and Abraham, you will have a child. You have no husband, Mary, but you will conceive and give birth to a Son. “He will be called the Son of the Most High, and the Lord God will give Him the throne of His ancestor, David.” [Luke 1:32] “Today you will be with me in paradise. “…whatever you bind on earth will be bound in heaven, and whatever you loose on earth will be loosed in heaven.” [Matt. 16:19] “…we proclaim Christ crucified, a stumbling block to Jews and foolishness to Gentiles, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ is the power of God and the wisdom of God.” [1 Cor. 1: 23-24] God’s promises are myriad, and the blessings that they convey are wondrous. However, it is also quite apparent that they often do not make sense to human beings, that they transcend human reason or expectations, that they inspire doubt rather than trust and that they are often ignored or rejected by the very people to whom the promises are addressed. I suspect that this is sometimes the case with us as well.
Jesus makes a clear promise in response to the Sadducees’ challenging question. He promises that the resurrection is a reality and, by implication, that there is an afterlife. While He provides few details about the resurrected life, He confirms its reality by another promise, namely, that God is the God of the living. The message and the assurance to the Sadducees and to generations of believers since Jesus’ time is that God lives and, therefore, we live as well, even beyond this life here and now. Paul links the assurance of resurrection to Christ’s own resurrection and thus connects this doctrine to Christ’s redemptive work and to His Easter victory. The promise of the resurrection has been a source of hope, assurance and comfort for generations of Christians since the time of Christ and the apostles. While this was and continues to be its intention, the promise of resurrection was rejected by some of its original hearers, like the Sadducees, and it is also a focus of theological debate in our own time. The meaning of the resurrection and its significance for the life of believers is certainly explored in the classrooms and apartments of our seminary. An academic, scholarly discussion of the biblical and the Christian understanding of resurrection is surely warranted, and it can be spiritually nourishing. However, it can also be disconcerting, disappointing and spiritually depleting. Some of you may well have experienced existentially that it can challenge essential foundations of the faith and central emphases and affirmations of the biblical tradition and the Christian theological heritage. As we debate such foundational concepts of our faith, it is also important to consider the implications of our scholarly explorations for proclamation, for pastoral care and for the spiritual nurture of God’s people.
As postmodern people of faith we do need to ask ourselves why we expect or even insist that our God, God’s will, God’s activity and even God’s promises must be consistent with our own rational presuppositions, our understanding of what is reality and what is not, our particular perceptions of truth? Might this human tendency reflect the Ursünde, the original sin, namely, the human unwillingness to let God be God and the human inclination to want to be God? Do we not realize that when our God looks, thinks and acts like we do, we have created an idol and have wandered away from God? It would, therefore, be advisable for us heirs of the Enlightenment to admit the limitations of reason; to recapture and celebrate a sense of mystery; to affirm that reality and truth transcend our capacities for understanding and perceiving, no matter how brilliant we may think that we are; to recognize that we may never fully comprehend the vastness and complexity of God’s creation, much less the fullness of the God who always remains hidden, both beyond revelation and even in God’s ultimate self-revelation?
Sisters and brothers in Christ, God’s promises are sure, and God continues to address them to God’s people, whether we believe them or not; whether we trust them or not; whether our rationalistic deliberations deem them plausible or not; whether our sophisticated or simplistic theologizing considers them to be acceptable, relevant and defensible or not. God’s promises remain because they are God’s promises, not ours; because our God transcends our understanding of reality and truth; because God intentionally promises what appears to be foolish and what becomes a stumbling block and because God keeps those promises. As Christians we confess and proclaim that all of God’s promises are ultimately fulfilled in Christ, but in a way that we humans often consider to be foolish, offensive and unbelievable. After all, in Christ God took on human flesh, walked humbly among us, experienced what we experience, suffered as we suffer and accomplished our salvation through the ignominious and scandalous way of the cross and through the mystery of the resurrection. Therefore, God lives, and God is also the God of the living because all that God has done for us is now ours. This is what Christ’s promise of the resurrection confirms.
In order for the promises to be ours, however, they must be believed. They must be trusted. How is that possible, since even we believers so often doubt, ignore and dismiss God’s promises as foolishness, as irrational, as impossible, as scandalous, as stumbling blocks? The second lesson from the second letter to the Thessalonians provides us with an answer to this crucial question. Even though we, too often, question and even reject God’s promises, they are radical good news, and they have the power to transform us. They are effective. It is through them that the Holy Spirit calls us, sanctifies us through the gift of Christ’s righteousness and grants us the very glory of Christ. Thus God makes us people of faith, and our faith, in turn, enables and inspires us to stand firm, to trust God’s assurances, even when we are inclined to doubt or reject them, and to receive all the gifts that God promises, including the gift of resurrection and of a life that transcends this life.
When we have such faith, such an ability to trust, we are also free to let go of the kind of questions that the Sadducees and the Christians in Thessalonica asked. We are free not to speculate, not to assume, not to call God’s wisdom foolishness, not to dismiss a reality that transcends our limited experiences and insights. We are free to focus on our vocations in the present and the future, trusting that our God accompanies us here and now and that God is also already in our future preparing it for us. We need not and cannot anticipate the advent of that future or envision what it will be like. However, we trust that our God lives and that we will live and see God with our own eyes. Such faith and trust bring hope, comfort and assurance. They also free us to focus on our present life and to be instruments of God’s grace, love and care in our world. Our future is assured. That is God’s promise to us, and God’s promise stands, whether we trust it or not, whether we deny it or not, whether we consider it to be reasonable or not. Hence, we are free to devote all of our energies to our life here and now. We need not speculate about the future, worry about it or deny it. It is God’s future, and it is in God’s hands, and God promises that we will be part of that future. That good news frees us to serve God’s people with joy and dedication, to address their needs, to walk with them, to respect their struggles and to trust and share God’s promises and our hopes with them. May it be so. Amen.
Job 19:23-27a; Ps. 17:1-9; 2 Thess. 2:1-5; Luke 20:27-38