Sermon for the 3rd Sunday before Advent: A trap is set for Jesus – preached at the Eucharist, Sherborne Abbey, on Sunday, 6 November 2022 by the Reverend Christopher Huitson. (2 Thessalonians Ch 2: v 1 – 5, 13 – end; Luke Ch 20: v 27 – 38)
In view of the subject matter of today’s sermon I thought I would remind you of the story about the anxious bride who was worried about remembering what to do in the marriage service. The kindly vicar said it was very straightforward. At the beginning she would walk up the aisle, in the middle of the service he would lead the couple to the high Altar and at the end everyone would sing a hymn. So she just had to remember walking up the aisle, going to the Altar and singing a hymn. At the ceremony itself the congregation was surprised to hear the bride muttering to herself Aisle, Altar, Hymn –( I’ll alter him!)
Today’s reading is superficially about marriage but most of all it was an attempt by the Sadducees to catch Jesus out for they thought that they had devised a cast iron scenario which made the Resurrection nonsensical. The Sadducees were a group of people in the upper social and economic sectors of Jewish society – one of their tasks was maintaining the Temple. They especially venerated the Torah, the Jewish law and did not believe in the possibility of resurrection perhaps because they saw no mention of it in the Jewish books of law.
The law in Leviticus 18 and 20 prohibited a man from marrying his deceased brother’s wife. You may remember that this was at the heart of Henry 8’s anxieties. He had obtained a dispensation from the pope to marry Katherine of Aragon who had been married to his brother until he sadly died at a young age. However, as a surviving male heir was not forthcoming Henry decided that God was angry at his breaking of that law and set his heart on divorcing Katherine of Aragon and we all know what difficulties and changes followed that decision.
The Sadducees based their little story on another law in Deuteronomy 25: 6 which did allow a brother to marry his sister-in-law on the death of that brother if there were no children. This is called a levirate marriage and was intended to provide an heir to perpetuate the deceased brother’s name and incidentally made the marrying brother the sole benefactor of his brother’s estate instead of splitting it with the family. The arrangement was also intended to provide protection for the widow who otherwise might starve with no one to provide for her. There were implications for the inheritance too if there were children of the union, but I think we have had enough complications for one day.
The story the Sadducees told envisaged seven brothers and no children from any of the marriages with each brother dying in turn and the next one taking on the widow. But of course, this tale was constructed for a purpose and that purpose had nothing to do with marriage but to show the absurdity of resurrection in which the Sadducees did not believe. If anything, it revealed the absurdity of their interpretation of the biblical law but of course they could not admit that. Jesus ignores the strange marriage problem and steps over the little trap which the Sadducees had set him. As so often, Jesus cuts to the heart of the issue which is to do with resurrection. Since the Sadducees reverence the Torah, Jesus also uses it to quote the saying about God being the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob which can be found in Exodus 3: 15. The next step in what Jesus had to say might be a step too far for the Sadducees but then he probably knew them and their thinking better than we do and so to say the God is the God of the living not the dead might just connect with what they thought. It could be, of course, that Jesus had turned the trap onto the Sadducees themselves so that they either have to admit the reality of the resurrection or conclude that God is not the God of the living!
Well, we may laugh at ridiculous notions of the Sadducees, but belief in the resurrection is not necessarily easy for people today either. When various groups do surveys about what people believe and draw little charts based on percentages, what often emerges is that belief in the resurrection has diminished even among Christians. St. Paul would have been horrified, for he regarded resurrection as the corner stone of our faith. If you lose hold on that then how can there be any realistic belief in the resurrection of Jesus himself and if that goes then the rest of our belief in all that Jesus achieved for us in his life, death and resurrection also founders.
The problem is that we don’t have much idea about what the resurrection life would be like. Undoubtedly we would like rather more detail about what the future after death holds for us. I once visited someone in a hospice who knew that she was not long for this world. Her family were around her and she said to me: “so what happens now?” That could have had a number of different meanings, but I soon discovered that she wanted information about what would happen as she passed from this life to the next. No easy task.
One of the defining characteristics of being Human is that we have a curiosity. We want to know, to understand, to be given information. The resurrection life is a bit of a mystery. Jesus does speak about the resurrection but not that often and usually through word pictures and images. He speaks about the kingdom of heaven, a new creation and about a joyful party but detail is much more sparse than we would like.
Perhaps it is just that it is not possible to explain to us in our earthly state what heaven would be like. No one from heaven has sent us a message to help us understand. The appearances of Jesus after his resurrection were intended to help the disciples believe in its reality not to give them information about what it was actually like and his appearances were limited and came to an end in the event we label the ascension. Perhaps it is a bit like asking someone to explain to an unborn baby what this world is like if such communication were possible. The baby before birth is probably aware of vague light variations and sounds and feelings but can have very little understanding of what this world will be like until he or she is actually born. When that does happen then suddenly a whole world of sensations is released and these are so overwhelming that the baby sleeps a lot so that all that new information can be processed. In the same way we are unable to grasp what life after death will be like, but in time all will be revealed.
I assume that those Sadducees who tried to catch out Jesus now know that they were wrong to doubt Jesus and the resurrection. May we also find our faith in the resurrection to be justified so that we may rejoice with the angels in heaven.