ST. STEPHEN’S PRESBYTERIAN CHURCH NOVEMBER 6, 2016
MY REDEEMER LIVES
Job 19: 23 – 27; Luke 20: 27 – 40
Rev. Sabrina Ingram
Yuri Gagarin was the first man to orbit the earth in 1961. When the Cosmonaut was asked if he’d seen God in space he responded, “No, I looked and looked but I didn’t see God.” Given Gagarin was a devout Eastern Orthodox Christian in a time when religion was illegal in the USSR, his answer to a tricky question was politically astute – an honest answer that didn’t require him to deny his faith.
Jesus too was asked a tricky question when Sadducees of the Sanhedrin, the political leaders of their day, came to him to challenge his authority. Now the Sadducees were a bit rigid (or the most pure Jews going, depending on if you were one or not) recognizing only the Torah, the first five books of the Bible, which they believed were given directly from God to Moses, as authoritative scripture. Because the Torah doesn’t mention an afterlife for human beings, they did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. Heaven was a place where God and the angels dwelt. God rewarded or punished people in this present one and only life. So they posed what they thought was a clever question that pointed out the silliness of those who ascribe to the afterlife. Their question was rooted in the Law from Deuteronomy 25: 5f “When brothers reside together, and one of them dies and has no son, the wife of the deceased shall not be married outside the family to a stranger. Her husband’s brother shall go in to her, taking her in marriage, and performing the duty of a husband’s brother to her, and the firstborn whom she bears shall succeed to the name of the deceased brother, so that his name may not be blotted out of Israel.” If the brother refuses to do right by her, the widow is allowed to publically pull of his sandal and spit in his face and declare, “‘This is what is done to the man who does not build up his brother’s house.’ Throughout Israel his family shall be known as “the house of him whose sandal was pulled off” (vs. 9 & 10). So there! Clearly, inflicting such dire humiliation balances out a life of abandonment, loneliness and poverty. None-the-less the Sadducees knew their scripture. So they posed this scenario to Jesus, “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. Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; then the second and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. Finally the woman also died. In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her” (Luke 20: 29 – 33).
My first reaction is “the poor woman”, first she’s married 7 times probably to 7 men she doesn’t love; she can’t escape her in-laws; all 7 husbands die, and she still has no children. My second response is to ask if she’s killing them off. Her situation reminds me of the story of two kids attending a wedding. One asks, “How many men can a woman marry?” “Sixteen,” said the other. “How do you know that?” “Easy, all you have to do is add it up, “4 better, 4 worse, 4 richer, 4 poorer.” Of course the Sadducees didn’t really care about the plight of the widow– their point is: heaven is a silly and false concept and since you, Jesus, claim there’s a resurrection after death how do you respond to this situation?
Jesus’ answer was “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 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. Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.” (Luke 20: 34 – 36) In other words, the afterlife won’t be like our earthly, social structures because, as Paul states, “flesh and blood cannot inherit the kingdom of God, nor does the perishable inherit the imperishable.” (1 Corinthians 15: 50) In order for us to enter the heavenly realm we’re given a spiritual “body” which is eternal and holy, and therefore able to exist in the presence of God. Essentially Jesus is saying to the Sadducees, “So who’s silly now?” But he didn’t leave it at that. Using their scriptures against them, Jesus went on, “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.Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive” (Luke 20: 37 & 38). Jesus noted that to speak in the present tense means this is a present reality. God being the God of dead people, long past from existence, makes no sense. What dead body needs a God? What would God do with a dead body? But to speak of God as “the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob” is to say our ancestors are still in a living relationship with Yahweh. To be in such a relationship means they too must be living. With the tables turned, the Sadducees conceded the debate to Jesus.
All of this makes us wonder about life after death. What’s heaven really like? Do we turn into angels who sit on clouds and play harps? Is it a place with golden roads and pearly gates? Will we worship God endlessly or are there other things to do? Are there 70 virgins for every man or just an angel named Albert who feeds us cream cheese? What age will we be? What will our body look like? Will we know our loved ones? Will we grieve for those who aren’t there? In this super vast cosmos where is heaven located? And if we’re made holy, will we still be ourselves? The trouble is that while the Bible speaks frequently of life after death, different pictures are painted which draw on what is familiar in this world. Like the Sadducees we project our experience onto something that is, for now, unknowable. I certainly don’t have all the answers but scripture does give us some things to work with.
To begin, we don’t turn into angels. Angels are beings which serve God and deliver messages. The word angel means messenger. Jesus is clear, we become “like angels” but are “children of God” – resurrected human beings who are similar to but also different from angels.
What heaven actually looks like is hard to say. In Revelation 21 & 22, John speaks of his vision of “a new heaven and a new earth” and describes “The New Jerusalem coming down out of heaven like a bride adorned for her husband”. It’s a city made of gold that’s clear as glass; it has jasper gates, jeweled foundations, and doors made of a single pearl. There is no temple except The Holy Trinity and no stars because it’s lit by the light of God. As you can hear, it’s an awe inspiring sight, made with the finest things known to humanity. Although descriptive, these things are hard for us to understand so they remain a mystery to us for now. We’re assured though, it will be amazing. John goes on to describe the throne of God. Worship is the central activity of heaven. I imagine when we’re face to face with God Almighty our worship will be truly worthy of him and we’ll be thrilled to offer it. John speaks of the “healing of the nations” and of the absence of sadness. Things like war, death, destruction, grief will not exist. Because there is a “new earth” also suggests there will be something like the old earth, only better. Perhaps God will create a Garden like Eden and life will be as he first intended. Maybe we’ll be able to do our favourite activities – or maybe that won’t matter. Maybe there will be new experiences. However it is, I imagine heaven will be a place of lightness, laughter, play and fun. There will not be people created to slave over and indulge us because everyone will be raised to the dignity of children of God. Within that we will gladly serve each other as an expression of love.
Beyond the descriptions of Jesus and Paul, I don’t know what our bodies will be like. I hope mine looks like it did when I was 22. We do know we will be given new bodies, unique to each of us, that are whole and healthy, immortal and imperishable. Because each of us will still be an individual child of God, we’ll be reunited with all those who have been raised with Christ. We will see those we love again, we’ll make new friends and there will be some very cool people from the past and also from the future. We’ll be in the presence of Christ. Much beyond that we can only speculate.
While the hope of heaven gives us an image of a time when the sin and ugliness of this life will end, I would suggest that for now we don’t live “for heaven”, we live “for Christ”. It’s only as we’re united to Jesus in his death and resurrection, that we can fully and joyfully live our present life, have the strength and will to co-create God’s kingdom on earth and endure life’s hardships. What matters now is not that a glorious place awaits, what matters here and now is that “my Redeemer lives” and he is The Way. Only as we are alive in Christ can we be assured “that at the last he will stand upon the earth; and after [our] skin has been thus destroyed, [we] shall see God (Job 19: 25 & 26)
As for the skeptics who want to know if astronauts have seen God or located heaven, remember the brain surgeon who said, “I’ve operated on many brains and never seen a single thought.”