God of the Living
I can sympathize with Jesus, I think, in what he is experiencing at the beginning of our passage from Luke. The Sadducees, the religious tradionalists of his day, are trying to trap him into saying something that they can use against him. I experience this kind of thing – I bet many of us do in our own ways. For me, it is the email message from a person, perhaps on campus, perhaps someone far away whom I’ve never heard of but who has been looking at our Religious Life website or reading my sermons on-line. The person will ask an open-ended but leading question on a topic like homosexuality or the validity of other religions. They clearly are hoping that I will answer with some kind of wording that will incriminate myself (in their opinion) – that I will say something that “proves” that I believe in something that they disagree with. Their messages leave me with the very clear impression that any reply I give will be forwarded broadly to many people and lists, earn me condemnation in whatever are their journals and blogs, and generally be used to discredit me and to earn points for the “side” of whoever wrote to me. I don’t respond to such snares from strangers, and when the writer is a campus person, I invite him or her to come and talk to me.
The Sadducees considered only the Pentateuch, the first five books of the Bible, as authoritative, and because nothing in those books mentions resurrection, they didn’t believe in it. The Sadducees hold Christ accountable to answering a ridiculous question about the ancient practice of levirate marriage, when a widow would be made to marry a brother-in-law and so bear children that would be attributed to the deceased first spouse. It was an incredibly outdated question by Jesus’ time, like asking a politician today to comment seriously on paying taxes to Britain or the Louisiana Purchase. Jesus doesn’t fall for the trick, of course. He throws their ridiculous question back at them. He shows how they portray life in the resurrection as if it follows all the social rules of this life – the status of marriages, etcetera. No, life in the resurrection means existence on a wholly different plane. And Jesus brilliantly uses the Sadducees’ own biblical theology to make his point – he reminds them of the burning bush described in Exodus 3, the revelation to Moses of God’s Holy name – “I am”. A seminary professor of mine used to translate God’s self-naming as “I am the God who is actively present.” The professor would then note that this is very clunky in translation, so the abbreviation “I am” is quite understandable. And yet, it does not really capture the active motion of presence, the eternal and abiding presence, the action verb. God is an action verb! God is the never-ending present tense. “God is our refuge and strength, a very present help in trouble,” wrote the Psalmist. Even those who have gone before, Jesus tells the Sadducees – like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – God is their God still, resurrection is real even in the words of the Pentateuch. God is God of the living, and that doesn’t mean simply those who at present have a heartbeat and are drawing breath. God is actively present as God to all who have ever lived, for they live on eternally in new form in the life beyond life.
Job knows very well this God who is actively present. In the depths of despair, when he has lost his children, his livelihood, when he sits on a pile of manure and scrapes at the sores that cover his body, when he seriously wonders if death must be better than this unbearable grief, loss, and suffering, he says, “I know that my redeemer lives!” Most people wouldn’t see much evidence of that in a situation like Job’s, but through his profoundest despair, anger, and doubt, he still knows that he is the child of the God who is actively present – not visible at the moment, but actively present.
And that’s enough to keep Job going. His three friends have just come to talk to him. They’re so sorry that Job is suffering so badly. Job insists that it is all unfair, that even though he’s a mere human, he hasn’t done anything to deserve this. Job is right – sometimes life is truly unfair. What does this mean for those of us who, like Job, believe in an omnipotent God? Job’s friends Zophar, Eliphaz, and Bildad, all work to explain things for Job, to fit things into the good boxes that have always worked for them. Job will have none of it. Not only is his suffering apparently undeserved, it isn’t even the fault of enemies. Bad, warring people didn’t kill his family and take his property and leave him impoverished, suffering, and diseased. These have all been what the insurance companies now call “acts of God.” So, by the way, where was God? Where is God now? What does all of this destruction say of God?
Job is wise enough, by the end of his tale, to know that he does not know – he has no answers. And he is wise enough throughout his ordeals to hold fast to the belief that God is “actively present.” This God is his redeemer – his redeemer lives. The word “redeemer” means so many wonderful things in both Hebrew and English. God the redeemer is the rescuer – the one who rescused and redeemed the Hebrews from slavery. God is the one who redeems – who buys back what was lost or pawned – loaned for a price, put up for sale. God is the redeemer of all human beings who are simply commodities to others, the means of others’ income, people hung out to dry or whose existence only profits others. God redeems – today we take coupons to the store and we redeem them – we hand over a chit and we get a discount in return. God is the true redeemer, for the “discounted” human beings and the full-price ones, for the oppressed and the elite. The God who is actively present redeems us from every kind of slavery today – the ones to which we’ve committed ourselves – our slavery to status and acquisitions; and the slavery to which others have consigned people – working endlessly and not making enough to live.
On this All Saints/All Souls Sunday, let us remember that, as Christ has said, God is God of the living, both in the life around us that we can see, and in the life to come. There is life to come, and it so explodes all our worldly imagination. Like the Saudducees, we may be tempted to think of the social relations we have now and project them into the world to come – how are we going to relate to ex-spouses, the neighbor who was inconsiderate in mowing the lawn at 7:00 a.m. on Saturdays, the boss who never noticed our hard work? Will there be recognition of the honors we’ve received, or our service to our churches? All of these concerns we can leave behind, says Christ. Our life in the resurrection has none of the trappings of our earthly concerns, as valuable as our commitments and struggles and triumphs have been on this side of life’s journey. Time as we know it will be over in the resurrection. There we will be beyond time. Eternal life – eternity – exists on a continuum that is beyond our human grasping. Gone are the years, days, months, hours, weeks and minutes that have ordered and regulated our orderly and regulated lives. We are so bound now to seasons of work and lesiure, holidays and intensities – we will exist beyond them all. Time will be over, and so will death be over, ours and everyone else’s. There is no death in eternity, only the closest presence of God, the God who now we can know most closely as actively present, with us and guiding us on the blessed journey that is life. Job is right – at the last God will stand in our presence when we, too, have passed into eternity.
On this All Saints/All Souls Sunday, we remember with special intention those we have loved and cared for who have, themselves, passed into eternity. We may be remembering some who died decades ago who spirits still refresh and enliven us, so profound was their contribution to our lives. We may remember others who died more recently, and the memory of whom may bring the heaviness or sorrow, the weight of pain, the sting of loss, or the spreading warmth of comfort; reassurance and acceptance. Let us all take comfort in the assurance of Christ our Lord that those who have passed into eternity like Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob, live on in the near presence of God. Beyond time, beyond space, beyond death itself, they live. For their God and ours is God not of the dead but of the living, both in this life and in the one to come.
Thanks be to God! Amen.
David Lose, “Commentary on Luke 20:27-38”, www.workingpreacher.org, November 7, 2010
James Limburg, “Commentary on Job 19:23-27a”, www.workingpreacher.org, November 7, 2010