November 6, 2016: "Questions"
A sermon by Andrew Philip Long
The First Presbyterian Church of Enid, OK November 6, 2016
Job 19:23-27 & Luke 20:27-38
Someone once said that if you want to make God laugh, tell him your plans. I like to plan ahead, particularly for our youth and adult classes here at the church. But no matter how much planning I do, no matter how many hours I may spend polishing a beautiful lesson, there is always someone who asks a question that derails the whole thing. If you’ve ever been in one of these classes, you know what I’m talking about. This very thing happened at Wednesday night youth Bible Study this week, and I think God had a good laugh.
We were deep into Paul’s second letter the Thessalonians. The Thessalonians were riddled with fear and anxiety in waiting for the second coming of Christ. Many believed that they would live to see the day of Christ’s return. But when Jesus did not return, month after month and year after year, the Thessalonians began to worry. Did they miss it? Were they left behind? Had they done something to make Jesus skip over them? Their fear and anxiety locked down the community: folks didn’t leave their homes, there was no worship, no prayer, no service to the needy. Paul’s letter urges the community to get back in gear, to continue with regular worship and service to the poor. Paul urges them to not be so heavenly minded that they are of no earthly good; he urges them to remember that God had given them the gift of life, a gift that must be used for good. No one knows the exact day and time of Christ’s return, so Paul says don’t worry about it. Worship God; love and serve your neighbors; teach the Word of God and raise the children in faith.
That’s a tremendously helpful lesson for modern Christians. We might not be overly concerned about the return of Jesus, but we have other concerns—about the economy, our health, the educational system, the government. Some days it would be easier to stay tucked into bed than go out and face the world. But Paul says, “Get up! Do the things you have been taught. Worship God; love and serve your neighbors; teach the Word of God and raise the children in faith.” God is big enough to handle when and where Christ will return, leave that to God. So get to work; get work doing the things that will bring life into the world, get to work spreading the love of God.
Our conversation was meaningful and productive, I thought. As we do each week, we wrapped up our time by writing prayer requests on a white board. As I was about to start praying over the youth and their requests, one asked, “Pastor Andrew, how do you know that God is real?” I’m sure my mouth was open wide enough to drive an eighteen-wheeler through. Looking at my watch I saw that we had about three minutes left, so I shared a few thing. I shared that I’ve never heard God’s voice or seen God face to face, but that I’ve felt God’s presence in my suffering, in the suffering of other people, and through folks who offer compassion and care in times of need. I shared that there are people who know for certain that God is real, and people who go their whole lives without ever knowing for sure. I shared that some days God is clearly real, and sometimes not; I also said that the process of knowing God deepens and develops each day we are alive. Satisfied that I had answered the question, we prayed and headed home.
This led me to wonder about the place of questions in the life of faith. As a community of faith, are we open to questions? Do we feel comfortable asking deep questions about God, about ourselves, and about the world? Are questions understood as a tool for developing a strong faith or as a weakness that must be avoided? Do we ask questions to challenge and strengthen ourselves and others, or do we ask questions to confirm our beliefs and pre-conceived notions?
Today’s gospel lesson is set in Jerusalem, only a few days before the Passover. Jesus’ time on earth is drawing to an end because it is during Passover that he will be arrested and put on trial. By this time, everyone in Jerusalem knows who Jesus is: a miracle-worker, a famous healer, a wise man, the one who raised a little girl and Lazarus from the dead. Jesus is also the one who walked into the temple in Jerusalem and turned over the tables of the money changers because they had turned the temple into a market. It is that last thing that drew the attention of the religious leaders. Some of those religious leaders, the Sadducees, come to see Jesus. The Sadducees were a small sect within the Jewish faith who did everything by the book, literally. If it was not written in the first five books of the Old Testament, you didn’t do it or believe it.
The Sadducees were also unique in the tapestry of Judaism because they did not believe in resurrection. So their question to Jesus makes sense. “Teacher,’ they begin, ‘Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brothers dies, leaving a wife but no children, he shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother.” This alludes to a practice in the Old Testament called levirate marriage, where a brother or a cousin or a nephew would marry a man’s wife when he died in order to protect her dignity and continue the family line. But the Sadducees take it further. If the woman’s husband dies and they have no children, they ask, and then six more men marry her and there are still no children, whose wife will the woman be in the resurrection?
Is that the best they can do? Is that the best question they think to ask Jesus, the Anointed One? Porter Taylor, who is a bishop in the Episcopal Church, reminds us of a Jewish saying that says, “Rake the muck this way; rack the muck that way. It’s still muck. Meanwhile we could be stringing pearls for heaven.” The Sadducees’ question is muck. They are not asking in order to gain more knowledge or a deeper faith in God; they are asking to see if Jesus will confirm their beliefs or say something they can condemn him for. Jesus was already on thin ice with the powers-that-be in Jerusalem, so it is likely that the Sadducees were just looking for something to add to the charges against him. Their question is muck because they imagine that the resurrection, the raising of the dead to new life by the power of God, is going to be just like the world as it is right now.
Resurrection is a sticky subject, to be sure. In the gospel of John, after Jesus feeds five thousand with five loaves of bread and two fish, he says, “I am the bread of life. Whoever comes to me will never be hungry, and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty…and I will raise them up on the last day.” From that we know that Jesus promises that he will raise up his followers on the last day. We also know, from the witness of Mary Magdalene and Peter, that Jesus himself was raised from the dead. But beyond this, resurrection—how it will happen, when it will happen, who will be resurrected—is unknown. Some Christians believe that the resurrection will be physical, that all the dead will rise from their graves to walk on the earth again. Some Christians believe that the resurrection is a spiritual event, that our souls are raised into the presence of God after the physical body dies. Still others believe that the resurrection is something that happens each time we love, each time we forgive and are forgiven, every moment we spend in the presence of God while we are alive.
Jesus answers the Sadducees mucky question by proclaiming that the resurrected life is nothing like the life of this world. Whether the resurrection is something we experience in body after we die, or in spirit at the moment of death, or each moment we are alive, resurrection is a totally new reality. For example, Jesus says that in this life we marry and are given in marriage. This is a way to structure society, to conduct legal business, to raise and nurture children, and fight back against loneliness and isolation. All of these things are good. But Jesus says that the resurrection will be so different, so far beyond what we might be able to imagine, that our ways of structuring society, like the institution of marriage, will not be necessary. And Jesus makes it clear that he is not just pulling this out of thin air; Jesus links this truth back to Moses and back to the texts of Judaism that the Sadducees were supposedly so well-steeped in.
Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees makes it clear that he has no time for those who merely want to play games. The Sadducees’ question was a game; remember, they wanted to trap Jesus and get rid of him. Jesus also has no patience with those who merely want to trick him or use him to prove how smart and righteous they are. Usually, those who waste his time don’t come off very well. After this exchange between Jesus and the Sadducees, Luke says, “They no longer dared to ask him another question.” Jesus met them on home turf, played by their rules, and showed that the Sadducees were self-serving, self-righteous, schemers.
However, Jesus always has time for questions that are real. He always has time for those who want to string pearls for heaven. The questions, these pearls, sound like this: “Can you heal my child?”… “I have a demon that torments me and I can find no rest. Can you help me?”… “I have lose my way. Can you bring me back?”… “No one will come near me because they say I am unclean. Do you love someone like me?”… “Is God real?”. Jesus always has time for these questions because these questions come from deep within our hearts and lead us into a lasting relationship with him.
When we offer these questions to Jesus, the answer he gives is not a slogan or a sound bite. The answer he gives is himself. When the Sadducees or the Pharisees ask Jesus their trick questions, they usually get parables as answers, stories that puzzled their minds and invited them to look at the world in a new way. But when women and men bring Jesus their deepest yearnings, the complex questions that keep them awake at night, he doesn't just talk to them…he engages them. When genuine people come to Jesus with genuine questions, he touches them, he encounters them, he relates to them. Instead of a ‘yes’ or ‘no’ answer, or a ‘do this’ or ‘do that’ answer, Jesus invites people, you and me, to journey with him on the way to life.
The Latin root of the word “question” means “to seek”. It is where we get the word “quest”. To ask a real question is to start a journey, and to be willing to travel where it leads; with Jesus the journey it to Life with the one who is the Life, the Truth, and the Way. Jesus gets exasperated with the Sadducees simply because they are not willing to go on a quest with him; actually, they are not even willing to leave the station. They just want to play games and stay right where they are. That is simply not the way of faith; staying right where you are is not the purpose or the intent, or the calling, of faith. Right or wrong doesn’t factor in here; the Sadducees are just raking the muck and they are wasting the gift of life God has given them.
Rainer Maria Rilke was one of the most famous German poets of the late 19th century. An aspiring American poet wrote the famous Rilke with questions about his art. In one of his replies, Rilke wrote, “Love the questions themselves as if they were locked rooms or books written in a very foreign language…live the questions now. Perhaps then someday far in the future, you will gradually…live your way into the answer.”
Our deepest questions don’t have simple answers; they are, after all, questions about life, about happiness, about God, and about death. Instead, our questions are doors to walk through and Jesus says, “I am the Way…follow me.” With Jesus and through Jesus we live our way into answers. And this is the good news of the Gospel for us today. Today is the day that Jesus has come to the city, today is the day Jesus has come to be right where we are. The time is short, but it is our time. It is our time to bring our deepest questions to him, questions for which we want new answers. These questions, these pearls for heaven, sound like this: “Does God love me?”… “Are we alone?”… “Can we find peace?”… “Is there a way through the mess we are in?”… “Can we be kinder, more loving, more gentle, and more compassionate with one another?”. The Sadducees could not ask these questions because they thought they already knew the answers. Real questions are doorways to the journey to newness. We ask Jesus these questions because he is who he is. Jesus is the door to newness; he is the Way to new life. He invites us to think of a new world: a world where the old rules do not apply because God’s reign of justice and peace has come.
Questions are welcome here, in this place. Do not be afraid to ask questions about God, about yourself, and about the world. Do not be afraid that your questions are stupid or silly or a sign of weakness; ask them because you know that God is faithful. Ask because you truly desire to learn, not because you think you already know. Ask and do not be afraid. Love the questions themselves and live the questions right now, and gradually you will live into the answer. And remember what Jesus promised: Ask, and it will be given to you; search, and you will find; knock, and the door will be opened for you. Amen.