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Monday, November 11, 2013

The Trouble With Questions

Luke 20:27-38 

A friend of mine tells this story from her annals of parenthood:

Becky has two children, both adults now; the elder one, a girl named Katie, was a bright and precocious child. Colin, two or three years Katie’s junior was a sweet, loving, child described by his parents as a “boy’s boy” - an active, inquisitive, boisterous child who often got on Katie’s and, truth be told, his parents’, last nerve.

One day, Colin was into a favorite pass-time; he was in question-asking mode, bombarding Becky with question after question. “What is really inside dinosaur bones?” “How do flour and water turn into bread in the oven?” “What happens to bubbles when they burst?” “Where do all the bugs go in winter and why can’t I see them?” Patiently, Becky answered each question, lovingly trying to make sense of the physical world for her son. She carefully framed each answer to make sense to her preschooler, so that Colin’s natural curiosity about the world would be encouraged and he would know that his thoughts and his questions, even the tough ones, were valued.

As usual, there were some questions to which Becky would have to answer truthfully, “I don’t know the answer to that, Colin. “But it’s a good question,” she would say, and then follow up with ways they could find the answer together, or come to terms with the fact that even for adults, there are sometimes no good answers to the questions we ask. Finally, Colin asked a question, that stumped Becky, and while she struggled to frame an answer in her mind, Katie piped up, “Colin, that is a stupid question!” To which Becky quickly responded, “Katie, there is no such thing as a stupid question!”

Apparently Katie took this as a challenge.

Thus began the barrage of the dumbest, most idiotic questions Katie could conjure up. Not to be outdone, and catching on quickly to this new game, Colin chimed in with a few ridiculous questions of his own.

Having raised three children of my own I have to chuckle, as I can relate to Becky’s experience. Can you? And I always remember her story when I read one of the passages from the gospels like today’s, where people are asking Jesus questions just to trip him up.

As we’ve moved through the gospel of Luke, there have been lots of instances when the Pharisees and the leaders of the Jewish community have challenged Jesus, his knowledge and authority by asking questions – if not stupid questions, then certainly trick ones. In the gospel text from Luke that we heard today, which is the only time the Sadducees are even mentioned in Luke’s gospel, they ask Jesus questions not to gain knowledge but to try and trap him as in a children’s game but with much higher stakes. But Jesus is ready for them. He knows their intent. He uses even this test to teach those within hearing about God’s gracious will and intent for God’s people.

This scene unfolds as Jesus’ nears the end of his journey to the cross. In just the past few chapters of this gospel, Jesus has been acclaimed by the crowds following him as he approaches Jerusalem, and once he arrives there, he clears the Temple of those selling sacrifices there, and then sits down and begins daily teaching sessions, while his opponents plot and seek a way to kill him. And now we have this question from the Sadducees, whom the Pharisees and elders of the Temple detest, but who work together now to a common purpose – Jesus’ destruction.

The question they ask is based on a point of law, referencing what is known as “levirate” marriage. More than once in the Pentateuch, aspects of this law are mentioned, most notably in Deuteronomy 25. Instituted as a protection for the vulnerable ones, for whom God has consistently demonstrated concern and care, the law also served to protect lineage, by giving “eternal life” through progeny, even for a deceased, childless brother. In other words, the brother who has died will live on, in essence and name, by those children who carry his name, conferred by the brother who has married his widow, which may seem pretty convoluted to us today, but made sense in the ancient world.

But of course, the story they lay out for Jesus is ridiculous in the extreme – seven brothers all marrying this poor serial widow, each dies childless. They ask Jesus, “So, like, if there really is a resurrection, like, you know, life after death, whose wife will this woman be?” As our text indicates, the Sadducees say there is no resurrection; they don’t just disbelieve, they argue vehemently against it. So they really are just testing Jesus, in an attempt to trap him. But this question also reveals the Sadducees’ failure to understand what God revealed to Moses. For at the burning bush in Exodus 3, God reveals God’s glory to Moses and tells him that he, the God of Israel is to be known by the name God reveals to Moses. In that passage, God, the great “I Am” says that, Abraham, Isaac and Jacob, (who had long since died when Moses walked the earth) are not dead, but are indeed living a resurrected life.

But in the age to come, Jesus says, the age of reconciliation and resurrection, the patriarchal structures of property and ownership, marriage and inheritance will not matter. In the age to come, all the structures of power and oppression will cease to be – no longer will they hold sway over God’s beloved. God’s creation and God’s promises will rule in everlasting life with God where the children of God will not and cannot be separated from God.

Jesus contrasts the reality of the “children of this age” – who are bound by earthly structures and limitations, versus the “children of that age”, who, given an eternal place in the heavenly kingdom, will be freed once and for all from every single physical, social, and mortal law, and will dwell in the house of the Lord forever, where God’s justice and peace will reign.

What that means for us today is that all of the little arguments that we have about faith and how faith works, and who is in and who is out, and what “the end” will look like, don’t really matter. For while God has created these earthly relationships and provided for the building up of relationship through marriage and other structures for the children of “this age”, the children of “that age” in whom God delights, will have no need for marriage nor paternalistic structures nor an everlasting lineage.

None of it will matter.

None of the stumbling blocks to faith that we build will matter, because all our needs, all our joys and all our desires will be fulfilled eternally in that day when we stand in the presence of the Most High God.

As people of faith still living on this side of the cross, we too have so many questions. How this resurrection life will be worked out, what it will feel like, what we will see and experience, are a mystery to us. Some of our questions are born out of a sense of desire to better understand our relationship with God and how God works. Some of our questions are born out of our fear of the unknown, our doubt about that which we do not understand, or our despair that we might not, in the end, be found worthy. We don’t understand how resurrection will work, and we don’t comprehend the enormity of grace or how it comes to rest on us.

Jesus promises that none of these things matter, that in him, there is new life now, and eternal life to come. And we cling to that promise.

We know at the same time, that there are plenty of questions placed at the foot of the cross as a challenge to faith. We are surrounded by a world of unbelief; a world that insists that science has more to say, than the biblical witness; in fact many argue it is the only authority we need to understand the origins of all of creation. The dominant culture tells us that if there is a God it is ridiculous to believe that he would demonstrate his power on the cross, so in that case “our” God must be the “wrong” God. The world around us accuses us of being crazy for believing in the virgin birth, denies the validity of the Trinity, and claims that resurrection from the dead has more to do with the undead (as in Zombies) than in the divine work of the one true God.

We struggle with our questions as we struggle with Jesus’ answers, because our toolbox of comprehension simply falls short when it comes to unpacking the Word of God. As Paul wrote, “for now, we see in a mirror dimly.”

And then, into the chaos and confusion of our doubt and uncertainty, Jesus invites us to bask in God’s love and the promise of resurrection and eternal life, through the Word. Jesus invites us to walk in faith perhaps not “knowing” exactly where we are going, but trusting that he will lead us in the ways that bring us comfort, consolation and glimpses of God’s glory.

The good news for us this day, is that God knows our hearts, knows our questions, our struggles and our intent. Like my friend Becky, like any good parent, God welcomes and honors our questions, our doubts, and our concerns, even the difficult ones, especially the difficult ones, and in response to our questions, always points us back to the cross, where Jesus’ work of mercy and grace grants us balm from our worry, and comfort in the midst of the unknown.

May we remember that the cross on which Jesus hung has been transformed into a symbol of hope for us all. May we remember that Jesus promises ultimate healing, ultimate restoration, transformation and life. May we remember God’s promise lived out in the life, death and resurrection of Jesus Christ makes each one of us, children of the resurrection. 

Thanks be to God!

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