Luke 20: 27-38
A little boy was sitting in his Sunday School class, carrying out the teacher’s assignment: “Draw a picture of something or someone from the Bible.” As the teacher was looking at the various crayon drawings, she asked, “Tell me about your picture, Billy.” ‘It’s a picture of God,” Billy said. “But Billy,” his teacher replied, “No one knows what God looks like.” To which Billy replied without lifting his head, “They will now.” Maybe we need to embrace the innocence of children to understand what Jesus says to the Sadducees today! Jesus was pummeled with a complicated riddle as you just heard. Riddles have amused children and challenged adults for generations. For example:
“It is greater than God, it is more evil than the devil; the poor have it, the rich need it, and if you eat it, you’ll die.” What is it? The answer: nothing. Plug in the word and the question becomes a statement: “Nothing is greater than God, nothing is more evil than the devil; the poor have nothing, the rich need nothing, and if you eat nothing, you’ll die!” Or how about this one: “Bob’s height is 6 feet; he works at a butcher shop; he wears size 9 shoes. What does he weigh?” The answer is “meat.” He is Bob the butcher! Or finally, there is the children’s question in this tongue twister: If Peter Piper picked a peck of pickled peppers, how many pickled peppers did Peter Piper pick? (It’s a peck; but how much is a peck? Four pecks make a bushel, so it’s a quarter of a bushel! The number of peppers would vary according to their size!) Puzzles like those have been around a long time. They are meant to frustrate and trick the listener. Jesus had grown up with his builder-father working with wood and stone. Many people believe that since Nazareth was so very small, (and there was no tourist trade as there is now,) Joseph and his teenaged son might have found work in the much larger city north of Nazareth called “Sephoris.” There the boy would have been exposed to riddles, jokes, and stories told by tradesmen and the Romans who employed them. So by the time he had grown, Jesus had heard lots of riddles. But Jesus, we believe, also had insights into heaven once he had grown and begun his ministry. One day he was challenged by some Sadducees- Jews in a very high position- who seemed threatened by Jesus’ teachings. One thing we know that Luke tells us: Sadducees believed there was no resurrection; no life after death. And yet in Luke 20, we find Sadducees asking a question about the resurrection! Jesus must have known something was up immediately. He did not take this question flat-footed. And it was a brain puzzler:
28 “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man[a] shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 29 Now there were seven brothers; the first married and died childless; 30 then the second 31 and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died childless. 32 Finally the woman also died. 33 In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.”
Jesus spotted the trick question; but so many people looking at the Bible on their own read and re-read the question, trying to figure it out. Yes it was true that a man’s unmarried brother would, by custom, marry the widow of his brother since there was no social security or welfare in those days. A widow would customarily marry her dead husband’s brother. That was to provide security for her. Now you know that too, and Jesus knew it, and the Sadducees knew it. But now, the linear explanations need to be left behind; there are no linear explanations about the next life. Just like John Calvin intended for predestination to be a doctrine of destination, not of explanation. Just like people would have had to use their imaginations, not raw information, to figure out what it would be like to walk on the moon before July 20, 1969. After that date, that had first had information. As a fan of ocean liners, before 1985 I remember reading book after book about where the Titanic might have been on the bottom of the ocean; writers believed it would be intact and preserved since it was in one of the deepest parts of the Atlantic Ocean. There was even a fictional book, made into a movie called “Raise the Titanic,” suggesting that the ship could be raised and floated again, and they depicted the ship completing her maiden voyage into New York Harbor. But then in 1985 ,Robert Ballard actually found the Titanic, broken apart and more deteriorated than any writer had guessed before. Why am I telling you these stories, these stories that compare explanation, and destination, and imagination? Because that’s the way you need to think to understand Jesus’ answer. He has left behind the answer key to the puzzles. He says in essence, life in heaven “isn’t like that.” When my daughter was trying to talk me into pursuing the Doctor of Ministry degree while I was a full-time pastor here back in 2008, I spoke to one of the Columbia Seminary professors. “Why would I want to return to seminary” I asked him, “with all the testing, and paper writing, and intense discussions?” And Dr. Roger Nishioka replied to me, “It isn’t like that.” He meant, my old linear view of going back to seminary was nothing like what it would actually be like, returning to work on a Doctor’s degree. And so I went; and he was right; but I had to learn it for myself.
There was no way for Jesus to answer non-believers in a linear way. They didn’t believe in that life anyway! But Jesus knew others were listening in! So he said this:
“Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 35 but those who are considered worthy of a place in [the next] age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. 36 Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.”
You might want to ask Jesus some convoluted question about which relatives you could see in heaven; or ask if there are really pearly gates, or if there are actual streets of gold. You might also want to ask if your ex-wife will be there, or your former husband will be there? Or will they be in the other place?” And Jesus might say something like my professor said to me: “It isn’t like that.” Jesus might explain more, with words like: “When you are in this world, those are things you think about, perhaps a lot. But Heaven is nothing like what you are thinking about! I won’t explain it to you now! You’ll have to experience it for yourself!” We may hope we’ll have wings in the next life; we may hope that “when the roll is called up yonder [we’ll] be there!” Perhaps Jesus is saying to us: “Don’t worry about what you think it will be like! You can only imagine!” Maybe the answer is at the beginning of my message, in the small hands of a little boy, or a little girl, drawing God.
Let me close by reminding you of the Christian group MercyMe’s song, “I Can Only Imagine.” Maybe that is the best answer to what life in the resurrection might be like:
I can only imagine, what it will be like when I walk by your side,
I can only imagine what my eyes will see when your face is before me.
Surrounded by your glory what will my heart feel will I dance for your Jesus
Or in awe of you be still? Will I stand in your presence, or to my knees will I fall,
Will I sing “hallelujah,” will I be able to speak at all, I can only imagine.
Few poets, songwriters, or authors have captured the wonder, the mystery, and the other-dimension nature of being with Jesus in the resurrection like that song does. If you set aside the flat-footed questions, and the linear riddles, and let your right brain engage, your creative imagination might imagine what it’s like to see, and even to draw, God.
Let us pray:
We can only imagine what it will be like to be in your glory, of God. Help us to look for the kingdom with fresh eyes, remember Jesus’ words: “Truly I tell you, unless you change and become like a little child, you will not enter the kingdom of heaven.” Amen.
Jeffrey A. Sumner November 10, 2019