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An Unbreakable Relationship
November 10, 2019
A few days ago, I found an old story online that was new to me and I thought it was well worth sharing. It’s about an elderly man who was well loved and respected in his community. He was known to everyone there as “Uncle Johnson.” His neighbors claim that he lived to be over 100 years old due in part to the cheerful outlook that characterized his life.
One day while he was working in his garden, he was singing songs of praise to God. His pastor happened to be passing by and heard the singing, so he called out, “Uncle Johnson, you seem very happy today.”
The old man replied, “Yes, I was just thinking.” “Thinking about what?” his pastor asked.
“Oh, I was just thinking that if the crumbs of joy that fall from the Master’s table in this world are so good, what will the great loaf in heaven be like! I tell you, sir, there will be enough for everyone and some to spare up there.”
Our gospel lesson today is the story of yet another in a series of traps that Jesus’ enemies tried to set for him in the week leading up to his crucifixion. The details of that encounter are important, of course. But so are Jesus’ comments about the afterlife.
Given that heaven is a topic of interest to most people, I decided to make heaven the focus of this sermon, even though I’ve never been there. However, I do know many people whom I’m sure have gone there, even if none of them has come back to tell me anything about it.
It seems to me that the idea of heaven is rather passé in modern America. Many people simply don’t believe in it, and many of those who do, think that it’s irrelevant to everyday life. They think that if the idea of heaven makes any impact on their lives at all, it’s only when they need comfort for the loss of some friend or relative.
Some people describe heaven as “pie in the sky in the great by and by,” or, even worse, as a simply a psychological ploy to manipulate people into being willing to delay their cries for justice is the face of the grave inequities in this life. In fact, the Sadducees of Jesus’ time didn’t believe in heaven for just that reason.
In the earliest portions of the Old Testament, those who died were thought to have gone to a dimly-lit underworld known as Sheol, which was similar in many ways to the Greek idea of Hades. People lived on as shades, which were dramatically-weakened forms of their old selves. These shades grew progressively weaker as their bodies decomposed until they were no longer distinguishable as individuals separate from the others around them. So they all blended into the great mass of being that was called “the ancestors.”
Over the years, this view of the afterlife was gradually altered to include an element of punishment for evil deeds and reward for good deeds done in this life. However, that idea is so late in developing that it only appears twice in the entire Old Testament: once in Daniel (12:2) and once in Isaiah (66:24).
Because that idea was such a late addition, the Sadducees thought that the idea of resurrection was simply wishful thinking that grew out of the persecutions of the previous two centuries. In other words, they said it was a case of popular culture creeping into the practice of religion. They had a hard time believing that God really could work through human effort.
To avoid that problem, the Sadducees believed that God had only inspired the first five books of the Bible. Those are the ones they said God dictated to Moses on Mount Sinai. The other books of what we now call the Old Testament were said to be simply human works, so they didn’t have any authority for the Sadducees.
That’s where this whole question of marriages comes from. In Deuteronomy 25, there’s a law that says if a man dies before he’s had a son, it was the responsibility of the man’s brother to marry the widow so that she could have a son to take care of her and to carry on the dead man’s heritage. That’s sometimes called the law of “levirate marriage” because the Latin word for “brother-in-law” is “levir.”
So you can see that the problem the Sadducees posed to Jesus wasn’t completely off the wall. It was in keeping with the letter of the law. But it was intended to show that that very law points out the absurdity of a belief in life after death. However, Jesus tells them they were asking the wrong question altogether because people don’t marry in heaven.
Then Jesus goes on to quote from the burning bush scene in Exodus, which is one of the books the Sadducees did accept, to show that the idea of resurrection may be found even there, by knowing that God is the God of the living, not the dead.
Most of us have a very bland view of heaven. We picture some sort of vague scene in which people sit around on clouds all day wearing pipe cleaner halos and strumming on miniature gold-painted harps. And then we wonder how on earth we could put up with something like that forever without going stark, raving mad from sheer boredom.
As Susan Ertz once said, “Millions long for immortality who do not know what to do with themselves on a rainy Sunday afternoon.” But that insipid view is far from the biblical picture of heaven. Jesus describes heaven as being a place of such great value that it inspires a sense of urgency in people who would stop at nothing to get there.
For example, in Matthew 13 (44-46), Jesus says: “The kingdom of heaven is like a treasure hidden in a field, which someone found and hid; then in his joy he goes and sells all he has and buys that field. Again, the kingdom of heaven is like a merchant in search of fine pearls; on finding one pearl of great value, he went and sold all that he had and bought it.” That’s total commitment.
What exactly will the afterlife be like? Jesus never tells us directly, instead he always describes it in terms of analogies. That may be because it’s so radically different from this life that we wouldn’t be able to understand it fully on our own terms.
But the reality is that we can examine the single example of someone who’s been to heaven and who can enable us to form educated guesses about the life after this one. That, of course, is Jesus himself.
My favorite description of how the resurrection works comes from Nathan Nettleton, who wrote:
“The aliveness we encounter in the crucified and risen Jesus is so far beyond merely not being dead that it is right off the scale.
“In Jesus we encounter an aliveness that breaks open tombs, that breezes through the locked doors of fear, that drops doubters to their knees, and erupts with overwhelming love and mercy for betrayers and deniers and conspirators and crucifiers alike. In Jesus we encounter an aliveness that makes everything we have ever known look like nothing more than death warmed up.
“We think that alive is the opposite of dead, but Jesus is so extravagantly alive that he can be dead at the same time and it doesn’t make a jot of a difference. Because the risen Jesus is still the crucified Jesus. He presents himself to us, still bearing fatal wounds. He is not just a dead man walking, but a dead man who is so bursting with life that being dead does not pose the least threat to his being alive. He is so alive that being dead is virtually irrelevant to his aliveness.”
Our hope for the resurrection lies squarely on the fact that God is a loving God, who desires a lasting relationship with us, so he gives us eternal life as a free gift. We only have to accept it.
If God is in heaven, then heaven must be a place without the limitations of pain and suffering. Heaven must be a place of intense joy and creativity and fulfillment.
Austin Farrer says, “It is strange how, when we imagine heaven, we think of it as somehow shadowy. We color it with tints of moonlight, sleep, and the faces of the dead. But there are no shades there; there is the substance of joy, and the vitality of action. When we are there, and look back on earthly life, we shall not see it as a vigorous battlefield from which we have gracefully retired: [instead] we shall view it as an insubstantial dream, from which we have happily awoken.”
Even that’s not quite the final words about heaven because it implies that heaven is some kind of bribe or reward for good behavior. But Jesus described it differently. He compared heaven to a massive party which everyone is invited to attend — saint and sinner and the humbly indifferent alike. The only entrance fee is for people to accept the invitation.
However, C. S. Lewis qualified that image a bit when he wrote, “Heaven offers nothing that a mercenary soul can desire. It is safe to tell the pure in heart that they shall see God, for only the pure in heart want to.”
Heaven will be place where we will both live with God and live the same life as God. We will be without all the doubts and half-hearted interest that plague us in this life. But heaven doesn’t have to wait until the next life for fulfillment.
We can get a small foretaste of heaven whenever we make an effort to love and respect one another in spite of our differences and disagreements, whenever we know the joy of giving of ourselves unselfishly to serve others, whenever we forgive one another without clinging to the comfort of settling who’s right and who’s wrong because we know the person we’re with is more important than winning an argument.
Like the Sadducees, we often ask the wrong questions of our faith. Maybe the right questions to ask are: Where is heaven breaking into our world today or, even more personally, where is it breaking into my life? On top of that, what can I do to help bring the reality of heaven to this world?
As we await the fulfillment of God’s promises, let’s work toward the flowering of his kingdom in this life and pray that we may all arrive safely in heaven at last Amen.
by Jim McCrea