November 19, 2019
22nd Sunday after Pentecost, Pastor Javen Swanson
Today’s scripture readings: Job 19:23-27a; Psalm 98; 2 Thessalonians 2:1-5, 13-17; Luke 20:27-38
It was 101 years ago tomorrow—in the eleventh hour of the eleventh day of the eleventh month of the year 1918—that opposing sides came together to sign the truce that ended World War I. It was the bloodiest war the world had ever seen; they called it the “war to end all wars.” An act of Congress established November 11 as a federal holiday to be called “Armistice Day.” That word, armistice, comes from the Latin arma, as in arms, and sistere, which mean to stop or stand still. In English, an armistice is an agreement that ends a conflict, but when you put the Latin pieces together it literally means something like to lay down arms or to silence our weapons.
When Congress created Armistice Day, it declared that the holiday “should be commemorated with thanksgiving and prayer and exercises designed to perpetuate peace through good will and mutual understanding between nations.” It was as if, at the end of that long and gruesome conflict, there was hope that the world would never again see such violence and that this annual holiday—a day for laying down arms—might inspire us all in the ways of peace forevermore. There was hope that the future could look different from the past.
Of course, it was not meant to be. World War I was not the war to end all wars, and in fact the violence that came later in the century far surpassed anything that had come before. And so, after World War II, the holiday was renamed Veterans Day, almost as if to acknowledge that the hope of armistice, of laying down arms, was a delusion—that it is wishful thinking to imagine that the future could look any different from our bloody, violent past.
That question of whether the future is defined by the past is a good question for us to consider today.
A group of Sadducees come to Jesus with a question. Luke tells us a little bit about the Sadducees. They were a Jewish sect that didn’t believe in resurrection. They were among the elites in ancient Jewish society who were served well by the economic and political systems of the day. Life was really pretty good for the Sadducees. Others who struggled to get by may have looked forward to a day of resurrection when they would be lifted out of their poverty into a new kind of reality, but the Sadducees didn’t really have much use for resurrection.
So these Sadducees come to Jesus with a trick question. “Suppose there were seven brothers. The oldest one married and then died without children, so the second brother married the widow. But he also died. Then the third brother married her, and he also died. This continued with all seven brothers, who all died without children. Finally, the woman also died. So, Jesus—oh wise one—tell us, whose wife will she be in the resurrection?” It is an absurd hypothetical that the Sadducees bring to Jesus, but it’s grounded in an ancient Jewish law, which said that if a man died childless, the man’s brother was to marry the widow. In a world where men owned everything and women weren’t allowed to own property, this was a way of ensuring that land and wealth stayed in the family. It was also a way to protect widows, who otherwise would have been cast out and left on their own, completely destitute. But we should pause right now to say out loud how offensive all of this sounds to us today—this idea that women are property who don’t have any agency, and that this widow was just passed from brother to brother without any say in the matter. In the Sadducees’ scheme to trap Jesus in a question about resurrection, the woman is just a pawn, and nobody in the Gospel reading thinks anything of it. But we are right to be offended.
The particular question the Sadducees raise is preposterous, but the truth is many of us have wondered about just these kinds of questions. My grandmother’s first husband—my mom’s dad—died three days after my mom’s eighteenth birthday, when my grandmother was just 52 years old. She married a second time, to a man who had also lost his first wife, and the two of them were happily married for many years, until his death, at which point he was buried in the cemetery next to his first wife. When my grandmother died years later, she was buried next to her first husband in another cemetery. Their separate burial plots reveal to those who might see their headstones decades later nothing about the precious years of marriage those two spent together in the later parts of their lives. And I’d be lying if I said I’d never wondered who my grandma’s husband is in heaven. If resurrection is real, tell us, Jesus, which one is it?”
I actually have all sorts of questions like these, and I bet you do, too. Like, “OK, Jesus, tell me, how old will my resurrected body be? May I request to be resurrected as my 27-year-old self—the year I ran that marathon and my body was in peak physical condition? Or will my resurrected body be whatever age I turn out to be when I die? And if that’s the case, will my resurrected body still endure for all eternity the aches and pains that come with old age? Or will I feel like a 27-year-old and just look like I’m 100? And while we’re on the topic, Jesus, tell me, will our resurrected bodies continue aging, or in heaven will we stay the same age forever?
Jesus’ answer is that life in the resurrection won’t look like life as we know it. The future will not be defined by the past. It will be a whole different manner of existence. The widow passed from brother to brother will no longer be the property of a man or dependent on someone else for her well-being. In the resurrection there will be no need to engage the systems and institutions that govern our world today. Jesus challenges the Sadducees—and us—to imagine a world where those things that concern us here on earth have fallen away, and our only task is to live in goodness of God. The rules and patterns that order our earthly existence are an important part of our lives now. But in the resurrection, Jesus says, we will have no need for them. Our sole delight will be in God, the very source of all love and joy.
It’s a nice thought, isn’t it? To be freed from the rules and systems that dictate how we live in this world but leave so many of us hurt and broken, and simply to abide in God. This is the promise of the resurrection: No longer will we have any use for the systems of this world that perpetuate war and injustice. No longer will our participation in these systems implicate us in the destruction of lives and creation. We hear today that these systems will fall away, that the future can and will look different from the past.
Many of us are familiar with the story of the Christmas Truce of 1914. Theater Latte Da in Minneapolis adapted the story into a musical that they perform annually in the weeks leading up to Christmas and if you’ve never seen it, I encourage you to go. On Christmas 1914, just a few months after World War I began, German and British troops—unbeknownst to their commanders—declared a temporary, unofficial truce. It started with soldiers singing Christmas carols to one another across enemy lines. Eventually some German soldiers dared to set their weapons aside and leave their trenches, approaching the Allied lines calling out in English, “Merry Christmas!” Some of them played a game of soccer. Others joined together to retrieve the bodies of those who had been killed in the “no-man’s land” between the two armies.
Historians point out that this holiday armistice has never since been repeated, that threats of disciplinary action from on high have thwarted this kind of event on the battlefield in the years since 1914. But a hundred-some-odd years later, we still tell the story of the Christmas Truce because it gives us hope that armistice really could become a way of life; hope that the way things have been is not the way things will always be; hope that the future really could look different from the past.
R. Alan Culpepper, “Luke” in The New Interpreter’s Bible, vol. 9, eds. Leander E. Keck et al. (Nashville: Abingdon, 1995).
History.com Editors, “Christmas Truce of 1914,” March 20, 2019, https://www.history.com/topics/world-war-i/christmas-truce-of-1914.
John Rollefson, “Twenty-second Sunday after Pentecost: Seven in Heaven?,” from “Preaching Helps,” in Currents in Theology and Mission, 46:4, October 2019, http://currentsjournal.org/index.php/currents/article/view/204/234.
Nancy Lynne Westfield, “Luke 20:27-38: Pastoral Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year C, Vol. 4, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010).
Patrick J. Willson, “Luke 20:27-38: Homiletical Perspective,” in Feasting on the Word: Preaching the Revised Common Lectionary, Year A, Vol. 4, eds. David L. Bartlett and Barbara Brown Taylor (Louisville: Westminster John Knox, 2010).