Not the God of the Dead, But the Living

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The text for today is Luke 20:37-38: “But that the dead are raised, even Moses showed, in the passage about the bush, where he calls the Lord the God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob.  Now He is not God of the dead, but of the living, for all live to Him.”
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ! 
On this Veterans Day weekend, you’ll see a number of the vets handing out poppies for people to wear.  Not many people know the history behind it.  The wearing of poppies can be traced back to a poem written by John McCrae in World War I, entitled, “In Flanders Fields.”  It describes the graves of those who fell in battle and were buried in the fields in Belgium where poppies grow in abundance.  Specifically, the poem is written from the viewpoint of those in the grave.
In Flanders fields the poppies blow
Between the crosses, row on row,
That mark our place; and in the sky
The larks, still bravely singing, fly
Scarce heard amid the guns below.

We are the Dead. Short days ago
We lived, felt dawn, saw sunset glow,
Loved, and were loved, and now we lie
In Flanders fields.

Take up our quarrel with the foe:
To you from failing hands we throw
The torch; be yours to hold it high.
If ye break faith with us who die
We shall not sleep, though poppies grow
In Flanders fields.

It is a disturbing image—not only from the perspective that it is a message from the grave, but also, because of the “curse” that goes with it—the threat that if those left behind fail to take up the cause, the dead will not rest in peace. 
Obviously, that presents a problem for us Christians, especially in light of All Saints’ Day that we celebrated just last Sunday.  We know that the only people who fail to rest from their labors are not those who saw their efforts unrealized, but rather, those who died without saving faith in Jesus.  For those, however, who departed this world believing in Him—whether they lived a full life or had their lives “cut short” in the midst of battle—there is now eternal life without sorrow or pain or regret because they were God’s children to the very end.
Now I don’t want anyone to think that I am saying you shouldn’t buy poppies or support veterans’ organizations.  By all means, please continue to do so.  God has blessed our country with many fine service men and women, and it is good and fitting that we should recognize them.  I only bring this up to contrast the worldly viewpoint of life and death “In Flanders Fields” with that of Scripture. 
Holy Scripture gives an entirely different point of view; and it is to this truth about life and death that all our Scripture readings speak today.  From Moses to St. Paul to Christ Himself—they all testify to the resurrection of the dead.  And vain is the perspective that would try to see things any other way.
Actually, there are a number of false beliefs out there concerning the state of those who have died.  You have some who maintain that people who leave this world with unresolved issues fail to find rest and still attempt to communicate their displeasure from beyond the grave.  But God’s holy Word clearly warns that spirits and occult practices originate from the evil one.
Another false belief among more religious people is that good people become angels when they die.  This is the view presented in “It’s a Wonderful Life,” where we’re told “every time a bell rings an angel gets his wings.”  Or in the country song that asks, “Do you think that God could use another angel to help pour out the rain?”  But God’s Word clearly states that angels are invisible spiritual beings created by God in the first six days to serve God and to help man.
The people in Thessalonica to whom St. Paul was writing had their own misunderstandings about resurrection.  Some among them claimed that the resurrection had already occurred and that those still living had missed the return of the Lord altogether.  But Paul clearly refuted the notion that any believers had been “left behind” and reminded them of the clear signs of Christ’s return. 
The Sadducees, in our Gospel reading, denied the resurrection of the dead altogether.  They believed that “the souls perish along with the bodies”—once you are dead, you’re dead.  To prove their point, they posed a situation where seven brothers take the same woman as their wife and each one dies before producing a son.  (Talk about “black widows!  You’d think by the third or fourth husband, someone would be noticing an unhealthy pattern developing.) 
Having set the stage, they ask Jesus: “In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be?”  This is a hypothetical question, a kind of question that has some useful applications, but rarely in a theological context.  Hypothetical questions can be useful to test certain parameters.  They are like thought experiments designed to push an idea to see how far it will fly.  But more often they are traps designed to embarrass the person being asked.  Such is the case with the question in our text.  The Sadducees would like nothing better than to trap Jesus, or at the very least alienate some of His following. 
But Jesus doesn’t let them get by with this.  He knows their hearts.  He knows their thoughts.  He knows what they are really up to.  In the parallel account in Matthew 22:29, Jesus points out where the Sadducees have gone wrong: “You are in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God.”  The Sadducees are not simply well-intentioned people, sincerely trying to understand a teaching that is different from their own.  They don’t even believe in the premise of their question.  You see, the Sadducees don’t even believe in a bodily resurrection. 
It’s what we call an argumentum ad absurdum, an argument to the absurd.  Press an idea to the extreme to show its weakness.  If there is really a resurrection, think of the mess there would be for this woman who rises to greet seven men as her husband.  Or we might think of our own serial marriages the same way, even though they weren’t sanctioned by the law of Moses.  Whose husband, whose wife, will you be after a string of two or three or more?  What sort of “heaven” is it going to be when all these relationships are tangled up for an eternity and you wind up sharing a table with your ex-wife in a supper that never ends?
You can almost see the smirk on the faces of the Sadducees as they trot out their clever little hypothetical to Jesus.  “Oh, we’ve got Him now.  How will He answer without denying something?  If He says there is no resurrection, then the talk of resurrection means nothing.  Or will He deny marriage?  Or Moses?  This should be fun.  Let’s watch Him squirm.”
Be careful with your hypotheticals.  Jesus sees right through them to the unbelieving hearts that create them.  The Sadducees are guilty of unbelief, trying to shape the teaching of God to suit their own ideas.  And that leads them to deny not only the resurrection of the body, but also the doctrine of angels, the reality of miracles, and the canonicity of all but the first five books of the Old Testament.
Jesus solves the dilemma posed by the Sadducees by distinguishing between two ages: the present age and the age to come.  In this age, God established marriage so that humanity could reflect the communion of God, multiply and fill the earth, and receive the promise of a Savior in the Seed of the woman (Genesis 3:15).  Christian marriage reflects the mystical union of Christ and His bride, the Church, who now awaits His return and the consummation of His kingdom.  But marriage is only for this age, this life.  “Until death do us part,” we vow.  Marriage celebrates and guards the sexual union of a man and a woman as one flesh for the rest of life.  Anything added to it constitutes adultery.
In the age to come, there will be neither birth nor death.  And there will be no marriage.  People will be like the angels in this regard.  Those who by God’s grace are privileged to live in that age are called by Jesus simply, “sons of God,” and “sons of the resurrection.”  Earthly family relationships will become unimportant, as all are “God’s children” through faith.  Marriage is for this temporal life.  But eternal life, which is bound by neither clocks nor calendars, is life in the eternal presence of the God who is I Am, for whom past, present, and future are all now.  You might say that the lesser gives way to the greater. 
Marriage is a gift from God, yes.  Marriage is blessed by God, even when those who use it are not believers.  But marriage is not a means of grace.  The Lutheran reformers were wise to set marriage apart from what could properly be called “sacraments.” Marriage is not a “Christian” thing, but a First Article thing—one of those things God graciously provides to support this body and life.  But it is not the means by which we are saved.  That comes to us by our being joined to Christ through Baptism, our being adopted as children of God. 
Does that mean we won’t remember who we were married to here on earth when we get to eternity?  Perhaps some would like to forget, but resurrection is not about forgetting.  There’s every reason to believe we will know and recognize one another, just as Moses and Elijah were recognizable on the Mount of Transfiguration. 
So, whose wife will this hypothetical woman married to seven brothers be in the resurrection?  The best answer appears to be none of them and yet all of them.  She and they are raised up never to die again.  She has her entire life as she lived it now back in one eternal present, reconciled by the death of Jesus her Savior.  We must believe that the reconciliation that brings us in communion with Christ also reconciles each of us to one another, so that no matter how messy our life has been, we will see it as the good that God has worked through it in the death of Jesus. 
The sheer tragedy of being widowed seven times without children will make supremely good sense to this woman in the resurrection.  When that poor hypothetical woman with seven brothers for a husband wakes up on resurrection morning to greet a bright and shining Jesus, her whole hypothetical life will somehow work out for good by the cross that reconciles all things to God.  And the question, “Whose wife will she be?” will be one big non-starter. 
And so, Jesus attempts to draw the Sadducees to Himself, to His death and resurrection, even as He attacks their unbelief.  Jesus takes them to Exodus, one of the Scriptures they claimed to accept.  He recalls God’s statement to Moses at the burning bush, which we heard today as part of our Old Testament lesson: “I Am the God of your fathers, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”  At the time of Moses, these patriarchs had been long dead physically, but God continues to speak of them as living, as in His presence. 
But there is even more happening here.  The Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is there is their very midst.  I AM, the God of the living not the dead, is in their very presence.  Truly, Jesus is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob veiled in human flesh; and in just a few days, He will prove to the Sadducees and Pharisees that He is the God of the living and not the dead, with His own death and resurrection.  And even as they seek to trap Him, He is graciously offering them life if only they will turn from their deadly unbelief.  If only they will trust Him and His Word.
God is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  Not was, but is.   Every word counts,” says Jesus.  He is the God of the living, not the dead.  Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob are all alive and well as far as God is concerned.  And He has, by His mercy, raised you up out of the death of sin to live forever.  You, already, are in the resurrection as you are in Christ.  In Christ, you are already “like the angels,” undying, living even though you die, sons of God, son of the resurrection.
By God’s grace, you are among those who are truly alive, because in Holy Baptism “He has given [you] new birth into a living hope through the resurrection of Jesus Christ from the dead” (1 Peter 1:3).  Already now you are part of God’s kingdom, which includes Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.  As you gather at the Lord’s Table to receive His body and blood, you not only join with all other Christians here on earth, but with angels and archangels and with all the company of heaven.  As we confess together: “the Holy Christian Church, the communion of saints, the forgiveness of sins, the resurrection of the body and the life everlasting.”  They all go together!
Now, if all this heady talk of resurrection and eternity and whose hypothetical wife will she be when the dead rise has your head spinning, don’t let it trouble you one second.  Just be glad you are going from death to life and have a future that is as sure as Jesus risen from the dead.  Because our Redeemer lives, we who have Him living within us are truly alive—and alive forever!  Christ is the God of the living.  In Him alone, you have forgiveness, salvation, and eternal life.  Indeed, for His sake, you are forgiven of all of your sins.
In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.  Amen.

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