Preached 11 November 2007 at Bolton St James, Bradford.
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It was just over a week ago that four fire-fighters lost their lives in a warehouse blaze in Warwickshire when the roof of the building collapsed on top of them. One of them was Darren Yates-Bradley, a 24 year-old who had been married to Fay for only two weeks. And this week, in a television interview, his distraught widow said this: “I know Darren will be watching over me and will be keeping a place for me, with him, in heaven.”
It is the kind of thing that many people say when they lose someone close to them. They want to believe in heaven, they need to believe in heaven, and they do believe in heaven. But alongside that belief there are always questions, spoken or unspoken, that people long to have answers to …
Where is Darren … or Bill or Mary or Tracy now? Can they see me? Are they reunited with other members of their family who have died down the passage of the years – Gran and Grandad Wilkinson, Aunty Mable? But Aunty Mabel was really old – in her nineties – and Gran and Grandad were very old too. So are they now all young again? And if so, how young? And what about Aunty Norah’s baby who died at only two weeks? Is he a grown-up in heaven? And if so, how will anyone in the family be able to recognise him?
Questions, questions, questions. And they are perhaps asked on this day more than any other day of the year as people remember friends or family members that once went away to war and never came back. Sons, husbands, sweethearts. And in recent wars, wives and daughters too.
And the questions asked are not a million miles away from the question these Sadducees in this morning’s Bible reading put to Jesus. But the big difference, of course, is that our questions are genuine whereas the Sadducees’ question was entirely dishonest and was a rather clumsy attempt to trip Jesus up and make him look ridiculous.
The Sadducees didn’t even believe in heaven. In Sunday School we used to be told: “That’s why they were sad-you-see! But in fact they weren’t a bit sad about not having a heaven to believe in. It suited them very well. They were the unscrupulous rich and powerful of Jesus’ day, who made sure they creamed off and enjoyed to the full the best of everything that this life could offer, without having to worry about any uncomfortable Day of Reckoning waiting for them once they died.
Surprisingly, this didn’t stop them being very religious – indeed the name Sadducee comes from the name of Zadok the high priest in the time of King David, and all the high priests in Jerusalem were, in fact, Sadducees; but their beliefs were somewhat limited because they based their beliefs on only the first five books of the Bible – the Torah – the five books of Moses, which were the only books that they recognised as divinely inspired. And, as they were always keen to point out, in those five books, you can find no mention of heaven or hell or the resurrection of the dead, so why believe in them? Eat, drink and be merry for tomorrow we die was their philosophy … and sufficient that, once we’ve died, we live on only through our children.
So they were being very tongue-in-cheek when they came to Jesus with this imaginary scenario of seven brothers who, one after the other, marry the same woman once the brother before them dies. This was an ancient practice, known as levirate marriage, commanded in the Torah but rarely followed by the time of Jesus, and it was intended to continue the family line and to give security to a childless widow. But the Sadducees use it to confront Jesus with a conundrum. “In the resurrection of the dead, Jesus – which you appear to believe in – whose wife will the woman be, since she will have been married to all seven brothers?”
But Jesus responds to the conundrum in a way that completely throws them. First, he demolishes their unspoken claim that there is no evidence in the Torah for an afterlife; and then he exposes their flawed thinking as to what an afterlife would be like. Let’s take these two responses one at a time.
First, Jesus says, “But in the account of the bush, even Moses showed that the dead rise, for he calls the Lord ‘the God of Abraham, and the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’. He is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.”
Now, let’s be honest; I doubt whether any of us would ever have found any evidence for the afterlife or the resurrection of the dead in the story of Moses and the burning bush. The story is in Exodus 3.
Moses sees a bush that looks as though it is on fire, but the fire is not destroying it, so he goes to look more closely. Then God calls to him from the bush and says, “You are standing on holy ground. I am the God of your father, the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob.”
Now Jesus says that this story decisively refutes the Sadducees’ claim that there is nothing in the Torah about the afterlife or the resurrection. But how on earth does it do that? Well, simply because, when God speaks to Moses of his ancestors, he uses the present, not the past tense, to describe his relationship to them. I am the God of Abraham, I am the God of Isaac, and I am the God of Jacob. That, Jesus says, indicates a relationship between God and Abraham and Isaac and Jacob that is ongoing, continuing, and everlasting, even though Abraham, Isaac and Jacob had long since died and turned to dust. And that argument seems to have been quite sufficient to silence the Sadducees. They don’t even try to argue back.
Well, fair enough. Would it have convinced me? Would it have convinced you? It’s hard to say, because we don’t have the same mind-set that the Sadducees had or approach things in the same way. But I’m not sure it matters because there are probably few if any of us here today who have any serious doubts about the reality of an afterlife itself. What we do have questions about is the nature of that afterlife. What is it like? Where do we go to when we die? And what happens to us when we get there?
And that’s the second issue that Jesus tackles in his confrontation with the Sadducees. But see how very little he says about it: “The people of this age marry and are given in marriage. But those who are considered worthy of taking part in that age and in the resurrection from the dead will neither marry nor be given in marriage, and they can no longer die; for they are like the angels. They are God’s children, since they are children of the resurrection.” Then, further on: “God is not the God of the dead, but of the living, for to him all are alive.”
What are we to make of all that? Well, the first thing to be said is that Jesus is very firmly stating two base-line truths: a “now” truth – that after death everyone is in some way alive to God – and a “future” truth – that at the end of the present age, what we call “the end of the world” – there will be a resurrection of the dead (those who are presently dead so far as we are concerned but still alive so far as God is concerned); and at that resurrection those who are “considered worthy” will enter upon a new life in a new world, and will be like angels, living forever as God’s children. Bishop Tom Wright puts those two base-line truths like this: “You die; you go to be ‘with Christ’ (‘life after death’), but your body remains dead. Describing where and what you are in that interim period is difficult, and the New Testament writers mainly don’t try. Call it ‘heaven’ if you like, but don’t imagine it’s the end of all things. What is promised after that interim period is a new bodily life within God’s new world (‘life after “life after death”’).”
And a third truth that Jesus is stating is that this new bodily life within God’s new world – life after life after death – will (whether we like it or not) be far, far more than a mere resumption of the life those people lived previously in this world with all of its relationships intact and continuing. Indeed, going back to an illustration I used with the children at 9.30, it will be as different from the life we know here as is the life of any butterfly from the life it once knew as a caterpillar!
And I believe that that is why Jesus tells us so very little about life after death and the resurrection life of the world to come. How do you explain the concept of flight to a caterpillar? How do you explain the joy of sipping a flower’s nectar to a creature who can think of nothing nicer than chewing its way through a cabbage leaf? I once saw a cartoon where two caterpillars are watching a butterfly fluttering above their heads. “You’ll never get me up in one of those things,” one caterpillar is saying to the other. And, of course, we know that any attempt to explain to the caterpillar that one day he would be “one of those things” would be completely futile.
So, although it is natural that we should ask questions about life after death, we shouldn’t expect any answers that will satisfy us and make us feel comfortable; and if we do get those kinds of answer I reckon we should be very suspicious of them. Nor, when it comes to detail, need we bother looking to the Scriptures. As in the comments of Jesus we are looking at today, there’s little of detail anywhere else. There are hints but that is all. Paul talks about those who have died as being “asleep” and “with Christ”. He talks about the resurrection body as being imperishable, glorious and powerful, and bearing only the same resemblance to our present bodies as a plant bears to the seed that died to produce it. He talks of us reigning with Christ and of a re-created world. But details? No, there are no details.
“Whoa, hang on,” says someone, “What about the Book of Revelation? Surely there’s plenty of detail about heaven in there?” Well, no, there isn’t. Not really. There are gates of pearl and streets of gold and a sea of crystal but these are just metaphors; symbols that are supposed to underline for us the fact that whatever lies beyond death is so completely beyond our experience that attempts at description are useless. The factual bits of the Book of Revelation – and let’s rejoice in them by all means – are where it talks about God coming to live with his people; and where it tells of how he will wipe every tear from their eyes. And how there will be no more death or mourning or crying or pain, for the old order of things will have passed away.
Except, of course, that we don’t want the old order of things to pass away – or not entirely. Oh yes, we want rid of all the nasty bits alright, but we want to keep all that is nice. And we very much want continuity of the new life with the old, simply because so much of what we have in this life is so precious to us that we simply cannot imagine anything better.
But there is better. There is better. “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” (1 Cor 2.9) And Jesus does us the honour of not talking down to us and not pandering to our present blindness by giving us pictures of joyful reunions in eternally sunlit meadows, or cosy chats with C S Lewis in heavenly country pubs, or angelic afternoon teas with Mother Theresa. Instead he focuses on the one thing that will determine whether the great unknown is one of utter joy piled upon utter joy for all eternity, or whether it is something else, something of our own stubborn choosing, and something too terrible to contemplate. And what is that one thing? Our relationship with the living God.
Those who will be raised to joy are those whom he calls “children of God” – in that lies their worthiness. And elsewhere the Scriptures make it very clear who are the children of God. In John 1.11 we are told that Jesus “came to that which was his own, but his own did not receive him. Yet to all who received him, to those who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God – children born not of natural descent, nor of human decision or a husband’s will, but born of God.”
Belief is everything. A living faith in Jesus that reaches out to him now, in this life, and receives him as Saviour and Lord, as Master and Friend. That is the key to all that lies beyond the grave. “For God so loved the world that he gave his one and only Son, that whoever believes in him shall not perish but have eternal life. For God did not send his Son into the world to condemn the world, but to save the world through him. Whoever believes in him is not condemned, but whoever does not believe stands condemned already because he has not believed in the name of God’s one and only Son.”
Eternal life springs from a relationship with God the Father that we enter through putting our faith in and receiving Jesus, God the Son. And it is a life that begins now and continues through all eternity. Do you have eternal life? Is the life of Christ in you? Have you received him by faith? If you have, then death need hold no fear of any kind for you. Not fear of being separated from God. Not fear of the mysteries that lie beyond the grave. You will be entering into life in all its fullness and a joy that knows no end.
When John Owen, the great Puritan pastor and teacher lay dying, he was dictating some last letters to his friends. He said to his secretary: “Write, I am still in the land of the living.” Then he stopped and said: “No, change that to read – I am still in the land of those who die, but I shall soon be in the land of the living.”
May that be true of each one of us when our day comes. Amen