Wednesday in Proper 4 - June 7, 2017
In Mark 12, Jesus is tested a couple of times. First, the Pharisees and Herodians come and ask him whether it is lawful to pay taxes to the emperor, and Jesus gave the clever response, "Give to the emperor the things that are the emperor's and to God the things that are God's." Now, in today's passage, he is approached by the Sadducees, who present him a complicated hypothetical situation about marriage and death and resurrection. Basically, if a woman in succession marries seven brothers, each of whom dies, whose wife will she be in heaven? The Sadducees, of course, were that branch of Judaism that did not believe in any sort of resurrection, so we know that they were not really interested in an answer to their question. They just wanted to show Jesus how smart they were or, perhaps, show others how dumb Jesus and others who believed in that silly, life-after-death thing were. We don't have that problem. Whether we're devoutly Christian or just nominally faithful, I think we all expect something good to be waiting for us on the other side of this life. The problem, however, is that we approach heaven with the same sort of hypocritical, short-sightedness as the Sadducees.
How much time have you spent thinking about the phrase in the wedding vows, "until we are parted by death?" I've been to a fair number of weddings. I've led bride and groom through the exchange of vows more times than I can remember. I've preached several wedding sermons on what it means to love one another "for better or worse, for richer or poorer, in sickness and in health." I've got a pretty good grasp of the theology of unconditional love and how marriage is an image for us of the unconditional love that God has for the world in Jesus Christ. But I've never spent time with a couple or in a wedding sermon discussing the "until death do us part" part. It's what we believe. It's in the vows for a reason. Jesus makes that part pretty clear in today's gospel lesson: "For when they rise from the dead, they neither marry nor are given in marriage." I know that we are not married to our spouse when we get to heaven, but I don't like to think about it because I love my wife so much. And that's where I become a Sadducee.
What are we hoping for in heaven? What do we think God has prepared for us? What do we believe that God sent his Son, Jesus Christ, to live as one of us, die on the cross, and rise again to secure for us in heaven? More of this life but just a little bit better? Or something completely different?
It's not really a fair question since none of us can know. We can only use our earth-bound imagination to dream up what heaven is like, which is like asking someone who has never been to or seen a picture of the ocean to describe what it feels like to stand on the shore. Think of the biblical descriptions of heaven. Sometimes it is described as a great wedding feast with food and wine that never cease. Sometimes it is described as a great, shining light that all nations can see and to which they are drawn. Sometimes it is described as a city with streets paved with gold and foundations of precious stones and a gate made out of one giant pearl. But aren't all of those just human beings' attempts to say that heaven is greater than anything we can imagine? I don't know what heaven is like, but I'm pretty sure that what God has in store for us isn't simply more of this life but better.
What did Jesus come to accomplish? Are we so egotistical to think that God sent his Son into the world so that each of us can inherit our own everlasting life? We hear Jesus' words about no marriage in heaven and we imagine, therefore, that there will be some other heavenly way for us to know and love the ones we know and love without needing to be married to them. But is that really what Jesus died for? Maybe it's bigger than that. Maybe heaven isn't just about us--about the people we marry and the children we have and the friends we want to spend eternity with. Maybe heaven is about all of God's people--all of them--being united in a love that brings them closer together than even husband and wife and son and daughter. Maybe it's about a unifying love that is so powerful that who we loved in this life is irrelevant because we will all love God together without any separation.
I don't know what heaven will be like. But I do know that I have a tendency to limit the magnitude of the resurrection by restricting it to the hopes that I find most comforting. I may not approach Jesus with the same sort of hypothetical trap that the Sadducees presented, but my view of heaven isn't much different from theirs. What God has prepared for us is always greater, always bigger, always better than we can imagine. We need to ask God to help us let go of our limitations, set aside our egocentricity, and trust that heaven is something more important than us. We need to ask God to give us a hope that transcends even our greatest imagination.