Saturday, November 10, 2007

Sermon Notes On Proper 27c

Professor of Jewish Studies at Harvard, Jon Levenson wrote a book last year titled, Resurrection and the Restoration of Israel: The Ultimate Victory of the God of Life. In this text, he challenges the majority of scholars that argue no sense of the resurrection of the dead existed within Judaism, until the time of the Book of Daniel. This would put the timing somewhere around 170 years, before the birth of Jesus. This was a time of unrest, and a family named the Maccabees were leading a revolt against the Romans. During this revolt, there were high points and low points. Ultimately, the Romans suppressed the uprising. In the midst of the turmoil, there developed an understanding of those who died as martyrs, for they died in the name of their faith, and some sense of the resurrection of the faithful was born.

This has been the accepted understanding of the development of resurrection within Judaism. Professor Levenson doesn’t buy it. He scours the Hebrew Bible and finds numerous texts that seem to offer shadowy allusions to life after death. He draws on the whole story of Israel, slavery in Egypt to freedom, the inability of Sarah to conceive as a threat to the promise, then bearing a child, the near sacrifice of Isaac, and Ezekiel’s valley of dry bones. Professor Levenson claims that resurrection has been part of Judaism from near the very beginning, and a fuller fleshing out of it, occurred over time.

Of course, there is nothing like unanimity within Judaism about resurrection. Historically, a belief in resurrection has been one of the things that separated Jews and Christians. The overly simplistic view has been that Jesus gives Christians resurrection, and Jews stick with the tenets of their historic faith.

In the Gospel, we are in the middle of the debate. You have the Sadducees and Jesus debating resurrection. The Sadducees hold to the tradition. They see resurrection as an innovation, at this point, only around 200 years old. They reject resurrection.

We could contrast them to the Pharisees, who are a bit more progressive. They are traditionalists in a sense, but they look to the implications of the law, and anticipate the ethical behavior the implications require. They prove open enough to accept a new, but logical expansion of the tradition. So, Jesus did not invent the notion of the resurrection, but he is there conversing with the Sadducees.

The Sadducees are really pretending to be in a conversation. They don’t ask Jesus to tell them about his understanding of resurrection. They tie a bit of the law to their question, the one bride for seven brothers approach. They present the most absurd scenario to see what Jesus will do with it. This has never happened to me, and I am sure it has never happened to you.

Jesus counters by moving beyond their objections. In effect he says to them, “You think you know what you are talking about, but I am talking about something beyond your categories and institutions. You want this to be about what you think, but this is about what God desires to do. God knows our Patriarchs, because they live, and your particular theological perspectives will not stand in God’s way.” It’s as if, Jesus is saying, “You are overlooking, what has always been.”

I really like Professor Levenson’s reading of the history of resurrection. I like the idea that the seeds were there, and flowered at the right time. I like the idea that resurrection is not new,and that it has been there, waiting to be claimed.

Maybe, the revelation of resurrection tells us something about how God works. Perhaps, God is always revealing bits of God’s will to us. That would mean we have quite a task. It would mean our call to be God’s people requires more than a static response. It would mean that we are called to listen to what God has said that we might understand now, what God’s will is.

The story is not about the past. It is the key to the present and future.

God is not the God of the dead, but the God of the living.

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