The text this morning comes from the
20th chapter of the gospel of Luke, and this is in a section where Jesus
is questioned in the Temple by the authorities. There are a series
of questions, and we come to the final of those, beginning with verse
Some Sadducees, those
who say there is no resurrection, came to him 28and asked him a
question, ‘Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother
dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow
and raise up children for his brother. 29Now there were seven
brothers; the first married, and died childless; 30then the second
31and the third married her, and so in the same way all seven died
childless. 32Finally the woman also died. 33In the resurrection,
therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married
34 Jesus said to
them, ‘Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage;
35but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in
the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in
marriage. 36Indeed they cannot die any more, because they are like
angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection.
37And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the
story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of
Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38Now he is God not
of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.’
39Then some of the scribes answered, ‘Teacher, you have spoken
well.’ 40For they no longer dared to ask him another question.
For those of us in mourning, this
morning, given the unthinkable, the incomprehensible, the truly tragic
loss of Dennis Dixon and the Oregon Ducks Thursday night in Arizona . .
. . . . . it's a good time for us to consider the question of life after
You know, none of us really wanted to
go to New Orleans in January anyway, for the national
championship. Pasadena on New Years Day, on the other hand, still
within the realm of possibility -- we can hope.
As a great theologian of Hollywood,
Woody Allen, once said: "I'm not afraid of dying. I
just don't want to be there when it happens".
Many people have been, however, there
when it happens, and have lived to tell the tale. One of those is
Virginia Nayes of Missoula Montana, a friend of our own Arlene Bechtel
(now living over in Florence). She sent this story to Arlene, and
Arlene gave it to me.
Virginia entered a hospital in critical
condition from the combined effects of emphysema and congestive heart
failure. She went into a coma, and her heart stopped. This
is her description of what happened next:
"I became aware of
a lot of activity around the bed, but I was detached and watching it
from a distance. It was as if the patient in the bed was a
stranger. I could hear what they were saying, but I also knew
what they were not saying. And I knew the patient was in serious
I was surrounded by a
reddish-orange haze, there was no sound, no feeling of movement, as if
it were a vacuum. Then I was looking out over a beautiful
valley. It was like an amphitheater surrounded by rolling
hills. There was a waterfall at the far end, and there are no
words to describe the beauty and the feelings I had. It was so
serene, peaceful, quiet, tranquil. I couldn't seem to experience
enough of it.
Then I suddenly
realized there was no visible body there, just spirit, soul, and
knowing. I rose to a higher plane. There was no problem
breathing, no pain, just floating light and airy, butterflies
A moment of tugging,
and then I was running down the valley, and as I ran the most intense
joy consumed me. And there was such an intense feeling of
release. Words are insufficient to describe the feeling.
As I ran, I saw a low
hill at the side, and I knew that when I reached the top I would know
something more wonderful than I had ever known. When I reached
the top, I crossed over. It was so breathtaking that I knew I
had come home. There was a shimmering, vibrant light all around
me. I didn't see our Lord, but I knew Him. I didn't see
all my loved ones and friends who have gone before, but I knew them.
Then He sent me
back. But I wanted to stay".
Virginia's story is one that is told by
many and I suspect many of us have heard those kinds of stories.
What I find intriguing in her story is both the physical sensation
and the non-physical that she describes. Seeing a beautiful
valley, running up a hill, and knowing complete joy and peace.
This feeling -- not seeing -- but knowing the presence of loved ones and
of God. Like others, Virginia speaks of that experience in a way
that simply cannot be conveyed in human words.
Ray Berkey gave me this book awhile
back -- a true story by the Reverend Don Piper, "90 Minutes in
Heaven". Best-selling book. Kind of funny, but after I
read it I lost the book, and couldn't give it back to Ray, so I had to
go out and buy him another one, and then, of course, I immediately found
the book! So now we have one in our Church Library if anyone would
like to read it.
The Reverend Piper tells a story of
when he was in a car accident. Car was horribly mangled, and he
was pronounced dead at the scene. A tarp put over the car.
90 minutes went by, and a fellow Baptist preacher (they both had been at
a church convention in Texas) came upon the scene and had this sudden
urge to go and pray for the person in the vehicle. The police told
him not to bother, he was clearly dead, he'd been pronounced dead, there
wasn't anything they could do for him. But this minister felt the
need at any rate to go and pray for him.
He climbed into the car, placed his
hands on him, and prayed, and for all he knew, the man was dead -- but
he continued to pray. It was not until he sang 'What a Friend We
Have in Jesus' and he realized it was not a solo but a duet, and
the Reverend Piper was singing with him, that he realized he was
alive. He immediately got out of the car, got the paramedics --
had to convince them that Mr. Piper was still alive (and then things
began to happen).
In that 90 minutes, when he was
'officially' dead, Reverend Piper describes what had happened to him,
and how he had this sense of this vibrant light. He said he heard
music that was like 1,000 choirs singing at once, all different things,
but he could understand every single word. And being surrounded
(unlike Virginia in her story) by family and friends and loved ones,
those who had died before him and he had known in his life. They
were there as kind of a welcoming committee, and who escorted him
literally to the pearly gates (or what he described as pearlescent
Some of the details of the story sound
more like a Baptist Sunday-school lesson. But take it for what it
is. There's one element missing in both Virginia's and Reverend's
Piper's story that makes me a little skeptical -- there are no animals.
Now, have you not had a favorite,
beloved, pet in your life? And would not eternity be much richer
to have that pet with you? So why not?
I like Chuck Humphries' story.
Chuck died a couple of years ago, and Chuck shared with many of us this
story. It was not an after-death kind of experience, it was a
dream he had. He said it was so vivid and real. In this
dream, he saw a hill, with a river and a bridge over the river.
And on the other side were his parents, family members, a deceased
sibling, and there also was their dog, Digger. Their beloved dog
Digger was there.
And he knew that when he crossed over
that bridge, they would embrace him, and he would embrace them.
And that story, that vision, was so vivid for him, Chuck had absolutely
no fear of death. None. He knew what was waiting for
him. That's a vision that I would like to believe in.
The Sadducees were a religious party in
first-century Judaism who did not believe in such things. Did not
believe in any type of life after death. They had a very strict
interpretation of the Torah, the first 5 books of our Bible, and they
held that only the Torah was scripture. The writings of the
Psalms, the prophets, and so forth, they did not regard as equally authoritative,
unlike the Pharisees who did.
And there's no mention of life after
death in the Torah. Hence their conclusion that there is no such
thing. And so the question they place to Jesus is a trick
question. It's based on the law in the Torah that says a man who
is married who dies without any children, that the brother of that man
must then marry the widow, so that this man will have children and the
family name will be continued as it were.
And so they set up this hypothetical
question of 7 brothers, each of whom dies childless, and then the widow
is passed on from brother to brother to brother. So unless you're
Elizabeth Taylor, probably sounds like a silly question. And the
idea is that if they could thus refute the concept of life after death
with this absurd question, then they could effectively undercut the
growing influence and popularity and power of the Pharisees, who did
believe in life after death.
So Jesus responds not only be refuting
their limited understanding of scripture, he also refutes their limited
understanding of God. Because the Sadducees only recognize the
Torah, he cites a story from the Torah, the familiar story of the
burning bush, which is at he very heart of Judaism. He reminds
them that God announces the name of God -- Yahweh -- which comes from
the verb 'to be'. Literally means 'I am who I am', or 'I am
becoming who I am becoming' (the tense is rather ambiguous in
English). And that is at the very heart of the nature of God, the
essence of being. And thus the covenant with the people of God is
something that cannot be ended by death because it is a covenant with
the very nature of being itself.
And so the Sadducees misread scripture
because they misread God. They underestimate the power of
God. Jesus, in effect, reveals that the God of the Sadducees (both
ancient and modern) is a God too small. And it's not just the
Sadducees that limit God, but we make God to small when we claim that
God is on our side, as if God loves us more because we're Americans, or
because we're Christians or because we're Ducks (or, wait a second,
maybe in that last case J).
We make God too small when we limit God's activity to what we can see,
feel, and experience in this world. We make God too small whenever
we do less than we could and aim lower than we should and we think only
in terms of what is rather than in terms of what can be. We make
God too small whenever we claim that life was spared or save, and
this life wasn't. Or that person was healed but this person
To affirm that God is a God of the
living is the affirm the power of God that goes beyond our limitations,
and even beyond death itself.
I want to share a story with you that
illustrates this for me, perhaps a difficult story, but a good
story. A story I've shared before, about 5 years ago, so some of
you may have heard this story before. But I'm reminded, you know,
we're coming up into the Christmas season when we tell the same story
over and over and over again, and nobody complains, so maybe this is
It's a story of life beyond death, a
story of life in spite of death, it's a story about my mother and her
dog. After my daughter, Paulina, was born, Mom was down there when
we were in Fresno at the time, Mom came down for that wonderful event,
and Mom got to hold Paulina in the first hours of her life. And so
when she came back home up to Portland, she said she just had to have
something to cuddle. So she went out and bought a dog. A
Lhasa Apso. Which, I'm convinced, was a dog conceived by some evil
being who brought together a wiener dog with a wooly mammoth J.
And Mom named him Wicket, which was a very appropriate name because it
was a Wicked dog! But Mom loved him, they spent all their time
Dad knew something had changed in their
relationship when he got into bed one night and he heard this "rrrrrgggghhhh"!
Wicket was the frumpiest, ugliest, orneriest little critter you could
ever imagine. But Mom adored him. And they were
So it was Wicket who 9 years ago who
identified Mom for us after her death. Those who know that story
know it was a crime scene, we were not allowed anywhere near, the
Sheriff was not certain who the deceased was because she had no ID on
her, they couldn't find any ID. And so we waited through the long
hours of the night not knowing for sure. Until my sister Taerie called and she said "Where's Wicket?". And I said,
"You know, our mother may be dead, and you're concerned about a
damn dog?". And she said "But if we know where Wicket
is, we know where Mom is". So I called the Sheriff, and I
said "Any chance did you find a dog there at the
scene?". And he said "Oh, are you kidding me? That
little critter was so fierce we had to bring in Animal Control before we
could near the deceased".
That's when we knew that mother did not
die alone. God bless that mangy little mutt.
Well, Dad kept Wicket for awhile, but
my sister is the animal lover par excellence of our family. You
know how children inherit different qualities from their parents?
My oldest sister got the Thrasher red hair. My brother inherited
Mom's love of music and poetry. My youngest sister inherited her
style of dress, sewing ability. I inherited her wit, wisdom and
But my next-to-youngest sister Taerie inherited much of Mom's artistic
creativity and all of Mom's eccentricities, like taking showers in the
rain, wearing leopard underwear, and putting jalapeños in lasagna.
So it naturally fell to Taerie, then, to
care for Mom's eccentric dog. And it also fell, then, to Taerie, to
bury Wicket 5 years ago, on that hillside overlooking the little North
Fork of the Santiam River, where the water runs cold and deep, and where
we spread Mom's ashes. Writes my yet once again grief-stricken
sister of that morning:
"After I had
buried Wicket, I took off my clothes and jumped into the river.
I swam down as far as I could and just before I reached the surface,
the thought came to me -- all in a rush -- dammit, I'm sick and tired
of grief. Wicket is not dead, he went to live with
Mom. And I burst from the cold water and took in a fresh breath
and climbed from the water feeling much better than before I had gone
in. The dirt and sweat of the grave and grief were washed from
me, and I felt renewed.
[writes my non-theologically trained sister, but incredibly
insightful] that is
baptism, is it not?"
It is, baptism into new life,
indeed. That's what resurrection is all about.
And so I can say to you with complete
conviction that I know death does not have the last word because my God
is a God of the living.
I know that evil will not triumph and
terror shall not win because our God is a God of the living.
I know that good shall prevail and
truth will be victorious because God is a God of the living.
I know that even in the time of
greatest despair, the smallest hope is greater still because our God is
a God of the living.
I know that in the darkest night a
single candle will shine brighter than the dark because God is a God of
I know that the God of Abraham, the God
of Isaac, the God of Jacob, is also the God of Martin Luther King, of
Mahatma Gandhi, of mother and her dog.
And this God is the God of you and me
and that is why we can rejoice. We can always have hope and faith,
for our God is the God of the living, now and forever.
Give praise to God.