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God of the Living

Sermon - 11/18/07
Daniel E. H. Bryant
First Christian Church, Eugene, Oregon

Luke 20:27-40

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 27:

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 her.’

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 death J.  

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 trouble.  

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 everywhere.

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 gates).

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 wasn't.

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 worth hearing.

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 together.  

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 inseparable.  

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 charm J.  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.

I suppose [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 the living.  

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.

 


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