First Read: Mark 12:18-27
Have you ever thought about what you might include if you had the inclination to write an autobiography? I imagine that if I ever were to do so – you know so that my grandchildren might know more about me – I think I might include a short chapter on things that happened to me while I was enjoying the world of sports.
For quite a few years, Denise’s mother had season tickets to the Steeler games and how often we were able to put some of those tickets to use. She would often give us two of her four tickets and we would head down to Three Rivers Stadium after our Sunday morning worship service which concluded around noon – Denise and I or perhaps one of the kids and I – and we would make it to the stadium just about in time for kick-off. I know what you’re thinking – I bet the sermons were shorter on those Sundays!!
Over the years I have been privileged to in person see the Steelers play in various locations. I remember being at Forbes Field with my dad when I was just a runt to see them play the San Francisco 49ers. Later on several occasions we went to watch them play at Pitt Stadium – along with my uncle when it was so cold that I never thought my feet would thaw out again – and then of course at Three Rivers Stadium where Denise’s mother had her tickets.
I have yet to see a game at their new location — Heinz Field – maybe one of these days – hopefully in a September or October when it is still warm – but I have seen Steeler games at a couple of other stadiums. A couple of years ago some folks gave me two tickets to the preseason game with the Redskins – and a few years before that – we were given tickets to see the Steelers play the Carolina Panthers in Charlotte.
In fact this is the event I think I would include in a chapter of my autobiography – because it shows for sure that God has quite a sense of humor. It was a Thursday night preseason game – we dropped the dog off at the kennel and in the early afternoon headed for the Charlotte area. After an uneventful trip we checked into our hotel in Monroe, NC — changed into the appropriate Steeler attire – got some dinner and then off to the Bank of America Stadium in time to see the teams’ warm-up.
We watched the local news on the TV before we left the motels – to see if the impending clouds would be bringing any rain – but the Charlotte area weather prognosticator was absolutely sure that the rain would stay west and north of the city. I should have known better than to trust a meteorologist.
We got to the stadium about 90 minutes before game time – passed through all the tail-gaters along the way – taking our time to enjoy the sights in the stadium – I hadn’t realized that this was going to be a home game for the Steelers – there was more black and gold on display than blue and silver for sure. We no more than sat down in our seats and watched the teams come out for their pre-game warm-up – when the PA announcer told us that we had to vacate our seats – you see a particularly nasty thunderstorm with lots of lightning was coming right at us – and we had to go into the outer area of the stadium and stay under cover. Nothing much happened – but we had to stand out there for an hour!! Finally we got back to our seats – 10 minutes later the game started – 15 minutes later – it started to rain – no make that — it started to pour. Charlotte was 10 inches behind on rain for the year – and the Lord God in heaven above was trying to help Charlotte catch up all at once – on the night I was there to watch a football game.
Once again we headed to the outer area of the stadium – to one of the souvenir stands there – to purchase a rain poncho. How humiliating – that we had to watch the rest of the first half – with our Steeler attire covered up by – Carolina Panther logo rain ponchos. I later gave them away to a fellow is a big Panthers fan.
Thus would be my autobiographical entry — the score still came out right – but God humbled this Steeler fan along the way!!
All of which leads me to introduce our sermon theme for the next month – a short series of messages that will focus as a theme on Who God is – On What He is about. We are calling it a Brief Biography of God – but in truth it is more of an autobiography – because the material we are going to look at is material God Himself has provided to us. He has revealed Himself in several ways to humanity – we see the revelation of Himself in His creation all around us – He has revealed Himself in a more direct way in the Word Written – the Scripture inspired by the Holy Spirit – and of course God has provided the fullest and most personal Revelation of Himself in the Word made Flesh – in the person of Jesus Christ – God Incarnate.
It is an important thing for us to know Who God is and What He is about — because we live in a time that seems terribly confused about God. The truth is that we live in a world that is beguiled and bewitched and bewildered (that was a song wasn’t it) by distorted images about who God is and what He is like and what God is up to. I remember the day I was driving down the by-pass and as I pulled up beside a car at a red light – I noticed an enormous number of Christian bumper stickers on the rear of the car – and then I noticed that hanging from the rear-view mirror was a new age crystal – like they use in the religion of Scientology. Some folks seem to think of religion as if it were some sort of insurance policy and they to make sure they have a bit of all of them — that way no matter what turns out to be true – they think they will be covered.
Our scripture lesson for today shows us that this is not the only time in history that such confusion about God has run rampant – in our lesson today we find such thinking coming from all of all people a group of Jewish religious leaders. The Sadducees in their day and age were one of three or four primary religious groups vying for the attention of the Jewish people. To be honest, the Sadducees didn’t much care for Jesus – they came mostly from the upper crust of society – they had made peace with the Roman occupation in their land – they were living pretty well and pretty happily and they didn’t care much at all for this itinerant Rabbi who came in stirring things up. He made them all feel rather uncomfortable.
And in fact on the particular day that this passage speaks about – they had come to entrap Jesus. Listen closely to their question – it sounds a little bit like the kind of thing you might hear on Court TV – come on now admit it – you used to watch some of the trials on Court TV didn’t you?? I know – there isn’t a channel called Court TV anymore – it’s now called TruTV – and it bothers me to no end that I actually know this!!
The Sadducees think they are being clever so they begin with something that is true – you know with something factual — they look at Jesus and they say to him, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies and leaves a wife but no children, the man must marry the widow and have children for his brother.” Then there is this pause as if they are waiting for Jesus to respond perhaps by saying something like – “Ok, yes, Moses taught that.”
This was important in the Jewish heritage – this was the way you passed down the faith from one to the next generation – you would tell the stories of the faith over and over and over again – something we have forgotten how to do in our day and age I might note.
Once this bit of truth about what Moses passed on was established they came back with a hypothetical question for Jesus to answer. “Now imagine if you will that there were seven brothers – the first one gets married and dies before there is a child – so the 2nd one marries the widow – and sadly he too dies before there is a child – so the third one marries the widow – and he too dies before there are children – and the fourth and the fifth and the sixth and the seventh.” They are describing what has to be the most unlucky woman in the whole world — ever.
And then finally she dies too. Now hypothetically speaking then Jesus, whenever the resurrection comes – whose wife will she be since she’s been married to all of them?
It sounds like an innocent enough question – you and I both know that there are folks who are always spending their time on these kind of silly hypothetical questions, don’t we? — but in this case even the premise of the question was a lie.
It was a lie – because you see the Sadducees as a group didn’t believe in the resurrection at all. It was all a set-up. They believed that when death came it is extinction once and for all – and that’s the end of it – there is no possibility of life beyond this world – no hope of anything else. Death was final and complete.
So can you see that even the premise of their question was false? It was obviously a trap. But Jesus knew what the scriptures have declared about God and what He has promised to do in His covenant with His people across the centuries – Jesus knows that God’s promise has to do with life not with death.
I imagine there was a little smile on the corner of his face as he looked the Sadducees square in the eye and then declared rather boldly – this itinerant teacher to these big city Temple based leaders, “You are badly mistaken – He is not the God of the dead – but of the living.”
So what I’m wondering this morning is this – perhaps like the Sadducees is it possible that we too have been badly mistaken in our views about God? So who is this God of the Living – and what is He like?
As we begin this brief biography of God – let me suggest three things to you this morning:
(1) Paul in writing to the Romans 4:17 – connects this God of the living with the God of creation. Paul there says that “It is God who gives life to the dead – and who calls into existence the things that do not exist.”
You don’t really know who God is and what He is about until like Paul you can say that: “It is God who gives life to the dead – and who calls into existence the things that do not exist.” As one author has put it – “to originate life is the prerogative of God.” That is something that the church has affirmed over the centuries – from early on – the Christian church has declared its belief in – say this with me – God the Father Almighty – Maker of Heaven and Earth.
That has been the Christian affirmation from the beginning – God gives life to the dead and calls into existence – the things that do not yet exist.
There is still much debate in the scientific community over how life began in our universe – how did the created world come into being? – and the older I get the more I smile at the foolishness and weep at the arrogance of those who can find no place for God’s hand in the beginnings – in the Genesis of our world.
Before I was called to go into the ministry – my chosen field was engineering and the sciences – I had a good solid dose of statistical theory in my college classes – notice I did not say I did that well in statistical theory, but I did take a good number of classes. I happen to think that Edwin Conklin, the biologist, is right when he said that the probability of life originating from an accident is comparable to the probability of an unabridged dictionary resulting from an explosion in a printing shop.
Can you picture that? The unabridged dictionary is a gigantic book – something like 2000 pages — actually I could probably live with the probability of the regular dictionary showing up from an explosion in the printing shop. Accident – I think not.
I remember reading an article about a Unitarian-Universalist church – this article was describing the upcoming events going on in the life of that group – their Pastor had recently retired – and one of their members was going to be preaching on an upcoming Sunday – this particular member was a self-declared atheist – sounds a bit like an oxymoron doesn’t it – for an atheist to be a member of a church – such things are rather common in the Unitarian-Universalist church — but he was going to preach on why we shouldn’t be afraid of the Big Bad Atheist. How strange to have an atheist as a member of a church – and then preaching about his faith – or his intentional lack thereof – on a given Sunday. But as I said before the Unitarian-Universalists never have been within the mainstream of Christian thought – they’ve never been very close at all to the true Christian belief.
I once came across this quote of the rather biased and famous atheist Richard Robinson, in his book, An Atheist’s Values, where he writes this, “Little bits of it (meaning the world) appear to be designed.”
Appear to be designed – as in appear to have a purpose in their design — but if there is purpose anywhere – doesn’t that suggest purpose everywhere — even if we can’t see it or discern it or understand it.
If you really want to put your mind into a spin consider this — when the atheist says that the Universe is meaningless – he claims to have said something meaningful – but you can’t have it both ways can you? If the universe is meaningless – then it is all meaningless.
So who put the purpose – the meaning – the design – into life? I would submit to you – along with the Apostle Paul – that it is the God of the Living who gives life to the dead and who calls into existence – into being – the things that do not yet exist – who puts purpose and meaning and design into our lives.
(2) This God of the Living is also the one who brings life to us. In John 10 – John quotes Jesus as saying, “I have come, that you may have life, and life more abundant than you have ever known.”
Jesus didn’t come simply to give us existence – but life in fullness and richness and completeness.
Take a look with me at the passage printed at the top of the worship sheet this morning. The Corinthians are struggling with who God is and what God is about – and they need to understand Him more completely – and so Paul quotes from the book of Isaiah – about what God’s connection is with us – about what God wants to bring to us.
…as it is written: “No eye has seen, no ear has heard, no mind has conceived what God has prepared for those who love him” (I Corinthians 2:9)
God has marvelous things in mind for those who love him and who show that they love him by following Jesus Christ – things that are so big that you cannot even imagine what God has prepared for you – what his plan is – the directions he’s going to take. No eye has seen it – no ear has heard it, no mind can even conceive of it – What God has prepared for those who love Him.
Now when you catch on to this — it makes a difference in how you live. When you see this – when you know this in your heart – it makes a difference in how you see yourself and how you face life.
It reminds me of a story I once heard about a church youth group – they were planning a trip of some sort and needed to raise some funds to pay for it – so they decided to have a car wash on a certain Saturday. Everything seemed to be ready – they had the buckets and the hoses and the soap and the rags to dry things – even the signs to attract the cars along the road. They had everything in place for the car wash – except one thing – the weather. The morning of their fundraiser – it began to rain – and not just drizzle – but rain hard. And as they all stood out there in the parking lot of the church – the cars were all going by – and no one was stopping – because after all – who gets their car washed during a rain storm.
The kids couldn’t believe it – this was for their special project – how could God not be connecting with this – why was he sending them rain on the very day when they were doing a car wash? Who would pay to have their car washed when it is raining? One of the kids finally got an idea – went back into the church and made a new sign. Took it very boldly and put it out on the street and it said simply: “We wash – He rinses.” Their understanding that God had something good in mind for them – made a difference in how they viewed and dealt with what was happening to them.
And you know what – the cars started to pull in – one after another – smiling and laughing in the midst of the rain – they washed the cars and they made the money they needed.
When we understand that God brings not simply existence but life – and full life – and that he is in the midst of each and every moment – we face life differently – whether it is sunny or rainy.
(3) The third thing we need to understand in our intro to a biography of God – is that our God is a living God – that the cross is empty. We use the cross as the symbol of our faith to remind us of the depth of the sacrifice it took on God’s part, through Jesus Christ, to make possible our return unto him – the Sacrifice of Christ – Every time we look at the cross we ought to think of it. But we also need to notice that the cross is empty – because Jesus Christ is alive.
Remember at the tomb that first Easter – the women are coming to anoint the body – there’s tears in their eyes – it was almost more than they had been able to cope with – and the first thing they run into is an angel. And what does the angel say, “Why do you seek the living among the dead? He is not here – he is risen.”
All of this was according to God’s purpose – in accordance with God’s plan. This makes all the difference in who we are & in how we live as Christian people.
A while back I read a most fascinating article with the title: Why Christians Don’t Seek to Avenge Insults against God. It refers to a debate between a Christian theologian and a man named Yusuf Ismail, a Muslim. This debate focused in on the difference in understanding between the Christian and the Muslim understanding of who God is. In this debate it becomes clear that it is hard for a Muslim to make sense of the Gospel because the Muslim mind has no room for a suffering Messiah. This is part of Yusuf Ismail’s objection to the gospel: If Jesus is God, and God allows Himself to be edged out of the world and onto the cross… [if] God incarnate, coming down to earth, humiliating Himself, in a manner of speaking, and being crushed by his enemies, in a manner of speaking—now, if that’s the idea of God, if God allows Himself to be edged out of the world onto the cross, then [y]our understanding of God is fundamentally a God who is weak and totally powerless in the world.
The article goes on to say: We forget how entirely unexpected and shocking the humility and servanthood of Jesus is—how foreign it is to human expectations of God, and in this case, to Muslim expectations. Transcendence, power, judgment, and victory, they expect. But humility? Self-sacrificial grace? These seem obviously incompatible with deity to Yusuf Ismail.
We Christians don’t much like it when those in our culture treat Jesus Christ in blasphemous and insulting ways – but it is not our task to avenge such insults – for these are sinful men and women just like us – and it is for such sins that Christ went to the Cross. God is bigger than these sins – His greatness is not diminished by such ludicrous things as cartoons or when foolish human beings saying foolish and demeaning things.
Amazingly we teach that God accomplished His purpose through the weakness, suffering, humiliation, and even death of Jesus, the divine second person of the Trinity. And even more shockingly, Jesus did this for people who were the cause of His suffering, and humiliation, and death. Because of this, it’s not by accident that Christians who live in gratefulness and awe of this don’t seek revenge on those who mock them and their God.
What we are saying is that our God is alive and intimately involved in who we are – and in bringing to completion the fullness of his kingdom. We sometimes want to scream – where are you God?? What we then need to do is to be quiet and listen – and hear his answer – because the Living God is indeed here with us.
This is where our Brief Biography of God begins – in recognizing and affirming that our God is not the God of the Dead – but of the Living – that it is He who brings us life – in its fullness – life that we can find no where else – and that He is alive and intimately involved with who we are and where we are headed – and that His greatest purpose was fulfilled at the Cross in the death of Jesus Christ.
You know, the Charlotte weatherman was badly mistaken that Thursday night so many years ago – so were the Sadducees – neither could rightly read the signs around them – I hope your – our — view of God is not quite so out-of-focus as theirs.