Refresh Thy people on their toilsome way,
Lead us from night to never-ending day;
Fill all our lives with love and grace divine,
And glory, laud, and praise be ever Thine. -- Last verse of God of our Fathers #712
Lead us from night to never-ending day;
Fill all our lives with love and grace divine,
And glory, laud, and praise be ever Thine. -- Last verse of God of our Fathers #712
Our lesson today speaks to the refreshment and hope that we have in God. You might be wondering why I would say that, given that it is a reading about Levirate marriage and the Age to come. It is a bit about the former and more so the latter, but it also speaks to the hope that all of us desire, the longing that we all feel.
The Sadducees decide to take a try at Jesus in this encounter. As everyone knows, the Pharisees and Sadducees got along about as well as DC Republicans and DC Democrats. Neither side had much use for the other. Though I hesitate to use our terms to describe them, the Sadducees considered themselves the true instructors of the torah. The Sadducees only accepted the writings of Moses as foundational to their faith. This willingness of other groups, such as the Pharisees, to use other writings and even summaries to convey the instructions of Yahweh, was simply unacceptable in their eyes. After all, they had the writings of Moses, what you and I call the Pentateuch, to guide them. As far as they were concerned, only Moses had spoken to God directly. Only Moses had climbed the mountain, encountered the burning bush, received the torah of God, and heard His voice in the great theophany after Israel’s deliverance from slavery. The Pharisees, of course, have had their turn. They have tried to prove to the crowds that they are God’s chosen leaders. Having been stumped by their tax question, whether it is lawful to pay taxes to Caesar or not, they are silenced.
Now, the Sadducees want to prove to the crowd that they are the ones who understand God best and are best equipped to put this local yokel pretending to be the messiah nonsense to rest. They use as an example what many of us would be extreme. They seem to be making up a story about a woman who marries a man who dies childless. As a member of a righteous family, the younger brother takes the widow, his former sister-in-law, as a wife and agrees to father a son on her who will be the inheritor of his brother’s estate. This practice, which may seem abhorrent to us in the modern West, is known as Levirate marriage and taught in Deuteronomy 25.
Why would God teach His people to do such a thing? Part of the reason would be pastoral for the woman involved. As we have much discussed, the life of a widow was tough in the Ancient Near East. God reminds us of just how marginalized widows were when He describes Himself as loving the widow and the orphan. Israel was supposed to care for widows because God loved them and because their life was extremely harsh. So, one purpose of this marriage was to care for someone who, most likely otherwise, would be unable to provide for themselves.
The other reason for Levirate marriage we, sitting on this side of the cross, would describe as Sacramental. Think back to your Confirmation Class. What is a Sacrament? Don’t worry, if you can’t answer, I think most of us in the room go with the “Once saved, always saved” doctrine of Protestants. Failing to remember the right answer probably won’t cost you! I bet if I start the answer most of you will join in: A Sacrament is an outward sign of an inward and visible grace. When you and I gather each time around this altar and celebrate the Eucharist, we remember that we a taking part in a pledge of God. In reality, when we gather for the Eucharist, we are reminding ourselves that Jesus is here and is coming again. It is the parousia of the Gospel, but that is a message for another day.
Participation in the Eucharist reminds us, especially the high sacramentalists among us, that we are His people and that He is our God. Imagine how you would feel were you forbidden to receive the Sacrament. Possession of the Land served the same function in Israel. How did they know that they were chosen by God? How did they know that His promises to Abraham and Isaac and Jacob were still in effect? By possessing the Promised Land. Israel’s presence in the Land signified to them that Yahweh was really in control and that He was still honoring His covenant with their ancestors. Perhaps now you might have a better understanding why the Exile was so hard. Being dispossessed of the Land signified to them that God had abandoned His promises to them. It was a spiritually crushing development for those who tried to keep His covenant.
Back to the issue of Levirate marriage then. How did one make sure that a family did not die out? If a man was killed by disease or in war before he had fathered a child on his wife, how was Israel supposed to view that family? We know from Scripture and from our own experience that, when something bad happens to people, others assume that God is somehow punishing them. Think of the man born blind at birth to show forth God’s glory when Jesus heals him. People assumed that his parents had sinned greatly. That was blindness. What would have happened with dispossession of the Land, especially given its pre-sacramental understanding. Now, perhaps, you understand another reason why God gave Israel Levirate marriage. In addition to providing for the widow, it reminded people of the Covenant itself. No one was excluded from God’s covenant, even when affected by unexpected and untimely deaths. God’s covenant was always in effect!
So, back to the challenge of the Sadducees. The Sadducees believed that the idea of the resurrection of the dead was simple foolishness. In our reading today, they use as their example the dilemma of Tobit. Tobit, if the name seems unfamiliar to you, was one of those books rejected by the Jews but accepted by the early Church as Scripture. You and I would say the book belongs to the apocrypha or the deuterocanonical books. The Sadducees, of course, would have rejected the book out of hand as it clearly was not written by Moses. But it would have been a well known story. A righteous man, who tends to the needy and dead during the exile, needs a wife for his son. Living in Nineveh during the Exile, finding an Israeli wife for his son, as commanded by the torah, will be very challenging. A distant relative shows up to take the son to find a wife. The distant relative has in mind a girl who has had seven husbands. You see, on the wedding night of each of her marriages, a demon named Asmodeus has appeared and killed each of the bridegrooms. Robin has chosen the sheep’s sarcasm today for our Order of Worship, but think about the underlying kernel of truth in the sheep’s statement. What would cause brother three or four or six or seven to keep God’s instruction and marry their older brothers’ wife? Faithfulness and righteousness. Common sense told number four or five, at least, not to marry her. Yet still they follow through. Now, all the brothers, all the men, are dead.
Tobit presents a huge pastoral problem: The son of a blind man in a foreign land needs a wife; a woman exiled herself has already gone through seven husbands. Imagine what their neighbors thought. Imagine what they thought. I will never be able to marry. Who will want me? Why has God abandoned me and my family? I don’t want to spoil everything for you, you really should read the book, but the young man, Tobiah, meets the girl, marries her, consummates the marriage, gets rid of the demon, and comes home with his new bride to the joy and happiness of his faithful father, Tobit. And, best of all, the reader is informed how God took an active role in bringing this cursed widow and exiled son of a righteous man together. To all outward appearances, both of these individuals and their families had been abandoned by God. Yet God reminds them and those familiar with the story that He can save.
The Sadducees, who reject this book as part of Scripture, no doubt look at the ridiculous problem it creates for those who believe in the Resurrection of the Dead as one of their justifications for rejecting it (the primary reason being it was not written by Moses). If the Resurrection of the Dead is real, as some thought and some rejected, whose wife will she be in the after-life? In asking the question, they expect no answer. They have sat in their ivory towers and debated the wisest of their age for generations now. The Resurrection of the Dead is fantasy. And by forcing the “Rabbi” from Nazareth to answer the question, they will prove their intellectual and moral superiority to the crowd, and diminish this carpenter’s son in the process.
No doubt Jesus’ response shocked them. They wrongly presume that the after-life will simply be more of the same. The drudgery of this world will continue, the only difference being that it will simply never end. Jesus challenges that notion. In reality, He points out that this world is so affected by sin that they cannot begin to understand the world to come. He instructs them and us that in the world to come we are like the angels. There is no marriage because it is no longer necessary. Marriage exists here in part to create future generations, but in part to keep us from sinning. Those desires you and I rightly call lust do not exist in the world to come. There, we are recreated to understand His mind, to see with His eyes, and to hear with His ears. We are no longer, in the world to come, affected by the Fall. We are totally, completely redeemed! Everything about us is reordered to glorify God as He intended when He created Adam and Eve and placed them in the Garden.
It is a qualitatively different life those who are considered worthy of living in that age will get to experience. Our liturgies remind us of this truth, even if we are like the Sadducees and forget the difference between this world and the next. In our rite of Morning Prayer we often remind ourselves that God can do far more than we can ever ask or imagine. In our concluding collects after the Prayers of the People, we sometimes remind ourselves that He offers good things for which we dare not ask, or, in our blindness, we cannot see to ask. We are so blinded and affected by our sin that we lose sight of the life, the glory, to which He calls each and every one of us. We get so caught up in the world we experience that we lose sight of the fact that our Father in heaven intends good for us. Actually, He intends far better than what we would call great. All that we experience on earth falls far short of what He had in mind when He created us and placed us in the Garden.
It is for that reason when Matthew and Mark recount this story that Jesus reminds the Sadducees and us that they do not understand the Scriptures, nor do they understand the redeeming power of God. They do not understand the Scriptures or the redeeming power of God because they live on the wrong side of the Cross and Resurrection! And the very example they cite foreshadows that which they do not understand! In general terms, what is the story of Tobit, which they reject? A father sends his son, in the company of a heavenly spirit, to find a bride, redeem the bride by defeating the tormenting demon, and bring her safely home. Sound familiar? What is the path that Jesus is walking? The Father sends the Son, empowered by the Holy Spirit, to find His Bride, the Church, redeem her by defeating the powers of sin and death and hell, and then bring her safely home to a great celebration! In other words, Tobiah’s journey prefigures Christ’s in a very real way. Now you know why the early Church considered Tobit part of Scripture, and you know why you should read the book. Tobit told the story of Christ, a few centuries before Christ walked the earth.
Ironically, the Sadducees are trying to use a story which should help lead them to recognize the Christ among them to try and prove wrong the very thing He has come to accomplish. They want to use the story of Tobit’s daughter-in-law to mock and disparage those who believe in the Resurrection of the Dead; Jesus has come to conquer death and to demonstrate that the Resurrection is real! Talk about cross purposes! And that is why Jesus tells them they do not understand the Scriptures nor the power of God. He is here to accomplish the very thing they reject.
Why is it important for us to understand that the Resurrection is real? Because it should inform all our actions and be the source of our hope. I mentioned at the beginning of this how easy it should be for us to understand the spiritual condition of Sarah (the bride) and her family and the spiritual condition of Tobit and Tobiah. To all outward appearances, they have all been abandoned by God. They are dispossessed of the Land and living in exile. Finding a spouse in such a condition was nigh impossible for those wishing to live as God commanded. Spiritual forces of evil are even arrayed against them, to help make them a byword of their neighbors. Heck, poor Tobit was blinded simply for doing what God demanded of all of Israel! In the story of Tobit, two families are outwardly restored to God’s favor. The rest of the world might have thought them abandoned by God, but God paid close attention to all their travails and sufferings. In the end, through a simple marriage, hope is restored to two families. Yes, it took an archangel to ensure that hope, but God sent Raphael for that very purpose.
Our lives are sometimes like Sarah’s and Tobiah’s. Each of us, I dare say, has experienced those moments of doubt, those moments when the Enemy’s whispers seem a shrill roar in our ears. Let’s be honest, some of us are wondering about His love for us now. In this community we have questions of provision, questions of health, difficulties in relationships, sufferings of addiction, and any number of other outward appearances which might make us feel that our Lord has forgotten us. Worse, the sufferings that we experience might be used by His Enemy to convince others that we are cut off, that there is no use to trying to be faithful because the world wins as God sleeps or ignores “His people”. It is in those dark moments of our own walk or in the walks of others that the Resurrection literally shines like a lighthouse on a foggy shore or a spotlight in a dark theater!
What God did for Sarah and Tobiah was pretty cool. He redeemed their lives and their families through a marriage. What does He promise us? We, too, will be redeemed as participants in a wonderful marriage! The image that Scripture uses over and over is the idea of the wedding feast. Christ comes to redeem His Bride. She may wear a soiled or ripped gown, She may be of questionable moral conduct, She is most certainly not worthy of His love--Still, He comes to redeem Her! As part of that Bride, you and I share in that redemption. All of us have issues, to be frank we have subscriptions, which make us unlovable. Yet even when we rejected Him, He came and died that we might know love and its transforming power. And to remind us all that everything can be redeemed by Him, God raised Jesus that Easter morning so long ago. The message to us was simple: If He can conquer death, what in our lives can He not overcome?
Now you and I stand, by virtue of our baptism and Christ’s faithful work, in the assurance of His promises. We gather week in and week out to remind ourselves that He is coming again. The Body we eat and the Blood we drink are just a hint of an appetizer as to what is promised us! What is promised us is qualitatively different than anything we have experienced on earth. As human beings constrained by space and finances, our wedding feasts are limited. We agonize over who to invite, what food to serve, what drinks to offer, and what music to play as we celebrate the nuptials of those in our families. Feelings can be hurt; people can feel put out simply because of those constraints with which we must deal. Our Lord has no such problem. We know from Scripture that He ferments the best wine! We know from Scripture that the dance, the perichoresis, of the the Trinity and the Redeemed is unlike anything seen here on earth. We know that our joyful noises can be music to His ears. In ways unimagined or not understood by us, God can take our cacophony of tastes and likes and create a symphony whose harmony cannot be heard on earth.
And here’s the best part, brothers and sisters: We get to invite everyone and spend our Father’s resources! This is not a feast which is limited. We do not have to pick and choose whom we should invite. In fact, our Lord commands us to go into all the world inviting all whom we encounter! Think of that joyful responsibility for just a second. Each of us gathered here who has accepted Christ as Lord is just like Sarah of the seven husbands or Tobiah. We and our circumstances have been redeemed. Our Father has even gone so far as to promise that all our sufferings will have meaning. And feeling that joy at snatching life from the grasp of death, at finding that God loves us even when the world thinks otherwise, ought to inspire us to share that invitation far and wide. We get a chance to share with those whom we love and those whom we meet far better than Willy Wonka’s golden ticket. We get to share an invitation to a wedding feast the likes of which this world has never seen.
How different will this feast be? Only God knows for sure. We only see and hear in shadows. We know that the next Age will be different from this one. There will be no sin, no crying, no suffering, and no death. One thing which stands out, though, is its importance to our Lord. Two thousand years ago, as He sat among His disciples and instituted this meal which you and I are about to share, what did He say about His own cup? Our Lord eschewed the fourth cup, the Cup of Joy, at that feast and told us He would not drink from that Cup until the Wedding Feast. Given His penchant for going to parties (remember, He ran with some crazy crowds and hard partiers), can you imagine what He has in mind for the Day when He breaks His fast? Me either. If the world to come had a need for police departments, I can only imagine how many precincts would have to respond! What I do know is that it is our privilege, our joyful responsibility, to invite all those we meet to share in that eternal feast, to invite everyone to join us at that Party!