Sunday, November 10, 2013

What will heaven be like?

Not all questions are alike. There are rhetorical questions where the answers are so obvious, there’s no reason to respond to them. Then there are questions that require a right or a wrong answer. And finally, there are those questions that really have no answers.

A good lawyer is trained never to ask a question to which he or she doesn’t already know the answer. And a good educator is taught the exact opposite. When I was learning how to be a teacher I was taught that the best questions to ask were the ones for which I didn’t know the answer myself.  

If you want people to think, you invite them to use their imagination. When you ask a question and you have no idea what the answer is, you open a conversation. When you ask a question and you already know the answer, there is no conversation.  Taken to the extreme, questions with definitive answers can easily evolve into gotcha questions.

A gotcha question was what the Sadducees asked Jesus in Luke 20:27-40. Right before this, they had asked him another gotcha question. That one had to do with paying taxes to Caesar.  And now they hit him again, firing at him with both barrels. He had entered Jerusalem and raised a ruckus among the people. He had to be stopped before things got completely out of hand.

So, they construct an absurd, hypothetical question to trap Jesus. The law of Moses says that if a man dies and leaves a wife without children, the man’s brother needs to marry his wife and raise up children for his brother who died. So, just suppose there were seven brothers in a family. The first one marries and dies, childless. So then the second one marries the same woman, and remains childless. And then the third, and so on, all the way down the line. (Okay. Just stop and think about that. What man in his right mind would marry this woman after the third of fourth husband died? Heck with the law of Moses. That man would have to be nuts.) Well, anyway, as the story goes, finally, after burying seven husbands, the woman dies.

So, here’s the big question: after marrying all seven men, which one will be her husband after the resurrection? Oh, what a dilemma! How you gonna answer that one Jesus?!

Luke provides us with a little background to expose the hypocrisy of the question. It’s asked by the Sadducees. And the thing about the Sadducees is that they don’t believe in the resurrection. And yet, they’re asking Jesus a question about what will happen at the resurrection.  

The question of what happens after we die has been out there forever.  In the Old Testament, people’s understanding of it evolved. The idea of the dead being resurrected came later, when it was adopted by some believers, but not by others. The Sadducees basically followed the earlier books of the scriptures, the Books of Moses, which didn’t support the newfangled ideas about the resurrection of the dead that the Pharisees embraced. So, this was a theological hot potato. It was a gotcha question. Jesus knew that. And yet, he didn’t answer it like a gotcha question. He answered it as if he had been invited into an open conversation.

First, he said that marriage is something people do in this age, but when the resurrection comes, marriage will become irrelevant. So much of what we believe about the next life is based on what we know of this life. If our relationships are important to us, we can’t imagine living without them. And, of course, there are a lot of other things that we’re attached to in this life: music, certain foods, our pets, our smart phones. How could we ever be happy without the stuff we cherish the most? And yet, in Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees’ question, he’s saying that the stuff we think is so important in this life isn’t going to matter a hill of beans in the next life. We can’t begin to understand that because our only point of reference is this life. So, when we imagine what heaven will be like for us, we picture it in ways we’ve already experienced. 

It’s like a two-year old wondering if she will be able to take two pacifiers with her when the time comes for her to go to college. She can’t imagine a world without pacifiers, and college is so far removed from her experience that she can’t begin to get her head around what that would mean for her.  It may help her to picture going to college one day with her pacifiers, but those of us who are older know beyond a doubt that when the time comes, the question over pacifiers will have become completely obsolete.  That isn’t all that different than the ways we think about life after death. We just can’t get our heads around what we have never experienced. 

Jesus says more about the resurrected life as he talks about what really matters. He says that, from our perspective, we make a distinction between life and death. We’re either dead or we’re alive. But that’s not how God sees us. From God’s perspective we’re all alive. We’re all alive because we’re in a relationship with the God who loves us and that relationship never ends.

In other words, Jesus tells his examiners, the things you’re worried about are kinda silly, when you look at them from God’s perspective. Well, we’re still obsessed with what happens to us when we die.  And why wouldn’t we be? It’s the great unknown that, one day, every one of us will come to know.

Last week we celebrated Dias de los Muertos and Halloween. And just look how popular “Walking Dead” is and all the movies about zombies. And vampires. And all the books about people who have had near death experiences and what they saw. We’re fascinated by the dead because we want to know what they know. But, the thing is, even the people who claimed that they died and came back to tell us what they saw, even those people haven’t truly died. If they died, their brains would stop working. And they would have nothing to tell us. The fact is, no living person has ever died and come back to tell us what it was like. Well, except Jesus. But, interestingly, when he came back from the dead, he really never described what it was like for his friends. I suspect that’s because he couldn’t have described it in a way they would ever understand.

They were still like babies, wondering if they will be able to take two pacifiers or one when they go to college. How could a two year old ever grasp what it would be like to move away from home and live in a dorm and eat cafeteria food, and go to classes, and study, and scrape together money for tuition, and drink too much at a party, and fall in love, and worry about finding a job after they graduate, and all the stuff people do in college. If you told them all that, they would still be wondering about their pacifiers.

But what we need to know about life after death Jesus has told us. We are God’s children. We will always be God’s children. The love God has for us will never end. God is the God of the living. In God we are always alive. God is there to hear our borning cry. All along the way God is there. And when we finally close our eyes for the last time… guess who’s there? (That’s a rhetorical question.)

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