Mark 12:18 Then the Sadducees, who say there is no resurrection, came to him with a question. 19 “Teacher,” they said, “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 raise up offspring for his brother. 20 Now there were seven brothers. The first one married and died without leaving any children. 21 The second one married the widow, but he also died, leaving no child. It was the same with the third. 22 In fact, none of the seven left any children. Last of all, the woman died too. 23 At the resurrection whose wife will she be, since the seven were married to her?”24 Jesus replied, “Are you not in error because you do not know the Scriptures or the power of God? 25 When the dead rise, they will neither marry nor be given in marriage; they will be like the angels in heaven. 26 Now about the dead rising—have you not read in the Book of Moses, in the account of the burning bush, how God said to him, ‘I am the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob’ 27 He is not the God of the dead, but of the living. You are badly mistaken!”
There was once a rabbi who would always answer questions with more questions. That irritated one of his disciples to the point where, in exasperation, he asked, “Rabbi, why can’t I ever get a straight answer from you? Why do you always answer my questions with more questions?”
And the rabbi replied, “So, what have you got against questions?”
So, be careful whenever you ask the Rabbi Jesus a question, because you may get in return a question like the powerful, penetrating, perceptive question he put to the Saducees in today’s Gospel text: “Is not your problem that you know neither the Scriptures nor the power of God?”
So much for their convoluted question about life after death, or about marriage and gender in the next life. Jesus cuts through the clutter of one woman and seven husbands, puts his finger on the main point, and diagnoses the true condition of his inquisitors’ hearts when he says, “You know neither the scriptures nor power of God.”
And how better might one describe the adventure the disciples were on when they answered Jesus’ call, “Come, Follow Me,” than to know the Scriptures and the power of God, but in a new way?
And what else makes us a church? What else gets me out of bed every morning as a pastor but this: to know the Scriptures and the power of God? And to make them known?
Don’t get too distracted by the strange story that the Sadducees weave, about the woman with seven dead husbands, who also were brothers. Its from the ancient practice of Levirate marriage, whereby whenever a man died childless, his widow married his next brother so that she might bear and raise up heirs in the dead man’s name and lineage. Back then it was safety net and social security for widows, and a way to keep a man’s lineage and heritage intact. Isn’t it ironic that the Saducees would argue against eternal life using the very law meant to ensure that a man’s name and estate outlived him? Now, 21st Century Americans hear this story about the woman widowed seven times and wonder, Is she poisoning them? But again, this passage is not really about all that. Its about knowing the scriptures and the power of God.
Behind the Saducees’ question about eternal life stood what was perhaps the biggest single controversy in Judaism at the time: just what qualifies as scripture? Just what is the Word of God? That explains why they would even raise this question about eternal life. The Saducees were one school of Jewish religious life at the time. They were mostly of the priestly class. They had a very skinny Bible. They had only the Pentateuch, the first five books of Moses, from Genesis to Deuteronomy, the law and the stories of creation and the exodus. That’s where you find all the rules and regs for the sacrifices and ceremonies they did as priests and Levites.
And that’s why they didn’t believe in life after death. There’s precious little about that in the Moses and the first five books of the Bible. They are more concerned with the long-term survival of the people of Israel, than with the survival of any persons. And I’m sure that made the Saducees very sad, you see.
But to the other main school of Jewish religion, the Pharisees, their sense for the inspired Word of God included pretty much everything that is in our Old Testament today, starting with the law, the Pentateuch of the Saducees, yes, but also going on to include the books of history, the prophets, the poets and the psalms in our Bible. And in those additional books you get hints and shadows about judgment and life after death, especially in Daniel and some of the psalms. And the Pharisees would say that “that is very fair, I see.”
This is one of the few times that Jesus jumps into a conflict with both feet to take a side. From what we know of Jesus, his teachings and his ministry, which side of that controversy did he take? Which Bible did he read, obey and teach, the skinny one of the Saducees, or the bigger one of the Pharisees? Which Bible did he treat as his script?
Right, the Bible of the Pharisees, which is our Old Testament today. And that is the simplest meaning of Jesus’ words to the Saducees, “You don’t know the Scriptures.” In other words, “Dear Saducees, your Bible is too small; No wonder you don’t believe in life after death; you’re missing two thirds of God’s Word, especially the part that would give you hope of eternal life.”
And that’s why Jesus had many more conflicts with the Pharisees: because they had so much more in common to argue about. And that’s why I love the Old Testament and recommend that we all know it and love it too. Because it was Jesus’ Bible. In it he saw the script for his life as well as the source of his teachings.
That was then. What about us, here and now? How well do we know the scriptures and the power of God? With that we lay bare the heart of so many controversies and difficulties among Christians today: Not just, Do we know stuff about the scriptures and the power of God, theoretically and intellectually? Do we know them the way that hunters must know the forest, or woodworkers know different kinds of wood and what they can do with them, or even friends and family members come to know each other? We’re talking about more than just head knowledge here. We’re talking about experience and orientation.
As for knowing the scriptures today, the situation doesn’t look good. University professors of classical literature and western history today say that they have to spend time teaching biblical content so that students can understand things like what Abraham Lincoln meant when he said, “A house divided against itself cannot stand,” or when the Pilgrims came to Massachusetts, why they talked so much about being “a city on a hill.” What does that mean and where did it come from? the students wonder.
A recent Pew Institute survey of biblical literacy found that self-identified Christians don’t do much better on biblical literacy. For example, many Christian respondents thought that Sodom and Gomorrah were a married couple, they couldn’t name half the Ten Commandments, maybe only two of the four gospels, and thought that “God helps those who help themselves,” was a biblical proverb, or even one of the Ten Commandments.
I can understand why. We swim in a sea of media distractions and obligation inflation. Who has time to read the Bible on top of our growing work schedules and all the activities of family, friends and even church? If we are too busy and distracted to take church home with us and give time throughout the week to the Bible and to prayer, then Jesus would again have to say of us: We don’t know the Scriptures, and therefore, the power of God.
This question is at the heart of my ministry: Do I know the scriptures and the power of God? Its a good reminder for me, because its so easy to get stuck on subordinate things like, Will people like this sermon? Will the church’s programs run well? Will people be happy? Will the church grow? Will I ace my annual review? Even if the answer is Yes, if those things don’t grow out of knowing the scriptures and the power of God, do they even matter?
So, I ask this of us: Do we know the scriptures and the power of God? And what are we doing to make sure that we know the Scriptures and the power of God? As for knowing the scriptures, its not enough to say, I read it once. Or as one comedian said, “I haven’t read the Bible, but I saw the movie.” So let’s take a reading here. We have our awesome Christian education program for all ages, which is Bible-based. Good for us. Right now, the adult Christian education class is getting an overview of the Bible according to a pretty good scholar, Dr. Timothy Luke Johnson. The deacons offer us daily guides for Bible reading and prayer, which are attached to every week’s email about our prayer requests and sharing. We have paper copies of that around, too. If you don’t already have such a program of regular Bible reading, why not? What are you going to do about it? You could start by checking that one out. If you do already have a program and a discipline, good for you.
And how about knowing the power of God, as a church? Again, not just knowing about the power of God, but experiencing the power of God to guide and transform our lives and relationships? For the kingdom of God does not advance through what we do for God, but through what God does for us, in us and through us. What do any activities matter unless we are seeing and experiencing the power of God at work according to the promises and purposes of God revealed in scripture?
Experience and the Bible tell me that we most know the power of God whenever we come to the end of our own powers. Either we step out in a ministry that requires God to come through, or life forces weakness and need on us, such that, again, God must come through for us, if we are to make it through. As for the first, stepping out into where only God can succeed, I see among us some bold and gutsy ministry initiatives, like Growing Hope, the ministry of reconciliation developing out of the Philadelphia Community Farm in Wisconsin. We have about a half dozen members and friends of Emmanuel Mennonite bringing their considerable and prodigious powers of organization, administration, visioning and networking to this effort, and that’s good. God makes use of those. But if this is of God, then God will show that it is his as we pray and trust him to come through with things that only God can do. Let’s not forget that.
But if we don’t put ourselves out there on the limits of our own powers, those limits will come to us. I was reminded of this in a recent visit to the Hazelden Treatment Center north of the Cities. No, I wasn’t there as a patient, but to learn about the program and its spiritual components. I was struck by the architecture of the chapel, which is like two clam shells facing each other, with a deep gash into the middle, with rocks and windows looking on to each other over some narrow open space. Why the strange setup? Because it symbolizes how God’s power often enters our lives through our wounds and weak places, where the strength and order of our lives is broken into by the unforeseen and the un-desired. In such times we come to the limits of our own power, where only God’s power can carry us through.
That’s the first step of the Twelve Steps that Hazelden uses: “I admitted that I was powerless over….” my addiction. A lot of aching and breaking can go into getting to that step. But just as hard is step number two: “I came to believe that a power greater than myself could restore me to sanity.” That’s hard to believe when drugs, alcohol or some behavior have been the supreme power in someone’s life. And because human nature keeps wanting to climb back up onto God’s throne.
And so I often see the power of God in the weakest places of life. We call it ministry when I counsel and pray with someone with a lifelong disability or a terminal illness affecting themselves or a loved one, but often it is their faith, hope and love that minister to me. I can testify this morning that I have heard people without citizenship, without regular jobs, with children to care for but without spouses, separated from loved ones in other countries, fearing a knock at the door, expressing their gratitude that their lives are full of love, there is still bread in the home and a roof over their heads, and that they made it through another day, by the grace of God, and I am brought up short. Such is the power of God, both to deliver us from such dire straits, and often to deliver us through such dire straits.
My prayer for us is that, as we move ahead now and next year with clear and well-discerned goals, and as we do the good work that our council and commissions are doing to unify our efforts and identify relevant and achievable things, that our labors be guided by the scriptures and filled with the power of God. My prayer for us is that of Peter, in his first letter, that we, “Like newborn babies, [might] crave pure spiritual milk [of God’s Word], so that by it you may grow up in your salvation, now that you have tasted that the Lord is good.” Let’s never forget the basics. Like Jesus hearing the Saducees weave their long complicated tale about a woman widowed seven times, let’s not get distracted from the powerful, penetrating and perceptive question of Jesus: Do we know the scriptures and the power of God? To which I add: What will we do to keep knowing, and better know, the scriptures and the power of God?
I’ve done my part. What’s yours?