November 10, 2019, A Failure of Imagination, Luke 20:27-38 – Mtr. Kathryn Boswell
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C.S. Lewis once told a story of a little boy whose parents were trying to teach him about the facts of life. They wanted to convey to him that sexual intimacy is one of the greatest pleasures that human beings can experience. The boy considered this just a moment, and then asked whether people eat chocolate while they are engaged in this sexual act. When his parents told him no, he immediately concluded that one of the chief characteristics of this mysterious thing called “sex” is that it is lacking in chocolate. The parents tried to explain that the reason lovers don’t bother about chocolates in the midst of their carnal pleasures is because they are enjoying something even better. But all in vain: the boy knew about chocolate. And he couldn’t conceive of any supposedly wonderful human experience that didn’t include chocolate.
We human beings, Lewis said, are not so very different from that little boy. We know this present life of human pleasures and relationships. But we have no real concept, except for brief glimpses, of that other life which will leave no room for the life that is all we really understand.
The Sadducees couldn’t imagine it either. Resurrection, and life after death, and any kind of life beyond this creation, just made no sense to them, and they were ready to disprove it with a clever sort of logic problem. To the Sadducees, talking about a physical Resurrection was kind of like we might talk about time travel: maybe it’s a fun idea, but once you get really thinking about it there are too many logical contradictions for us to actually take it seriously.
The Law of Moses said if a man died and left his wife childless, his brother was required to marry the widow so that he could produce children in his brother’s name, to preserve his brother’s family line and property. And so, hoping to embarrass Jesus and prove their cleverness, the Sadducees spun a story about seven brothers who all died and left their poor widow childless. So, in the “Resurrection” they concluded– and they put little air quotes around that – whose wife is she? She can’t belong to all seven of them, right? You see? Resurrection doesn’t make any sense; it couldn’t really work.
But Jesus answers them so thoroughly that they are left speechless – Luke says that they didn’t dare ask him any more questions. And in the gospel of Matthew, where Matthew relates this same event, he tells us Jesus’s answer was pretty blunt. “You’re wrong,” Jesus told them, “and you’re wrong for two reasons. You don’t know your Bible. And you don’t know the power of God.” Jesus pretty much knocked the wind out of their priestly sails.
But actually, their problem was the same problem we all have. All that we know – all that we can know – of goodness and of life is what we know in this creation. We are only able to know what we understand with our human minds and what we experience with our physical senses. The problem of the Saduccees, and our own lack of understanding, all comes down to a failure of imagination.
Think, for a moment, of all the descriptions of heaven you have ever heard. Is there any picture of heaven that you have ever heard that really sounds better than life on this earth at its best? Is anybody here really attracted to the traditional image of floating around on clouds in white nighties and playing harps day and night for eternity? Or, if we are being more biblical about it, what about living forever in a big city with crystal walls and a big throne and people in white robes singing hymns forever and ever? It is pretty nearly impossible for our minds to really grasp those images, and I think for most of us they don’t even sound that good.
I can tell you that my idea of perfect goodness is sitting around the table with the people I love, and talking, and eating really good food. Or walking in the woods on a perfect October day. Or curling up on the couch with my dog and cat and a warm blanket and a good book. Those are the most heavenly pictures my little limited mind can make up.
We are wrong about the Resurrection, Jesus would tell us, because we don’t know our Bibles and we haven’t even begun to comprehend the power of God. The Bible tells us that this creation that is the most wonderful – as well as the most messed up – thing any of us have experienced. But it also tells us that this creation was intended to be completely good in a way we haven’t even begun to understand. And it tells us that Jesus came to make that happen. Paul tells us that absolutely everything, visible and invisible, in heaven or on the earth, was created by Jesus and through Jesus and for Jesus. And he tells us that the big mystery that God has planned for us, his grand finale, is to bring it all back together in glorious perfection in Jesus Christ.
But our human experience is so limiting that when we try to imagine a perfect creation we don’t end up with anything immeasurably great or glorious; for the most part what our imagination comes up with is something sort of bland and flat and boring-sounding. Most of us don’t have any feel for what a glorious inheritance might look like. And that is because nothing we have ever known has ever been perfectly good. Everything we have ever known about love and beauty and goodness has been set against the backdrop of sadness and evil. That’s where the human philosophy of dualism comes from – that kind of “Star Wars” theology that an awful lot of people buy into, that says there needs to be a kind of balance in the world; good needs the presence of evil to be truly good. That is very sensible in a logical, Sadducee-sort of way, but it is a terrible failure of imagination.
We do well to enjoy the good that God has given us in this creation: the good of chocolate, and the good of married life, and the good of nature and dogs and all other gifts of God that make our lives sweet. But in our thanksgiving we always need to remember, by faith, that there are beauties and goodnesses that are far beyond anything we have ever yet known, and that life in the presence of the Father and the Son will be so much more than life in the here and now that we can only comprehend it as the absence of what we know – a place of no sorrow, no pain, no death.
Like the Sadducees, we really don’t yet know the power of God. We can’t even imagine what kind of good and glorious things he will do with this broken creation we love so much; it’s not in our capabilities to imagine so much good. Our hope can only be based on faith in the person of Jesus Christ, because he is something we do know. Because he came to be a real part of this physical creation, Jesus is the one and only good and holy and perfect thing that we can know and experience. He gave us his words to teach us and his Spirit to guide us and his body and blood to taste and touch and smell to remind us of his promise that there is more to come than we can understand now. And in a way that is beyond our comprehension he made us, this motley assortment of plain old people, into his Body. He is present in our midst to act in this world: to comfort and to remind and to help one another. There is so much more to come, but we can only hold onto that by faith.
I just arrived back from a conference at the Spiritual Life Center on Friday night. Our little band of North Country clergy wound our way home in the dark through the Adirondacks, transformed overnight from the gold and russet glory of autumn to a magical Narnia world. The snow, and the chilly weather, and the short, dark days that seem to have come upon us so suddenly – these are reminders, these are signs to us, that we are fast approaching the season of Advent.
Advent is one of those holy mysteries that the world hasn’t yet figured out how to package up and sell, thanks be to God. As soon as the Hallowe’en candy hit the clearance bins, the world at large turned its mind and heart and creative energies to the marketing of Christmas. But the Church is preparing instead to enter the solemn season of Advent, which is so much more than just a countdown to Christmas. In Advent we prepare our hearts to celebrate the first coming of Christ in humility as Mary’s child in a stable in Bethlehem. But more than that, in Advent we are reminded each year that we are called to live in readiness, watchful, alert, preparing our hearts day by day for the second coming of Christ in majesty and glory as the Ruler and Judge of all creation.
We spend a lot of time, a very large proportion of our time, dealing with the things of this world. And that isn’t a bad thing. When we are at our best, we apply our faith to our daily lives, seeking to be obedient to what God would have us do and be, but even more important, listening for his still, small voice and enjoying his presence with us as we go about our lives. When I preach, I think that I most often try to draw connections between the needs and suffering of this world and the people around us, and the words of Scripture. Because we all need to hear those things.
But the promise of our hope in Jesus Christ is a much bigger thing than living a good life or trying to make a difference in this world, as important as those things are. If that’s all we are striving to achieve, we might just as well all become Rotarians or something; we might just as well join some club that focuses on doing good works and makes us feel good about ourselves and doesn’t ask for such a wholesale commitment of our hearts and minds and souls.
But listen to what Paul has to say about the Resurrection from the dead: (this is from his first letter to the Corinthians, chapter 15:
“Since our message is that Christ has been raised from death, how can some of you say that the dead will not be raised to life? If that is true, it means that Christ was not raised; and if Christ has not been raised from death, then we have nothing to preach and you have nothing to believe….If our hope in Christ is good for this life only and no more, then we deserve more pity than anyone else in all the world. But the truth is that Christ has been raised from death…”
That is the content of our faith. It buggers the imagination, as they say. The Sadduccees couldn’t wrap their minds around it. And if we are honest, we aren’t very good at imagining it either, any more than Lewis’s little boy could imagine any pleasure greater than chocolate. But we hold onto it by faith, knowing that the One who made the promise is trustworthy.
Let us pray:
O God, who by the glorious resurrection of your Son Jesus Christ destroyed death and brought life and immortality to light: Grant that we, who have been raised with him, may abide in his presence and rejoice in the hope of eternal glory; through Jesus Christ our Lord, to whom, with you and the Holy Spirit, be dominion and praise for ever and ever. Amen.
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