The Third Sunday before Advent: 6th November 2022
The story of Moses’ encounter with God at the burning bush is one of the great stories of the Hebrew scriptures, and a foundational story for Jews and Christians alike. God reveals Himself to Moses as “The God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob”, and later in the conversation reveals Himself as Yahweh, a mysterious Hebrew name connected with the verb “to be”, and described in the story as meaning “I am that I am”.
Today’s gospel is a part of a series of stories in Luke’s gospel in which Jesus is questioned by different factions of the religious elite in Jerusalem. In each of these exchanges, Jesus’ answers almost sidestep the questions, and somehow manage at the same time to both answer the question and yet also show that the question is the wrong question.
The Sadducees were an important Jewish sect in Jesus’ day, a group that more-or-less vanished after the destruction of the Jerusalem Temple in 70AD. They seem to have been largely an aristocratic priestly elite, whose religion was closely connected with the Jerusalem Temple. Their chief opponents were the Pharisees. The Pharisees believed in the resurrection of the dead and in angels, but the Sadducees did not.
The Sadducees in today’s gospel attempt to reduce belief in the resurrection of the dead to absurdity by positing a hypothetical story of a woman who has been married seven times: whose wife, they ask, is she at the resurrection? The problem with their question is a failure of religious imagination: they can only understand the possibility of resurrection as being essentially a continuation of the sort of life we know here on earth; Jesus’ answer makes clear that the risen life we look forward to is something different, a radically expanded sort of life in which earthly concerns of ownership and descent to not belong. In the kingdom of heaven the question about who the unfortunate hypothetical woman belongs to will simply not be relevant, it will not be a question at all.
Jesus then proceeds to answer the question in a different way. At the burning bush, God introduces Himself to Moses as “The God of Abraham and the God of Isaac and the God of Jacob”, the Patriarchs of Israel who were long dead even in the time of Moses. Jesus says that since God is not a God of the dead but of the living, for Him, all are alive. This is a characteristically neat way of refuting the Sadducees, and yet it is also in a way ambiguous. There are at least two ways in which we can make sense of Jesus’ interpretation of God’s words to Moses at the burning bush.
The first is closely connected with the self-description that comes later in the burning bush encounter: “I am that I am”. Many have seen in these words a conception of God as sheer existence, eternal and timeless, pure being standing outside of time and yet in whom all times are held. “I am that I am”. For such a God, unconfined by the limits of space and time, time is simply irrelevant, and what we call the past is no less alive to God than what we call the present, or even than what we call the future.
This is pretty mind-bending stuff, and yet I think it is important to wrestle with this idea, if only to come to terms with the sheer mysterious incomprehensibility of God.
This sense of God’s existence being beyond time, and the logical implication that figures from the past remain alive to God, these things may be a part of what Jesus is saying in His response to the Sadducees. But although this argument is interesting and important, I am not sure that this is really the heart of what Jesus is trying to say. Given that the question is specifically about the resurrection, it doesn’t seem quite adequate to understand Jesus’ response purely in terms of the eternity of God, important as that undoubtedly is.
“To Him all are alive”, Jesus says, at least in some English translations, but the Greek could equally be translated “For Him all are alive” or “In Him all are alive”, each of which offers a slightly different emphasis. That last option, “In Him all are alive”, suggests a different understanding of Jesus’ response, one that better fits the context of a question about resurrection. Jesus is not only saying that because God is eternal, the past is eternally present to God; He is, I think, also saying that those who have died are raised up by God’s power, and so “In Him all are alive”.
What might all this mean for us?
The first point about the nature of God as being beyond time, a belief which is implicit in that oddly baffling explanation of the meaning of the Divine Name, “I am that I am”, helps us to clarify the way we think about God.
So much of how religion can go wrong comes down to inadequate conceptions of God. It’s too easy to limit and reduce God to human categories simply by thinking or speaking about God at all. We only have human language and human categories to work with, after all. There are obvious inadequate conceptions of God as the angry old man in the sky and so forth, but in the end, whatever human language we apply to God is always going to be inadequate.
When we think and speak about God, we have always to be mindful of God’s essential mysterious otherness, and we have always to remember that all our language and thought about God is ultimately only an attempt to see in a mirror dimly, to explore in symbols and metaphors a reality that is beyond our grasp. Wrestling in our minds with the idea of the eternity of God, attempting to comprehend a pure existence, a perfect now in which past present and future are all perfectly alive, such an exercise has its uses in stretching our religious imagination and protecting us from limiting and domesticating God.
And yet there is also something here which we can understand: in Jesus, we have a concrete, human reality; and for that matter, so too in Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. Jesus’ answer to the Sadducees makes clear that Resurrection is more than just a reheating of this earthly life, it makes clear that Resurrection is a transformation and expansion of our existence. And yet the life that is ours in God through Jesus Christ is also something more than just an idea in the mind of God, something more than a vague continuation of energy and light.
Jesus’ very specific appeal to the names of the Patriarchs of ancient Israel tells us that Resurrection is specific and personal. And this is not so very surprising, since God Himself in all His incomprehensibility and mysterious otherness has nevertheless chosen to enter into the word for our sake in a direct, specific and personal way in Jesus Christ, God with us, the Word made flesh, our Crucified Saviour and Risen Lord, to whom with the +Father and the Holy Spirit be all praise and glory now and unto ages of ages.