Questions . . . . and Answers?

The following is a sermon I preached on Luke 19:47-48; 20:27-40 March 27, 2011 at Lebanon United Methodist.  This was a part of the sermon series “The Footsteps of Jesus.”

When I was in school I dreaded pop quizzes.  Those infinite little secret weapons that teachers used to pull out on a whim that would ignite fear in the eyes of helpless children everywhere – it was a scheme.   And every teacher always had a stack of pop quizzes ready to go, no matter the subject or day of the week.

You didn’t know when they were coming.  That was the point.  The teacher didn’t want you to be prepared for it.    The worse pop quiz I ever took was in seminary – seminary!   I thought those days of sitting in fear of those stacks of quizzes were over.  But oh no.  We were assigned a 200+ page book to read over the weekend.  Most of us had read . . . .most of the book.  After opening class with a prayer, the professor proceeds to hand out this pop quiz.

Well, to say the least, nobody was happy.  And as we found out, none of us did well on that pop quiz.

Pop quizzes were things we thought teachers used to trick us into doing our homework or trick us into studying when we didn’t need to…..or simply just to trick us.

The religious leaders in our text this morning are in the Temple asking Jesus some strange questions that really don’t seem to have anything to do with anything.  The verses we read from Luke 19 tell us that these religious leaders don’t care much for Jesus.  They are like cats of prey in waiting, ready to pounce when the time is just right.

There’s only one problem.  Jesus knows they are there.  Jesus has been in the Temple all day teaching.  As Spencer reminded us last week, this is the same Temple that Jesus was teaching in as a child.  The same Temple that Jesus over turned tables because they had turned this House of Worship into a Den of Robbers.

The priests and scribes have been questioning his authority all day.  Jesus knows they are waiting to pounce.  It doesn’t look too good for the religious leaders.

What they need is a really good question for Jesus.  A question that Jesus can’t give a Jesus answer to.  A question that will trick Jesus so that no matter what his answer, he will alienate half the crowd.

They don’t only need a question . . .they need someone to ask the question.  In Luke 20:20, Luke says that they sent “spies” to ask this question of Jesus.  We don’t really know who these spies.  They could have been a different order of clergy or just some random “do-gooders” the priest came upon on the streets.  Either way, whoever these “spies” were, the question they were sent with is a pretty well known question (especially at this time of year): “Is it lawful for us to pay taxes to the emperor, or not?”

You can almost see the priests and the scribes in the shadows of the Temple, rubbing their well manicured hands together, cackling amongst themselves, “We have him now!”

But they forgot, they were asking this question to Jesus.  The Messiah.  The Son of David.  The Healer.  The Word made flesh.

Jesus gives what is now a classic response, “Give to Caesars what is Caesars, and give to God what is Gods.”  The wrinkled brows of the priests and scribes become all distorted as they sit in silence.  As Luke says in 20:26, “And they were not able in the presence of the people to trap him by what he said; and being amazed by his answer, they became silent.”

Then, we come to the text we read this morning.  A different group of clergy or religious leaders step up to challenge Jesus.  The Sadducees.

(Image courtesy of lyricsnepal.com)

Now, these guys!  Most of the time when we see the Sadducees mentioned in the New Testament, they are mentioned alongside the Pharisees.  Here though, Luke separates them, for as I learned this week, there are some significant differences.  According to Josephus, a first century historian, they were boorish in their social interaction and only influential with a few wealthy families, not with the common people – that would be those who were following and listening to Jesus.  And you thought the Pharisees were stern when it came to following the laws, these guys had them beat, hands down!  They were strict in obeying and stricter in their punishments.

And they encouraged conflict with rather than respect for their teachers.  Instead of being open to having a dialogue about differences in theology, they were very stern about what was right and what was wrong.  Which brings us to their pop quiz for Jesus.  Invoking the name of Moses and the law, they paint a picture of a woman who has had no children and whose husband has died.  The man’s brother marries the widow.  But he dies, and so the next brother marries the widow.  But he dies!  And this cycle repeats itself until she has been married 7 times before she herself dies.

“Whose wife is she,” they ask, “in the resurrection?”

Let’s step back for a moment.  Did you notice when Luke introduces these guys, he takes the time to mention that they do not believe in the resurrection?  Luke kinda just slipped that in there, but it’s important because it helps shape the question they ask.  So, here’s the deal with their question.  The question isn’t about marriage, it’s about the resurrection.  The Sadducees know this is a dividing issue among the people.  It doesn’t matter how Jesus answers the question, it’s not going to change their minds about the resurrection.  As Fred Craddock says, “their minds had been settled long ago.”  They are simply asking the question “to argue, to embarrass, to force Jesus into one particular school of thought, or perhaps just to divide the audience.”[1]

Their motives are questionable.

There’s a Jewish saying that goes, “Rake the muck this way; rake the muck that way.  It’s still muck.  Meanwhile we could be stringing pearls for heaven.”  This is basically what the Sadducees are doing.  They are raking the muck.   They are asking a theological question as a trick question to get rid of Jesus.  They are asking this question to avoid what really matters; trivial questions like these keep them from seeing who Jesus really is even when Jesus is right in front of them.

When do we do the same?  When do we rake the muck?  When do we waste our time playing word games instead of seeing Christ right in front of us?

Don’t get me wrong, I think questions are essential to our faith.  In fact, I’m fairly fond of asking them.  When we counter the questions that the Sadducees and other religious leaders ask with questions that Jesus is asked by others, we begin to see a difference.  For example:

  • The nobleman in John 4 asks Jesus, “Can you heal my child?”
  • Two men with demons in Matthew 8 asks Jesus, “Can you help with my demons?”
  • Scattered throughout the Gospels, those with the skin disease leprosy come to Jesus saying, “I am considered unclean.  Do you love someone like me?”
  • In Matthew 9, a leader of the synagogue comes to Jesus and asks, “Can you give my dead daughter life?”

Jesus always has time for questions that are real and authentic.  Jesus allows these holy interruptions.    The answer Jesus gives is not a slogan or a marketable sound bite.  The answer Jesus gives is simply himself.  The answer is Christ.  In Christ your child will be healed.  In Christ your demons will be dealt with.  It doesn’t matter how unclean you are, in Christ, you are loved!  In Christ, there is life.

The difference between these questions is a matter of the heart – it’s about attitude.    Its’ about what we intend when we ask the question.

The Latin root of the word “question” means “to seek”.  It’s where we get the word “quest” from.  To ask a question is to enter on a journey.  Lucy wonders what is beyond the lamppost.  Wolverine has questions about his origins.  Aladdin wants to know what will happen if he rubs the lamp.  Alice wants to know why this white rabbit is running around with a big pocket watch.  Questions can send us on a quest for answers.

Kenda Creasy Dean, Professor of Youth and Culture at Princeton Theological, has been quoted saying, “God is in the questions.”    God is in the quest.  God is in the journey.  An appropriate statement I think as we consider the journey that Lent symbolizes.  Lent is traditionally a season in the life of the Church where Christians fast.   The spiritual practice of fasting is about letting go of the things we depend on – meat, soda, facebook, TV, complaining, gossiping – to find dependency on God.   As John the Baptist says in John 3:30, “God must increase, but I must decrease.”  Lent is that time when we embark on a journey as we ask ourselves questions to discover where in our lives we need God to increase.   In what ways do we need God to heal us?  What demons do we need dealt with?  In what ways do we need to feel loved?  In what ways do we need new life?  “Real questions,” as one pastor puts it, “are doorways to the journey to newness.”

Are we willing to ask questions and be asked questions that engage us on a journey to deepen our faith or are we content with just raking the muck?

If we choose to engage in this journey, we have to open the eyes of our hearts.   Paul says in Ephesians 1:18, “I pray also that the eyes of your heart may be enlightened.”   When we open the eyes of our hearts, we gaze upon the journey through eyes of compassion and mercy.   We see and feel our own brokenness, taking advantage of the Lenten journey reflecting on the sacrifice Christ has made for us.  The journey is not just an intellectual journey to Christ, it is a journey of the heart.  A journey of mending and healing.

This journey is not just a personal journey.  There are others walking along beside us.  Their journeys intersect with ours.   Especially during Lent, when we find ourselves on the same road leading to the Cross, following the footsteps of Jesus.

When I first came to Lebanon, almost 10 years ago, we worshiped in the old, smaller sanctuary. We worshiped in a much tighter space, often with our knees to our chins.   And for many a Sunday, we sang, “On a journey together we can face any weather; Keeping Christ the center of our community; On a journey together we can make the world better; By forgiving and loving, starting with you and me.”

We sang that song when we broke ground, right here for this new building.  We sang that song during the months that followed as bit by bit this building came into existence.  And we sang that song the first Sunday we worshiped in this space.

On a journey together.  That song represented for us the journey we were embarking on as a church – as a community of faith – as we worked to fulfill who God was calling us to be.   Friends, the journey is not over.  We are a community full of the called.  We need to be okay with facing questions that send us on a quest to fulfill whom God has called us to be.

So, this Lent as we journey remembering the steps that Jesus took, let us not be content with raking the muck and pop quizzes, rather let us consider the questions that will deepen our faith as we gaze with the eyes of our hearts on the steps Christ is calling us to take.    The steps in our own faith journeys as well as the steps Christ is calling us as a church to take.

Who is God calling you to be?

Who is God calling us to be?


[1] Craddock, Fred B. Luke. Page 237

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