Sermon: Dear Jesus, How Many Angels Can Dance on the Head of a Pin?
Scripture: Luke 20:27-40
Preacher: Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Location: First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, FL
Date: November 10, 2019
It was a hard day at the office, and I had come home and crashed in the first chair that greeted me when I walked into the door. I wanted simply to enter my cave and be alone and turn everything off for a while. John Gray, author of the famous 1992 book, Men are from Mars and Women are from Venus, describes the need for men to decompress in those first moments walking in the door from a busy day of work and refrain from talking, tasks, or anything else that would disturb their time for letting the day settle. It never dawned on me back then Kelly was ready to run into a cave of her own by the time I walked into the door in the evening. She quickly reminded me Gray’s thesis was flawed; I was soon tutored that both men and women need ‘cave’ time after a long day!
Well, there I was trying to sit in my quiet space and our two girls and Golden Retriever puppy were tearing through the house. It grew quiet after some time and I began to relax and soon slipped into a pre-dinner nap. No sooner had I closed my eyes when I felt this plop on my lap. My youngest Katie had joined me in my chair and was looking at me. All but 5 or 6 at the time, she began chatting up a storm. Then it came from out of the blue. From what wall this non sequitur emerged from is still a mystery and in retrospect, it was clearly a glimpse into her future as a Ph.D. in Medieval Historical Theology.
“Daddy tell me about hell. What is it like?”
I just kind of stared at her a few moments trying to formulate an answer she might understand. There was no telling what images were going through her mind…flames of fire…devilish looking creatures with pitchforks poking people… Here this little human of five was looking at me with Cindy Loo Hoo eyes wanting an answer to a serious question. I took a breath, stroked her hair and said to her, “Honey, that is a good question. In fact, that’s a great question and it demands a really good answer! I’ll tell you what: Why don’t you take that question and ask your momma!”
Oh, those hard questions that come out of left field. We all have them, don’t we?
What’s heaven like?
Well, it’s more incredible than we have words to describe.
What’s hell like?
Why do we ask that? Do we think we want to book a ticket?
Is there a heaven or hell at all?
Look at your life. You tell me the answer.
Why is there suffering if there is a good God?
God looks at all the good Christians in churches worldwide and dares to ask us the same question.
Why did this happen to me?
Because you and I live in a broken, fallen world at the moment. It could happen to any of us.
Say, Jesus, how many angels can dance on the head of a pin?
What are your questions for God? If Jesus was having a bus tour in South Florida and was here this morning and you could ask him any question, what would it be? Well, this is what is happening in our scripture from Luke 20 today. In Luke’s storytime, Jesus has entered Jerusalem and has been having the religious leaders – the keepers of orthodoxy and moral purity – peppering him non-stop with comments and questions trying to trip Jesus up in front of the people. They were trained by the greatest religious minds of their community so who was this country-bumpkin from backwater Nazareth to school them in issues of life and theology?
In our text, we are introduced to a group of people we have not met before in Luke’s Gospel, the Sadducees. From on old, they were the ones who took care of the Temple and made sure the Torah was kept. They were scholarly. They were ultra-conservative in their strict interpretation of the Jewish Law and were seen as wealthy religious aristocrats. The Sadducees did not believe in an afterlife but understood we are to live our best life now as that is all we get. The Sadducees only held to the first five books of the Jewish Bible, the Torah. The Pharisees embraced the Torah as well as the prophets and other wisdom literature in the Old testament. The Pharisee loved a vibrant oral tradition passed on from one generation to another in the form of Midrash, commentary added over the centuries that help explain the biblical text. Pharisees would almost appear libertine when placed next to a Sadducee.
We meet our Sadducee in Jerusalem trying to trip Jesus up. His question was not so much as to learn any deep truths but rather was a way to show up Jesus and stir the pudding between their religious rivals, the Pharisees. Listen to Luke 20:27-40.
27Some Sadducees, those who say there is no resurrection, came to him 28and asked him a question, “Teacher, Moses wrote for us that if a man’s brother dies, leaving a wife but no children, the man shall marry the widow and raise up children for his brother. 29Now there were seven brothers; the first married, and died childless; 30then the second 31and the third married her, and so, in the same way, all seven died childless. 32Finally the woman also died. 33In the resurrection, therefore, whose wife will the woman be? For the seven had married her.” 34Jesus said to them, “Those who belong to this age marry and are given in marriage; 35but those who are considered worthy of a place in that age and in the resurrection from the dead neither marry nor are given in marriage. 36Indeed they cannot die anymore, because they are like angels and are children of God, being children of the resurrection. 37And the fact that the dead are raised Moses himself showed, in the story about the bush, where he speaks of the Lord as the God of Abraham, the God of Isaac, and the God of Jacob. 38Now he is God not of the dead, but of the living; for to him all of them are alive.”
39Then some of the scribes answered, “Teacher, you have spoken well.” 40For they no longer dared to ask him another question.
This was their way of asking Jesus, “How many angels can dance on the head of a pin?” They did not care about resurrection because they did not believe in it themselves! For the Sadducee, eternal life was related to the concept of a family guaranteeing there would always be a progenitor to pass on the family line. So, if something happens to me as Kelly’s husband, when I die she would then become the wife of one of my brothers and bear them children as though they were ours. It was a way for the family to continue. The concept of resurrection was absolute silliness to them. Yet, even in their absurd question in whose answer they did not really care about in the first place, Jesus schools them and provides you and me two lessons of what our eternal life is like.
Lesson one: We believe in eternal life, not immortal life. To be immortal means we don’t die. It means when I “die” things will continue on in heaven as things are here in our earthly existence. It’ll be pretty much the same old, same old except hopefully, we all get an upgrade on our cars and houses and with any luck, I won’t be so short and squatty.
Friends, the man Jesus died. He took his last breath on the Cross and died. The soldiers speared him just to make sure. Jesus is telling us in our Story that though we will face physical decay and corruption, we will face pain and loss, we will cry and feel alone, but that this less than perfect life of ours is not the last word. God provides us the ability to live eternally as a re-created child of the resurrection!
Lesson number two: Jesus says that in the life to come, things are similar but are also radically different. At the moment, you and I have earthly urges and needs that will not matter in our heavenly life. Jesus says we will be like angels of light and will be children of the resurrection. We will be the same but different…uncorrupted and whole while in the Presence of God. We live eternally with the Triune God, Father, Son, and Holy Ghost. What matters to us now – degrees, motorcycles, homes, health, money – will not matter to us any more than knowing how many angels can dance on the head of a pin! When you and I are in the direct Presence of God eternally, the questions that matter most to us now will not even be ones on our mind then. Do you remember what the Apostle Paul says about that time? He reminds us that
8 Love never ends. But as for prophecies, they will come to an end; as for tongues, they will cease; as for knowledge, it will come to an end. 9For we know only in part, and we prophesy only in part; 10but when the complete comes, the partial will come to an end. 11When I was a child, I spoke like a child, I thought like a child, I reasoned like a child; when I became an adult, I put an end to childish ways. 12For now we see in a mirror, dimly, but then we will see face to face. Now I know only in part; then I will know fully, even as I have been fully known. 13And now faith, hope, and love abide, these three; and the greatest of these is love.
In other words, beloved, it’s at the resurrection we become wholly who God means us to be. The time for absurd questions will come to an end. We will know as we are already fully known. One day, we will see it all with our own eyes, face to face – not with our earthly eyes but with eyes of angels.
So, here’s the takeaway for you and me. If when we receive eternal life on the other side of the grave, it’s helpful to remember that the questions we ask God will change. The questions we yearn to have answered now are a result of our yearning to know the answers; frankly, on this side of eternity, I don’t believe you or I have the ability to live with the answers we would get. So perhaps our real lesson today is not to pepper God with questions we can’t handle the answers to but instead, let’s begin living that eternal life in the present with lavish displays of faith in God, hope in God and in one another, and love for the Lord as we love on the least of these in our world.
Patrick H. Wrisley, D.Min.
Senior Pastor & Teaching Elder
First Presbyterian Church
401 SE 15th Avenue
Fort Lauderdale, FL 33301
© 2019 Patrick H. Wrisley. Sermon manuscripts are available for the edification of members and friends of First Presbyterian Church, Fort Lauderdale, Florida and may not be altered, re-purposed, published or preached without permission. All rights reserved.