A sermon on Luke 20: 27-39
First Baptist Church of Lynchburg
November 10, 2019
By Paul Dakin
May the words of my mouth and the meditations of our hearts be acceptable in Your sight, O Lord our Strength and our Redeemer. Amen.
A couple of weeks ago, I read a news article that made me shake my head in disbelief—though not for the first time. (Does that ever happen to you—where you read something that is so ridiculous that it hardly seems that it could be true…but deep down inside, you know that it is?) I dunno—but it appears to me that such news items are getting more frequent with the passing of time. While outrageous news stories have always been the stock in trade of our national political scene, it is by no means limited to just politics. Even the church and the Christian faith are not immune to such things…
Some of you may recognize the name John MacArthur. John is an influential voice in many conservative evangelical Christian circles. This is particularly true for those of the Reformed church tradition. That includes many Presbyterian groups and their offshoots, and lots of independent churches as well. MacArthur is the long-time pastor of the Grace Community Church in Sun Valley, California, a church that has over 8,000 members. He is also well-known as a radio/television preacher who has published over 150 books. His best-seller is undoubtedly the John MacArthur Study Bible. That title alone has sold over a million copies. That is a number that is almost unheard of in religious book publishing.
Every year, MacArthur’s church holds an annual conference called “Truth Matters.” It features presenters from several denominations on a wide variety of topics of interest. This year’s conference was held just a few weeks ago on October 16-18.
On the final day of the conference, Mac Arthur was being honored on the occasion of his 50th anniversary in ministry. He was on stage being interviewed and then taking questions from audience members in a “Question and Answer” format. Somehow the topic of women serving as pastors came up. For whatever reason, MacArthur decided to single out and criticize the Southern Baptist Convention over the issue. He said that the increasing tendency of Southern Baptist churches to allow women in the pulpit was a sign that their commitment to the authority of scripture was being eroded. He went on to say that “I think that the church is caving to pressure from women preachers…I just know that women are not allowed to preach…”1
Let me say that Brother MacArthur is certainly entitled to his opinion. And I am quite aware that he is not alone in his understanding that the Bible teaches that women are not permitted to be pastors
1 (Accessed November 1, 2019)
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or preachers. Many folks of a more conservative, fundamentalist perspective embrace that idea. And truth be told, one can make a case from the scriptures for that position—IF…and this is a BIG IF…one only cherry-picks a few verses that can be interpreted that way. And then you have to go on to ignore several others that just as persuasively teach otherwise.2 That is not a very sound—not honest—way to interpret the scriptures…
When I finished reading the article containing MacArthur’s remarks, I have to say that I was genuinely stunned. I thought to myself, “Is this really the 21st Century…and church leaders STILL want to argue whether it is proper for women to be pastors and to preach?” Of course women can be pastors and preachers! Why?—because it is obvious that God has gifted some women for this type of ministry. Anyone who has eyes to see and ears to hear can clearly see that…
A second question that popped into my head was related to the first. It was this: “Is whether or not women are permitted to preach really one of the most pressing issues facing the church of Jesus Christ today? Aren’t there some other things that should take priority over that?”
This is what I mean…We’ve got a world outside of our walls that is hurting and in desperate need of the gospel message of God’s grace and forgiveness. It is no secret that churches all across our country of all sizes and denominations have been experiencing a steady decline in numbers and participation over the last several decades. Isn’t that a more important topic to address than the one MacArthur suggested? Or how about the rampant hatred and racism that continues to plague our national life. Violence is increasing—not decreasing—in our nation… in our cities but also it is spreading to the countryside as well. Surely that is more important than arguing over the place of women in ministry…isn’t it?
Furthermore, we as Christians have not been faithful stewards of the good earth that God has given us…and consequently we are reaping the results of our treatment of God’s creation…Income inequity is steadily increasing. The rich continue to get richer…while the poor continue to get poorer. Isn’t that something the gospel addresses?…We keep hearing how the scourge of opioid addiction has reached epidemic proportions across our nation. Doesn’t the gospel have something to say about that?…In many places around the world, the wars continue—and continue—and continue—seemingly without any end in sight to the unremitting destruction and death and heartache that war brings. And in the face of all these challenges—and many more besides that could be named if we had the time—it is hard for me to believe that there are still people who feel that debating whether or not it is proper for women to preach is vitally important.
I am glad to be a part of First Baptist Church, a congregation that believes that if God calls a woman to preach, and if the church affirms that call, then it should not be up for debate as to whether or not she should—any more than it would be for a man. God can call whomever he wants into the
2 A favorite passage for those who would bar women from pastoral ministry is 1 Timothy 2:11-12. These same folks also have a tendency to ignore what Acts 2:17-18 and Galatians 3:28 have to say about women’s role in the church.
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ministry…and he does not have to ask for your permission or mine. As I see it, arguing about women in ministry is nothing more than an unconscionable waste of time. It is a squandering of spiritual energy that could be put to much better use elsewhere…
As I read today’s gospel passage from Luke 20, it seems to me that Jesus confronts a similar situation in the days leading up to his crucifixion. There were people who wanted to debate some theological issues with him…questions that perhaps were interesting and maybe even make for a good parlor game. But in doing so, they miss what is essential. The sad truth is that, while they are wasting their time on those discussions, their attention is being distracted from what is really important…even while it is standing right there in front of them…the inauguration of the Kingdom of God through God’s Son, our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ…
Earlier in chapter 20, Luke tells us that Jesus has been teaching in the Temple and that the people were hanging on to his every word. In front of this audience, the chief priests of the Temple and the teachers of the law—the religious professionals of the day—did their best to trip him up and discredit him by asking him questions that they did not think he could answer. First, they ask him a question about authority. And then they ask him a question concerning paying taxes. Neither time did they have any luck. Jesus’ answers to both of the questions outfoxed them all. So the chief priests and teachers of the law ceded the floor to a religious group known as the Sadducees.
We do not know very much about the Sadducees. This passage is the only time that they are mentioned in Luke, though they are also mentioned twice in the book of Acts.3 It is worth noting that, every time they are mentioned, it is in connection with their belief that they did not believe in the resurrection of the dead. That seems to be the distinguishing belief for which they were known. This put them at odds with mainstream Judaism as most Jews of Jesus’ time believed in a resurrection of the dead…
The Sadducees are thought by scholars to have been among the most religiously conservative groups among the Jews. And when it is their turn, they ask Jesus about a hypothetical situation concerning an Old Testament tradition known as “levirate marriage.”
The practice of levirate marriage is described in Deuteronomy 25:5-6, which says, “If brothers are living together and one of them dies without a son, his widow must not marry outside of the family. Her husband’s brother shall take her and marry her and fulfill the duty of a brother-in-law to her. The first son she bears shall carry on the name of the dead brother so that his name will not be blotted out from Israel.” So with that Scripture passage in mind, the Sadducees pose this question to Jesus: “Suppose that situation happens to one woman seven times? At the time of the resurrection, whose wife will she be since she was married to all seven of the brothers at one time or another?”
3 Acts 4:1 and 23:6ff.
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[Side bar here: It’s kind of an ironic question to be asked by a group of people who did not believe in the resurrection of the dead anyway, don’t you think? It strikes me that way. I think it indicates that the Sadducees were really grasping at straws in the hope of getting something—anything—to pin on our Lord…and this question was apparently the best that they could come up with…]
In the same manner that Jesus confounded the chief priests and teachers of the law earlier in the chapter, Jesus gives an unexpected answer to the Sadducees. He says that there is no marriage as we know it in the afterlife. And then, Jesus has a little fun at their expense. He adds that, yes, there really IS an afterlife because the scriptures explicitly teach that God is God of the living—and not the dead. I am sure that the Sadducees turned away red-faced from having been bested—once again—in this battle of wits with Jesus. The verse after today’s passage, verse 40, says, “And no one dared to ask him any more questions.” Well I guess so…By that time, the chief priests, the teachers of the law, and now the Sadducees, had had enough and recognized that they had been licked…
Getting bogged down in religious controversies that do not address ultimate concerns…it was not new in Jesus’ day…and it is not new in ours either.
Around the 13th Century or so, one question that was hotly debated among scholars and theologians was this: How many angels can dance on the head of a pin? (No—seriously…I am not making this up…) While no one seems to know who first asked the question, for reasons that are not entirely clear, it became something of a hot topic in some academic circles. At the heart of the question is how much space an angel takes up. Some believed that it was not a constant—that is, angels could assume whatever shape or size as circumstances dictated. Or some guessed that angels really did not have corporeal bodies—only spiritual ones, and so the question was irrelevant…Others believed that angels really do have physical bodies like ours and therefore take up space. And since they have volume and take up space, then only a certain number of angels can fit in a prescribed area—like the head of a pin.4 (The discussion went round and round for decades. And for the record, I have not been able to discover what the generally agreed upon answer to this question eventually was…)
One noteworthy thing about the Sadducees’ question to Jesus about levirate marriage is that it was based on scriptural grounds. Did you notice that? That weren’t making up the principle that they were basing their question on. They believed there was a Biblically sound principle at stake. But Jesus let them know that they missed the boat with their question to him…
Ironically, the old ex-Pharisee Paul—no slacker when it came to debates about the scriptures—warns the church at Colosse about the dangers of taking something from the scriptures to impose rules about things that are, at best, inconsequential to the gospel. Or sometimes even contrary to it. In Colossians 2:16-23, he writes,
4 (Accessed November 1, 2019)
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“Do not let anyone condemn you in matters of food and drink or of observing festivals, new moons or Sabbaths. These are only a shadow of what is to come, but the substance belongs to Christ. Do not let anyone insist on self-abasement and worship of angels, dwelling on visions, puffed up without cause by a human way of thinking…These have indeed an appearance of wisdom in promoting self-imposed piety, humility and severe treatment of the body, but they are of no value in checking self-indulgence.”
Matters of food and drink, observing festivals, new moons and Sabbaths—all of those are addressed in the Hebrew Bible. Apparently there were some in the Colossian church who felt that slavishly following rules like those was the path to Christian growth and maturity. Paul says no—that is not true—even with rules have at least part their origin in the Bible. Instead, he concludes that “They are of no value.” Those practices are secondary concerns at best. The main business of the follower of Jesus is just that—following Jesus. Nothing more, nothing less, nothing else…
Getting bogged down in questions and issues that do not address what it truly means to be a follower of Jesus in our world is not the way of the Spirit. Levirate marriage, the exclusion of women from the pulpit, dancing angels—whatever opinion you may hold of those questions, none of them are as important as the incomparable worth of knowing God through Jesus Christ…of growing in him through the indwelling Spirit…of obeying his words to share his good news with those around us…and of loving God and loving neighbor… Our Lord does not want us to get sidetracked by debating peripheral issues. Instead, what our Lord desires of us is faithfulness to the task he has given us and of following where his Spirit leads.
Our closing hymn this morning is #292 “God of Grace and God of Glory.” Its author, 20th Century Baptist pastor Harry Emerson Fosdick, called this hymn “a very urgent personal prayer.” It is a call for us to cease being distracted by things that are less important in order that we may focus ourselves on the true meaning of what it means to be a child of God. Look at what we pray for as we sing this hymn: “Free our hearts to faith and praise5,” “Cure Thy children’s warring madness, Bend our pride to Thy control, shame our wanton selfish gladness.” And then, when we begin the final stanza, we pray, “Set our feet on lofty places…” Yes, Lord—set our feet on lofty places—places from which we may become more of the people that you intend for us to be. Undivided…undistracted…and entirely focused on you, so that the world may see you in each and every one of us—each and every day.
And to God alone be the glory! Amen.
5 The original is “work and praise,” which I think is a much stronger idea. My guess is that the editors of our hymn book had a fear that the hymn could be construed as promoting a “works salvation.” Anyone who knows anything at all about Harry Emerson Fosdick would know that there could nothing further from the truth.
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