The Fifth Sunday in Lent
April 10, 2011
“Keeping Christ’s Words for Eternal Life”
St. John 8:46-59
“Which of you convicts Me of sin? And if I tell the truth, why do you not believe Me? He who is of God hears God's words; therefore you do not hear, because you are not of God.” Then the Jews answered and said to Him, “Do we not say rightly that You are a Samaritan and have a demon?” Jesus answered, “I do not have a demon; but I honor My Father, and you dishonor Me. And I do not seek My own glory; there is One who seeks and judges. Most assuredly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My word he shall never see death.” Then the Jews said to Him, “Now we know that You have a demon! Abraham is dead, and the prophets; and You say, ‘If anyone keeps My word he shall never taste death.’ Are You greater than our father Abraham, who is dead? And the prophets are dead. Whom do You make Yourself out to be?” Jesus answered, “If I honor Myself, My honor is nothing. It is My Father who honors Me, of whom you say that He is your God. Yet you have not known Him, but I know Him. And if I say, ‘I do not know Him,’ I shall be a liar like you; but I do know Him and keep His word. Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.” Then the Jews said to Him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have You seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.” Then they took up stones to throw at Him; but Jesus hid Himself and went out of the temple, going through the midst of them, and so passed by. St. John 8:46-59
Holy Week begins one week from today. Holy Week is the climax of the Lenten season. After witnessing the battle between our Lord Jesus and the powers of the devil, we see the culmination of that battle in his crucifixion on the cross. There life confronted death and defeated it.
Jesus was born to die. Neither his life, nor his miracles, nor his teaching can be understood apart from his death. All of the promises God ever gave to his people are fulfilled in that time and place where Jesus Christ confronted sin, death, and hell and triumphed over them.
Jesus lived, suffered, and died as our substitute and as our champion. If Jesus were not a true man he could not have become our substitute. If Jesus were not true God he could not have become our champion. A mere man could not have defeated sin, death, and the devil. Only God could do that. But God could not take away sin and death by divine fiat – as if sin has no penalty that God must exact. The wages of sin is death. This was not some new insight discovered by St. Paul. This is divine justice established in creation. In order for us sinners to have a Savior, God had to become a man. Only a human being could obey for us and only a human being could die for us. There was no other way for sin to be forgiven and for life to triumph over death.
This is what Abraham believed. Looking at religion sociologically and not as something actually revealed by God one could make a case for the claim of the Jews that Abraham is their father. After all, Abraham was the father of Isaac who was the father of Jacob who was the father of Judah, the father of the Jews. The Muslim claim is far weaker, but Islam did come out of Arabia and Ishmael was the father of the Arabians and Ishmael was Abraham’s son.
But if we were to consider religion as something actually revealed by God, it is the Christians and only the Christians who may claim Abraham as their spiritual father. He believed as we believe. We read in Genesis 15:5, “[Abraham] believed in the LORD, and He accounted it to him for righteousness.” St. Paul brings out the implications of this in his Epistle to the Romans where he writes:
For if Abraham was justified by works, he has something of which to boast, but not before God. For what does the Scripture say? Abraham believed God, and it was accounted to him for righteousness.” Now to him who works, the wages are not counted as grace but as debt. But to him who does not work but believes in Him who justifies the ungodly, his faith is accounted for righteousness. (Romans 4:2-5)
The Jewish and Muslim religions both teach salvation by works. They deny that Jesus is true God and true man. They deny that he is the Savior of sinners. They do not teach the faith of Abraham. God said to Abraham, “I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” All the families of the earth would be blessed in Abraham because all the families of the earth would be blessed in Jesus. It is only through Jesus that one is a true child of Abraham.
The promise of blessing God gave to Abraham was fulfilled when Mary gave birth to Jesus. But the leaders of the Jews rejected Jesus when he came to save them. They were angry that he claimed to be their Savior. He offered them life. They spurned his offer.
They said he was a sinner. He was innocent of any sin. He did not commit sin. He bore sin. He was the faithful High Priest described in today’s Epistle Lesson which says, “Not with the blood of goats and calves, but with His own blood He entered the Most Holy Place once for all, having obtained eternal redemption.” They said he was a Samaritan. He was a Jew from the house of King David. They said he had a demon. They said such things because Jesus made them angry.
Jesus makes people angry. He says, “He who is of God hears God’s words; therefore you do not hear, because you are not of God.” What kind of talk is this, coming from the mouth of Jesus? He is saying to the blood descendants of Abraham that they don’t know God. He is saying to sincere, devoted, and committed people that they are not children of God because they don’t listen to what God says.
Jesus says: “You claim to honor the Father. But you don’t. You claim to be children of Abraham, but you aren’t, except in the flesh, but the flesh counts for nothing. The reason you dishonor me is that you dishonor God the Father. I do nothing but what he wants me to do. I receive glory and honor from him; not from myself. He sent me; I did not send myself. Whatever you say about me, you are saying about my Father. You may not divide us because we have been one since before time began. You may not regard God as your Father unless you keep my words, hold them, take them into your heart and treasure them, for my words are the words of eternal life. If anyone keeps my words, he shall never see death.”
Oh, they were angry! Not just they, but everyone who is confronted with these words and does not believe them. Jesus is the most intolerant of all religious teachers. He alone has the truth that gives us life. So he says. These are intolerant and exclusive words, especially in the ears of people indoctrinated in multiculturalism.
But words that accuse unbelievers comfort believers. Jesus says, “If anyone keeps my words, he shall never see death.” What a wonderful promise! Whoever you are, whatever you’ve done, if you keep his words, you will never see death.
Have you loved your things more than the God who gave them to you? Have you neglected God’s word? Have you committed sexual sins? Have you broken your word? Have you cheated and lied? You deserve death, not life. Whatever you have done, confess your sins to God and take Jesus at his word. His words give to you the forgiveness of sins and eternal life. If you keep Christ’s words you will never see death.
To keep means to hold on to, to believe. Whoever believes in Jesus will never see death. He may grow old and die, but he won’t see death. He may contract a disease that will slowly take away his life, but he won’t see death. He may be killed without warning, suddenly by accident, but he won’t see death. Who is this man that he can promise such a thing? The Jews who heard him said he had a demon. If even Abraham died, and all the prophets died, who was this man who claimed to be greater than the father of the faith, Abraham?
He is the one in whom Abraham rejoiced. He is the one in whom Abraham trusted. God told Abraham to go to Mt. Moriah to sacrifice his son Isaac. Abraham did what God commanded. When he took the knife in his hand to kill his son he heard and saw the Angel of the LORD. He told him not to kill Isaac. The Angel of the LORD was Christ, nearly 2,000 years before he was incarnate by the Holy Ghost of the Virgin Mary. Jesus said to the Jews: “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.” It was the pre-incarnate Christ who provided Abraham with a substitute for Isaac on Mt. Moriah. The ram was offered instead of Isaac. The ram pointed forward to Christ who took the place of all sinners. He offered himself up on the altar of the cross and there he cleansed our conscience and purchased an eternal inheritance for us.
The God who appeared to Moses at the burning bush and called him to be the prophet and deliverer of his people now appeared to his people. He called himself I AM. They did not want him. They called him a devil. When he claimed to be their God, they tried to kill him. But he wasn’t going to die in the temple. He was going to die on the cross. And he would choose when. Because he was in charge.
He still is. He still offers eternal life to those who believe his words. Only those who hold on to his words are God’s children. Only they are God’s sheep, only they can pray, Our Father.
People who made it a habit to skip church will often make the claim that you don’t need to go to church to be a Christian. Just believe. It’s as if going to church is some kind of a good work that isn’t necessary for salvation. Well, it’s perfectly true that we aren’t saved by our good works. We are saved through faith, not by works. And there are many reasons why folks don’t go to church. I’ve heard most of them. They have to work, they have to sleep, they don’t like the pastor, or the people, or the time, or the music, or the building, or whatever.
But I have a question for those who confess Christ as their Savior and then skip church Sunday after Sunday. What does it mean to keep God’s word? Does it mean to file it away back in your brain somewhere to be on file for when you need it? Oh, but you need God’s word every day of your life! This is why you need to go to church. And not just any church. You need to go to a church that teaches God’s pure word without adulteration. And not just go. You need to pay attention in church.
Why? Because we live on the edge of death every day of our lives and the only one who can give us life is the one who says, “If anyone keeps my word, he shall never see death.” Jesus, true God and true man, gives us eternal life by means of the words he speaks to us. We gather together in his name. We hear his word in the absolution, in the lessons, in the sermon, throughout the liturgy – most of which is taken right out of the Bible. We confess his word in the prayers, in the Creed, in the hymns, and throughout the liturgy. Going to church is not just a good habit. It is keeping those words of life that give us eternal life.
Yes, there’s always conflict. Jesus is no namby-pamby religious advisor with some helpful insight to share. He’s the almighty God become flesh! He says it like it is whether people like it or not. He destroys every human attempt to go to God apart from keeping his words. His theological opponents wanted to stone him for blasphemy. He’s no more popular today.
You cannot proclaim the truth without being opposed. Jesus wanted to give them was life. For that, they hated him. The very nature of the faith requires us to face conflict. Every time we confess our faith, we take a controversial stand.
But in the midst of conflict is true peace. We have peace with God. If there is conflict at home, at work, with the neighbors, and we must admit that we have sinned and caused so much of the conflict we face, in Jesus we have words that bring us peace. We are at peace with God. In Christ’s wounds our souls are at rest. There we find the courage to continue to confess, to do battle against the devil, the world, and our flesh, knowing that we are at peace while we do it. Amen