The Fifth Sunday in Lent
April 6, 2014
“The Conflict between God and the Devil”
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
The cosmic battle between good and evil is illustrated by the Gospel lessons appointed for Lent. Jesus showed himself to be the Son of God with power over the devil, able to do what only the Creator God can do. The battle between God in the flesh and the devil reaches its climax in the words of our Gospel for today, the Fifth Sunday in Lent. This battle takes the form of a theological debate. The battle between good and evil, God and the devil, is a theological argument.
Theology is talk about God. We usually think of theologians as formally educated ordained ministers. As a matter of fact, anyone who talks about God is a theologian of sorts. Many formally educated ordained ministers are very poor theologians and many laypeople who have little formal theological instruction are good theologians. It depends on hearing and keeping God’s word. Go to a church where the pure gospel is proclaimed, read your Bible, memorize your catechism, and you will become a better theologian than most professional theologians.
We live at a time when sound theology is widely discarded as irrelevant. The reason is twofold. First, folks assume that theological convictions are not grounded in any source of truth outside of one’s own personal religious consciousness. Second, they assume that all theology is essentially morality. One person’s morality is as moral as another’s. Theology is dismissed as unimportant, though much hypocritical posturing takes place as people insist that we show due respect to everyone’s religious views, regardless of what they are. This so called tolerance has nothing to do with respect for religion. It is grounded in contempt for God, his truth, and his Son, Jesus Christ, the Savior of the world.
The theological debate between God and the devil is a debate about who Jesus is and what he says. The religious elite of Jesus’ day accused Jesus of being a demon-possessed Samaritan. The Samarians were a despised religious sect that had broken away from the Jews during the Exile. They had compromised God’s truth and intermarried with those who rejected it. Despite their history, Jesus had shown kindness toward Samaritans. Nobody really thought he was a Samaritan. They called him a Samaritan to insult him. Jesus ignored the insult. After all, he likened himself to a Samaritan when he told the parable of the Good Samaritan who showed compassion to the man in need.
But Jesus did respond to their claim that he had a demon. He told them that he honored his Father. He called God “My Father.” My. Jesus didn’t address him as “Our Father” as he taught us to do because he is not a son of God like we Christians are sons and daughters of God. He is the only begotten Son of God. He is equal to the Father as touching his deity. He is God in the flesh. Whoever holds onto his word in faith will never see death. For making these claims he earned the enmity of the Jewish leaders whose argument against him was to slander him, call him names, and try to kill him.
The argument goes on. It will continue until the end of the world. It is the theological debate of the centuries. It is the focal point for the battle between God and the devil. Who is Jesus and what does he say? The answer is obvious to us who know Jesus Christ by faith. Jesus is God and he came into this world to rescue us from the punishment we deserved on account of our sins. He became one of us to do what we failed to do. We put our trust in false gods, misused God’s name, despised his word, dishonored our fathers and mothers, ignored our neighbor in his need, committed sexual sins by thought, word, and deed, took what did not belong to us, spoke evil against our neighbor, and refused to be satisfied with what was ours. Jesus our brother did none of these things. “Which of you convicts me of sin?” he asks. He loved God perfectly. He loved everyone, even his enemies, in sincerity and truth. By his holy life and sacrificial death he gained for us eternal life, restored to God, set free from sins, disease, pain, and death. He won for us new life to live in communion with our Creator, under his gracious protection, care, and guidance, a life truly worth living. His word gives us this life. Faith receives it.
The devil wants to destroy human life. He would rob us of the life for which God in the beginning created us and to which God in the fullness of time restored us. The issue debated by Jesus and the Jewish leaders of first century Palestine confronts us today. Is Jesus the true God who became a man and whose word gives us eternal life? If he is, we will hold onto his words. We will keep them, confess them, teach them, preach them, defend them, argue them, take our stand on them, and die on them, defying death to touch us, as we walk right on through the valley of the shadow of death without fearing any evil at all.
If he is not who he claims to be, if he is not the “I Am” who spoke to Moses from the burning bush, led the children of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob out of Egypt into the Promised Land, if he is not the true God become flesh and his words do not give us eternal life, then we will have to look elsewhere to find joy or meaning in life, because it is certain that without a divine Savior we are not saved from sin and death and have nothing to look forward to but endless misery, forever estranged from the Source of life. If Jesus isn’t who he says he is we might as well eat, drink, and be merry, because tomorrow we will die and there is nothing beyond the grave for which we can hope.
“If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me?” Jesus answers his own question. They do not believe because they are not of God. Those who belong to God hear what God says. Those who do not belong to God don’t. Being a child of God depends on God’s word. There is no relationship with God where there is no hearing and keeping of God’s word.
To hear means to listen to it in faith. To keep it is to trust in it, to believe it is true, to hold onto it, to guard it. God promises us many things in his word: for Christ’s sake he forgives us our sins, he delivers us from death, he sets us at peace with himself, he frees us from the power of the devil, he gives us eternal life, he fills us with the Holy Spirit, he empowers us to love him and our neighbor. God gives us all these things and more in his word. To keep his word is to believe this. This is how we see Jesus.
Abraham saw Jesus. He trusted in the God who justified the ungodly. He was raised in spiritual darkness. He grew up worshipping idols. He did not know God. God called him out of darkness into the light of his grace. Abraham believed the promise. He held onto it. He trusted it. God reckoned Abraham to be righteous for Christ’s sake. Jesus was not born for another 2,000 years, but he revealed himself to Abraham through the Word – the same Word he gives us to believe and to keep. Abraham kept that word. All Christians keep that Word. Abraham never tasted death and neither do those who believe as he believed. They are all justified and forgiven by God for the sake of the obedience, suffering, and death of Jesus Christ, Abraham’s seed and Abraham’s God.
Jesus is Abraham’s God. This is what enraged the Jews and keeps on angering religious folks of every persuasion. That God would become a man! Not just a man, but a man who suffered and died. That God would agree to be crucified on the cross! Not merely to acquiesce to it, but to plan it from eternity. It was his idea! God determined that he would rescue us sinners from the penalty of our sins by becoming one of us and suffering for our sins as if he had committed them. This is how his words can give life. This is how Jesus can say, “If anyone keeps my word he shall never see death.” Jesus is God and his word is the word of God that gives eternal life to all who believe.
Those who do not believe what Jesus says are not of God. They do not belong to God. They are not children of God. Who said this? Jesus said this. Do you believe what Jesus says? If you do, you will keep his word, confess it, and take your stand upon it. Jesus said earlier in John’s Gospel “that all should honor the Son just as they honor the Father. He who does not honor the Son does not honor the Father who sent Him.” Any religion that claims to honor God but does not confess Christ as God does not honor God at all. That’s what Jesus says.
This is why we do not permit membership in the Masons and other lodges that teach of God, morality, and eternal life while leaving Jesus out of it. They teach some kind of generic one size fits all religion where you can add Jesus in if you want or leave him out if you want. Jesus won’t tolerate this and neither will his true Church. The only God who exists is the God who begets and is begotten, who sends his Son to die and who dies, and who proceeds from the Father and the Son to reveal this precious truth to the whole world. The incarnation of God, his obedience as a man, his suffering and death on the cross, his resurrection from the dead – these are not mere theological trifles. This is the truth by which we sinners are rescued from the damnation we have earned and are given eternal life with God in the joys of heaven.
When you know you will never taste death you know how to live. You live for him who lived and died for you. You know to whom you belong. You know where you are going. This is why it is a joy to live the life God gives you to live. Everything God says is precious. So we keep his word and his word keeps us.
Rolf D. Preus