The Fifth Sunday in Lent| March 17, 2013| Rev. Rolf Preus|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
There are certain topics that the Bible addresses but that Christians tend to shy away from for one reason or another. The teaching of Holy Scripture is not always politically correct. One such topic is the relationship between Jesus and the Jews. Perhaps the vicious persecution of the Jews perpetrated by such criminals as Adolf Hitler makes some Christians feel uncomfortable about criticizing modern Judaism as a religion. Whether by a confusion of categories or out of a concern for good manners Christians feel uncomfortable criticizing what their Jewish neighbors teach.
I suppose we could ignore the whole topic, but Jesus did say what he said and what he said is set before us today in the Gospel Lesson for the Fifth Sunday in Lent. How should we deal with such texts as the one before us today? Should we apologize for Jesus for saying to the Jews that they are not of God, that they have not known God, and that they are liars? Jesus was quite blunt. Should we shy away from speaking as he spoke? After all, times have changed. The rules of the game have changed. Such fierce polemics are so longer regarded as appropriate religious speech.
Well, that’s because we live in a time of denial. Denying the truth of God for the sake of a false humanistic unity is not only the religious style; it is the religious creed. And woe to the Christian who talks as Jesus talked.
But we should talk as Jesus talked. We should oppose the religious culture and imitate our Lord Jesus. The reason we should act in a counter-cultural fashion and challenge the prevailing religious rules is not to look for fights or to start arguments. Rather, we need to reckon with the life and death seriousness of what Jesus has to say.
The Jews who attacked Jesus attacked him because of what he said. They couldn’t show him guilty of any wrongdoing. “Which of you convicts Me of sin?” Jesus asked. No one could. Why then, didn’t they believe what Jesus said? Jesus explained, “He who is of God hears God’s words; therefore you do not hear, because you are not of God.”
God isn’t whoever you fashion him to be. God’s word isn’t whatever you imagine it is. God is God without your participation, help, input, or experiences – indeed, God is God without you. You don’t make God God. God is who he is. Indeed, that’s his name. When God appeared to Moses at the burning bush and told him that he would lead his people out of the slavery of Egypt into a land flowing with milk and honey, Moses asked God what he should tell to the people of Israel when they asked him for the name of the God of their fathers, the God who was sending Moses to set them free. God replied, as recorded by Moses in Exodus 3,14:
I AM WHO I AM. Thus you shall say to the children of Israel: “I AM has sent me to you.”
There is no other god than the God who appeared to Moses at the burning bush.
There is no other god than the God who appeared to Abraham and said:
I will make you a great nation; I will bless you and make your name great; and you shall be a blessing. 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.” Genesis 12:2-3
There is no God but the God who entered into the Most Holy Place by his own blood and won redemption for us all. He became a man. He became the great High Priest. He made the holy offering of his own lifeblood on the cross. This was a sacrifice to God. It fulfilled all the sacrifices God through Moses had commanded the Jews to offer. Every year the high priest would go into the Most Holy Place and sprinkle the blood of sacrificial animals on the mercy seat. Only through the shedding of blood could there be forgiveness of sins.
The mercy seat became the cross of Calvary where Jesus, the God-man, offered up to the penal justice of God the final bloody sacrifice by which all of humanity was redeemed and set free from sin. It won for the whole world the eternal inheritance that God had promised to Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob – and to their descendents after them. The promise of life and blessing that God had given to his people from Abraham onward was a promise realized by Jesus Christ, the High Priest.
This is how Jesus could say with the authority of God himself: “Most assuredly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My word he shall never see death.” Jesus is the God who spoke to Abraham and promised that in him all the families of the earth would be blessed. Jesus is the God who spoke to Moses and identified himself as I AM. Jesus is the God who became a man in order to be both the High Priest and the Sacrifice of atonement, establishing peace between the holy God and this sinful world by bearing the sin of the world and taking it away. This is how Jesus can say, “Most assuredly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My word he shall never see death.”
“Who do you think you are, Jesus?” That’s what the Jews asked of him then. That’s what they ask today. And the Christians must respond to the Jewish denial that Jesus is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob. The Christians must confess that the words of rebuke that Jesus spoke to the unbelieving Jews of his day apply equally to all manifestations of unbelief today. The only true God is the God who stood before the Jews and promised them eternal life. The only true God is the God who stood before Pilate and claimed his kingdom was not of this world. The only true God is the God who was betrayed into the hands of sinners, given over to the Roman soldiers to be whipped, pronounced innocent by Pontius Pilate repeatedly before he finally caved into the crowd and ordered him crucified, and then nailed to the cross to suffer and die. This is God. And there is none other.
If you say that Jews who don’t believe in Jesus are lost forever you are called a narrow minded religious bigot. But it is not just the Jews who don’t believe in Jesus who will be lost forever. It is the Muslims, the Hindus, the Buddhists, the Secular Humanists, the Animists, the Atheists, and everyone else – including nominal Christians – who don’t keep Jesus’ word.
The fury and distain that the Jews heaped upon Jesus came from their pain. It hurts to hear that your religious faith is wrong. These people wanted the kingdom without the King. They wanted God without Christ. They wanted to be children of God without the necessity of God’s Son bearing their sins to take them away. They wanted a good system of morality, high ethical standards, a holy way of living, and a close relationship with God. Good things! But they wanted them on their own terms. God won’t have it. He will deal with us only on his terms. He will deal with us only through his Son.
Jesus made it crystal clear to the Jews who challenged him. He honored his Father and his Father honored him. There was no daylight between him and his Father. The one and the other must go together and cannot be separated. He and the Father are of the same substance, bearing the same name, the name, I AM, that transcends time and space and anything humanity might think or say or do. From eternity to eternity the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit are one God. The Holy Trinity is the only God who exists and the only God who is to be worshipped.
This exclusive claim of Jesus is what so angered his religious critics. If he had supplemented the wisdom of the previous rabbis with his own, that would have been acceptable. But he would have none of that! It is his word we must keep if we are to have eternal life. Who do you think you are? Jesus told them, didn’t he? “Before Abraham was, I AM.” The man they hated claimed to be the one and only God.
Why do people chafe at Jesus’ claims? Why do they become so angry at the Christian insistence that Jesus is the only way to the Father and that apart from faith in him there is nothing but death and damnation? I’ll tell you why. It’s because Jesus cannot save you unless you are a sinner. Jesus cannot give you eternal life unless without him you face eternal death. Jesus cannot give you words which, if you keep them, will keep you from ever seeing or tasting death, unless without those words you will taste death, see death, and be conquered by it.
Jesus faced death. Death is not just the separation of the body from the soul. Death is the result of sin. St. Paul calls death the wages of sin. The connection between sin and death is one of cause and effect. To face death is to see your sin as it separates you from God, from love, from hope, from joy, and from peace with your God. It is to be damned. Death leaves you literally hopeless. But it’s not that you cease to exist. Rather, it’s that you continue to exist in a state of alienation from the God who made you and in a condition of unresolved bitterness, regret, and an unfathomable sense of loss. Regret without recourse. That’s what tasting death is all about.
But Jesus promises that if you keep his word you won’t taste death, you won’t see death, but you will pass right on through death without it even touching you. That’s because Jesus has confronted and defeated death. His word is the teaching of the gospel in which we Christians trust. To keep it is to hold on to it in faith: to believe it, to guard it, to lay hold of it for dear life.
When we Christians reject the false religion of the Jews who rejected Jesus we do so with a deep sense of our own unworthiness. We recall that our father Abraham was called by God out of idolatry and obtained the status as father of the faithful by God’s grace alone. We live on the same grace. We don’t rely on how faithful we’ve been. We don’t trust in how successful we’ve been. We don’t look to our obedience as paving our path to heaven. We confess our sins and live alone by mercy.
And that means we live on the word of Jesus. We read the Bible. We go to church. We eat and drink Christ’s body and blood. We wash ourselves in our baptism daily, returning to where we were born again, and never progressing beyond the status God gave us then and there. We don’t trust in our religious pedigree, whether our parents, grandparents, or great-grandparents were Christians. Instead, we live on the word of Jesus. We confess it in its fullness and refuse to back away from it at any point. We cheerfully disobey the rules of the religious in-crowd, designed to place all religions on the same level. We confess Jesus the High Priest as Abraham’s God and ours. We claim the life he alone can give and we know with the certainty of faith that we will never see or taste death. Amen