For this Sunday’s bulletin, click here: Fifth Sunday in Lent
Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don’t you believe me? 47He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God.”
48The Jews answered him, “Aren’t we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed?”
49 “I am not possessed by a demon,” said Jesus, “but I honor my Father and you dishonor me. 50 I am not seeking glory for myself; but there is one who seeks it, and he is the judge. 51I tell you the truth, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.”
52 At this the Jews exclaimed, “Now we know that you are demon-possessed! Abraham died and so did the prophets, yet you say that if anyone keeps your word, he will never taste death. 53Are you greater than our father Abraham? He died, and so did the prophets. Who do you think you are?”
54 Jesus replied, “If I glorify myself, my glory means nothing. My Father, whom you claim as your God, is the one who glorifies me. 55 Though you do not know him, I know him. If I said I did not, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and keep his word. 56Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.”
57“You are not yet fifty years old,” the Jews said to him, “and you have seen Abraham!”
58 “I tell you the truth,” Jesus answered, “before Abraham was born, I am!” 59 At this, they picked up stones to stone him, but Jesus hid himself, slipping away from the temple grounds.”
— John 8:46-59 (niv84)
If you were going to make a list of words that you can’t say anymore in our politically correct age, a lot of them would be words I shouldn’t say from this pulpit. But one word that would probably make the list for a lot of people is in our Gospel for today. Did you catch it? That word is “Jew.” Because the people who have talked about the Jews the most in the past have often persecuted them the most, a lot of people get uncomfortable when talking about the Jews or even if they’re mentioned too much in their presence. We certainly don’t want to be disrespectful to others or attack them for their beliefs, whatever those beliefs might be. We don’t want to be accused of anti-Semitism.
In a climate where people are often hyper-sensitive to anti-Semitism, a reading like today’s Gospel can easily be misunderstood. At first glance it looks like Jesus is personally attacking the Jews just because they’re Jewish. But as we take a second look, we’ll see that Jesus’ words apply to all people, not just the Jews. All people start out resisting God’s Word, and all who keep Jesus’ Word will never see death – whether Jew, Gentile, or whoever. Let’s consider God’s Word and see what we are to take away with us today.
Jesus had an often strained relationship with what we might call His extended family, the people of the Jews. They didn’t always react well to what He said and did, and their opposition grew increasingly severe over time. Our gospel takes place as this opposition is reaching fever pitch.
Jesus begins by asking them a question: “Can any of you prove Me guilty of sin?” Clearly the answer is no, because they have nothing to say. There’s nothing to point out that because Jesus never sinned. If that’s the case, Jesus says, then why don’t you accept what I say? “If I am telling the truth, why don’t you believe Me?” Either they have to prove Jesus guilty of some sin, which would mean they didn’t have to listen to Him, or they had to accept that He told the truth and then listen to Him. There was no middle ground.
The Jews can’t do either one. They can’t disprove His life and they can’t argue with His doctrine. They can’t prove Him guilty of sin, and they refuse to believe in Him, so they react the way you might expect. These Jews do what people do when they can’t argue with the facts: they attack Jesus on a purely personal level. “Aren’t we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed?” What they say has nothing to do with the issue at hand. They’re just slandering Him and calling Him names at this point.
Samaritans were half-breeds in the eyes of the Jews. The Samaritans were originally Jews who had intermarried with Canaanites years ago and thus had cut themselves off from God’s people. By saying this, these Jews are implying none too subtly that Jesus was illegitimate – that His Mother had been a loose woman and slept around. This was equivalent to calling Jesus a son-of-a-you-know-what, with the added religious dimension that He was not part of God’s people. “You have a devil” is more straightforward and even more poisonous. These Jews attribute Jesus’ miracles to the action of the devil, where really they were done by the Holy Spirit. Recall that Jesus was accused of driving out demons by Beelzebub, when He actually drove them out by the finger of God, the Holy Spirit. These Jews are committing the sin against the Holy Spirit here. They’re so far gone that they blaspheme God’s name and cut themselves off from God’s help. They’re fighting against God’s Word when they argue against Christ, the Word made flesh.
Even worse than the names they call Christ is their attitude of unbelief in their hearts. Aren’t we right, they say – which is as much to say, “We took a vote and You lost.” They band themselves together against God’s Word and by their common consensus they try to overrule God’s truth. That’s what sinful people do. All sorts of groups, both secular and religious, do this. They band together, organize themselves into groups, and work against God’s Word. They fight against God and His Word. They attack anybody who stands up for His Word and carries it into the world. Look how far the people Jesus was talking with are willing to go at the end of our text: they’re ready to commit murder. Well does Psalm 2 say that “the kings of the earth take their stand and the rulers gather together against the Lord and against His Anointed One.”
We all behave like the Jews do here. We all at times substitute something else – whether it’s family, money, personal influence, the group we belong to, whatever it is – for God’s Word. The devil always knows how to take the best thing about us and twist it into a weakness and a trap for us. For the Jews it was being related to Abraham, being the children of Abraham. The Jews were honored by God to be chosen through Abraham. “Theirs is the adoption as sons; theirs the divine glory, the covenants, the receiving of the Law, the temple worship and the promises. Theirs are the patriarchs, and from them is traced the human ancestry of Christ, who is God over all, forever praised, amen!” (Rom 9:4-5) But they lost everything when they began to count on Abraham instead of putting their trust in Jesus’ Word.
This is not a Jewish problem, it’s a human problem. If we go away shaking our heads and tutting, “Oh, those terrible Jews, I’m glad I’m not like them,” then we will have missed the point. This is not an anti-Semitic text. The violent reaction of these Jews is the reaction of the unregenerate human heart, whether it’s in Russia or Rhode Island, America or Africa, China or Minnesota. Nobody wants to listen to God. Nobody wants to believe in the One He has sent. We all resist Him before we’re converted, and after we’re baptized there’s still a part of us that acts exactly like the Jews do here. That’s the source of all dissensions, factions, sluggishness, apathy, and lack of respect for God and His Word that infects the world, and the Christian church too.
Nothing else can do what Jesus promises His Word does every day: “I tell you the truth, if anyone keeps My Word, he will never see death.” Someone might say, “That’s impossible! Everybody dies – including Christians. Your Word rescues nobody, Jesus.” And that right there was the same mistake those Jews made: thinking that Jesus’ Word doesn’t do anything. Sure, Christians still die, but Jesus has taken away the sting of death for us. It’s just a sleep now. Consider how many Christians meet their end. They’re not afraid. They don’t hang on to life with a white-knuckle grip, scared witless to meet their Maker. A lot of Christians die suddenly and without major suffering. Almost before they know it, they’re gone. That’s because they trust in Jesus’ Word that says, “I am the Resurrection and the Life.” They listen and believe, and so death isn’t frightening for them.
Even if a Christian suffers for a long time before they go, Jesus’ words that if someone keeps His Word they will not see death are still true, because Jesus is talking primarily eternally. What does it matter if you die here, if you live forever in heaven? If you know that you will live forever, body and soul, perfect and sinless in our Lord’s kingdom of heaven, then what is the end of our mortal life here? Escape from eternal death is ours because Jesus delivers us from death through His Word.
When Jesus says, “Before Abraham was born, I am,” He’s not just making an ungrammatical statement. He’s showing us why His Word is the only one that saves: because it’s God’s Word. Because it is the only way to truly know the God who created all things, who needs no one else and who keeps His promises freely and faithfully. Jesus is the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob; the God who met with Moses in the burning bush; the God who created all things and sustained them. That’s why these Jews wanted to kill Jesus: because they understood that He was claiming to be God. If anybody had done it, it would be blasphemy, but with Jesus it was true.
Jesus’ Word matters more than your family, who you’re related to, or who you know. Jesus’ Word matters more than where you grew up, the memories you’ve made, the experiences you’ve had, the work you’ve done and the fun you’ve had. It matters more than your opinions, your thoughts, your ideas, and your likes or dislikes. It matters more than anything else about you, for the simple reason that nothing else saves you. Nothing else delivers from death except the Word of the Lord. Nothing has power to grant eternal life and take away eternal death except God’s Word. Nothing else makes promises like this Word, and nothing else keeps its promises like God’s Word. Amen.