Jesus’ vindication assured, but postponed

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Sermon for Judica – Fifth Sunday in Lent 2014

Genesis 12:1-3  +  Hebrews 9:11-15  +  John 6:46-59

We hear the voice of Jesus in the words of today’s Introit: Vindicate me, O God, And plead my cause against an ungodly nation. The nation of Israel, as a whole, had become an ungodly nation. Now, all people are ungodly by nature, wicked, sinful, turned against God—sometimes, even while imagining that they’re worshiping God. All people are sinners; all people are terminally ill with this disease. Remember that, so that you never fall into the sin of pride or arrogance toward the Jewish people—or toward anyone! You are just as ungodly as they, by nature. And Jesus Himself was a Jew.

But the ungodliness of the Jews was not just in their sinfulness. It was in their refusal to recognize their sin and turn from it. It was in their rejection of the Savior from sin. All people are sick, but the Jews in Jesus’ day were like sick people who insisted they were healthy, who refused the cure—which is the blood of Christ—and who wanted to get their one and only God-given Healer run out of town, or even killed. And so He cries out to God in the Psalm, Vindicate me, O God! Judica me!

God is the true Judge who would try the case of the Jews vs. Jesus. And in our Gospel, Jesus gives a powerful testimony in His own favor.

The trial begins in our Gospel with Jesus calling for evidence against Himself: Which of you convicts Me of sin? And if I tell the truth, why do you not believe Me? Both Jesus’ life and Jesus’ doctrine were pure in every way. As Peter says, He committed no sin, and no deceit was found in His mouth. Every word of His was in accord with Scripture, every deed in accord with love as love is defined in God’s Word. He preached love and He showed love. All the evidence was in His favor and was staring the Jews in the face. And yet, they still refused to believe Him.

Jesus tells them why: He who is of God hears God’s words; therefore you do not hear, because you are not of God. They didn’t believe Him—they didn’t hear God’s Word with faith and trust in Jesus as the Christ, because they were not God’s people, for as much as they claimed to be. God’s people hear and believe God’s Word. If someone does not believe the Word of God, he is not from God.

The Word of God from Jesus was simple, that both Jews and non-Jews were sinners, condemned by the Law of Moses, the Ten Commandments. The Law does not serve to save anyone, but only to show sinners their sins, so that they may be saved by faith in Jesus Christ. The one who has faith in Christ turns from sin on a daily basis, takes comfort in Jesus’ mercy and in His blood shed for all people, and receives forgiveness of sins. And that faith bears fruit in his heart and life, so that he walks in the Word of Christ and strives to imitate the righteousness of Christ in all things. If anyone will not repent of his sins, if anyone will not look to Christ for healing, if anyone will not walk in the Word of God, he is not a member of the true Church; he is not of God.

That angered the Jews, of course. Then the Jews answered and said to Him, “Do we not say rightly that You are a Samaritan and have a demon?” They still had no evidence against Jesus, just anger, because He had told them the hard truth about their ungodliness, and no one likes to hear that. It often makes people angry, for example, when they go to the doctor and he tells them they’re overweight, or worse. They sometimes get angry at the doctor and refuse to go back to him, and they go out looking for a doctor who won’t dare to be so critical of their lifestyle or of their health. In the same way, it makes people angry to hear someone telling them they’re outside of God’s kingdom, even though it said so that they might repent and be cured.

Jesus answered, “I do not have a demon; but I honor My Father, and you dishonor Me.” See, the Jews claimed to worship God the Father. They just denied that Jesus was the Father’s Son. They claimed to worship God the Father, they just wanted to honor the Father without honoring Jesus. All non-Christian religions in the world try to do the same thing—worship God, without worshiping Jesus as the Son of God and the only Savior. Impossible. The very first and foremost decree of God is that He only be worshiped and that He only be honored through the person of His beloved Son Jesus Christ. Anyone who dishonors Jesus through unbelief worships the demon, not God.

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. That’s an incredible claim Jesus makes, for Him to claim that His Word is more powerful than death, that faith in Him overcomes death. To those who believe in Him, these are some of the most comforting words in Scripture. Of course, Jesus is speaking first about the death of hell and eternal punishment for sins. We have already died the death we deserve—through Holy Baptism! Through Baptism we have been united with the death of Christ, who already died for our sins. Christ has tasted death once for all. Baptized believers in Christ will never ever see that death, the death of punishment for sins, the death of God’s condemnation. There is now no condemnation for those who are in Christ Jesus, says the Apostle Paul.

But even physical death has been changed by Jesus into something minor, something temporary for those who believe in Him. Death has been changed into sleep for the body, and into a simple doorway for the soul of believers to enter into Paradise. That’s the meaning of Jesus’ words for believers.

But the Jews in our Gospel didn’t believe. 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. Who do You make Yourself out to be?” Now they think they have Him. He has promised the impossible. He has promised something that none of the great men of God could do. In fact, all the great men of God died. Are You greater than they, Jesus?

Of course, they expect Jesus to say, “No, no, I’m not claiming to be greater than Abraham.” Who could ever claim such a thing? But that’s not what He says. Here’s His reply: 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.

In answer to their question, “Jesus, are You greater than Abraham? Are You greater than the prophets?” Jesus basically tells them, “Why, yes I am!” He adds, Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad. What? The Jews thought of Abraham as the greatest man of God, ever, and yet here Jesus claims to be one in whom Abraham rejoiced. He claims that Abraham saw His day. How so? Because when God promised Abraham long ago that all nations would be blessed in his Seed, Abraham believed God. He saw Jesus by faith.

Of course, that was foolishness to the Jews. 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.”

And here we have the ultimate claim, the ultimate confession. Jesus not only claims to be greater than Abraham. He claims to be the God of Abraham, the LORD, Yahweh, the great I AM.

The Jews’ response? 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.

The Jews finally got what Jesus was saying about Himself; there could no longer be any doubt. His claim was: “I am God, and there is no other. Yes, the Father and I are distinct Persons, but we are also inseparable. I am very God of very God. You can’t have God the Father without Me. In fact, I am your way to Him, and there is no other way.” The Jews understood Jesus’ claim, but they neither believed it nor put their trust in Him.

As we enter Holy Week one week from today, remember Jesus’ claims about Himself and His promises to those who believe in Him. For all the world, it will look like God, the Judge, abandons Jesus and supports the Jews in their ungodliness, consenting to let the powers of hell crucify His Son. But the reality of Easter Sunday is a given. Yes, Jesus will taste death, but He will taste it in our place, so that we never have to taste it. And He will rise from the dead on the third day to give justification and eternal life to all who believe in Him. That is the final verdict of the Judge in the case of the Jews vs. Jesus. Jesus is vindicated. And all who believe in Him—both Jew and non-Jew—share in His victory over sin, death, and the devil. Amen.

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