Sermon for Lent 5 – Judica
+ John 8:46-59 +
One week from today we approach the gates of Jerusalem once again to enter upon that Holy Week when our Lord Jesus suffered death and, as the writer to the Hebrews says, “tasted death for everyone.” It wasn’t for killing that he was killed. It wasn’t for theft or robbery, adultery or insurrection. What was it that got Jesus killed? It was the claims he had been making about himself.
Our Gospel from John 8 takes us back exactly one year before Holy Week. That’s when, John tells us, Jesus really began to say some incredible things about himself. That’s also when the Jews began their plot to murder him, because they were suspicious of his claims and rejected his words. All of Jesus’ claims about himself can be boiled down to this: That he had come to give life to a world of dead sinners, and that he was the only one in all the universe who could do it. Jesus said, “I am he,” and the Jews said, “No, you’re not.”
So what you see in our Gospel is a war of words – Jesus claiming to be telling the truth to the lying Jews, the Jews claiming that Jesus was the liar. How would this battle be decided? Whom would God support in this battle – Jesus or the Jews? Whom would he “vindicate”? Whom would he glorify? The answer is found in Holy Week. As we prepare to enter Holy Week, let’s examine together The Bold Claims That Got Jesus Killed.
Ever since the feeding of the 5,000 (which we considered last week), Jesus had been making these bold claims, “I am the true bread that came down from heaven and gives life to the world.” “If anyone is thirsty, let him come to me and drink.” “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” He spoke of his Father who had sent him into the world on a mission to redeem it from sin, and claimed that those who would not believe in him as the life-giver, sent from the Father, would die in their sins. Those were some of Jesus’ bold claims, backed by the Old Testament Scriptures, and confirmed with many miracles.
But the Jews still wouldn’t believe, and Jesus asks them, “Why? Can any of you prove me guilty of sin? If I am telling the truth, why don’t you believe me?” In other words, if the Scriptures support my claims and the miracles support my claims, then, what? Have I committed some sin that would cause you to doubt me? And of course, the answer was, no. Jesus was the blameless, spotless Lamb of God. They couldn’t point out any sin or argue with a single doctrine he taught, and they didn’t even try. They weren’t interested in arguing the facts with Jesus or discussing doctrine with him. “We don’t like what you say. Period. Don’t bother us with the facts, or with Scripture, or with doctrine. We condemn you and that’s that.” It’s the same thing you hear today.
So since they refused to give any valid reasons why they rejected Jesus’ claims, he tells them why they wouldn’t believe. He who belongs to God hears what God says. The reason you do not hear is that you do not belong to God. Them’s fightin’ words. But they’re true words. When a person hears the Word of Christ and responds, “No, I don’t believe that,” he shows that he has no part with Christ, and therefore, with God. You can’t pick and choose which claims of Jesus you’ll believe and which ones you’ll deny. To deny his words is to deny him and the one who sent him.
But the Jews won’t admit it. They fight back. “Aren’t we right in saying that you are a Samaritan and demon-possessed?” See, instead of pointing out any sin or false teaching in Jesus, they just throw a racial slur at him and then a spiritual slur.
But Jesus goes on making his bold claims. He claims that his Father will judge everyone who fails to glorify his Son Jesus.
On the other hand, he makes this bold claim: “I tell you the truth, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” Now, what does it mean to “keep the word” of Jesus? It doesn’t mean to obey the law. It’s the Gospel message that Jesus is talking about here. To keep his Word is to accept as true and rely on the bold claims Jesus makes for himself as the One sent from God to give life to the world. To keep his Word is to hold fast that promise of Jesus in the heart, so that when the devil comes and accuses, when the conscience condemns, when death itself approaches and terrifies – you admit, “I am a sinner, and I should surely die. But the Father sent his Son, Jesus Christ, who promised me life, and nothing in heaven or on earth can make his promise fail.”
Such a person with such a faith in the word of Jesus will never see death, will never taste death. That doesn’t mean your body won’t wear out and stop working and turn back into dust. It will, unless Christ returns first for the final judgment. But to see death, to taste death is to experience the horror of death, is to feel the wrath of God and the abandonment of God and the eternal punishment of God. To taste death is to be stung with the sting of death, that is, sin and the horrible reality that sin separates you from God and binds you for all eternity to the evil one as his slave.
The bold claim of Jesus is that the one who keeps his Word will never, ever, ever taste death in that way, even when the body gives out. Jesus calls the death of his believers a sleep from which he will one day awaken them.
Of course, Jesus’ Jewish opponents couldn’t believe that Jesus would make this kind of bold claim, to have power over death. Even the greatest heroes the Jews could think of – Abraham and the Prophets – they all died. What? Was Jesus claiming to be greater than they?
Oh, yes, he was making that bold claim. “Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing my day; he saw it and was glad.” What was Jesus saying? How did Abraham rejoice at the thought of seeing Jesus’ day, and how did he see it? He saw it and rejoiced by faith in God’s promise. As you heard in the Old Testament Lesson today, “through your offspring all nations on earth will be blessed.” Jesus was making the bold claim that he was the promised offspring of Abraham – the Christ! – through whom all nations would be blessed. And as the Christ, Jesus was claiming to be the goal of all human history.
But more than that even. The Jews questioned Jesus’ claim that Abraham saw him. “You’re not even 50 years old yet!” And remember, Abraham lived about 2000 years before Jesus was born. His answer to them is the boldest claim of all: I tell you the truth, before Abraham was born, I am! And now there was no longer any question. Jesus was claiming to be, not only the greatest prophet who ever lived, not only Abraham’s promised son, but Abraham’s God – the very same God who appeared to Abraham and spoke with Abraham, who had created the heavens and the earth, who wrestled with Jacob and renamed him Israel, who appeared to Moses in the burning bush and gave the Ten Commandments in the first place. Jesus was claiming to be the very eternal God – Yahweh – whom the Jews claimed to worship – one God with the Father and the Holy Spirit. Either Jesus’ bold claims were true and they should bow down before him in reverence and fear – or Jesus’ claims were lies, for which Jesus would have to die.
We know where the Jews came down on that one, don’t we? They picked up stones to kill him right there, that very day, but it wasn’t time yet for Jesus to die. One year later, it would be. The bold claims of Jesus got him killed by the Jewish people – and God let it happen.
The words of today’s Introit are the Messiah’s plea for God to step in and show his enemies that his bold claims were true: “Vindicate me! – Prove me right, O Lord! Defend my cause against an ungodly people; from the deceitful and unjust man deliver me!” Most of Holy Week looks like a vindication of Jesus’ enemies. On Good Friday, it certainly looked like God was siding with them in rejecting Jesus’ bold claims. But you have to follow Holy Week all the way to the bitter end, and to the sweet beginning of the new week. In reality, God’s true vindication of the Messiah would come on Easter Sunday.
And there you see the wisdom of God and the grace of God. The very claims that got Jesus killed were vindicated by his death and then by his resurrection. He claimed to be God’s chosen servant to save Israel, and by his death on the cross he became the perfect high priest before God and the atoning sacrifice for Israel and for all. He claimed to be God, and by his resurrection was proved to be God. He claimed to be able to keep those who keep his Word from tasting death, and by tasting death for everyone and rising back to life, he saw to it that no one who keeps his Word will ever have to taste death or be stung by it ever again.
Trust in the bold claim of Jesus: That he has come to give life to a world of dead sinners, and that he is the only one in all the universe who can do it. Trust in his claim to be present with his life-giving body and blood in the Sacrament. Jesus said, “I am he,” and the Jews said, “No, you’re not.” The world still says, “No, he’s not.” But the Scriptures say, “Yes, he is!” Easter Sunday proclaims, “Yes, he is!” And by the power of the Gospel, you, too, confess, “Yes, he is!” Keep his Word, and keep it close as the world and Satan rage against you, even more brutally than they raged against Christ, with one argument after another for why the Word of Christ cannot possibly be true. Holy Week was Jesus’ vindication. It’s your vindication, too. In it, you will find that Jesus is every bit the God and Savior that he claims to be. Amen.