The foolishness that is the truth

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Sermon for Judica – Lent 5

Hebrews 9:11-15  +  John 8:46-59

Four years ago today, on Judica Sunday, the Fifth Sunday in Lent, I submitted for publication my translation of Aegidius Hunnius’ Theses Opposed to Huberianism, from the year 1597. That was that little booklet in which Samuel Huber’s novel teaching of “universal justification” was exposed as fraud and rejected by Hunnius and the post-Reformation Lutheran Church. Hunnius demonstrated what the simple doctrine of the Lutheran Church—of the Christian Church—had always been. 1) All have sinned. 2) Christ died for all. 3) By His death, He made atonement for the sins of all. 4) He wants all men to be saved, not by earning our own salvation, but by trusting in Christ, who earned salvation for us. That is the Gospel. 5) His Holy Spirit works through the preaching of that Gospel and the administration of the Sacraments to create and sustain faith in Christ. 6) All who believe in Him are justified before God, forgiven, and saved. 7) All who do not believe in Him remain in their sins and remain under God’s condemnation, not justified, not forgiven, not saved.

That simple summary of Christ’s teaching, that simple truth, was called “foolishness” by the modern synods. It was called “heresy,” an “incomplete gospel,” “false teaching,” and therefore also, “demonic.” They mocked and ridiculed it. Why? Could they prove it wrong from Scripture? No, not at all. It’s the doctrine that permeates the Scriptures from beginning to end. They called it foolish because it didn’t agree with their human reason and their human philosophy, which had replaced the Word of Christ in their hearts.

But for others, for those who believed that Gospel, the ring of truth sounded loudly, and that very same summary of Christ’s teaching brought great comfort and great relief to troubled sinners, who recognized the voice of Christ and embraced it and would have gladly faced death rather than deny it.

For the message of the cross is foolishness to those who are perishing, but to us who are being saved it is the power of God.

Those words of St. Paul not only describe the situation we have encountered; they also describe exactly the situation we encounter in our Gospel, where we’re confronted with the foolishness that is the truth.

None of the Jews could convict Jesus of sin. He led a perfectly blameless life, before God and before the world. And none of the Jews could prove Jesus wrong from the Scriptures. On the contrary, the Old Testament Scriptures supported everything that Jesus was saying and doing. The inspired Word of God pointed straight to Jesus as the promised Messiah, the Christ. But they didn’t believe. They called His teaching foolish, even demonic.

Why? He who is of God hears God’s words; therefore you do not hear, because you are not of God. Oh, those words burned the Jews. That’s a direct accusation from Jesus, identifying, not only their unbelief, but what their unbelief signified—that they were not God’s children, but the devil’s seed. And the Jews got even angrier.

But to you who are of God, Jesus’ words are precious. You hear God’s words, that is, you hear and believe. When you hear Jesus offering Himself to the world as the Savior from sin, as the one who was crucified and raised from the dead, as the one who came as High Priest of the good things to come, as the one who is the Mediator of the new covenant, by means of death, for the redemption of the transgressions under the first covenant, that those who are called may receive the promise of the eternal inheritance—when you hear that, it draws you to Jesus as your Mediator and brings you great comfort, because you know that, in clinging to Christ by faith, you have the forgiveness of your sins.

The Jews in our Gospel mocked Jesus in their anger: Do we not say rightly that You are a Samaritan and have a demon? But 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. More foolishness to the Jews, more unbelievable claims—that Jesus is the One who honors God the Father; that God the Father seeks glory for Jesus and, in fact, demands that all men honor the Son, just as they honor the Father; that God the Father will judge and condemn all those who seek Him apart from Jesus the Christ. Jesus spoke the simple truth to them, and they hated it and rejected it.

But to you who are of God, it’s blessed comfort to know that God the Father loved the world so that He gave His only-begotten Son, so that whoever believes in Him should not perish, but have everlasting life. You honor God the Father when you honor God the Son and hear His Words and believe them. And you know that you will not come into judgment, because Jesus said, He who hears My word and believes in Him who sent Me has everlasting life, and shall not come into judgment, but has passed from death into life.

That’s especially comforting today, after our sister Mary Stacey breathed her last on Friday. And Jesus words in our Gospel are just as comforting: Most assuredly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My word he shall never see death.

Now, to the Jews in the Gospel and to unbelievers in general, those words are foolish. How can Jesus say such things? Clearly everyone sees death. We see their lifeless bodies. We take them and bury them. Everyone dies, even the greatest saints in Holy Scripture, like Abraham. And yet Jesus says, If anyone keeps My word he shall never taste death.

Well, either Jesus is telling a demonic lie, or He is telling the truth. Unbelievers conclude that He is lying, that He is foolish to say such things. That death is permanent—the most dependable thing there is in this life (along with taxes, of course), and that Jesus can’t do a darn thing about it.

But believers conclude that He is telling the truth. And since we believe that Jesus is telling the truth, we believe that those who die as believers in Christ do not actually “see death” or “taste death.” That is, their souls experience none of the pain or punishment of hell, but are truly at peace with God, waiting expectantly for the day of resurrection when Christ will speak over their graves and wake them up from their sleep, just as Jesus did on many occasions during His ministry, just as Jesus Himself was raised from the dead.

The Jews in the Gospel made much of having Abraham as their ancestor. But Jesus claimed to be much more than Abraham’s descendant. Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad. And, Most assuredly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.

Understand the truth Jesus is speaking here. He is claiming to be, not just a descendant of Abraham, but the offspring of Abraham, the Seed of Abraham in whom all nations on earth will be blessed; True Man and the sole Heir of the Old Testament that God made with Abraham and with Israel; and also True God, Yahweh (Jehovah), the great I AM, the Word-Made-Flesh.

Such a claim will either strike a person as foolishness, or as the blessed truth. It struck the Jews as foolishness, and it made them so angry that they tried to kill Jesus on the spot, and eventually did succeed in putting Him to death. It still strikes most of the world as foolishness as people embrace any and every religion, any and every fable, myth, legend, philosophy, opinion or belief, except for the message of the cross: that Jesus Christ is true God and true Man, the only Savior; that all are sinners and are justified solely by faith in Christ.

But that’s good news to you, isn’t it? Christ, the power of God and the wisdom of God. That is the Gospel by which we have been saved from condemnation and made heirs of eternal life. Don’t be ashamed of it. Don’t be afraid to confess it. And don’t worry about it when the world rejects you as foolish because of it. As St. Paul said, God has chosen the foolish things of this world to put to shame the wise.

The truth is, we preach Christ crucified, to the Jews a stumbling block and to the Greeks foolishness, but to those who are called, both Jews and Greeks, Christ the power of God and the wisdom of God. Let today’s Gospel make you bold to confess with the Apostle Paul, I am not ashamed of the gospel of Christ, for it is the power of God to salvation for everyone who believes, for the Jew first and also for the Greek. For in it the righteousness of God is revealed from faith to faith; as it is written, “The just shall live by faith.” Amen.

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