The truth is what it is

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Sermon for Judica – Lent 5

John 8:46-59  +  Genesis 22:1-14  +  Hebrews 9:11-15

Have you been noticing in the Propers today all the references to the world’s opposition to the righteous and the Lord’s deliverance of the righteous?  Introit: “Vindicate me, O God, and defend my cause against an ungodly people.” Gradual: “Deliver me, O LORD, from my enemies.”  “He delivers me from my enemies.”  Tract: “Many a time they have afflicted me from my youth.”The LORD is righteous; He has cut in pieces the cords of the wicked.”

Those prayers to God for help against the enemy are not just the prayers of the Christian.  They are the prayers of Christ.  And the deliverance that God promises is first for Christ, and then for the Christian. 

You see Jesus’ enemies lining up before him today in the Gospel, and Jesus doesn’t back down.  On the contrary, he riles them up.  He riles them up by simply telling them the truth, and he tells it so directly in our text, so “in your face,” that no one can misunderstand, no one pretend that there’s a gray area where interpretations may differ, no one can sit on the fence.  And the truth that Jesus told the Jews that day is the very same truth that God brings to you today.  The truth is what it is. Believe it and live.  Deny it and die. It doesn’t get any more serious than this.

Jesus had been telling the truth to the Jews all along.  God so loved the world that he gave his only-begotten Son, that whoever believes in him should not perish, but have eternal life.  Whoever believes in the Son has life.  Whoever does not believe will not see life.  I am the bread of life.  Whoever comes to me shall not hunger, and whoever believes in me shall not thirst.  “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.”  And in the words just prior to our Gospel today, Jesus said, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin. The slave does not remain in the house forever; the son remains forever. So if the Son sets you free, you will be free indeed.

Now, to you who know and love Jesus, those words are sweet; that truth is precious and dear. You wouldn’t trade it for all the wealth in the world, would you?  But that very same truth is bitter medicine for the one who wants to wants to go on practicing sin, for the one who refuses to admit that he is a slave to sin in need of the freedom that only Christ can give.  Jesus promised the world to his fellow Jews; he offered them himself.  But they didn’t want him.  They didn’t believe his words.  They didn’t want his help.

Why not?  Jesus tells them plainly.  He drives the truth home: Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.  Bitter medicine.  A hard truth to swallow, to come right out and tell people they don’t belong to God, which means, as Jesus pointed out earlier in John 8, that they belonged to the devil.  It’s either one or the other. 

How could Jesus make such a claim?  Ah, you might say, because he is God and he knows everything, so he knew their hearts.  No.  From the abundance of the heart the mouth speaks.  And these Jews had been speaking loudly and clearly about their rejection of Jesus’ words.

Jesus knew that truth wouldn’t go over well, and it didn’t.  They resorted to mockery and ridicule. “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?”  No, Jesus said.  You’re not right.  You dishonor me with your ridicule.  And while I don’t seek my own glory, God the Father seeks it and He will judge those who dishonor His Son.

But what are the next words out of Jesus’ mouth?  Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.  Even then, the Jews who had dishonored Jesus didn’t have to die for the horrible sin of mocking the Son of God.  Jesus offers life to anyone who would keep his word.  Good news?  Bad news?  Yes.  The truth is what it is.

To the Jews, that was more bad news, because they were not about to keep Jesus’ word, and the fact that he made such a bold claim just riled them up even more. “Now we know that you have a demon! Abraham died, as did the prophets, yet you say, ‘If anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death.’  See how the world mocks and ridicules when Jesus claims to be able to keep people from dying.   People know good and well that there are funeral services for Christians and for non-Christians alike.  Cemeteries don’t distinguish between criminals and saints.  How ridiculous for Jesus to claim that death doesn’t happen to those who believe in him.

Or, in our world, especially in our country today, it may be the other part of that truth that people mock and ridicule and get angry about.  A lot of people around us believe in life after death.  They wouldn’t mock Jesus for that.  What they mock Jesus for is for saying that the only way to see life is by keeping his word.  “That’s just plain intolerant.  That’s just plain elitist and exclusivist.  Jesus is a very fine path to God.  But don’t you dare make the claim that he’s the only path to God, and that his word must be heard and kept.” Truly I tell you, such people will see death.

But you who keep Jesus’ word, who repent of your sins and believe in Jesus’ promise to free you, to feed you, to give you life – you will never see death. You will never taste death, because Jesus tasted death for you and so became a perfect High Priest, as the Epistle reminded us today, a perfect High Priest who offered his own holy, precious blood to make atonement for your sins, such a perfect atonement that, if every person in the world were to believe in him, even the worst criminal, then every person in the world would be justified and received into eternal life.

If you believe Jesus’ words, then you understand what he meant when he promised that anyone who keeps his word will never see death.  You know that he meant that, although your body will stop working and will sleep in the earth for a time, your soul will not be buried in the earth with your body; your soul will not suffer the wrath of God or the torment of hell; your soul will be carried by the angels to Abraham’s side in the presence of God, where you will wait for the day of resurrection.

That’s a huge promise, a massive promise, a truth you can’t prove by any scientific method in the world.  But it’s still the truth.  And the truth has the power of the Holy Spirit behind it to bring you to believe it.

He did that with Abraham, didn’t he?  God made so many promises to Abraham of future things he had no way of proving.  But Abraham believed God, and it was credited to him for righteousness.  You heard of the terrible trial of Abraham’s faith in the Old Testament lesson today.  God had promised Abraham a multitude of descendants through Isaac.  Then God told Abraham to go and sacrifice Isaac.  For as horrifying as that sounds to any parent, to any child, the writer to the Hebrews tells us exactly what was going through Abraham’s mind.  He considered that God was able even to raise him from the dead. God would have to have to raise Isaac from the dead.  Why?  In order to keep his promise.

God gives us the example of Abraham to show us that God’s Word is true and that faith in God’s promise is well-founded.

Still, that truth that Jesus told, that anyone who keeps his word will never see death – the Jews didn’t believe it, because they rightly understood that only God himself can rescue anyone from death.  Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? And the prophets died! Who do you make yourself out to be?

That was the right question.  They suspected what Jesus was implying with the truth he had been telling, and here in our Gospel, Jesus once and for all removes any doubt about the truth he was claiming about himself.  Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.”

I AM, the name by which God revealed himself to Moses in the burning bush.  I AM, the one who was in the beginning, before time itself began.  I AM, the one who promised to Adam and Eve an offspring of the woman who would crush the serpent’s head.  I AM, who appeared to Abraham and promised him an offspring who would be a blessing to all nations.  I AM, who was with Abraham on the mountain, who both commanded Abraham to sacrifice his son and then stopped him from doing it, so that I AM – the LORD! – could provide a better sacrifice.

Now it all comes together.  Jesus, this man not yet fifty years old, was the very God – in unity with the Father and the Holy Spirit – who created the world, who delivered Israel throughout the Old Testament, who was about to be killed by the unbelieving world so that he could redeem his fallen creatures, who would rise from the dead on the third day.

That’s the truth.  It is what it is.  The world can’t handle the truth.  The world hated Jesus and will always hate him.  But at the same time, this very truth is what sustains our faith and hands out to us again the forgiveness of sins.  At the same time, when we speak this truth, God is speaking through us to call unbelievers to faith in Christ, and some will be converted and saved. 

So now you’re prepared for Holy Week.  Because you know the truth.  You will see Jesus rejected, scourged, crucified and buried, but you will also see him vindicated and brought back to life.  That’s your high priest you’ll be following.  That’s your high priest whom you will witness loving his disciples and giving his life for his enemies so that the world may live through faith in him.

It doesn’t get any more serious than this.  The truth is what it is. If you don’t believe it, you are lost.  If you claim to believe in God but don’t rely on Jesus’ words, then you’re a liar.  If you do believe, you have God’s forgiveness and life.  You will never see death.  All who believe in him will suffer in this life, too, but you, too, will be vindicated and brought back to life, even as you now live and will never die.  The truth is what it is.  Unbelievers, beware!  Believers, rejoice!  That’s the truth, the beautiful, wonderful, horrible, comforting truth.  Amen.

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