Wednesday, June 02, 2010

Sermon on John 8:48-59, for Holy Trinity Sunday, "I AM...Greater than Death!"

In the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit, Amen. Today’s Gospel reading from John describes the end of a lengthy and heated exchange between Jesus and the Jews. They were claiming Abraham as their ancestor, and God as their Father, but Jesus had some very pointed words for them. Because they did not accept His teaching and message, it showed that they were NOT the children of Abraham or of God, because they rejected the one whom God had sent, and the one whom Abraham looked forward to in faith. Look closely today at the line of questioning they raise to Jesus, and how He ultimately proclaims to them that He is greater than Abraham, greater even than death. Grace, mercy, and peace to you from God our Father and from our Lord and Savior Jesus Christ. Amen.

As anyone who knows me well can attest, I love asking, answering, and discussing lots of questions on all kinds of topics. I guess I was born with an inquisitive nature. In the course of teaching, either in school or in Bible study, I’ve often repeated the phrase: “There’s no such thing as a stupid question.” The point is always to encourage people not to hold back their burning questions, but to seek out answers. But as we can learn in today’s reading, not all questions have a valid starting point or deserve an answer—or sometimes they’re not even looking for answers. Questions like these in our reading today can actually be thinly veiled accusations. Questions can also be deflections from searching out the truth. People that disbelieve the existence of God can often throw up lots of accusing or distracting questions to confuse a Christian. Not because they’re searching for real answers to the questions—actually they’ve no real interest in the answer because they’ve already made up their mind.

This was the case with the first question the Jews asked Jesus: “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” They already presumed the correctness of their judgment of Jesus—He was nothing but a Samaritan-lover and a demoniac. Yes, Jesus did love the Samaritans and sinners—loving them enough to speak to them and call them to repentance and life in Him. He scandalously talked with the Samaritans whom every Jew looked down on. Jesus even spoke to a Samaritan woman who’d lived a shameful life. No self-respecting Jewish man would talk to an adulterous Samaritan woman. And who was this Jesus to make such provocative statements about them? Asking them why they were out to kill Him. Saying that when they rejected Him they were also rejecting God, whom they claimed as their father. Saying their real father was the devil because they couldn’t bear the truth and thirsted after His death. This question was no question at all—they were charging Jesus with being demon-possessed—that His teachings were lies and falsehood.

Jesus was not evasive at all in His reply—saying that He had no demon, but rather sought always to honor His Father—yet they dishonored Him. When we itch and chafe under Jesus’ words, and deny them, then we dishonor Him also. The Truth isn’t always easy to swallow. When they questioned Jesus’ challenging and provocative statements, He didn’t explain them away, but often heightened the challenge. After their initial question, Jesus goes on to say that if anyone keeps His word, they’ll never see death. This provoked them 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.’ Are you greater than our father Abraham who died? And the prophets who died? Who do you make yourself out to be?” They were confronted by the inescapably bold statements of Jesus. The same words that must confront us today. Their next round of questions amounted to this: “Are you saying that you are greater and more holy than Abraham and all the Old Testament prophets? Are you greater than death itself? Not even they escaped death. Who do you think you are, God or something?”

To modern ears, the words of Jesus sound just as fantastic. Who can promise eternal life? Who can say they are greater than death? Death is inescapable! Everyone dies, from the most good and righteous person to the most wicked sinner. Death seems to be the great, irreversible enemy of mankind. This is the line where many depart from Jesus. Many are willing to accept a good deal of His teachings. To believe that it’s better to love your enemies and to forgive them, than to seek revenge. That we should do unto others as we would have them do unto us. That we should avoid hypocrisy and legalism. All these things are well and good. But the line where many depart from Jesus is that He claims to be very God Himself, and have power of death. It’s almost as if some have given death itself a god-like status. If someone believes that death is really and truly the end, and there’s nothing beyond…then this is just what they’ve done. They’ve said that nothing is greater than death.

Ancients and moderns ask the same skeptical question of Jesus—“are you greater than death?”—assuming they already know the answer. But their answer is NO, even though it’s obvious to them that Jesus’ answer is “YES,” I am greater than death. That’s exactly what Jesus is saying—that He is God and that He does have power over death. Of course He’s greater than Abraham and the prophets, because He’s God in the flesh. Jesus isn’t seeking to glorify Himself though. He knows that self-seeking glory is worthless. But God the Father glorifies Jesus. God the Father would glorify Him and show Him to be truly His Son when He died on the cross for sin, and rose from the dead. Not really the proverbial nail in the coffin, a final point of proof—but rather a nail in the hand on the cross. A final point of proof that God’s love for His people was so strong that He would even endure their skeptical questions, mockery, ridicule and abuse…His love was so strong to take their guilt on Himself, and die for it. Jesus death would bring glory to His Father. His Father would glorify Him and call Him Truth by raising Him from the dead.

So yes, Jesus is greater than death, and He proved it to all the skeptics. However unbelievable or seemingly fantastic His claims were—that He was God, that He was greater than death—He couldn’t deny them. He couldn’t pretend that He didn’t know God. He couldn’t lie about where He came from, in order to make Himself more believable. He was eternal from before all time, and even their ancestor Abraham looked to the day of His coming with joy. There can be no excuses or apologies for the incredible Easter news that Jesus hold’s all power over death. However incomprehensible it seems to us—however startling to our ears—Jesus is unmistakably more powerful than death. He can truly promise you that if you keep His Word, you will never see death. As Jesus says in John 5:24, “Truly, truly, I say to you, whoever hears my word and believes him who sent me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life.” Hearing and believing Jesus and God the Father who sent Him is the way to eternal life.

Only after Jesus proved it by His rising from the dead, did people really start to believe and understand it was true. Jesus really was God and had ultimate power over death. He wasn’t a demon-possessed person spouting off nonsense—He didn’t just speak empty words. He showed that He was the real deal. He rose in full life. Many saw Him and believed, many disbelieved the reports as fantastic. They remained unconvinced that there is a power greater than death.

The final rub for the Jews was when Jesus said that He knew Abraham. They scoffed at the idea that a man less than 50 years old knew Abraham, who’d died some 1,800 years earlier. Again, who did He think He was? God? Precisely. And to drive the point home one more time—to make it unmistakable what He was claiming for Himself, He spoke these words: “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.” We don’t quite catch how inflammatory those words were, or why they wanted to stone Him until we realize that the words “I AM” were the personal name of God. God had given His Divine Name to Moses some 1,500 years earlier on Mount Sinai. God called Himself “Yahweh” or “I AM, who I AM.” Calling Himself “I AM” was nothing short of taking God’s personal name as His own. This finally was what drove them to crucify Jesus a short while later.

They never stopped to consider whether His Word might be true. But we have all the benefit of hindsight. We know and believe in His resurrection from the dead. They doubted that Jesus was greater than Abraham and the prophets. They scoffed that Jesus thought He was greater than death. But now we know that this man who rose from the dead some 2,000 years ago, this Jesus Christ, is the Great I AM—the God of Abraham, the God of the living, not of the dead. And this Great I AM…He is most surely greater than death. By trusting in Him alone do we have deliverance from mankind’s greatest enemy, and all the fears that death inspires. Dear Jesus, we put our trust in you—the Great I AM and the conqueror of death; in your name, Amen.

Now the peace of God which passes all understanding, guard your hearts and minds in Christ Jesus, unto life everlasting. Amen.

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1. Note on the Athanasian Creed: The end of the creed makes reference to all people rising and giving an account concerning their deeds, and that those who’ve done good will enter into eternal life, and those who have done evil into eternal fire. Examine these Scripture passages that refer to the judgment: Matt. 12:35-37; 25:31-46; John 5:21-29, esp. vs. 24, 29 & John 6:28-29; cf. Rom. 8:1. While works are examined in the final judgment, those who have faith are spared judgment and condemnation on account of Jesus’ righteous life.

2. Read the context before today’s Gospel. John 8:12-47. Why by the end of this dialogue, were the Jews so infuriated with Jesus that they wanted to kill Him? What claims did He make for Himself? What did He claim about them, and why?

3. Why would they have called Jesus a Samaritan, when it was well known that He was a Jew from Nazareth? John 4:1-45. Why is it such great news for us that Jesus loved Samaritans and sinners? How does Jesus call us to live our lives after He has called us?

4. How did the questions they asked show lack of faith, and made-up-minds rather than genuine inquiry and desire to learn?

5. What difficult words of Jesus require an extra measure of faith for you to believe? What does the fact that Jesus is greater than death mean for you? How do you see skepticism about this belief today?

6. What did Jesus mean by calling Himself, “I AM”? Exodus 3:13-15. What did this reveal about who He was and His power?

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