Before Abraham Was, I AM

Text: John 8:42-59
Date: Lent V
+ 3/25/07

     There are three main things in this Gospel appointed for Judica, the Fifth Sunday in Lent sometimes called Passion Sunday. And they are these: “Whoever is of God hears the words of God;” “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death;” and “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” It starts with the importance of hearing God’s Word. For apart from God’s Word the inherent disorder, chaos and confusion of life as we know it only increases and we remain only in the realm and under the control of the devil. The devil, being “a murderer from the beginning, having nothing to do with the truth, the liar and father of lies,” convinces us of the lie that we are hopeless against the inequities and unfairness of life, and worse, that we go down to our last gasp of death cursing God for his righteous decree that the wages of sin is death. Our only hope, then, is not the devil nor in any power in ourselves, but only in God if, indeed, God is at all for us, in our corner; only if it is true as he said through the prophet Ezekiel, “I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked, but that the wicked turn from his way and live” [Ezekiel 33:11 (ESV)], and, “God so loved the world that he gave his only Son” (John 3:16). It is only in Jesus Christ that the sinner can discover that God is love, that He is for us and not against us, that He has not written His world off in wrath but, rather, has written His Word in grace and in the flesh and blood of the Incarnate Word, Jesus our Savior for the life of the world.

     First, then, “Whoever is of God hears the words of God.” If that is so, then the opposite is true, as Jesus said to his critics and detractors in our text, “The reason why you do not hear [the words of God] is that you are not of God.” What does this mean to be “of God” or “not of God”? It’s all about this thing we call “faith.” All are born into this world “not of God,” that is, with the inherited disease called original sin. Though we may be born physically healthy and whole, bouncing baby boys and girls, we are all spiritually stillborn, spiritually blind, dead and separated from the life of God the way He originally intended it. In our day more so than, say, even only fifty years ago, more and more people grow through childhood and their teen years to adulthood as spiritual corpses, dead spiritually, that is having absolutely no impulse, care or concern for God. They (and we) are, by our fallen nature, “not of God.” Such a person is rightly called a heathen or a pagan. As the prison guard leads a condemned prisoner onto Death Row with the call “Dead man walking,” so, spiritually, that is precisely what you see when you walk through the mall or the supermarket or the hallways and classrooms of school, dead men and women, boys and girls walking around. Physically they seem very much “alive.” Spiritually, however, we are all lifeless and very dead.

     Only those who are “of God” hear—I mean really hear, understand, perceive and “get”—the Word of God. But what is most mysterious is that one becomes a person “of God” only when he hears the Word which he cannot hear if he is “not of God!” This mystery is solved only by the ministry of God the Holy Spirit who works repentance in the heart and the gift of faith, when and where it pleases God, in those who hear the Word of the Gospel. Conversion from death to life, from spiritual blindness to sight, from the deathward drift of futile birth to the new, eternal life of being born again, from above, happens when the Word of God breaks through the spiritual darkness as a light. Jesus Christ is the Light of the world, a light no darkness can overcome. He is the Word of God incarnate. When He restored sight to the blind it was considered by all a miracle. The greater miracle, however, is when he restores a blind sinner’s vision of God. When he raised the dead it was an awesome miracle. But the greater miracle is when he raises us from the deadness and chaos of our old life to new life marked by those otherwise unattainable qualities of faith, hope and love. When he fed the 5,000 in the wilderness the people were impressed. The greatest miracle, however, is as he feeds us with his own body and blood nourishing us with the forgiveness of sins, life and salvation.

     Now this is the most important and immediate Word and need today even in the church. To not be hearing the Word is to be not “of God.” As the Small Catechism says of the Third Commandment, “Remember the Sabbath day by keeping it holy,” “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and his Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.” According to that definition there is a lot of despising of preaching and God’s Word going on around today, for many people are not hearing it with any regularity. And that is to fall back into the chaotic and closed life of self, separated from God. To be “of God” means to hear His Word. And to hear His Word means to be “of God.”

     Secondly, as a chief result and purpose of being hearers of the Word, Jesus says in our text, “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” First there is the hearing, and then there is the keeping of God’s Word. For it is, of course, possible, even probable, that the Word of God can enter our ear holes, register with our brains, but then change nothing and be forgotten as easily as it was heard. It is as St. James wrote in his epistle, “if anyone is a hearer of the word and not a doer, he is like a man who looks intently at his natural face in a mirror. For he looks at himself and goes away and at once forgets what he was like” [James 1:23-24]. The “keeping” and “doing” of God’s Word means to keep hearing it and to allow it to change you. I get so frustrated, for instance, how many Christians have said to me, “I just can’t be patient,” or the other canard, “I can forgive, but I can’t forget.” These are just two illustrations of hearing but not keeping God’s Word. For I tell such a person, “yes you can be or learn to be patient because that is one of the fruits the Holy Spirit is trying to produce in you through the Word.” “The fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, patience, kindness, goodness, faithfulness, gentleness, self-control; against such things there is no law” [Galatians 5:22-23]. The problem is so many people act like there is a law against love, joy, peace and patience. And as for forgiving and forgetting, those who keep to God’s Word learn that this “forgetting” is not the inability to recall past sins but the sanctified refusal to bring them up again after they have been forgiven, refusing to allow past forgiven sins to exert their power between us anymore.

      More important than making sense out of the chaos of life, however, is the promise that “if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” Martin Luther put it this way, “When man dies in God’s Word, he will not die as horribly and dreadfully as those who die in the devil’s name and without God’s Word. These people die in sullen resentment, stomp and stumble about, roar like lions, for they do not wish to die, and yet must die since they cannot escape death. …It will not be thus, Christ says, with my followers who hear and keep my Word. Even though they must lie down on their beds and die, they will not experience such fear and anxiety. In their hearts they will be at peace with God and hope for a better life. They will fall asleep in this hope and depart from this life without fear and trembling. For even though death will overpower their bodies, its power will be so weak that they will feel nothing of it, but peacefully fall asleep as though lying on a couch with their head resting on a pillow.” Luther further describes Christian death in his hymn:

      In peace and joy I now depart
            Since God so wills it.
      Serene and confident my heart;
            Stillness fills it.
      For God promised death would be
           No more than quiet slumber. [LSB 938:1]

     It all starts with hearing God’s Word. Keeping God’s Word disarms death and the devil. Finally, all of God’s Word and the hearing and the keeping of it is centered in Jesus. Apart from Him you can do nothing and even God’s Word doesn’t make any sense. It was his critics that brought Abraham into the discussion. Stumbling over Jesus’ claim, “if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death,” they asked “are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? And the prophets died!” “Everyone dies! Who do you think you are?”

     That’s the real issue! For Jesus is a prophet, but more than a prophet. He is the Son of the Father and the Son of Mary. As the angel told her, "The Holy Spirit will come upon you, and the power of the Most High will overshadow you; therefore the child to be born will be called holy—the Son of God” [Luke 1:35 (ESV)]. His critics could only see the man, Jesus standing there. “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.” The people picked up stones to throw at him because they heard and knew what he meant when he said “I am.” That’s the name of God as He revealed it to Moses. “Say this to the people of Israel, ‘I Am has sent me to you’” [Exodus 3:14 (ESV)]. Jesus was saying He is God; the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob. They heard rank blasphemy. We hear Truth. It is only if Jesus is God that he can forgive sins, raise the dead, be the sacrificial Lamb that takes away the sin of the world and rise again from the dead for our justification. As God provided a substitute in place of Abraham’s son Isaac to be sacrificed, so the heavenly Father has provided his Son, his only Son as our substitute, in whose death and by whose blood we receive forgiveness, life and salvation.

          Now, this Wednesday our midweek Lenten services conclude with the high priestly prayer of Jesus, his last word in the Upper Room. Then, next week we will walk through the final, holy days of our Lord’s Passion, death and resurrection. Those who hear this Word of God are of God. Those who keep this Word will never see death. For, by Holy Baptism, Absolution and the sacrament of His body and blood, that is, by faith we are crucified with Christ so that it is no longer ourselves who live but Christ who lives in us. And the life we are called to live now in the flesh, we are to live by faith in the Son of God, who loved us and gave himself for us (Galatians 2:19-20). Praised be Jesus Christ.