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Fifth Sunday in Lent – Judica
St. John 8.46-59
29 March 2020
Immanuel Evangelical Lutheran Church
Terre Haute, Indiana
“A Word Over Death”
Rev. Jacob Sutton, Pastor
+ In the Name of Jesus +
Holy Week, the climax of the Lenten season, begins one week from today. In no other Lenten season have we been so sorely tested and tried as in this year of our Lord 2020.
Because of the viral outbreak that has gone right around the world in short order, we have been confronted with the tenuous connection between life and death most acutely. Many of our doctors and nurses are out there on the front lines of this outbreak, at risk themselves to care for those in need. Life and death, sickness and health: the line seems very easy to cross.
This viral outbreak is much like a large natural disaster, a great earthquake, a massive hurricane, suddenly wreaking destruction in its wake. There are forces at work beyond our control arrayed against us, and they have forced us into unwelcome circumstances such as these trying days.
If we review the readings for the Sunday mornings of this Lenten season, we might come to some understanding of what’s going on. The first Sunday in Lent, we heard Moses’ account of the fall into sin. (Genesis 3) Our first parents failed to heed God’s Word, fell for Satan’s temptation, and tasted death for themselves – in that they were no longer in direct fellowship with God. To be estranged from God is to truly see and taste death. God ordained the wages of sin to be death, eternal death, and temporally God decreed that people would be estranged from each other, that men and women would face difficulties even in living with each other in the holy estate of marriage – the woman would desire for the man’s place as head of the family, the man would have to sweat to bring home bread for his bride and children. Pain and toil would result in a return to the dust from which we had been formed.
And that same Sunday, our Lord Jesus Himself, the second Adam, the promised seed of the woman endured the temptations of the devil. The devil would bruise the Savior’s heel, after all. Just as our Lord faced the devil, so also in Lent we’ve heard about Jesus healing the demon possessed daughter of the Canaanite woman, and Jesus casting out a demon from the deaf and mute man – reminding us He is the stronger man who must do battle against the strong man Satan and his ill-gotten gains in this world. In this fallen world our bodies are also afflicted with demons, illnesses, disasters, threats, doubts, depression, uncertainty, all the work of the cosmic forces of darkness ruling over this present evil age.
Now we come to the end of Lent, and today hear in the Gospel of the battle between our Lord Jesus and the powers of the devil, who speaks through the Jewish leaders of Jesus’ day, who slander and react angrily to Jesus and the truth of His Word that Jesus is the one, true God, in the flesh, the promised Savior, the great I AM who was before Abraham, the author of life. They become especiall enraged at the words of our Lord:
“Truly, truly, I say unto you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” (Jn. 8.51)
The culmination of that conflict will be Our Lord’s crucifixion on the cross.
But the cross was necessary. There at the cross, our Lord confronted all that the devil and this fallen world throws at us. He confronted the strains and stresses of this life, the temptations, the doubts, the demons, the disasters, the looming threat to body and soul, and confronted death itself. There, on the cross, He defeated all those things and conquered them once and for all.
Jesus Christ was born to die. Vicar Keller gave a fine sermon on the feast of the Annunciation to that effect this past Wednesday evening. Nothing about Jesus, from His conception in the Virgin Mary by the power of the Holy Spirit onward, can be understood apart from His death. All of the promises God ever gave to his people are fulfilled in that time and place where Jesus Christ confronted sin, death, and hell and triumphed over them.
Jesus lived, suffered, and died as our substitute and as our champion. If Jesus were not a true man he could not have become our substitute. If Jesus were not true God he could not have become our champion. A mere man could not have defeated sin, death, and the devil – that’s just another lowly man dying on another Roman cross. No, only the true God could be victorious over the devil and his hosts.
But God also could not take away sin and death by simply ruling it to be so – as if sin has no penalty that God must exact. The wages of sin is death. This is divine justice established in creation. You must not eat of the fruit of that tree, God told Adam, for in that day you eat of it, you shall surely die. And die they did, and all of Adam’s children with him. In order for mankind to have a Savior, God had to become a man. Only a human being could obey for us and only a human being could die for us and pay the wages owed for sin in our place.
There was no other way for sin to be forgiven and for life to triumph over death.
Abraham believed this. He saw it happen as the eternal Son of God, called in Genesis by the name “Angel of the Lord”, stayed the knife in his hand looming over Isaac on the altar, and pointed him to a ram hanging on a thicket cross as Isaac’s substitute.
God’s Son is the one in whom Abraham rejoiced. He is the one in whom Abraham trusted. Jesus said to the Jews confronting Him: “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.” It was the pre-incarnate Christ who provided Abraham with a substitute for Isaac on Mt. Moriah. The ram was offered instead of Isaac. The ram pointed forward to Christ who took the place of all sinners. Jesus offered himself up on the altar of the cross and there he cleansed your heart and your conscience and purchased an eternal inheritance for you.
Christians and only the Christians claim Abraham as their spiritual father. He believed as we believe. We read in Genesis 15:5, “[Abraham] believed in the LORD, and He accounted it to him for righteousness.”
God said to Abraham, “I will bless those who bless you, and I will curse him who curses you; and in you all the families of the earth shall be blessed.” All the families of the earth would be blessed in Abraham because all the families of the earth would be blessed in Jesus. It is only through Jesus that one is a true child of Abraham.
Jesus says to the children of Abraham, all baptized believers, “Truly, truly, I say unto you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” (Jn. 8.51) What a wonderful promise! Whoever you are, whatever you’ve done, if you keep His words, you will never see death.
To keep means to hold on to, to believe, to trust. Whoever believes in Jesus, who receives the gift of forgiveness He earned with His blood shed on the cross, will never see death. You may grow old and die, but you won’t see death. You may contract a disease that will slowly take away your life, but you won’t see death. You may be killed without warning, suddenly by accident, but you won’t see death. Who is this man Jesus that He can promise such a thing? How can someone claim to have the power over life and death?
We have heard and come to know the Lord Jesus this Lenten season. He fights on the side of Abraham and all who cling to and keep His Word. At His Word He chastens and He heals. At His Word, the devil is driven far away. He is God’s champion and our substitute. He is our man. We can trust His Word.
Jesus, true God and true man, gives you eternal life by means of the words He speaks to you. You and Abraham’s children by faith gather together in His name, hear His word in the absolution, in the readings, in the sermon, throughout the liturgy – all taken right out of the Bible. You confess His word in the prayers, in the Creed, in the hymns. Coming to the Divine Service, today as we can, and tomorrow, someday soon we hope all together, is not just a good habit. It is keeping those words of life that give you eternal life.
There’s always going to be conflict and a battle brewing in this temporal life. It is a battle for your soul and mine, a strange and dreadful strife in which life and death contend. But into the breach has come Jesus Christ, who speaks His almighty Word of truth and life, the very sword of the Spirit, into the strife of our life. He is a mighty champion for us, and our brother to boot. He knows our flesh, knows our sorrows, and does something about them. Jesus is no soy-boy religious advisor with some helpful insight to share, no soft-voiced coach who has to attract you with his looks or his charm or any other trait. No, Jesus is the man of all men, the almighty God become flesh!
Jesus Christ came and made peace with God through the shedding of His innocent blood, and has reconciled you and all men to the heavenly Father. This was what Jesus came to do, to do battle with and defeat Satan and his forces and all his wicked works and ways for you, and therefore He can openly promise to all of Abraham’s children by faith, “Whoever believes my words shall never see death.” There, in His Words, in the glorious promise of the eternal life to come with Him and freed at last from every hardship, we find the courage to continue to confess, to do battle against the devil, the world, and our flesh, knowing that we are at peace while we do it.
+ In the Name of the Father, and of the + Son, and of the Holy Spirit +