Jesus said to them, ‘Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.’ So they picked up stones to throw at him (St. John 8:58).
Today’s reading from the Apostle John’s eye-witness account of the Incarnation drops us in the middle of what appears to be one of the worst outreach campaigns in the history of the church. The chapter starts with Jesus declaring that a mob of men preparing to stone a woman for adultery were just as guilty as she—a rather terrible tactic for gaining allies among the religiously devout—and it continues with Jesus declaring judgment after judgment against the crowds pressing against Him. As modern people, there is probably a big part of us which just wants Jesus to cool it, shrug his shoulders, and propose a non-judgmental, seeker friendly prayer meeting with the Pharisees and Sadducees. Why would Jesus spend so much time arguing with men who agree with Him on so much? Why doesn’t Jesus just form some kind of temporary alliance with these hissing vipers and expand His ministry throughout Judea, and from there, perhaps the whole Roman Empire? The reason, as we discover in today’s reading, is that Jesus Christ, the eternal Son of God, does not need to prove anything to us or the world. The life and ministry, death and resurrection of God the Son are not a religious “try-out” for us or anyone to evaluate and judge the God of the Ages. To doubt God is not the mark of a wise and savvy shopper weighing his options in the marketplace of religions; no, to disbelieve God is the mark which reveals He is not your Father. In the end, one either stands with the I AM and has everything or sinks into the darkness of his own uncertain certainties. It is these cruel certainties which lead the disbelieving mob to claim Jesus is an unclean foreigner possessed by a demon. Earlier, they called him a bastard, so we could just think of this abuse as but a small escalation.
One would expect Jesus to respond in kind, after all, in the 1st and 21st century calling someone an evil son of a whore is a pretty good way to start a fight, but Jesus doesn’t sink to their level. As the Apostle Peter tells us: “When [Jesus] was reviled, he did not revile in return; when he suffered, he did not threaten, but continued entrusting himself to him who judges justly” (1 Peter 2:23). Just as Jesus doesn’t need to prove to us or the unbelieving mob that He is God, Jesus also doesn’t need to let vengeance upend His true mission. After all, the ignorant and evil behavior of the mob is already a judgment in itself, for to live in ignorance and evil, even if we get all which our fallen hearts’ desire, that broken life is the very beginning of hell. Jesus need not violently lash out at the men who surround Him because He knows His Father will bring perfect justice upon all those who reject Him. We can only imagine how many times Jesus had to tell Peter and the other apostles to stand down and avoid coming to blows against the men who heard the Word of God speak and hated Him all the more for it. When St. Peter tells us to follow Christ’s example in how we deal with those who hate us, we can be sure he is speaking from the hard experience he gained at his Master’s pierced side.
Jesus responds to the attacks against His character, rather than His arguments, by noting how preposterous it is to claim that a man who spends His every waking moment honoring His Heavenly Father could be possessed by a demon. A demon- possessed man would seek his own glory: he would pursue accolades and attention and rewards with everything he had. A man possessed by a demon would do everything he could to draw attention away from the God who loves us to promote himself in the brief moments between birth and death. Jesus has no need for such desperation because He perfectly trusts that His Father, the Judge of all Mankind, will procure everlasting glory for Him. As we read in Psalm 2:
“Yet have I set my King upon my holy hill of Sion. I will rehearse the decree; the Lord hath said unto me, Thou art my Son, this day have I begotten thee. Desire of me, and I shall give thee the nations for thine inheritance, and the utmost parts of the earth for thy possession. Thou shalt bruise them with a rod of iron, and break them in pieces like a potter’s vessel. Be wise now therefore, O ye kings; be ye instructed, ye that are judges of the earth. Serve the Lord in fear, and rejoice unto him with reverence. Kiss the Son, lest he be angry, and so ye perish from the right way, if his wrath be kindled, yea but a little. Blessed are they that put their trust in Him” (Psalm 2:6-12).
Jesus perfectly trusts in this promise because He perfectly knows that the Father always keeps His promises. This mob can do nothing to deter Him from the faith He has seen rewarded over and over in history; the faith He knows will save the world. But from what will the world be saved? The answer, of course, is death.
As Jesus states, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, If a man keep my saying, he shall never see death” (St. John 8:51). In the face of vitriol and evil and hatred, Jesus forcefully states the gospel for all to hear. As is His habit, Jesus begins statements of supreme importance with the phrase “Verily, Verily” or “Truly, Truly,” and this simple statement is desperately important, for it contains within it all the hopes of every person who has ever watched someone die. Jesus is boldly claiming that the great tide of black which has covered the earth since Adam declared war upon God can be erased by trusting in the Word of God and the sacrifice He makes of Himself on our behalf. This is no hollow claim, Christ knows what is coming, and He knows the great price He will have to pay to buy back all those who deserve nothing but wrath and death. With that in mind, the word “keep” here may be a bit misleading. The Greek verb behind the English one has a sense of “guarding” or “observation” to it—think of a soldier on watch at night guarding a fellow soldier who a day earlier had saved his life (or the “keep” of a castle). We are to guard the Word of God in our very beings, to believe with all of our hearts and souls and minds that Jesus is the Messiah, and that He has taken the weight of our sin upon Himself to save us from its slavery and death. Unbelievably, Jesus responds to being called an evil son of a whore by simply and boldly declaring the justice He and His Father are bringing to the world. The justice which will destroy all evil and hatred because Christ through sacrificial love will destroy sin itself, and in that victory, He will destroy death forever.
And how does the crowd receive this good news? Does everyone throw their hands in the air and declare their allegiance to the future Victor over evil and death? Well, no, John tells us they responded to the good news of man’s liberation from the great curse of mortality with this little gem: “Now we know that you have a demon!” Nice. Great work humanity. Round of applause. The crowd goes on and links its disbelief in Christ’s words to the fact that people die, and not just people, but the patriarchs and prophets—the holiest men in the history of God’s people—die. Their argument is simple, and could have been made yesterday: “Everyone dies, we have the evidence all around us, and we don’t really believe God can change that, and we certainly don’t believe God will act through some bastard carpenter from Nazareth.” We should pause for a moment and recognize that this argument actually makes no sense given the signs and miracles these men have seen—no sense given the world they live in and the natural evidence of Himself God daily displays before their eyes. Jesus is not allowing Himself to be yelled at by hooligans because He believes they will change their minds; no, these men have already blinded themselves to the truth—their vicious unbelief when confronted by the gospel reveals whom they serve, and it isn’t God the Father. As our Lord says, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here” (St. John 8:42), and “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires” (St. John 8:44). Put simply, whomever we serve in this life is our master, and we either serve Christ or we serve the devil; we either serve love and life or we serve sin and death. With our every action, we do not save or damn ourselves (we aren’t that powerful), but we do reveal whom we serve.
In the end, our Lord never backs down from the challenges of the crowd even knowing that revealing who He truly is would drive them into a murderous rage. Jesus will not lie about who He is, and so He tells them what they are not ready to hear: “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am” (St. John 8:58). Jesus explicitly places himself outside of time, as the Lord of time, as the very being of everlasting timelessness, and the only being who exists outside of time—because He created time—is God. And how does mankind respond to this great moment of contact between the divine and human, a moment in which Man and his Creator might finally engage in thoughtful dialogue and perhaps find peace? The crowd responds to this earth-shattering revelation by picking up the stones lying around the still unfinished temple and throwing them at the God for whom the temple was being built. The creation Christ has come to save responds to His glorious Advent by trying to murder him without trial like an animal. These soldiers in the war between God and Man did their part and almost killed the God they said they loved, but Jesus’ mission to save mankind—culminating in the cross and the empty tomb—is on the Trinity’s time table, and so Jesus departs from the crowd until all things are made ready for the great sacrifice of Good Friday and the great victory of Easter morning.
We don’t know how many of these evil men came to faith on Pentecost morning or in the days and weeks filled with the bold preaching of Christ’s Spirit filled apostles. But the hard reality we should come to terms with is that it wan’t seeing a dead man rise which made them believe; after all, Jesus was doing miraculous things all over the small communities of Judah and Galilee, and these men still didn’t believe. What made men believe in the days and weeks which followed the eleven disciples limping down the mountain after Christ ascended into heaven was the free gift of faith given by a gracious Lord to an underserving people. This gift can only come from the kind of Lord who would humble Himself in the dirt of a stable, humble Himself in the derision of these unbelieving goons, humble Himself in the vinegar and gall of Good Friday. It would be easy for us to look at the good news of Christ’s victory over death, freely given to us through the power of God the Holy Ghost, and say, “No, God, it can’t be that easy,” but we should always recognize that, for God, none of this painful process was easy. It wasn’t easy when the creation formed from the dust of the earth rebelled against love in the garden; it wasn’t easy for God to watch soul after soul be crushed by the brutality of death given free reign over the world by sin, and it certainly wasn’t easy for God the Father to watch God the Son scream salvation into life on the cross. We were bought with a price: Christ’s death and passion was that price. May we be worthy of this passion, and may we live for the glory of Him who died and rose again—the glory of the great I AM.