Fifth Sunday in Lent

The Light and Truth of Christ

Saint John 8:42-59

There sure is a lot to take in with today’s reading from Saint’s John’s Gospel, much of it filled with anger and discord, accusation and condemnation. The sweet word of salvation is present, but one must wade through a great deal of unpleasantness to reach it. Like a shining light in the midst of darkness, the Gospel is proclaimed when our Lord Jesus says, “if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death,” and again a second time when He says, “if anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death.” It’s hard to fathom, but it’s precisely this liberating, life-giving word of Gospel truth that triggers and sets off the whole bitter confrontation that’s before us today.

Going back to the start of today’s Holy Gospel, we find ourselves already in the thick of it; the argy-bargy had begun earlier when Jesus told a group of Jews in Jerusalem, newly believing in Him, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” Before Jesus said this to them, He was their darling, for He had stood up to both the elitist Sadducees and the parsimonious scribes and Pharisees. They cheered Him on as He took those big shots down a peg or two with the authority of the truth that, as He had declared, God the Father had given Him to proclaim. They believed in Him while He was denouncing those other guys, but now, when Jesus turns to them and tells them that they, too, fail to measure up spiritually … well, to them, that’s a line over which Jesus should never have crossed. And so they turn against Him, murder welling up toward Jesus in their hearts.

At the point in which we enter into the midst of all the unpleasantness, Jesus tells the formerly believing Jews that God is not their Father, as they steadfastly claim Him to be, but rather the devil. It’s from that ancient enemy that their hatred toward Jesus comes. It’s because of that liar and father of lies that they prefer untruth and self-deceit over against the truth that Jesus speaks. If they were of God, as they insist, they would love Jesus and believe what He says. But they aren’t, and they don’t. As Jesus tells them, “Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason you do not hear them is that you are not of God.”

As things continue, the situation only becomes more negative and unpleasant—from both sides. Of course, we understand why those children of the devil behave as they do, with acrimony and hatred toward Jesus. It’s as our Lord says of them: it’s their will to do their father’s desires, and the devil certainly desires nothing but evil toward Jesus. But what of the way that Jesus deals with these sinful people? Isn’t He being a bit too harsh toward them? I mean, sure, they’re sinners, but aren’t we all? Of course, this is true. But not all sinners are the same.

With some sinners, Jesus is nothing but compassionate—firm in His disapproval of sin, but outwardly loving toward the sinner. For example, just prior to the start of all of the trouble reported in our text, Jesus stands up for a woman who has been caught in the act of adultery. The scribes and Pharisees want this woman to be stoned to death, but Jesus silences their accusations and sends them away by saying to them, “Let him who is without sin among you be the first to throw a stone at her.” After they leave, Jesus tells the woman that there is now no one to condemn her. He tells her that He does not condemn her. Now, the reason why Jesus treats this woman caught in adultery differently is because she is not of the same heart and mind as those others. We hear not a word from her asserting her lack of guilt or her innocence. She makes no pretence of being righteous when she clearly is not. With the others, right from the start—right from the first mention by Jesus that they are sinners enslaved to their sin—they deny it all, which also means they deny their need for Jesus and the forgiveness of sins that He is sent by the Father to provide with His innocent suffering and death.

And Jesus is harsh with them because of this. It’s not out of spite that He calls them children of the devil. He’s not returning hatred for hatred. He’s actually showing love for them in the way that is best for them. And that’s by hiding His love from them.

God deals with the sinners of this world in two ways. The first is according to His proper work, that is, the primary way in which He comes at us with love, mercy and grace. The apostle Saint John, therefore, writes in his first epistle that, “God is love.” And God primarily, chiefly, supremely manifests His love for us in His Son, our Lord Jesus, whom He sent “to be the propitiation for our sins”—whom He sent to suffer and die for us on the cross. Now, in addition to this loving, salvation-giving way of dealing with us, there is also what theologians call God’s “alien” work, meaning that it is seemingly foreign or out of character to the way that God primarily is toward us. And that way is the way of His wrath and displeasure.

If you remember from your Confirmation Class days, the Conclusion of the Ten Commandments teaches us that God is “a jealous God, punishing the children for the sins of the fathers to the third and fourth generation of those who hate [Him,] but showing love to a thousand generations of those who love [Him] and keep [His] commandments.” God threatens to punish all who break His commandments. This is His alien work in which He directs the severity of the Law against sinners, so that they would turn from their sin in true repentance and receive His love and every blessing that He freely offers and gives in Christ.

In sacred Scripture we have examples of how God hides His love under His wrath in terrible and frightening ways—“real Old Testament stuff,” we say. We also see how God exercises His alien work by hiding His love under the evils of this world that He allows to afflict us. In such times of hardship and trial, when there seems to be no help for you, it’s not that God has abandoned you, but rather that He is working through silence to turn you away from trusting in yourself and from all false hope offered by the world. He waits in hiding for you to trust in Him only.

What we see from Jesus in today’s Holy Gospel is His alien work directed against those who are stuck in their sin and impenitence. I say stuck, rather than hardened in their hearts, as was Pharaoh, because Jesus sees that there’s still hope for them. If there weren’t, Jesus probably wouldn’t have engaged them at all; He wouldn’t have stuck in there with them, enduring their name-calling and defamatory remarks. And He wouldn’t have repeatedly offered them life and salvation, telling them, “if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death”“he will never taste death.” Jesus believes that there’s still hope for them, and so He pulls out the hammer of God to drive them to see the truth of their sin that they might repent and be saved. Were our Lord Jesus to say nothing to them and just go along for the sake of getting along, so that everybody’s happy, He would have been consigning them to the consequence of their sin and unbelief. And that is not what the Father sent His Son to do.

Sadly, we don’t see any repentance and seeking of forgiveness from that group of Jews in our text. Perhaps the words of Jesus later would sink in, as the Holy Spirit continues to do His work of convicting them of sin and righteousness and judgment. We can hope that’s the case, but the last that we’re told of them is that they picked up stones to throw at Jesus.

Clearly, God’s alien work doesn’t always produce the results that God would like to see. People don’t always respond with gratitude and thanksgiving and repentance when they’re told that they are poor, miserable sinners. Some will get defensive and angry and deny any wrongdoing, just as we saw in today’s Holy Gospel. And some of those people will be you—some of those people denying their sinfulness have been you. I can say this with complete and utter confidence because it is the way of the Old Adam—the way of your sinful nature to say that you have no sin, or to say that your sin is of no real consequence, that you’ve got a handle on it and, therefore, don’t need God’s help and forgiveness—you don’t need Jesus.

You know, that’s the devil’s greatest lie. It’s essentially what he said to our first parents and the reason why you have that Old Adam within you. And it’s what the devil keeps on trying to get you to believe. Every day and twice on Sunday, the father of lies is whispering in your ear, saying, “You don’t need Jesus. You’re just fine the way you are.” What a tempting lie that is! And how damning it is if you believe it!

“If you abide in my word,” Jesus says, “you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” “If anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” “If anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death.” Abiding in the word of Christ—keeping the word of Christ, dear brothers and sisters, is nothing other than having faith. It’s believing and trusting in Jesus, that He died for you, that He offered Himself up on Calvary’s cross as the one, perfect, all sufficient sacrifice for your sin and for the sin of the whole world. It’s taking Him at His word and not doubting what He says through the apostle Saint John, namely that, “If we confess our sins, he is faithful and just to forgive us our sins and to cleanse us from all unrighteousness.” Such forgiveness—such cleansing that Jesus promises faithfully to provide, is what will keep you safe from the devil’s lies and temptation, and keep you in the righteousness of faith unto life everlasting.

Believing and trusting, we, therefore, pray to the Lord, our God, with the Psalmist: Send out your light and your truth; let them lead me; let them bring me to your holy hill and to your dwelling!” In the name of the Father and of the + Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.