Lent 5 – Greater than Abraham?
Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad. Then said the Jews to him, 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. (John 8:56-58 [AKJV]
In this country and time, we are fixated on the notion of greatness and what it entails. In the world of sports, one of the biggest news items this month is the trade of Tom Brady from the New England Patriots to the Tampa Bay Buccaneers. There’s a good case that Tom Brady is the greatest quarterback to ever play the game. Will that greatness transfer to his new team, which has been solidly mediocre for almost all of its 45 or so year history? They sure paid top dollar to find out.
All over the sports world, there is a fascination with what exactly greatness means, who has it, and how much. Every sport has its own definition and, among fans, one of the easiest ways to start at the very least a spirited discussion, and sometimes a passionate argument, is to ask who the greatest is in a particular sport or at a particular position.
This phenomenon is not limited to sports, either – we’re out of the end of year period, but December is usually full of lists of the “greatest” things in the year – most important events, best movies, best books, you name it. Last year was also filled with “best of the decade” lists.
Even in the corporate world, we’re obsessed with greatness. Every few years, there has to be an “it” company that the press obsesses over or a set of them. In the late 90s and early 2000s, it was Walmart. These days, it’s Facebook, Amazon, Apple, Netflix and Google. In a few years, it will probably be someone else.
What makes all these people, or teams, or companies “great?” That is one of the biggest things to discuss because different people rank different characteristics differently. In our text for today, the question is almost rhetorical – “You’re not seriously suggesting that you’re greater than Abraham, are you?” The framing of the question is almost comical – how could people who have been paying attention to Jesus’ words throughout the chapter even ask that? Yet, they do. And Jesus’ answer is one of the most impactful statements he makes in his public ministry. His statement, and its implications, ring just as powerfully today as they must have then.
Let’s go back and look at look at the broader context in which this conversation takes place. To be clear, each of these sections of John chapter 8 can, should, and eventually will be entire sermons in their own right. But we’ll review briefly here because what has gone before is important in understanding the words of our text.
As in most of the Gospel of John, this section is part of an ongoing dialog that is taking place between Jesus and the religious leaders of the Jews. John chapter 8 starts with the story of the woman caught in adultery. There was no question of her guilt or innocence, the only question was what should be done with her. The Law said that she should be stoned; and that is exactly what the Jews wanted to do to her – execute her on the spot by stoning her. Legal, yes. But what does Jesus say: “He who has no sin, cast the first stone”, and no one does. To her, he says, “Go and sin no more.” So at the very beginning of this extended dialog, Jesus claims the authority to forgive and retain sin – certainly not the only time he does so, but it’s a very extraordinary claim to make – one that invites challenge. Jesus challenges the Pharisees further by claiming: “I am the light of the world.”
The Pharisees counter with an argument from the Law – you can’t testify about yourself, you need witnesses. If you have witnesses, we’ll believe you. Jesus counters that he alone does have the authority to testify about himself, but that he also does have a witness – his Father. Why does he have the authority to testify about himself? Because he knows where comes from and where he is going. He is beginning to drop hints about where his authority comes from. He says that he is from above, and not “of the world”, and he uses language very similar to what he used with Nicodemus in that night-time conversation – that he would be “lifted up”, and that he is “from above”. Like a parent who is being patient with a child who has no idea how impertinent he is being by asking specific questions, he is being gentle and patient.
The Jews then get to the meat of it – to the thing they were most proud of. “We are children of Abraham! We have never been slaves of anyone”, they say. Wait, does anyone remember Egypt? The plagues? How about Babylon? Daniel and the Lion’s den? Were the Jews free then? How about the Greeks, under Alexander the Great, and the Maccabees? That was about as far before that generation of Jews as the Civil War is from us today. What about Rome? Were the Jews free of Rome? Clearly they weren’t. Again, Jesus lovingly and patiently points them towards his authority. He acknowledges that they are children of Abraham, but says that if they were really children of Abraham, they would do what Abraham did. (And what was it that Abraham did? He believed in God’s promises, and that was credited to him as righteousness.) Jesus tells them something we know, and something they should have known too: Those who love God, love to hear God’s Word. Jesus is in a very direct and literal way speaking God’s Word to them, and yet they were seeking to kill him. That meant that though they may have been descended from Abraham, they weren’t Abraham’s children according to the promise, not in the way that really mattered. The fact that they didn’t want to hear God’s Word meant that they were not of God.
The Jews were now incredibly angry. They claim that Jesus is a Samaritan (that is, not a descendent of their great father, Abraham) AND demon-possessed. In our Gospel lesson last week, they accused Jesus of using the power of Satan to cast out demons, and now they claim that he is demon-possessed himself. Jesus, who has done countless miracles that these people have been witness to or have heard about. Jesus, who spoke with supernatural authority. Demon possessed? The things we hear about how the demon-possessed don’t match how Jesus acted or spoke at all. The demon-possessed would roam the countryside naked, would be a danger to themselves and to others, and they did not speak much if at all. They certainly didn’t heal the sick or have crowds following them to listen and learn from them. And yet this is what they say to Jesus.
Jesus tells them, “If anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” You can almost hear the Jews reply, “Aha! Now we’ve got you!” Our fathers died, the prophets died, even Abraham died! Now, Jesus very, very clearly says that his Father is the God that the Jews are supposed to, and claim to worship. And further, that Abraham rejoiced that he might see Jesus’ day, and did see it, and was glad. We understand that to mean that Abraham believed God’s promise to send the Messiah, he believed it enough that he was willing to sacrifice his son Isaac, through whom he knew that bloodline would go, because he trusted that the God who was strong enough to give Abraham and Sarah a natural son though they were both nearly one hundred years old, was strong enough to bring that son back from death. They trusted God, they believed his promises and his words.
But these Jews clearly did not trust God in that way. They scoff, “You’re not even fifty years old, and you’ve seen Abraham?” Jesus’ reply rings in our ears even today: “Before Abraham was born, I AM!” The way this is stated is important because the Greek uses two different verbs here. Abraham “comes into being” or possibly “was made.” This is the exact same verb that is used in the prologue to John’s gospel, “Everything was made by him, and without him nothing was made that has been made.” Here, Abraham is something, someone that belongs to the things that were made. But Jesus simply is. He was, and is, and will be. The way he states this recalls God’s announcement of himself in the burning bush, as Moses asked him what his name was: “Tell them I AM has sent you.” Yes, this is Jesus claiming that he is the very Eternal God, in human flesh, standing before them. Is Jesus saying that he is greater than Abraham? Without a doubt he is doing just that. The Jews show that they understood exactly what he meant by picking up stones to kill him. The chapter begins with them picking up stones to throw at the woman caught in adultery, and ends with them picking up stones to throw at Jesus. In neither case do they get to throw them, though.
It’s so easy for us to look down our noses at those Jews. How could they be so foolish? Surely we could have done so much better in their place! We would have given Jesus the honor and glory he deserves, wouldn’t we?
Well, would we? How often do we try, like they did, to justify our actions and our behavior? Don’t we often believe that if we just try our best, that God will accept that, because we tried? Don’t we often act like God should reward us for the good that we’ve done? Never mind the good that we could have done but didn’t do. Never mind the evil we have done. Hey, at least we’re better than our neighbors, aren’t we? Isn’t that enough?
But this is exactly what the Jews were guilty of. They were trying to claim righteousness before God by appealing to the Law. They were trying to use their physical relationship with Abraham as an excuse to do whatever they wanted to do. But in doing so, they became slaves to the Law once again. Paul writes about this extensively in his letters to the Galatians. The Law indeed holds forth the offer of salvation – but only for the one who can keep it perfectly. Whoever keeps the Law, but fails in one point, is guilty of breaking all of it. There’s no difference; there are not greater or lesser laws or more or less important ones. One slip-up is all it takes to be guilty. One violation in thought, in word, or in deed. Our earthly laws usually only deal with deeds, usually not words or thoughts. But God’s Law searches deeper, and as we look at ourselves, we know that we do not and cannot measure up that way. When we try to justify ourselves with God’s Law, we are trusting in our own strength to save ourselves.
Abraham knew that too. He knew that he and Sarah were far too old to have children in the normal way. He had a son with Hagar, in the normal way, but God told him that was not to be the son of promise. That he and Sarah would have a son together, despite it being impossible by any kind of human reckoning. Abraham knew it was impossible for him to do on his own, but that it was not impossible for God to do, and so Abraham trusted God, and we read that God counted it to him as righteousness.
The weight of sins crushes us, too. We want desperately to get out from under it by our own strength and power. We know we can’t, but that doesn’t stop us from trying, does it? When we do that, we place ourselves in the same position as the Jews in our text. We claim that Jesus is a liar, that he doesn’t know what he is saying. That sounds awful, but that is what it means to try to put our confidence in salvation in anything other than the perfect life and death of God’s own Son, whom he sent to pay the price for our sins.
When we falter and stumble, and we will, we know – we must remember who it is who has asked us to cast our burdens on him and to trust him. He truly took on our humanity, so he understands our weakness and frailty. But at the very same time, he is absolutely the great I AM, who promised Abraham than in his seed all the nations of the Earth would be blessed. He is the great I AM, who led Israel out of captivity in Egypt, through the Red Sea and with the pillar of fire and the pillar of smoke. He is the great I AM, who forgave the nation of Israel its sins, not because they deserved it, but because he loved them enough to come to Earth and pay for them himself. And the great I AM loves us in exactly the same way. His promise is that where He is, there we will be with him – and today he sits in power and glory at the right hand of the Father. We will be with him, someday, sooner or later.
Let us hold to his Word in the meantime, and trust him to keep his promises, just as our spiritual father Abraham once did. In Jesus’ name, we pray, Amen.