My vicarage – the year long internship that is the third year of seminary training – took place in Alexandria, VA. As many of you know, it was also the first year that Amy and I were married. The vicarage congregation provided housing, health insurance and a stipend, so Amy was able to work as a contract nurse in the area. Thursday was my day off, and so she scheduled herself to be off that day as well. Every Thursday we went somewhere in the Washington, D.C. area and did something as we took in all the sights.
We spent quite a bit of time in the area around the Mall in Washington. When you are there, it is hard to miss the fact that three structures dominate the center of our nation’s capital. On the one end there is the Capitol building. In the center is the Washington Monument. And at the other end is Lincoln Memorial. The Lincoln Memorial itself is an enormous white building which stands in front of a large reflecting pool. Inside is a giant sculpture of a seated President Abraham Lincoln.
The fact that structures commemorating President Washington and President Lincoln dominate the center of the capital is not surprising. Washington was the general who led the nation to victory in the Revolutionary War, and was the nation’s first President. Lincoln led America through the bloody Civil War as the nation was preserved. In the popular imagination he is credited with ending slavery in the United States. In many ways he is treated as a national martyr because he was assassinated while in office.
Lincoln is a giant figure in our nation’s history. Kentucky, Indiana and Illinois all have ties to Lincoln. But because Lincoln lived in Illinois during his adult life and political career that led to the presidency, Illinois has the strongest claim. Lincoln’s home is preserved in Springfield. He is buried in Springfield – you can touch is nose there.
And Illinois has made the most out of these ties. It is the self proclaimed “Land of Lincoln.” When you enter the state, that slogan along with a picture of Lincoln greets you on state signs. If you look on the license plate of your car, you will see a picture of Lincoln in the center along with the slogan “Land of Lincoln” written underneath. Abraham Lincoln is such a significant and beloved national figure that the state of Illinois proudly trumpets this heritage.
In the Gospel lesson for today, the Jews who are arguing with Jesus do something similar. They proudly claim the heritage of Abraham. Yet in their case this claim is even more significant since rather than mere civic pride, it involves the status they believe they have before God. Our Lord tells them that instead of Abraham, their spiritual status and eternal life depends on Jesus.
Our text this morning is the conclusion of a discussion between Jesus and some Jews that takes up all of chapter eight. Repeatedly, Jesus asserts he has been sent by God the Father. He says that he speaks what he has heard from the Father. He announces that the one who believes and keeps Jesus’ words will never die. The Jews reject all of this. Instead they claim that Abraham is their father. They are the offspring of Abraham and therefore they can call God their Father.
At the heart of our text and this discussion is the question of how a person relates to God. For these Jews, this is a matter of their heritage. Because they descend from Abraham, they are recipients of God’s promise to bless Abraham and his offspring.
Before our text Jesus proclaims, “If you abide in my word, you are truly my disciples, and you will know the truth, and the truth will set you free.” In response they indignantly reply, “We are offspring of Abraham and have never been enslaved to anyone. How is it that you say, ‘You will become free’?” Jesus answered them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, everyone who practices sin is a slave to sin.”
In our text this morning we find the contrast between those who know God and those who don’t. We find the contrast between those hear the words of God and those who don’t. And at the center of this stands Jesus. Jesus speaks from God. He speaks the truth about who we are and how we can have fellowship with God.
Now people in the world today don’t cling to the belief that they are the children of Abraham. But the basic orientation found in our text is everywhere. It is an easy confidence that spiritually all is well. Our Lord describes God the Father as the judge in our text, but the world has no expectation of a judge before whom all must appear. After all, there is no right and wrong, so how can there be judgment? And on top of that, the very idea of a judging God is so unloving. What a downer!
The way of our world is very tempting. I mean, no one wants to be wrong. No one wants to be told that they can’t do something – especially something that is very enjoyable. No one wants to be told that you have to do something – especially something that is hard, and requires self-control and sacrifice. We would rather do what we want to do and be affirmed in those decisions at the same time by the world around us.
And that is what the world is offering today. That is what you are tempted to embrace. You can go that way, and things will be easy. Create your own spirituality and you can have all of Sunday for yourself. You can keep all of your money for yourself. Sexually, you can do whatever feels good. You can pick and choose what you want to believe about Jesus and the way life should work. And the world – our culture – will love you for it. TV, the internet, movies, magazines, music and everything else will affirm your decision.
But there is a problem with all of this – it’s not from God. It doesn’t lead to God. Instead it’s from the devil and it leads to him. Just before our text Jesus says, “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I came from God and I am here. I came not of my own accord, but he sent me. Why do you not understand what I say? It is because you cannot bear to hear my word. You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father's desires. He was a murderer from the beginning, and does not stand in the truth, because there is no truth in him. When he lies, he speaks out of his own character, for he is a liar and the father of lies. But because I tell the truth, you do not believe me.”
Repeatedly in this chapter Jesus emphasizes that God the Father sent him. The Father sent him and so Jesus speaks the things he has heard from the Father and does the things the Father has given him to do. He says, “When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am he, and that I do nothing on my own authority, but speak just as the Father taught me. And he who sent me is with me. He has not left me alone, for I always do the things that are pleasing to him.”
Jesus came to do the things that were pleasing to the Father. He came to do the difficult things; the painful things that carried out the Father’s will and served us. As we get even nearer to Holy Week, we remember that Jesus was indeed lifted up on the cross. He told Nicodemus, “And as Moses lifted up the serpent in the wilderness, so must the Son of Man be lifted up, that whoever believes in him may have eternal life.”
By his death and resurrection he has defeated sin and death for us. And so Jesus can say in our text, “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.”
Our Lord can say this because of who he is and what he does. In our text the Jews are offended by this. They say to him, “Now we know that you have a demon! Abraham died, as did the prophets, yet you say, ‘If anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death.’ Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? And the prophets died! Who do you make yourself out to be?”
Jesus answered that he wasn’t glorifying himself. After all, if he did that his glory would be nothing. Instead it was the Father who glorified Jesus. The Jews claimed about the Father, “He is our God.’” They claimed this, yet Jesus says in our text, “But you have not known him. I know him. If I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and I keep his word. Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.”
Our Lord says that Abraham looked ahead to the fulfillment of the promise that in his offspring all nations would be blessed. Because he trusted God’s promise he knew that it would be fulfilled. In fact he “saw” it fulfilled by faith.
We are headed towards Holy Week and Easter. In that time we will again be reminded that we have seen it fulfilled. Where Abraham had some vague sense of what God would do, we know the whole story. We know about the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ for us.
In our text Jesus says, “If I tell the truth, why do you not believe me? Whoever is of God hears the words of God. The reason why you do not hear them is that you are not of God.” You hear Jesus’ words and believe them because you are of God. You are able to hear and believe because you were born again of water and the Spirit in Holy Baptism. Sustained by his Word, and his body and blood in the Sacrament you live knowing who Jesus is and what he has done. And because this is so, as Jesus says in our text this morning, you can be sure that you will never taste death.