Saturday, March 24, 2012

Sermon for March 24-25, 2012

“Tasting Death, Tasting Life” March 24-25, 2012
John 8:42-59, Genesis 22:1-14 Lent 5

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

If I were to ask you the question, “Is Abraham dead?” how would you answer? Your first thought would probably be, “Of course he’s dead. The Bible even tells us where he was buried.” That’s what the Jews thought in today’s Gospel. They said that Abraham and the prophets were all dead. But consider how on another occasion Jesus said that the God of Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob is not the God of the dead but of the living. In this greater sense, Abraham is not dead but very much alive with God. Jesus said, “Whoever lives and believes in Me shall never die.” And in today’s Gospel our Lord says, “If anyone keeps My word he shall never see death.”

That last statement greatly angered the Jews Jesus was talking to. They thought He was being arrogant and sacrilegious, making Himself out to be greater than Abraham (which of course He is). And they also misunderstood what Jesus meant when He said, “If anyone keeps My word he shall never see death.” For they changed one word in His statement. They replied, “You say, ‘If anyone keeps My word he shall never taste death.’” They changed the word “see” to “taste.” But our Lord wasn’t talking about tasting death. He doesn’t mean, “Whoever keeps My words will never end up in the grave or experience the death of the body.” For that will surely happen to all people until the close of the age.

And in fact in a way that is actually a good thing! For how else can we escape this body of death until it dies and is planted in the ground so that it might rise again renewed? And how else will we finally and forever be purified and cleansed of sin, unless the flesh that it so fiercely and stubbornly adheres to is killed? And so you die with Christ. And so your body is buried, so that it might rise with Christ better than you ever imagined, fully restored to life with God. St. Paul says it this way: “The body is sown in corruption, it is raised in incorruption. It is sown in dishonor, it is raised in glory. It is sown in weakness, it is raised in power” (1 Corinthians 15:42-44).

All of this is according to the Lord’s wonderful and mysterious mercy. For after the disobedience of Adam and Eve, God pronounced the death sentence on all creation–not simply in anger, and not simply to punish; but also to purify and renew and re-create. For in pronouncing this curse, the Lord was also pronouncing the way in which we would be redeemed. In Christ, death actually becomes a blessing, because He, the very Son of God, tasted death for us to take away its poison from us. It is written in Hebrews, “We see Jesus, who was made a little lower than the angels, for the suffering of death crowned with glory and honor, that He, by the grace of God, might taste death for everyone.” Jesus drank the lethal cup of judgment against our sin for us so that we might taste and see that the Lord is good and take refuge in Him and have everlasting life.

Even though Jesus escaped the hands of the Jews here on this day when they tried to stone Him, He didn’t hide Himself or escape death on the cross. He endured the death we must endure. He died a real death. He is the true Seed of Abraham who was planted and buried in the earth in order that He might sprout and rise and produce the harvest of our salvation. And if it is our hope to live with Him, we must also die with Him. For our life is tied to His in the waters of Holy Baptism. As it is written in Romans 6, “We were therefore buried with Him through baptism into death, in order that, just as Christ was raised from the dead through the glory of the Father, we too may live a new life. If we have been united with Him in His death, we will certainly also be united with Him in His resurrection.” We who hold to Jesus must taste death. And that is good, and according to God’s mercy. For only through death is there real resurrection. Only through death do we attain our goal–life in the kingdom of heaven.

For us who hold to Christ Jesus and His Word, bodily death is now like laying down to sleep, and a passing from this life to the next. Those who die trusting in the Lord are indeed blessed, for they are with the Lord. It is written, “Blessed are the dead who die in the Lord from now on; that they may rest from their labors, and their works follow them” (Revelation 14:13).

So when our Lord Jesus says that anyone who keeps His word will never see death, He means simply that those who hold to Him will never see the full wrath, the full fury, the full punishment and curse of death. In other words, we will never see eternal death and hell. And we will never see God with His back turned against us. So while we will taste of death, we will not see it or experience it in all its infernal horror. Blessed, then, are your believing loved ones who have died in Christ–spouses, parents and grandparents, children, friends–for they are not truly dead but are alive in the Lord, as alive as Abraham, Isaac, and Jacob.

“If anyone keeps My word he shall never see death.” What a tremendous promise that is! Let us therefore hold tightly to Jesus’ words and promises and cling to the eternal gifts that they deliver. Ponder and meditate on the Word of Christ, for in so doing you will not see death but rather you will see Him who is Life incarnate, the Life of God enfleshed for your redemption.

That, of course, is the underlying reason why the Jews rejected Jesus–they couldn’t accept that He was (and is) God in the flesh. They were still in bondage to the lies of their father, the devil. The thing that caused them to pick up stones to kill Jesus was when He said, “Most assuredly I say to you, before Abraham was, I AM.” I AM is the name of God revealed to Moses in the burning bush. I AM is Yahweh, the Lord God Almighty. That’s who Jesus was claiming to be by saying this. They considered that to be blasphemy. But in truth, Jesus had not only seen Abraham and the prophets, He is the very Son of God who gave them life, who spoke to them and guided them.

In fact it was the voice of Christ that Abraham heard in today’s Old Testament reading, the voice which called out to Abraham telling him not to harm Isaac when he was about to sacrifice him. For it was the Angel of the Lord (with a capital A) who spoke to Abraham–that is, the Messenger of the Father, the Son of God. This was no created angel, for He said to Abraham, “You have not withheld your son, your only son, from Me,” that is from God Himself.

Though the Jews prided themselves on being descendants of Abraham and called him their father, they were not truly his children; for they did not share in his faith. Jesus said, “Your father Abraham rejoiced to see My day, and he saw it and was glad.” By faith Abraham trusted in God’s promises and was given to see what was coming in Christ. And I believe one of the ways God showed Abraham what was coming was in this very account of the offering up of Isaac. Not only was God testing Abraham’s faith here in order to strengthen it, He was also giving a living prophecy of what He would do with His own Son.

Just consider all that is being beautifully and mysteriously foreshadowed here in the Old Testament reading. Isaac was the only son, the beloved son of Abraham, conceived in a miraculous way. So also God the Father gave His only begotten and beloved Son, miraculously conceived by the Holy Spirit in the Blessed Virgin. It was a donkey that carried Abraham’s supplies to Moriah, even as it was a donkey that carried our Lord into Jerusalem. When Abraham had come to Moriah on the 3rd day, he said, “We will worship and then we will come back to you.” Jesus said to His disciples, “In a little while you will see Me no more, and then after a little while, you will see Me.” I will go away and then I will come back to you in the power of the resurrection on the third day. Abraham laid the wood on Isaac his son, who carried it to the top of the mountain. Even so the Father laid the wood of the cross on His Son Jesus, and it was carried to the top of Mt. Calvary, the place of sacrifice. Just as Isaac was laid on the wood and bound, so Jesus was bound to the wood of the cross.

But the time for sacrificing the son would not come in Abraham’s day, but in Jesus’ day. After God stopped Abraham from sacrificing his son, he looked up and saw a male sheep, a ram caught in the thicket by its horns. Abraham offered it in place of his son. Even so, Jesus has offered up Himself in your place so that you would be set free from the judgment of death. The Lamb of God purposely caught His head in the thorny thicket of your sin to take it away and to release you from your bondage to sin and death. In Christ the words of Abraham are fulfilled for you, “God Himself will provide the Lamb.” Abraham named that place, “The Lord will Provide.” For on that holy mountain God provided for your salvation in His only Son, Jesus. Truly then, Abraham saw Jesus’ day and was glad.

We also are given to see Jesus’ day and be glad. For this is the Lord’s Day right now, where He gives Himself and shows Himself to you as the great I AM–“I am the Resurrection and the Life.” This is the day you are given to taste Life in the Sacrament of His holy body and blood, so that you might never see death. Our Lord Jesus is here to forgive you and transfigure your death-riddled flesh, so that one day, you might stand before the Father in your renewed and resurrected flesh, vindicated and honored with Christ.

In the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.

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