Jesus tells the Jews that, if they truly were from God, they would love Him. After all, He comes from the Father and goes back to the Father. He then proclaims that they, the people, are of their father—the devil, the father of lies. He and his lies are at the root of all sin and evil in the world.
This is how our Lutheran Confessions explain this text about the devil. The Apology of the Augsburg Confession says: “the cause of sin is the will of the devil and people turning away from God, according to the saying of Christ about the devil, 'When he lies, he speaks out of his own character' (John 8:44)” (Apology XIX:77).
In times of great evil and distress in the world, it’s quite common to ask the question, “Why?” Why is there so much evil in the world? Why is there so much hatred and violence and war? Why are innocent people slain and Christians hunted down and persecuted? And, if you dig even deeper, you may even ask this question of yourself. Why do I do these sins? Why am I so torn and possessed and infected by sin?
St. Paul himself struggled with this very question. In Romans 7(:18-20), he says, “I know that nothing good dwells in me, that is, in my flesh. For I have the desire to do what is right, but not the ability to carry it out. For I do not do the good I want, but the evil I do not want is what I keep on doing. Now if I do what I do not want, it is no longer I who do it, but sin that dwells within me.”
This is our slavery to sin. Each of us is bound under it and infected by it. Each of us struggles with it each and every day. And if you do not struggle with and fight against sins, that’s not a sign that you have no sin and do not sin. It’s just a sign that you are blind and numb to your sin. You don’t realize its stranglehold on you. You don’t feel its infecting grip on you.
This is the message that so incensed and infuriated the Jews in Jesus’ day. He had the audacity—the sheer, unmitigated gall—to suggest that they were not going to be saved automatically merely because they were descendants of Abraham. But even more, Jesus knows and understands the connection between sin and the devil. The two always go together.
In our Gospel reading, Jesus is not talking only about the Jews of His day; He’s also talking about us, you and me. He’s talking about our desire to cling to our pet sins. He’s talking about how we too always want to hold back on God. You know what I mean. “I’ll go to church and be a Christian and all, but there are just some things that are too much a part of me to give up. There are certain sins which are mine. I’m not going to let anything or anyone get in the way of what I want to do. I’ll go to church, but I won’t let the message I hear at church change or shape the way I live or the way I think.” We may not say it so boldly, but we do live it.
This is the trial that Abraham faced in the almost-sacrifice of his son. God had given him a son in his old age. Now God was asking him to go and sacrifice his son, his only son whom he loved. Why? To prove his great love for the Lord. It did not make any sense. I imagine Abraham was sorely tempted simply to refuse. After all, this was his son; no one would take him away. And yet it’s precisely that love for his son that God was testing. “What are you willing to give up for Me,” the Lord was asking. “Your livelihood, your friends, your life, even your son’s life?”
Yet we see that Abraham walked by faith, not by sight. He passed the test, but only because God gave him the faith to pass the test. And Abraham is not the only one God ever tested.
Every day your faith and life are tried and tested in the furnace of the cross. There are constant temptations for you to overcome, trials to face, and crosses to bear. And you know the dilemma: you fail at these every day. Like the Jews of Jesus’ day, you just cannot see past your own selfish nature. You cannot overcome your own self-righteous judgment on the rest of the world.
So, where’s the Gospel—the sweet, comforting, healing good news of Jesus? Where does your hope lie? Your hope and healing lie in these great words of Jesus: “Before Abraham was, I AM.” Such easy words to say, and they are words of sweet, soothing comfort for you, the hurting sinner. These words draw you outside of yourself, outside of your own failures and shortcomings. They draw you into Jesus’ loving embrace and His everlasting comfort.
You see, as long as you look at sin as something you can conquer—as if sin were merely a bad habit—you will fail. We have a hard enough time conquering bad habits. But sin goes much, much deeper. Being a Christian is not like a diet program to get rid of sin. Nor is like going to the gym to work out and get stronger. Ever since Adam and Eve fell from God’s good graces, sin infects your very nature as a human being. You cannot simply reform your way of life. That’s like putting a Band-Aid on a gunshot wound. Instead, you must be healed. You must be reborn. You must be made anew. No set of laws or regulations or steps for living will cure this disease. The cure must come from outside of you. Being a Christian means you get to come to the hospital of Jesus’ Church to receive the healing medicine of His cross-won forgiveness.
“Before Abraham was, I AM,” Jesus said. What God asked Abraham to do, He did Himself--sacrificing His only Son, the Son whom He loves. What does this mean? This Jesus Christ, the Son of God, has had your salvation planned from before the foundation of the world. Yes, God knew you would falter and fail. Yet His love for you is so great, so strong, so powerful, that He ordained His only-begotten Son to come into your flesh, live your kind of life, walk in your shoes, and die your death. That way the price of your failure would be paid in full.
Hebrews says it this way: “He entered once for all into the holy places, not by means of the blood of goats and calves but by means of His own blood, thus securing an eternal redemption” (Heb. 9:12). Jesus entered that most holy place and paid the price—the ultimate price—of His very life for you. And that, dear saints, is the very Body and Blood that you get to eat and drink here today. Jesus’ own true Body and Blood cleanses you, heals you, and remakes you once again into the image of God.
Now, this message is offensive, to be sure. It compels you to put aside all of your silly and pathetic self-made notions about yourself, your worth, and your status. It strips away all the layers of sin and death that infect each and every one of us. And in their place Jesus the Christ gives you the very image of God, the image put upon you with water and His Word.
So it’s in this message of life through death, and salvation through suffering, that you have hope and healing and peace this day. Abraham rejoiced to see this day. “He saw it and was glad.” As Jesus said, all of heaven rejoices when one sinner comes to realize his or her own sinfulness and turns in faith to the only One who can save (Luke 15). And that one Savior is Jesus Christ, our Lord.
As we turn our attention to our Lord’s Passion, Death, and Resurrection once again, may this be your constant song:
The cross! It takes our guilt away;
It holds the fainting spirit up;
It cheers with hope the gloomy day
And sweetens ev’ry bitter cup.
The balm of life, the cure of woe,
The measure and the pledge of love,
The sinner’s refuge here below,
The angels’ theme in heav’n above.
To Christ, who won for sinners grace
By bitter grief and anguish sore,
Be praise from all the ransomed race
Forever and forevermore. (Lutheran Service Book, 429:3, 5, 6)