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John 8:42-59

Rev. Andrew Eckert

Lent 5
Our Savior Lutheran Church  
Stevensville, MT

Sun, Mar 29, 2020 

“Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My Word, he will never see death.” The Jews said to Him, “ … 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? … ” Jesus answered, “ … Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see My day.  He saw it and was glad.” So the Jews said 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.” So they picked up stones to throw at Him, but Jesus hid Himself and went out of the temple.

Thus far the Holy Gospel.

Death has been on our minds recently.  We may not realize that we are thinking about death, but we are.  The Coronavirus demands our attention, whether we like it or not.  We are being forced to think in terms of avoiding death, if not for ourselves, then for others.  If I say that I do not want to give someone a virus that may kill them, then I am thinking about the danger of death.  Likewise if I think that I will die if I do not have enough of the right kinds of supplies, or if I do not practice the right social distancing, gathering in a group that is too large or too close, etc. etc.

Death is near.  But it was always near.  There are always a thousand ways we can die at any moment.

Please understand that I am not trying to minimize the dangers of Coronavirus.  This, our current bogeyman, is indeed potentially dangerous.  It is also frightening because it may compel us to be, to some extent, responsible for the death of someone else.  No sane man wants that.

But we need to remember something, in the midst of whatever fears we may have.  The thing to remember is this: “If anyone keeps My Word,” says Christ, “he will never taste death.” Christ and His Word are the antidote to death.

We Christians know and confess this easily enough.  The problem is that we do not always feel that it is true.  We sometimes act as if it were not.  When we are threatened by the fear of death, this may become more apparent.

This is from our old Adam that wants to grovel before the grave, all the while that he wants to pretend that he fears nothing.  The old Adam can be very subtle.  There is such a thing as prudent precautions for situations such as we find ourselves in today.  But then the old Adam can easily piggyback sinful worries and fears along with the wise prudence.  This assumes that there are wise thoughts at all, and not simply foolish panic, to which none of us are immune.  Even foolish panic is difficult to recognize within oneself when a person is in the middle of a fearful situation.

God give us the wisdom that we often sorely lack.

To some extent, we can never escape the fear of death.  God gives us a healthy instinct for self-preservation.  We do not carelessly throw away our lives or the lives of others.  That would be a violation of the Fifth Commandment.  Life is a precious gift from the Lord to be valued and protected.

But under sin, we must face death eventually.  We walk in the shadow of death all our life.  The old Adam wants us to say, “Look!  Look!  Danger over there!  Danger over here!” The reason the old Adam does this is so that it can also say, “If God really cared about me, then He would not allow this situation to happen.”

That is the real danger.  The sinful fear of death accuses God of failing to love us.  We may not even do this consciously.  But somewhere in the back of our sinful mind, we want to blame God.  If God is in control of everything that happens (which He is), but I am scared because of what is happening, then it must be God’s fault.  That makes sense to our old Adam, because it is exactly what Adam said in Eden: “The reason I ate the fruit is the woman that You made for me, God.  It is her fault, and therefore Your fault!”

So some people might be tempted to say, “God, you allowed this Wuhan Virus to afflict us.  Either You do not care, or You do not exist.  At the very least, I am not obligated to believe that anyone who keeps Your Word will never taste death.”

But Christ did not say, “You will never die at all.” He did not say, “You will never experience physical death.” Christ is saying things that are difficult to understand, even when you have faith.  He is saying that the true Death will never touch you.  The Grave with all its terrors cannot destroy you.  Instead, through Him and His Word, you will pass through death into life and resurrection.

Our old Adam then wants to say, “Well, that’s a cop-out!” No, it is not a cop-out.  Christ is talking about the true reality, the true nature of Death.  We see and fear the lesser death, when our heartbeat stops and your soul leaves your body, which is bad enough.  This lesser death is a horrible thing that would never have happened except that sin entered the world.  But even this lesser death pales in comparison with the greater death, which is the destruction of both body and soul in hell.  This takes place because every human being is born in sin, that is, born spiritually dead. 

We were conceived and born into a state of death, doomed for more death, because we were born under the curse of Adam.  But in Christ, we have life.  Therefore we face the grave with courage, knowing that whatever happens, we have life.  After all, Christ has promised it, and He can never lie.

Today, we might watch the news and see the infection rates and the death counts and fearfully say, “Death is all around!  I am in so much danger!” But instead of trusting our eyes and our experience, we should trust the Word of Christ, our Lord.  He says, “Whoever keeps My Word will never see death.” To keep His Word means to believe in Him.  Whoever has faith in the Son of God has life that can never be taken away.  Although the body may rest in the ground for a time, it will rise, never to die again.

For we follow the pattern of our Lord.  He walked a similar road to ours.  It is not that He was never threatened with danger.  In the Holy Gospel, the Jews picked up stones to stone Him.  If He were a weak sinner like us, He might have said, “Oh no!  There is so much danger!  Death is threatening Me!” But He never committed a single sin, so instead He faced death with courage.  He knew that it was not His time to die.  He hid Himself by His miraculous power and went away.

We do not have miraculous power.  Yet we can see that we will not die until the Lord allows it.  He numbers the hairs on our head, so much is He interested in our lives.  Precious to Him is the death of His saints, because He values us so much.  He will not let death come to our door until He decides, and His loving will is always best.

Yet a time came for Christ, and will come for us.  Christ agonized over His death when He was in Gethesemane.  Yet that was not the fear of death, but the fear of the intense torment He would have to suffer to atone for our sins.  Likewise, He cried out from the Cross, “My God, My God, why have You forsaken Me?” This is also not a sinner’s whiny complaint against God.  This is Christ fulfilling Scriptures and showing us what was going on at Calvary.  This was not ordinary death, but the death of God’s only-begotten Son for the sins of the world. 

Was Christ in real agony?  More than we will ever know.  He had to face the greater death, the damnation of soul and body; made even worse because He suffered for all sinners at the same time.  This was no play-acting on the Cross.  He truly suffered the pangs of death.

Yet now, for us, the sting of death is taken away.  All sin is atoned for by the precious Blood of God.  We will never suffer the greater death.  We do not taste the full bitterness of the terrible cup of God’s wrath.  That is the true death, when a person is completely separated from God’s life-giving presence.  But as we pass through the lesser death when our bodies grow still, God will never remove His blessing from us.  He will be with us all the way through death, and on to the resurrection.

This is because God is our Brother.  Christ is the eternal Lord in human flesh, who gives us His promises of life.  He says, “Before Abraham was, I Am.” That means that He is the Lord Yahweh who created the heavens and the earth, who spoke to Moses from the burning bush, and led Israel to the Promised Land with a mighty, outstretched arm.

He has done much more for you by becoming Man and taking your sufferings and death on Himself.  Because He took it, you need not suffer it.  The burden of the grave we must experience is a light and temporary burden compared to what He has taken away.

Therefore, we can sing God’s praise in the face of death’s threats.  We can dance on our way to martyrdom, as the saints of old did, because we go to meet our Bridegroom.  The victory over death is already ours.

We are able to stand confidently in the face of death.  It may taunt us and try to scare us, and perhaps we may tremble at it because of our sinful weakness.  Yet we know that even our fears will completely pass away.  In the end, we shall taunt the grave and watch as it is destroyed forever.  “The last enemy to be destroyed is death,” and we shall see that day and that destruction.  For we have already won the victory in Jesus Christ, our dear Lord, the great I Am.

In His Name and to His glory.  Amen.

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