Jesus said unto them, “Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.” (St. John 8:58).
Today, St. John allows us to be witnesses to one of the most important moments in the history of the human race. God the Son, the One through whom all things were created, is confronted and challenged by His greatest creation: Man. In our own time of disease and fear, maybe, we have fantasized about what it would be like to get in God’s face and demand some answers. Maybe, we don’t even intend to be ungrateful or rebellious; maybe, we only want the opportunity to speak with the God who is love and simply ask, “Why?” Why do my friends and family have to die; why must I die?
In the Old Testament, Job--beaten and bloodied by the Evil One’s assault on everything he loved--was given the blessed opportunity to ask this very question of God: “What is man, that you make so much of him, and that you set your heart on him, visit him every morning and test him every moment?...Why have you made me your mark? Why have I become a burden to you? Why do you not pardon my transgression and take away my iniquity? For now I shall lie in the earth; you will seek me, but I shall not be” (Job 7:17-18,20-21). Job is in such agony after the loss of his family and home and health that he assumes death is imminent; perhaps, he even welcomes it.
Dozens of chapters later, God responds to Job’s desperate plea for answers with a long series of questions, famously beginning with: “Where were you when I laid the foundation of the earth?” (Job 38:4). It is a haunting question revealing both Job and humanity’s complete lack of qualifications for interrogating the Creator of all things. How can we who were not at the beginning ever perfectly understand what is happening in the present? It would be like screaming at the author of a novel after only reading one random page: our confusion would be real and painful, but our anger would be tragically misplaced.
We get a taste of this tragic anger in the interrogation Jesus receives from his fellow countrymen today, men Christ judges by fitting them with the title: “not of God.” The importance of this moment is actually difficult to put into words: God the Son has descended from heaven to stand before His creation not as a series of questions bellowing out of a whirlwind, but as a loving, sinless man who even in His serious public rebuking offers hope and grace to men who wish to murder Him. But, part of Jesus’ mission to the lost sheep of Israel is to show them the severity of their fallen sinful condition: a broken human nature which makes them children of the Evil One and entirely alienated from the God they claim to worship, the God they cannot recognize because they are so blinded by sin, the God they are searching for any excuse to murder with stones.
If salvation, if life beyond the few years we spend on this fallen planet is a matter of our common sense or collective wisdom, then our race is as doomed as these confused and angry men. St. John, however, has already told us from where the children of God derive, “But to all who did receive [Jesus], who believed in his name, he gave the right to become children of God, who were born, not of blood nor of the will of the flesh nor of the will of man, but of God” (St. John 1:12-13). Every plank upon which the self-righteous, Christ denying men of today’s reading stand--whether it be their ethnic lineage or cultural superiority or adherence to the law or allegiance to their way of life--all of these tokens of false hope are ripped away from them by the God/Man telling them He alone is the cure for death. Truly, all our false hopes become meaningless when the Word of God made flesh proclaims Himself as the perfect liberation from the great plague of human existence, from the death which robs all of us of our humanity.
Of course, what is the response of these privileged men--men who have just heard the truth which sets men free? They don’t believe Him. They asked their questions of God, and God graciously gave them not just an answer, but the actual meaning of life, and yet, they refused to believe. Here in all its terrible, fallen glory is the natural, unaided human response to the good news of the Gospel: deny, deny, deny. Why? Like these men, what blocks people of all ages from believing the truth is an attachment to those tokens of false hope I mentioned above. Jesus tells these men they must set aside everything they think they know about God and Man, life and death, love and justice; they must give all of it away and simply follow the Son of God wherever He leads them, and so they call Christ a demon. How many of us cringe at the thought of offering up all of the lies we have been taught to believe in order to live in the truth which sets us free? Most likely, we don’t think we believe in any lies. Perhaps, we have fooled ourselves into thinking our personal beliefs are perfectly in line with the will of our Creator, or maybe we don’t care, or maybe we’re too busy or we’re scared or tired or wounded or lost. Perhaps, like the men in today’s reading, we will do whatever it takes to protect the lies we love, even if it means calling the God, who will sacrifice everything to save us, a devil, even if it means picking up stones to silence the very man trying to save us.
Why then should we believe Jesus? Why shouldn’t we be picking up stones of our own to throw at the God who asks us to follow Him through death into life? Again and again, in a display of the kind of humility necessary for a being to descend from Heaven to live in our broken world, God the Son seeks only to honor God the Father, and so, when the fallen world does finally get its hands on the Prince of Peace--nailing Him to a cross, laughing at His pain--it is the Father who vindicates every word of His Son by upending the curse of Death; it is the Father who honors the loving sacrifice of the Son by forever revealing the life which no man or demon or disease can destroy.
It is in this assured hope that all free men live. It is in the person of Jesus Christ that all our questions are answered in the great “I AM.” Blessedly, in a world of fake news and powerful liars, there is no ambiguity in Christ’s invocation of the Divine Name: the name God revealed to Moses before he led the 1st exodus of God’s people; the name Christ reveals to these men and to His disciples before He marches off to complete the 2nds exodus of God’s people--the deliverance of God’s sons and daughters from the plague of death. Jesus gives us no options anymore, no place to run or hide from the truth of who He is. The light of Christ, the light of God, is now shining into all the corners of the Earth, all the corners of our hearts, and it will reveal brokenness and sorrow wherever it lands, but even as that light reveals to us our wounded, broken natures, it is this same light which illuminates the new path upon which we must walk, the new life which is our destiny. As St. Paul writes, “If anyone is in Christ, he is a new creation” (2 Cor. 5:17). It is here, in the new life bestowed to us already by the God who died and lived that we might live forever, here is where we find the answer to the question of, “Why?” The One who actually was there when the foundation of the world was laid has shown us that love is worth dying for, that good always triumphs over evil, because the Father, the Son, and the Holy Spirit have said, “Yes” to new creation and, “No,” to death.
Let us then bind ourselves to the great I AM, let us bind ourselves to the Trinity, and let us live in the eternal life which forever washes us clean of the death which surrounds us.