Faith in the Present Tense

During the fall of 2022, the people of The First U.P. Church of Crafton Heights have been considering a series of Jesus’ statements in the Fourth Gospel that contain the phrase “I am”. Our hope is that in doing so, we’ll be able to hear the Lord in his own words, and resist our culture’s temptation to speak ABOUT the Lord, rather than WITH the Lord.  On November 20, 2022, we concluded that series with an exploration of John 8 (included in the text below).  Here, Jesus doesn’t offer an object, he simply says, “I am.”  Here are some thoughts about what this meant then and what it might mean now.

To hear the sermon as preached in worship during the retreat at Camp Crestfield, please use the player below:

So for the last three months most of our time in worship has centered in on what Jesus has to say for and about himself. As I hope you recall, we’ve looked at the seven “I Am” statements that are found in the fourth Gospel.  Perhaps you’ll remember that our thesis has been that somehow, these “I Am” statements are based on a shared recollection of the story from Exodus 3, where God reveals the Divine name to Moses.  It is YHWH, or “I am who I am” or maybe “I will be who I will be”.  And maybe you’re old enough to remember the suggestion I made back in September – that perhaps the best translation might be “I will be who I am and I am who I will be.”

In Exodus 3 and so many other places in the Bible, we can see that fundamental to God’s nature and self-identity is the notion and practice of presence.  Whoever or whatever God is, God is here and now.

And, as I mentioned there are seven times in John’s gospel where Jesus begins a teaching with the words ego eimi. I am… the bread of life… the light of the world… the door or the gate… the good shepherd… the resurrection and the life… the way, the truth, and the life… the true vine…

Almost all of these are metaphors relating something tangible and common to Jesus’ hearers’ experience.  Every one of them is an invitation to know Jesus on a deeper level; each metaphor gives his hearers an opportunity think, “Wow, I knewJesus was something special, but this too?  This is amazing!”

So that’s where we’ve been since September.  Today, we finish this series on a day that the church calls “Christ the King” Sunday.  This day was added to the church calendar less than a hundred years ago by Pope Pius XI, who wanted to draw attention to the reality of Jesus apart from what Pius saw as the dangers of consumerism and secularism in the west, fascism in Spain and Italy, and Nazism in Germany.  Since then, the church has taken this day to proclaim fervently that Jesus, the Christ, is pre-eminent in all of creation, and that he has come, is coming, and will come again to rule the cosmos.

And, incidentally, just as bread, light, vine, and shepherd are helpful, but incomplete descriptions of Jesus, so too is “King”.  Don’t get hung up on the political connotations of that term; rather, recognize that what is meant here is an attempt to describe the absolute freedom and power of Jesus in relationship to the world.

This morning, we’re going to go back a few chapters in John to a day where he used the phrase ego eimi at least six times, and yet is not traditionally included in lists of the “I Am” statements of Jesus.  The reason for this is that there is no object. Jesus simply says, “I am.”  Let’s listen, and I’ll ask you to help me by reading along in a translation that really highlights the dialogue in this text:  The Voice.

For context, I’ll point out that Jesus is teaching here in the outer courts of the Temple in Jerusalem.  This is the place that is most accessible to the public, and it also happens to be in earshot of the headquarters of the Sanhedrin, the local religious establishment.  Let’s read together, with those on the right reading the text representing Jesus, and those on the left reading the text representing others who were present.

Jesus (to the crowds): 21 I am leaving this place, and you will look for Me and die in your sin. For where I am going, you are unable to come.

Jews: 22 Is He suicidal? He keeps saying, “Where I am going, you are unable to come.”

Jesus: 23 You originate from the earth below, and I have come from the heavens above. You are from this world, and I am not. 24 That’s why I told you that you will die here as a result of your sins. Unless you believe I am who I have said I am, your sins will lead to your death.

Jews: 25 Who exactly are You?

Jesus: From the beginning of My mission, I have been telling you who I am. 26 I have so much to say about you, so many judgments to render; but if you hear one thing, hear that the One who sent Me is true, and all the things I have heard from Him I speak into the world.

27 The people had not understood that Jesus was teaching about the Father.

Jesus: 28 Whenever the day comes and you lift up the Son of Man, then you will know that I am He. It will be clear then that I am not acting alone, but that I am speaking the things I have learned directly from the Father. 29 The One who sent Me is with Me; He has not abandoned Me because I always do what pleases Him.

30 As Jesus was speaking, many in the crowd believed in Him.

In this conversation we hear Jesus repeating himself form chapter 7, where he says that he’ll be going away to a place where they can’t follow.  It’s a confusing teaching, to be honest, but it seems that the heart of the matter is that Jesus here identifies with God sufficiently to say that he can judge humanity, but also that he chooses not to judge.  Only when the Son of Man is lifted up will everything make sense, and at that point, people will know that Jesus is the son of God.

As difficult and confusing as that may have been, there is apparently good news because as he speaks, people are believing.  Hearts are turning toward Jesus!

Encouraged and emboldened by that, Jesus starts a new round of teaching for these folks.  Listen:

Jesus: 31 If you hear My voice and abide in My word, you are truly My disciples; 32 you will know the truth, and that truth will give you freedom.

Jewish Believers: 33 We are Abraham’s children, and we have never been enslaved to anyone. How can You say to us, “You will be set free”?

Jesus: 34 I tell you the truth: everyone who commits sin surrenders his freedom to sin. He is a slave to sin’s power. 35 Even a household slave does not live in the home like a member of the family, but a son belongs there forever. 36 So think of it this way: if the Son comes to make you free, you will really be free.

Did you hear that talk of leading his followers on a path toward freedom?  They are tempted to look back, and mention that they’re descendants of Abraham who have never been slaves. Jesus talks about a bondage that is more onerous than any political, economic, or societal system.  He invites them to leave all the brokenness of their lives behind.  As he does so, he apparently catches the eye of some of the religious leaders leaning into what he’s saying.

Jesus: 37 I know you are descendants of Abraham, but here you are plotting to murder Me because you do not welcome My voice into your lives. 38 As I speak, I am painting you a picture of what I have seen with My Father; here you are repeating the things you have seen from your father.

Jews: 39 Abraham is our father.

Jesus: If you are truly Abraham’s children, then act like Abraham! 40 From what I see you are trying to kill Me, a man who has told you the truth that comes from the Father. This is not something Abraham would do, 41 but you are doing what you have learned from your father.

Jews: We were not born from adulterous parents; we have one Father: God.

Jesus: 42 I come from the one True God, and I’m not here on My own. He sent Me on a mission. If God were your Father, you would know that and would love Me. 43 You don’t even understand what I’m saying. Do you? Why not? It is because You cannot stand to hear My voice. 44 You are just like your true father, the devil; and you spend your time pursuing the things your father loves. He started out as a killer, and he cannot tolerate truth because he is void of anything true. At the core of his character, he is a liar; everything he speaks originates in these lies because he is the father of lies. 45 So when I speak truth, you don’t believe Me. 46-47 If I speak the truth, why don’t you believe Me? If you belong to God’s family, then why can’t you hear God speak? The answer is clear; you are not in God’s family. I speak truth, and you don’t believe Me. Can any of you convict Me of sin?

Jews: 48 We were right when we called You a demon-possessed Samaritan.

Jesus: 49-50 I’m not taken by demons. You dishonor Me, but I give all glory and honor to the Father. But I am not pursuing My own fame. There is only One who pursues and renders justice. 51 I tell you the truth, anyone who hears My voice and keeps My word will never experience death.

Jews: 52 We are even more confident now that You are demon-possessed. Just go down the list: Abraham died, the prophets all died. Yet You say, “If you keep My word, you will never taste death.” 53 Are you greater than our father Abraham? He died; remember? Prophets—are any of them still alive? No. Who do You think You are?

Jesus: 54 If I were trying to make Myself somebody important, it would be a waste of time. That kind of fame is worth nothing. It is the Father who is behind Me, urging Me on, giving Me praise. You say, “He is our God,” 55 but you are not in relationship with Him. I know Him intimately; even if I said anything other than the truth, I would be a liar, like you. I know Him, and I do as He says. 56 Your father Abraham anticipated the time when I would come, and he celebrated My coming.

Jews: 57 You aren’t even 50 years old, yet You have seen and talked with Abraham?

Jesus: 58 I tell you the truth; I AM before Abraham was born.

59 The people picked up stones to hurl at Him, but Jesus slipped out of the temple.

Well, that escalated quickly!

As we think about this passage, let me ask you this: when is the last time that you heard Jesus say something that made you angry?  I ask, because here he clearly got under their skin.  It’s almost as though he is trying to provoke his adversaries. He leaves behind all of the apparent “politeness” that we’ve come to expect in church.  Instead of saying, “Bless your hearts, I think I see it a little differently”, he calls them children of Satan.  His opponents double down on this argument and say, “No, we’re not in bed with the devil, you are!  And then, just for good measure, they throw in a racist taunt because, well, it’s easy and fun.

In their conversation, they return to the idea of being Abraham’s descendants and Jesus interrupts them and says, essentially, “Abraham?  Sure! I know him.  Great guy.  One of my best friends!”

And maybe you caught this, but just in case you didn’t, I want to point out that Jesus speaks of Abraham in the present tense.  He is not talking about some Hall-of-Famer­ from a bygone era, but rather as a personality who is present to Jesus at that very moment.

Well, this is too much for people to take, and they call shenanigans on Jesus, and say that he’s being ridiculous.  They point out, accurately, that he’s not anywhere near old enough to know Abraham.

And you heard the response: “Before Abraham was, I am.

And that’s when they tried to kill him.

I Am. Period. Not, “I am the bread” or “I am the resurrection.”  Not even anything like “I am hungry”.  Just I am.  Ego eimi.  How could they hear that and not think of Moses’ conversation with the Lord?  How could they hear this as anything other than a claim to divinity?

Often, we read this as people who claim affinity with Jesus and we say that Jesus was simply putting those religious leaders in their place.  Sometimes, we make the mistake of thinking that Jesus is the same as God, which is not true.

John 8 is a vivid testimony in which Jesus tells people then and now that he isconnected to the Father.  They are so close that Jesus can speak for God, and that God acts for Jesus.  But clearly, Jesus is not saying that he is God the Father.

The early church wrestled with this – how could Jesus be fully human AND fully divine.  One brilliant artist in the 6th century attempted to capture this in an image called “Christ Pantocrator”, or “Christ, ruler of all”.  It appears to be a pretty standard icon – you’ve got the one hand raised in a posture of teaching, the other holding a volume – the Gospels, perhaps; the halo, and more.  But note that the painting is asymmetrical.  The sides don’t actually mirror each other.

Christ Pantocrator, from St. Catherine’s Monastery in Sinai. 6th century – oldest surviving icon of Jesus

In fact, if you DO make mirror images, we see that there are two different images.  One, representing his human nature, and the other, his divine.  Can you see the difference?  Jesus as a human and yet a full participant in the divinity of God.  It’s a difficult concept, and yet this artist has sought to explore it.

A composite of what the right and left halves of the icon would look like if mirrored.

So what is Jesus saying to his friends in this passage?  Or to us?  Here’s my thought.  In speaking of Abraham in the present tense, and in saying “Before Abraham was, I am”, Jesus is pointing to his eternal nature.  In using this vocabulary, Jesus is identifying not only with Abraham, but with all of those who exist in our past – Isaac, Jacob, Moses, and more. He is saying that he not only knows their story, but that he is in that story with them.

When Jesus says, “I am”, he places himself in the present tense – the eternally present tense.  Right now, here at Camp Crestfield, Jesus is here.

When my great-great grandfather arrived in Nebraska, singing Lutheran hymns in German, Jesus is there.

When my great-great granddaughter draws her final breath, Jesus is there.

Jesus is.  Jesus is eternally, everywhere present.  Which means that when I go to visit a friend who is sick or angry or filled with doubts, I don’t need to look for a way to somehow get Jesus into the room.  Jesus is there before I am.

Jesus is.  Which means that I’m mistaken if I try to pin Jesus to my own political party or economic system or racial identity.  Doing that makes Jesus a mascot or a cheerleader.  Jesus is so much more.

Our passage ends with “The people picked up stones to hurl at him.”  You bet they did.

We always do. Whenever we see, embrace, or trot out a cartoon Jesus, that Jesus disappoints or angers us eventually.

A cartoon Jesus is one that wasn’t really a human, but just God parading around in a human body.

A cartoon Jesus is a messenger from God sent to assure me that I won’t ever have to bear any loss or pain.

A cartoon Jesus is a prophet of God who will make me rich and powerful.

A cartoon Jesus is a punisher from a God who just happens to hate all the same people I hate.

We love our cartoon Jesuses – the stock figures we can bring out to back up our ideas, bolster our egos, and remind us that God really does love us best of all.  And when the Jesus who is shows up, and he’s not any of these other guys, well sometimes we get angry at Jesus for not being who we hope that he’ll be.

Before Abraham was, I am.

Before you ever got pregnant, I am.

Before you even heard about that test, I am.

Before that idiot – whichever one you might think it is – got elected, I am.

Before he ever laid a hand on you, or you ever took that drink, or she fell asleep at the wheel… I am.

The good news of the Gospel is simply this: Jesus is.  In and over and through and beyond all of these situations, Jesus is.

Let us, therefore, move into this week and the Advent that follows it by looking for the Jesus who is in our world.  Let us love Jesus more than we love our ideas about him, and let us be with him as he is here and now, and not as we imagine or fear that he might be.  Thanks be to God who was, and who is, and who is to come.  Amen.

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