Sermon for May 26, 2013

John 8:48-59 (The Holy Trinity—Series C)

Lutheran Church of Our Redeemer, Enfield, CT

May 26, 2013

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

Our text is the Gospel from John 8:

The Jews answered him, “Are we not right in saying that you are a Samaritan and have a demon?” 49 Jesus answered, “I do not have a demon, but I honor my Father, and you dishonor me. 50 Yet I do not seek my own glory; there is One who seeks it, and he is the judge. 51 Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.” 52 The Jews said to him, “Now we know that you have a demon! Abraham died, as did the prophets, yet you say, ‘If anyone keeps my word, he will never taste death.’ 53 Are you greater than our father Abraham, who died? And the prophets died! Who do you make yourself out to be?” 54 Jesus answered, “If I glorify myself, my glory is nothing. It is my Father who glorifies me, of whom you say, ‘He is our God.’ 55 But you have not known him. I know him. If I were to say that I do not know him, I would be a liar like you, but I do know him and I keep his word. 56 Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad.” 57 So the Jews said to him, “You are not yet fifty years old, and have you seen Abraham?” 58 Jesus said to them, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am.” 59 So they picked up stones to throw at him, but Jesus hid himself and went out of the temple.

             Probably one of the most important characteristics that we want to see in a spouse, a friend, or in the people we work with or work for, is that they keep their word.  It’s about integrity, isn’t it?  We know how frustrating it can be when someone says, “I’ll take care of it.  Don’t worry,” and then we find out later that the task wasn’t taken care of and now we need to worry.  Or a colleague says, “I’ll be at the meeting tomorrow.  I’ll back you up and support you,” but the day of the meeting comes and your friend either doesn’t show or shows but doesn’t speak up for you.  It’s so very important that our spouses, children, and friends keep their word so that we can trust them to be there when we need them most.

            In our text today, we hear about keeping a word.  It’s not about keeping our word or our promises, but rather about keeping the Word of Christ.  Keeping the Word means to “guard” it, to keep an eye on the Word so that it is not tampered with, but kept sacred and done in our lives.  Martin Luther brings this out in the explanation to Third Commandment, “Remember the Sabbath Day by keeping it holy.”  He writes that this means “We should fear and love God so that we do not despise preaching and His Word, but hold it sacred and gladly hear and learn it.”

            But there’s the problem.  We don’t always keep an eye on the Word of Christ.  We don’t always hold it sacred, important.  Every time we are tempted and fall into sin, we reject the Word and fail to guard and keep it.  When we put our trust in anyone or anything other than the one Triune God we fail to keep the Word of Christ.  When you and I use God’s name to swear or when we curse, we fail to keep the Word of Christ.  When we fail to be faithful in our Bible reading and hearing the preached Word, we fail to keep the Word of Christ because we are not gladly hearing, learning, and keeping it sacred. 

            We also do not guard the Word of Christ when we do not honor our parents and other authorities whom God has placed over us.  When we steal or cheat other people, talk behind someone’s back, or lie we are not keeping the Word of Christ.  Failing to serve our neighbors in love and not helping them in their needs is another failure to keep the Word of Christ. 

            Clearly, we do not keep and guard the Word of Christ the way our Lord intends for us.  How troubling, then, does that make Jesus’ words in our text?  He says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.”  Jesus is speaking about eternal death and condemnation in hell.  Since we do not always keep His Word, since we do not always keep an eye on it and hold it sacred, what must this mean for us?  Eternal death?  Separation from God forever? 

            It would most assuredly mean that except for the grace of God, His undeserved loving-kindness toward you and me.  God our Father doesn’t sentence us to death for our sins because Jesus kept the Word in our place. 

            In contrast to the Jews who did not know God and keep His Word, Jesus says in our Gospel text, “I do know Him and I keep His Word.”  Jesus is saying to you and me, “Because of your sinful nature you are not able to keep and to guard My Word perfectly.  You fall into temptation and sin.  You fail to fear, love, and trust in God above all things.  You fail to love your neighbors as yourselves.  But I did not.  I kept the Word of the Father perfectly and I completely obeyed Him.  By fulfilling all the Commandments I showed my complete love for My Father and His Word.”

            All this Jesus did for you and me.  Jesus gave you and me His perfect life, His perfect obedience.  We are credited with having kept the Ten Commandments flawlessly.  We are credited as having completely kept the Word of Christ.  And what have we given to Christ in exchange for His righteousness?  Our sins.  Jesus took all our sins, all our failures to keep His Word.  He suffered the full punishment of death and hell for them as He bled and died on the cross.  Jesus died in our place so that we will never experience everlasting death.  Christ redeemed us from all sins, from death, and from the power of the devil.  He took our guilt and our punishment, freeing us from the chains of slavery to sin.  We are forgiven!  Through Jesus’ suffering, death, and resurrection, you and I have already now triumphed over death and the grave.  We have eternal life. 

            Even before the dawn one Friday morning I noticed a young man, handsome and strong, walking the alleys of our City.  He was pulling an old cart filled with clothes both bright and new, and he was calling in a clear, tenor voice: “Rags!”  Ah, the air was foul and the first light filthy to be crossed by such sweet music.

“Rags!  New rags for old!  I take your tired rags!  Rags!”

“Now, this is a wonder,” I thought to myself, for the man stood six-feet-four, and his arms were like tree limbs, hard and muscular, and his eyes flashed intelligence.  Could he find no better job than this, to be a ragman in the inner city?

I followed him.  My curiosity drove me.  And I wasn’t disappointed.

Soon the Ragman saw a woman sitting on her back porch.  She was sobbing into a handkerchief, sighing, and shedding a thousand tears.  Her knees and elbows made a sad X.  Her shoulders shook.  Her heart was breaking.  The Ragman stopped his cart.  Quietly, he walked to the woman, stepping round tin cans, dead toys, and Pampers.

“Give me your rag,” he said so gently, “and I’ll give you another.”

He slipped the handkerchief from her eyes.  She looked up, and he laid across her palm a linen cloth so clean and new that it shined.  She blinked from the gift to the giver.  Then, as he began to pull his cart again, the Ragman did a strange thing: he put her stained handkerchief to his own face; and then HE began to weep, to sob as grievously as she had done, his shoulders shaking.  Yet she was left without a tear.

“This IS a wonder,” I breathed to myself, and I followed the sobbing Ragman like a child who cannot turn away from mystery. 

“Rags! Rags! New rags for old!”

In a little while, when the sky showed grey behind the rooftops and I could see the shredded curtains hanging out black windows, the Ragman came upon a girl whose head was wrapped in a bandage, whose eyes were empty.  Blood soaked her bandage.  A single line of blood ran down her cheek.  Now the tall Ragman looked upon this child with pity, and he drew a lovely yellow bonnet from his cart.  “Give me your rag,” he said, tracing his own line on her cheek, “and I’ll give you mine.”  The child could only gaze at him while he loosened the bandage, removed it, and tied it to his own head.  The bonnet he set on hers.  And I gasped at what I saw: for with the bandage went the wound! Against his brow it ran a darker, more substantial blood – his own!

“Rags! Rags! I take old rags!” cried the sobbing, bleeding, strong, intelligent Ragman.  The sun hurt both the sky, now, and my eyes; the Ragman seemed more and more to hurry.  “Are you going to work?” he asked a man who leaned against a telephone pole.  The man shook his head.  The Ragman pressed him: “Do you have a job?”  “Are you crazy?” sneered the other.  He pulled away from the pole, revealing the right sleeve of his jacket – flat, the cuff stuffed into the pocket.  He had no arm.

“So,” said the Ragman.  “Give me your jacket, and I’ll give you mine.”  Such quiet authority in his voice!  The one-armed man took off his jacket.  So did the Ragman – and I trembled at what I saw: for the Ragman’s arm stayed in its sleeve, and when the other put it on he had two good arms, thick as tree limbs; but the Ragman had only one.  “Go to work,” he said.

After that he found a drunk, lying unconscious beneath an army blanket, and old man, hunched, wizened, and sick.  He took that blanket and wrapped it round himself, but for the drunk he left new clothes.  And now I had to run to keep up with the Ragman.  Though he was weeping uncontrollably, and bleeding freely at the forehead, pulling his cart with one arm, stumbling for drunkenness, falling again and again, exhausted, old, old, and sick, yet he went with terrible speed.  On spider’s legs he skittered through the alleys of the City, this mile and the next, until he came to its limits, and then he rushed beyond.

I wept to see the change in this man.  I hurt to see his sorrow.  And yet I needed to see where he was going in such haste, perhaps to know what drove him so.  The little old Ragman – he came to a landfill.  He came to the garbage pits.  And then I wanted to help him in what he did, but I hung back, hiding.  He climbed a hill.  With tormented labor he cleared a little space on that hill.  Then he sighed. He lay down.  He pillowed his head on a handkerchief and a jacket.  He covered his bones with an army blanket.  And he died.

Oh, how I cried to witness that death!  I slumped in a junked car and wailed and mourned as one who has no hope – because I had come to love the Ragman.  Every other face had faded in the wonder of this man, and I cherished him; but he died.  I sobbed myself to sleep.

I did not know – how could I know? – that I slept through Friday night and Saturday and its night, too.  But then, on Sunday morning, I was wakened by a violence.  Light – pure, hard, demanding light – slammed against my sour face, and I blinked, and I looked, and I saw the last and the first wonder of all.  There was the Ragman, folding the blanket most carefully, a scar on his forehead, but alive!  And, besides that, healthy!  There was no sign of sorrow nor of age, and all the rags that he had gathered shined for cleanliness.

Well, then I lowered my head and trembling for all that I had seen, I myself walked up to the Ragman.  I told him my name with shame, for I was a sorry figure next to him.  Then I took off all my clothes in that place, and I said to him with dear yearning in my voice: “Dress me.”  He dressed me. My Lord, he put new rags on me, and I am a wonder beside him.  The Ragman, the Ragman, the Christ!  (Walter Wangerin, Jr., Ragman)

Jesus took your place under God’s judgment against your sins.  He kept God’s Word perfectly on your behalf, as if you had done it yourself.  He freely gives you His perfect righteousness.  And in exchange, Jesus took your rags of sin to the cross and died there to set you free from sin and death.  Now, because of the work of Christ in His life and in His death and resurrection, your reward for His work of love is new life, eternal life.  You will “never see death.”  Amen. 

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