The Fifth Sunday in Lent (Judica)—21 March 2021

Grace, mercy, and peace be to you from God the Father and Christ Jesus our Lord.

Our text is from today’s Gospel (John 8:42–59), focusing on our Lord’s promise: Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps my word, he will never see death.

In 1522, Martin Luther preached these sobering words about preparing to die: The summons of death comes to us all, and no one can die for another. Everyone must fight his own battle with death by himself, alone…. Therefore, every one for himself must know and be armed with the chief things that concern a Christian (from Luther’s 1522 Invocavit Sermons, quoted by John Pless. Praying Luther’s Small Catechism, p. 9). 

Which brings us to the question: Are you prepared to fight your own battle with death by yourself, alone? It will be the greatest battle of your life. Think of the times when you have been discouraged and depressed because of your sufferings and sorrows. Now, imagine how much worse it will be to do battle with death alone, knowing that you cannot change the outcome.

Into such gloom and doom, the Lord Jesus speaks a word of comfort: Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My word, he will never see death. Our Saviour is not speaking of physical death, for remember His words to Martha on the day He raised Lazarus: I am the resurrection and the life. Whoever believes in Me, though he die, yet shall he live, and everyone who lives and believes in Me shall never die (John 11:25-26).

What good news your Redeemer Jesus is promising you, that although you die physically, you will live forever in heaven. We who believe in Jesus shall never die what St. John calls the second death. The first death, physical death, everyone experiences. The second death, which John calls the lake of fire…that burns with fire and sulfur, is reserved only for those without faith in Christ. Those who trust in Christ will not be hurt by the second death; over such the second death has no power (Revelation 20:14; 21:8; 2:11; 20:16). This morning, our Lord Jesus speaks to you a great promise:Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My word, he will never see [the second] death.

This promise has three parts. First is the phrase Truly, truly, I say to you. In the Greek, the word for truly is a word you know very well; it is the word Amen. Amen is a word of faith, a word that says “yes, yes, it shall be so”. In St. John’s Gospel, Jesus uses the double Amen to emphasize that what He is saying is most certainly true. Truly, truly [Amen, Amen], I say to you, unless one is born of water and the Spirit, he cannot enter the kingdom of God (3:5). Truly, truly [Amen, Amen], I say to you, whoever hears My word and believes Him who sent Me has eternal life. He does not come into judgment, but has passed from death to life (5:24).

The reason these statements are most certainly true is because they are spoken by the One who is the great “I Am”. At the burning bush, when Moses asked God for His Name, God replied I am who I am (Exodus 3:14). God is not a generic God; He is the one true, eternal God above all the idols of this fallen world. In our praying the Creed, we are echoing back to God His Name, confessing that “He is who He is”, as He has revealed Himself to be in Holy Scripture. God’s Name, I am who I am or Yahweh proclaims to all sinners: I, I am the Lord, and besides me there is no saviour.… I, I am He who blots out your transgressions for My own sake, and I will not remember your sins (Isaiah 43:11, 25). 

And now, Jesus proclaims Truly, truly [Amen, Amen], I say to you, before Abraham was, I am. Jesus here is affirming that He is divine, that—with the Father and the Holy Spirit—He is Yahweh, the one true God of heaven and earth, the one Saviour who blots out all of our sins. And so when Jesus promises that we who trust Him will not by hurt by the second death of eternal torment, then we can truly, truly take Him at His Word! Whoever hears [the] word [of Jesus] and believes [the Father] who sent [Him] has eternal life…[and] has passed from death to life. This is most certainly true!

The second section of this promise focuses on the necessity of faith, for the promise of eternal life is fulfilled only for those who keep the Word. To escape the doom of the second death, you must keep the Word of Jesus. Well, how are you doing at keeping the Word of Jesus? Now, if keeping the Word meant perfect obedience to the Ten Commandments, then you would be doomed! But the Good News is that God Himself gives you the grace to keep the Word. In Holy Baptism, you have received the Holy Spirit, who keeps you in the true faith and who empowers you to keep the Word of Jesus your whole life long. This keeping of the Word does of course include obedience, for—filled with the Spirt—you cannot help but desire to amend your sinful life and to please God in all you think, say, and do. But there is more to this keeping. At its very heart, keeping the Word of Jesus is a life of confessing faith in the one true God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and of receiving from God the forgiveness, life, and salvation He gives in Jesus.

Keeping the Word of Jesus is how we do battle with the devil throughout life and in our dying. Remember what Luther said about preparing to die: every one for himself must know and be armed with the chief things that concern a Christian. The chief things that concern you as a Christian are the things that keep you in Jesus and in His victory as you battle with sin, the devil, and death itself. The chief things which you must know and be armed with are the holy things presented in the Catechism: the Ten Commandments, the Creed, the Lord’s Prayer, Baptism, Confession, and the Lord’s Supper. 

The Commandments teach you to recognize your sickness, so that you readily admit that you are a sinful, wicked person. The Creed shows you where to find the medicine you so desperately need: God’s grace and mercy in Christ. The Lord’s Prayer teaches you to entrust all things into the hands of your heavenly Father. Baptism makes you God’s dear child. Confession and Absolution is the Lord hearing your confession of sins and giving you His full forgiveness. The Lord’s Supper cleanses you of all evil and strengthens you in the faith as you feast on your Lord’s true Body and Blood. 

These are the chief things that should concern you as a Christian, for these are the holy things that teach you the faith in the one true God and by which you receive God’s gifts of forgiveness, life, and salvation. To keep the Word of Jesus, then, is to hold on tight to these holy things your whole life long.

Which brings us to the third section of our Lord’s promise: Truly, truly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My word, he will never see death. To you who keep and arm yourselves with the Word of Jesus, you have the Lord’s promise that the second death has no power over you. And so you need not fear the Day of Judgment and the threat of eternal death. You will not have to answer for your sins because Jesus has already answered for them on the cross. And Easter proves it. The resurrection of Jesus is the Father’s declaration that the sins of the whole world are paid in full by Jesus. If we still had to answer for our sins and convince God to let us into heaven, that would mean Jesus failed. But He has not failed. Easter proves it. As far as the east is from the west, so far has He removed our transgressions from us (Psalm 103:12).

Wherever the Gospel is proclaimed, there will be those who do not wish to hear God’s Word and who have nothing but contempt for Christ. Luther says that for these ungodly, their life’s story is this: I live, I know not how long; I die, I know not when I pass away, [and] I know not whereto. [These ungodly sinners] will not be able to outrun death but must forever remain in everlasting death, because they have disdained the wonderful, mighty medicine of God’s Word which makes death into everlasting life (Church Fathers quotes). 

But it is completely different with you, for though you are still a sinner, you are no longer ungodly, but have been made pure and righteous in God’s sight through Holy Baptism. And so your life’s story is not one of unbelief and doom. Rather, as Luther writes, Christians sing a different song; their song, your song, is this: I live, I let God decide how long; I die, God wills when and [in] what way; I pass away, [but] I know where I am heading; I am mystified that I am still sorrowful. [But I] will not see or experience death. Though death holds some dread for [me], [I] will not come into eternal death nor will death’s sting pierce my heart, but {[I] will fall asleep [in Jesus] without angst or sorrow (Church Fathers quotes).

This is the song that Job sang even in the Old Testament: For I know that my Redeemer lives, and at the last he will stand upon the earth. And after my skin has been thus destroyed, yet in my flesh I shall see God, whom I shall see for myself, and my eyes shall behold, and not another (Job 19:25-27). This is the blessed hope that sustains you through all your afflictions—the hope that on the Last Day God will raise your mortal body from the grave to glory, so that your very eyes will behold the God who has saved you, who has delivered you from the doom of the second death. 

The summons of death comes to us all, and no one can die for another. Everyone must fight his own battle with death by himself, alone. But thanks be to God, you are never truly alone. In life, you do not battle alone against the world, the devil, and your own sinful nature, for Christ is always with you, and His victory is yours! And even when dying, you do not battle alone, for Christ has already defeated death and He remains with you—even to your last breath—to bring you safely home. 

Your Saviour Jesus comes to you today through His Holy Word and Supper to forgive you for all the ways you have failed to keep His Word. He knows all your struggles to believe, to confess a true faith in the one true God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit—and to trust that He is a good, gracious God to you in the midst of your suffering. Your Saviour knows you through and through. And He loves you. For you, He suffered a lonely death on the cross, so that you would not have to battle death alone. For you, He suffered the Father’s condemnation of the world’s sins so that you would not die the second death. And for you, He rose on the third day from the grave so you too would rise up with Him. Oh, what Good News is yours today! Truly, truly [Amen, Amen], I say to you, [you who] hear[ and keep the Word of Jesus] and believe[ the Father] who sent Him [have] eternal life. [You do] not come into judgment, but [you have] passed from death to life (John 5:24). Amen.