We Don't Like What We Don't Understand
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The text for today is our Gospel lesson, John 8:48-59.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father and the Lord Jesus Christ.
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But hidden in the midst of heroic lovers, loathsome villains, sympathetic victims, magic spells, and castles is a cutting commentary on sinful human nature. Having lost his bid to gain Belle’s affections, Gaston convinces the villagers that the beast is dangerous and he rallies them to storm the castle. In the midst of their rage, the mob breaks out in song, with a frank but ironically honest chorus: “We don’t like what we don’t understand. In fact it scares us. And this monster is mysterious at least. Bring your guns! Bring your knives! Save your children and your wives! We’ll save our village and our lives. We’ll kill the Beast!”
It’s true, isn’t it? We don’t like what we don’t understand. It scares us. And unfortunately it seems we sinful human beings so often end up seeking to kill what we do not understand.
We are observing the Sunday of the Holy Trinity, perhaps best known because it is the one day a year on which we recite the Athanasian Creed. And so you have—perhaps gamely, perhaps willingly. Perhaps you understood perfectly everything you were saying; likely you did not. I’ll admit it: the Athanasian Creed is a little long and repetitive and hard to understand. But here is a question with which to begin our sermon: would you kill because of the Athanasian Creed?
The crowd around Jesus in our text was ready to kill because of one short sentence. A doctrinal statement. A confession of the faith. True, the conversation hadn’t been going well before that. As soon as someone plays the “you’re-a-demon-possessed-Samaritan” card things are bound to go downhill. And it’s a good rule of thumb that if the level of debate descends to name-calling and innuendos you know someone doesn’t have a sound argument.
That’s how we sinners deal with what we don’t understand. We first dismiss it as irrelevant. If that doesn’t work, we label it so we can dehumanize it, so we can eliminate it from our minds, or justify killing it. Call him “Beast” rather than his royal title and name: Prince Adam. Call the unborn baby “fetus” to give the illusion that he is merely an inconvenient blob of tissue. Call the stranger from another land by racial slurs instead of getting to know him. Call the only begotten Son of God a half-breed Samaritan and demon-possessed when He says something you don’t like or don’t understand.
These ad hominem tactics might intimidate someone to silence, but they will never win a real debate. It’s generally worthless to waste your breath with someone who has resorted to name-calling. But Jesus is very patient and long-suffering. And so this conversation continues well past its freshness date, until Jesus finally says, “Before Abraham was, I AM.”
Notice what Jesus says: “I AM.” Not, “I was,” which would have sounded grammatically correct, if not logical. Not “I have been.” The text doesn’t allow for that either. Jesus declares clearly: “Before Abraham was, I AM.”
So what? Well, think back to Moses, standing before the burning bush, asking for God’s name. What did God tell Moses? “I AM Who I AM.” “I AM” in Hebrew is “Yahweh,” God’s personal name in the Old Testament. To the crowd gathered in the temple that day Jesus makes it perfectly clear that He isn’t just another man. He tells them in no uncertain terms that He is the Lord God.
Jesus’ words are harsh and to the point. They reveal hearts that are as hard as the rocks they are picking up to throw. And the more Jesus reveals who He really is, the more the opposition to Him increases. We don’t like what we don’t understand. In fact it scares us. And this Jesus is so mysterious. Bring the rocks! Bring the stones! Let’s kill this fraud!
“Who do you think you are Jesus—God?”
“Precisely! And not just any God! I AM the only God in town. In fact, I’m the only God ever in the universe that I created! I’m the one true God. I AM the God of Abraham, Isaac, Jacob, and Moses. Before Abraham was born I AM!”
Do the Jewish religious leaders get the point? Oh, yes! They know exactly what Jesus is claiming. But they are not willing to hear any man claim to be the Lord without concluding that He is blaspheming. And so they take up stones to throw at Him. They’ll kill Him on that very spot. Bury Him under a pile of rocks.
The reasons Jesus’ opponents have for their actions are many. For one, Jesus has just been talking about God the Father in heaven; and if the Father is always in heaven and God is one, how can Jesus be God, too? For another, Jesus is clearly a man. He is made of flesh and blood, standing in front of them. He can’t change. Because He is man, how can Jesus be God, too?
Those are two mysteries. But the crowd is convinced that they aren’t mysteries to ponder, or truths to accept by faith, but rather the lies of a demon-possessed Samaritan. Rather than believe, they take up stones to kill Him.
Dear friends, those two mysteries in the text are the mysteries of the Trinity and the Incarnation. To some who refuse to believe—worth killing for, even yet today; and for those who, by God’s grace, believe—they are doctrines worth dying for. They are what the Athanasian Creed is all about. As we just confessed, if you desire to be saved you must think thus about the Trinity. If you do not firmly and faithfully believe this about the Incarnation, you cannot be saved.
The Trinity and the Incarnation are two great truths of Scripture, and both are frustrating to speak of because we cannot explain either one satisfactorily to human reason. The best we can do is to say what the Bible says, and then we can go on to make clear what the Bible doesn’t say, lest we be led away from the truth.
Take the Trinity. We believe that there is one God: as in Deuteronomy 6:4, “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one!” At the same time, we also know that the Bible declares the Father to be God, the Son to be God, and the Holy Spirit to be God. Therefore, even as we gladly confess that there is one God, we speak of God as Triune—one God, but three persons. It seems to be a contradiction, but Scripture proclaims it. And I, for one, take comfort in a God who is so big I can’t fully understand. So while we can’t wrap our minds around it, we confess the Trinity: we believe in one God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
We are also careful to make clear what the Bible doesn’t say about the Trinity. For instance, it doesn’t say that there is one God with three different masks or modes—as though sometimes He’s operating in “Father mode,” other times in “Son mode” or “Spirit mode.” This false teaching, called modalism, leads to all sorts of other false teachings from ancient Sabellianism to the modern heresies found in the United Pentecostal Church or the popular novel, The Shack. Likewise, the Bible doesn’t say that there are three different Gods—a false teaching called tritheism, held centuries ago by the Monophysites and taught today by cults like the Latter Day Saints, the Mormons.
Now, here’s why these explanations are tempting: on a certain level, they make sense. We feel like we’ve got a better grasp on God if we can see Him as one God changing hats, or three different Gods; so such teachings will always be tempting. But they’re not true—and we live by faith. We hold our reason captive to the expressed truth of God’s Word. We trust in one God—Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, even if we cannot understand how He can be.
Likewise, the Incarnation: the Son of God becoming flesh. This one is, if anything, more difficult to wrap your mind around. The always-been, all-powerful, all-knowing, everywhere-present Son of God became man with a starting point, weakness, a human mind, and the need to be carried from one place to another as a baby, and to walk from one place to the next as an adult.
It leads to all sorts of questions: when Jesus was a child, did He know His abc’s because He was God, or did He have to learn them because He was man? How could Mary give birth to her Creator? How could God get tired and have to sleep in a boat? How could a man silence the waves with a Word? How could God die? How could man rise again? These truths collide in our tiny minds. Thus, once again, we have to make clear what the Bible doesn’t say.
In order to make Jesus’ Incarnation understandable, it has been taught that He never became man, but only seemed to be and was play-acting His way through His life, death, and resurrection. This heresy, called Docetism might be easier to accept, but it denies the clear testimony of Scripture. Furthermore, if the man Jesus didn’t shed His blood and die for your sins, you haven’t been redeemed. Likewise, it’s been taught that Jesus was just a man whom God used for a while, but Jesus was never really God Himself. Known as adoptionism, this idea may be more comprehensible, but it also denies Scripture and destroys your salvation.
This is why the Athanasian Creed is written the way it is. It’s a serious confession of faith that pins down who the Trinity is and who Jesus is. It also refutes many false teachings about the Trinity and Incarnation. But the Trinity and the Incarnation are still mysterious, so once again we’re stuck—and we only love a good mystery when we can solve it by the end of the evening. And that can be frustrating. In the text, it was enough to make the crowd want to kill Jesus. Today, most of us don’t literally pick up stones to throw, but we do tend to dismiss things that we don’t understand and not think about them very long.
So, sadly, it’s far too common for Christians to say, “The Trinity? The Incarnation? Leave that stuff for the pastor. For us, it really doesn’t matter.” Ah, but it does matter. In our text, Jesus declares, “Most assuredly, I say to you, if anyone keeps My Word he shall never see death.” “Keeps” as in “holds on to,” “treasures.” It is from the testimony of God’s Word not our own speculation that we know who God is. By faith, when we treasure God’s Word, we are treasuring what God says about Himself. This is hugely important: if you don’t care about who God is and either dismiss His identity or create a different one, then pretty soon you’ll be looking to a different god to save you. But there is no other god who gives life—only the one true God: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit.
Jesus is the eternal Son of God. Conceived by the Holy Spirit. Born of the Virgin Mary. A real man who is also at the same time true God! He was sent to do His Father’s will. How? He suffers under Pontius Pilate, is crucified, dies, is buried, descends into hell, and rises on the third day. Then He ascends to reign at His Father’s right hand, where He lives and reigns to all eternity.
The Holy Spirit proceeds from the Father and the Son. Poured out upon the Church on Pentecost, He continues to call, gather, enlighten, sanctify and keep you in the true faith in the same way He does the whole Church on earth. He daily and richly forgives your sins and the sins of all believers. On the Last Day He will raise you and all the dead and give eternal life to you and all believers in Christ.
The Triune God is for you. He’s not against you. He holds no grudges. He doesn’t keep score. Now beware: If you insist on having a god who’s an expert at grudge holding, bookkeeping, and give you what you deserve… then that’s the god you’ll have. He or she isn’t the God and Father of our Lord Jesus Christ. He or she isn’t the Holy Spirit who brings true faith and understanding. He or she will just be another run-of-the-mill handcrafted idol in your wicked hearts and minds. A false god who will promise you everything, but will only lead you the pit of hell!
The Triune God refuses to be a god of our own making, thinking, and wanting. He is a God beyond human understanding. He is who He is. He does what He does. He gives what He gives. He forgives you. For His Son’s sake. The Father gives you His heart in the crucified and dead body of His Son on the cross. This is the catholic faith, the one universal true faith, the only faith that has saved throughout the centuries from Adam and Eve until the day of Christ’s return.
Jesus declares in our text: “Your father Abraham rejoiced at the thought of seeing My day. He saw it and was glad.” So did King David: “He was a prophet and knew that God had promised him on oath that He would place one of his descendants on his throne,” St. Peter proclaims in our second reading. The pivot point of the world’s history is the life, death, and resurrection of Jesus. He is the God of Abraham and the promised descendant of King David who reigns as Israel’s king on Good Friday.
Purple robe. Crown of thorns. A wooden pole for His throne. There on the cross Jesus dies for the sin of the world. Yes, for the likes of you and me the God-man Jesus really did die. Not because you or I are so lovely or loveable. You’re not. I’m most certainly not. But the Triune God loves you anyway. And His love has raised you from the death of your sin for the new life of faith only in Him. God’s grace in Christ: that’s the real mystery. That’s what’s really hard to understand. That can only be accepted and confessed by faith.
Therefore, dear friends, rather than try to reduce God to something understandable or dismiss Him as irrelevant, rejoice in this. The one true God—whose essence is far greater than we can understand—knows you by name. He understands you and your greatest needs better even than you do yourself. In love and sacrificial service to you, the Son of God—Himself God—became flesh and died for the sin of the world to redeem you, then rose again.
Even now, the Father wills that you be saved. Even now, the Son sits at His Father’s right hand and intercedes for you. Even now, the Holy Spirit brings you forgiveness as He brings you into God’s presence in His means of grace. The entire Holy Trinity is constantly at work for your salvation.
So rather than trying boil our Lord down into something so small and weak that we can comprehend Him, we rejoice in the saving power of God’s holy Word and His triune Name. What Word? What Name? This Word, this Name. “For the sake of Jesus Christ, His suffering and death, you are forgiven for all of your sins—in the name of the Father and of the Son and of the Holy Spirit.” Amen