“The Lord spoke to Moses.” This is the refrain of Leviticus, beginning each of the sections of the Law given on Mount Sinai and in the Tabernacle. For the most part, Leviticus is twenty-seven chapters of Law—regulation upon regulation, prohibition and commandment, rules and codes governing every aspect of the life of Israel. Buying and selling, hygiene and diet, dress and conduct, social and religious laws. Everything demands that the whole self be dedicated to God. The Law requires holiness: “You shall be holy, for I, the Lord your God, am holy.”
Today’s Gospel is one of many times that we see a heated confrontation between Jesus and the Jewish leaders. Especially as we read John’s Gospel, we see the tensions escalate the closer things get to Good Friday. After all, today’s Gospel is just the first time the Jews attempt to stone Jesus.
When we think of Israel’s sacrifices, the first animal that comes to mind is the lamb. As Christians, that image of Jesus as the Lamb of God dominates our thoughts. But there were other animals, like goats and doves and pigeons and rams. The ram is one we forget about, but we shouldn’t. There’s a good reason why a ram was the animal provided when God spared Isaac. The ram’s greatest glory was found in his sacrificial use, his standing in the place of others and giving of himself for greater purposes.
As we read the Gospels, we become more and more acquainted with the false piety of the Jews. So often they say and do things that look like they believe. They make us think that maybe we give them too much of a hard time. Today’s Gospel is a perfect example. They come to Jesus and seem to be eagerly in search of the promised Messiah, wrestling with questions if Jesus really is the promised Christ. They seem like they’re looking for a place to put their faith, one in whom they can believe. The problem is that Jesus has given them more than enough proof. He is by no means vague. He does things only God can do: He heals men and women of various diseases and maladies, He preaches with the authority and power of God, and He forgives sins. He performs other miracles. He uses God’s personal Name, I AM, for Himself. Though the Jews beg Jesus, “tell us plainly,” He has confessed quite plainly, by word and deed, who He is and from Whom He comes.
If you back up a few verses from today’s appointed Gospel, you find Jesus saying to the Jews, namely the Pharisees and the chief priests, “If you were Abraham’s children, you would do the works of Abraham” (8:39). What Jesus does in this intense confrontation—spanning verses 12 through 59 of John 8—is show the Jews, particularly the religious rulers, who trusted completely in their lineage as Abraham’s children, that what they trusted in was false. Yes, by birth they belong to Abraham’s lineage. But the true children of Abraham are those who have faith. Abraham’s children are those who do what God commands of them, no matter how much it confuses or enrages or grieves them, as seen clearly in today’s Old Testament Reading. Spiritually, these Jews who would not believe in Jesus were children of the devil, the father of lies (8:44). The people who boasted being God’s chosen people were anything but.
Why does the Pastor preach? Scripture explains that the role of preaching the Word of God is how saving faith is created: “How then will they call on Him in whom they have not believed? And how are they to believe in Him of whom they have never heard? And how are they to hear without someone preaching? And how are they to preach unless they are sent? As it is written, ‘How beautiful are the feet of those who preach the good news!’ … So faith comes from hearing, and hearing through the Word of Christ” (Romans 10:14-17). The Augsburg Confession, seeing this connection between the Preaching Office and saving faith, summarizes Scripture on the Office of the Holy Ministry in this way: “To obtain [saving, justifying] faith, God instituted the Office of Preaching, giving the Gospel and the Sacraments. Through these, as through means, He gives the Holy Spirit who produces faith, where and when He wills, in those who hear the Gospel. It teaches that we have a gracious God, not through our merit but through Christ’s merit, when we so believe” (AC V 1-3). The whole reason the Pastor preaches is so saving faith can be created, so we know that “we have a gracious God” who loves us and has saved us from our sin by the death and resurrection of Jesus Christ.