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I AM: I am, John 8:48-49

I Am

John 8:48-59


Any baseball fans here this morning? Leith Anderson tells this story from his childhood. “When I was a boy growing up outside of New York City, I was an avid fan of the Brooklyn Dodgers. In fact, I have not yet quite forgiven them for moving west. The archenemy in my childhood was the New York Yankees. I had seen them only on television and heard them only on the radio until I was invited by my father to skip school and to go to the World Series game between the Yankees and the Dodgers. I’ll tell you, it was one of the great thrills of my childhood. I remember sitting there, smelling the hot dogs and hearing the cheers of the crowd and the feel of it all. I knew those Dodgers were going to shellac those Yankees once and for all. Unfortunately the Dodgers never got on base, so my thrill was shattered. I tucked it away somewhere in my unconscious until, as an adult, I was in a conversation with one of these fellows who was a walking sports almanac. I mentioned to him when I went to my first major league game. I said, “It was such a disappointment. I was a Dodger fan and the Dodgers never got on base.”


He said, “You were there? You were at the game when Don Larsen pitched the only perfect game in all of World Series history?”


I said, “Yeah, but, uh, we lost.” I was so caught up in my team’s defeat that I missed out on the fact that I was a witness to a far greater page of history.”[i] Ever hear the phrase, “Can’t see the forest for the trees”? Sometimes we get so caught up in little things that we miss the big things. We do the same thing with Jesus. We get so caught up trying to get Jesus to fit into our preconceived ideas of who he was and is, or trying to get him to mesh perfectly with our already-arrived-at world view that we miss who Jesus really is. As we turn to the “I Am” statements of Jesus recorded in John’s gospel one last time this summer, I want us to set aside our personal agendas for Jesus, and our preconceived ideas about what Jesus is or isn’t like and come to him on the basis of who he is.


Now, when I work with couples in marriage counseling, I often use a technique called the “Gottman-Rappoport Intervention” to help couples learn to really listen to one another with the goal of understanding them first, instead of heading right to the persuade agenda most of us come with. And part of that, as the listener, is learning to set aside your own agenda. And one thing I do with each person in the couple when its their turn to listen is to take a deep breath and let it out, and as they let it out, I tell them that the exhale is setting aside their agenda for the conversation and tuning in to what their partner is telling them. And I want us to do that together this morning. I’m going to have us all take a deep breath, in through the nose and out through the mouth, and when you breathe out, I want you to consciously set aside your own agenda for Jesus and your reasons for wanting a Jesus who just agrees with everything you do and everything you are, and just come to him on his terms, the way he actually revealed himself to us as recorded in the Gospels. In this case, John’s gospel. Let’s take a step back from our trees and focus on the forest. Turn with me to John 8:48-59.


This is actually a continuation of Jesus’ interaction with the Jews and religious leaders at the Feast of Tabernacles, or Sukkot, in Jerusalem at the Temple. He’s just told them “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will not walk in darkness, but will have the light of life” (Jn. 8:12). And some of the Pharisees were there in the crowd listening to Jesus and they started pushing back against him. So he turned his attention to them and as the conversation went on, with all of the others in the crowd and his disciples listening in of course, the Pharisees got angrier and angrier and angrier, until things reached a boiling point and they picked up stones to stone him. They wanted to kill him right there in the temple.


But to really understand what’s going on here, we have to go all the way back to the earliest days of the Old Testament, to Abraham, the father of the Jewish people, and to Moses. In Genesis 17, we read, “And God said to Abraham, “As for Sarai your wife, you shall not call her name Sarai, but Sarah shall be her name. I will bless her, and moreover, I will give you a son by her. I will bless her, and she shall become nations; kings of peoples shall come from her.” Then Abraham fell on his face and laughed and said to himself, “Shall a child be born to a man who is a hundred years old? Shall Sarah, who is ninety years old, bear a child?” And Abraham said to God, “Oh that Ishmael might live before you!” God said, “No, but Sarah your wife shall bear you a son, and you shall call his name Isaac. I will establish my covenant with him as an everlasting covenant for his offspring after him. As for Ishmael, I have heard you; behold, I have blessed him and will make him fruitful and multiply him greatly. He shall father twelve princes, and I will make him into a great nation. But I will establish my covenant with Isaac, whom Sarah shall bear to you at this time next year.” The name Isaac means “he laughs.”


Abraham was absolutely incredulous. He was 100, and Sarah was 90. They didn’t have the scientific knowledge about making babies that we have today, but he knew that 100-year-olds typically didn’t father children, and that 90-year-olds certainly didn’t bear children. And Sarah had been barren throughout their marriage. She couldn’t get pregnant when she was younger. But God isn’t angry at Abraham’s incredulity, anymore than he was Mary and Joseph’s astonishment at what God said he was going to do through them. He actually told Abraham and Sarah to name their miracle child “He laughs,” because when God does tell us ahead of time what he has in store, that’s usually what we do. Not in derision, but in astonishment and incredulity. And we’re still incredulous when God makes it happen. So Sarah survives childbirth at 90 and Abraham and Sarah have a son, Isaac. He laughs. And God, in his grace and mercy honors Abraham’s request and blesses Ishmael too. But he won’t bring salvation through Ishmael. Salvation is coming through Isaac. That’s the episode Jesus is referencing when he said, “Your father Abraham rejoiced that he would see my day. He saw it and was glad” (V. 56).

Fast forward a few hundred years and we find Moses arguing with a bush out in the wilderness. Well, that’s what it would have looked like to anyone who happened by. In the time of Abraham’s grandson Jacob, God led the Israelites into Egypt through Jacob’s second youngest son Joseph, and God used Egypt as a kind of incubator to grow the people of Israel into a numerous and strong people. And then he used Moses to lead them out of Egypt when they were ready to take their place among the nations of the world as God’s special people who were supposed to reveal to the world what the one true God was like in the face of all of the false gods and idols worshipped by the peoples of the world, and who would reveal to the world what it looked like to love and worship God and live under his blessing.


And Moses had grown up as a Jew in Egypt, but he was in Pharoah’s court. So he learned the ways of the Egyptians very well. And then, when he identified with his Jewish brothers and sisters and killed an Egyptian who was abusing them, he fled to the wilderness and spent the next 40 years working as a shepherd in Midian. And then God spoke to Moses from a burning bush, telling Moses that he was the one God had chosen to lead his people out of Egypt. It only took God 80 years to get Moses ready for his calling. And Moses argued back, giving God every excuse in the book for not doing what God wanted, until he finally said, “If I come to the people of Israel and say to them, ‘The God of your fathers has sent me to you,’ and they ask me, ‘What is his name?’ what shall I say to them?” God said to Moses, “I am who I am.” And he said, “Say this to the people of Israel: ‘I am has sent me to you’” (Ex. 3:13-14).


I Am. Yahweh. The One who always is. Eternally present. Equally present in all times and all places. The one who cannot be confined by time and space. The one who knows no restrictions. To be is to be alive. He is life. Absolute being. Ultimate reality. As I am, he does not change. As I am, eternally present, he is here with you. You are not alone. As I am, he is here for you, working on your behalf. I AM, the God who IS. As opposed to a false god who isn’t. Eternally present, eternally active, for you, for me. Yahweh. I Am.


And throughout the Old Testament God’s identity as I Am was fleshed out. The ancient people of Israel knew very well that they were not to take that name, Yahweh, in vain. They weren’t to use it carelessly. So they decided not to utter it at all. But they read the texts of Scripture, the writings of Moses and the historical books and the Psalms and the prophets, out loud. And while they didn’t want to utter the name, Yahweh, out loud, they also didn’t want to change the text. But they also knew that a reader was likely to read the name without realizing it, just by following the text. So they came up with a creative solution. The printed the name, Yahweh, which in ancient Hebrew had no vowels, and they added the vowel symbols to the word “Adonai,” “lord” to the name. That was supposed to remind the reader to say the words “the LORD” wherever the name Yahweh appeared in the text. Replace “Yahweh” with “Adonai.” To us, as non-native speakers of ancient Hebrew, it looks like “Jehovah” in the text. But that’s just a mispronunciation. Scribes and other readers in Jesus’ day and before knew exactly what was going on. Don’t say Yahweh, say Adonai in its place. We in the modern world have often translated it as Jehovah because that’s what it looks like to us.


So when I was a kid in church, we’d sing the song “Jehovah Jireh, my provider.” But the biblical text actually reads Yahweh Jireh. And that’s the first fleshing out of the name of Yahweh. Yahweh Jireh. It means the Lord will provide, or see to it. It comes from the story of God providing a lamb for Abraham and Isaac to sacrifice after God tested Abraham by asking Abraham to sacrifice Isaac, the one who laughs, the child of promise, on the altar. God provided the lamb. Yahweh sees to it. Yahweh will provide exactly what is needed when it is needed to achieve his purpose. He always does.


Then came Yahweh Rophe, the Lord who heals. After Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt through the Red Sea. Not around it. Not over it. THROUGH it, he promised them that the sicknesses that came upon the Egyptians because they would not listen to God would not come upon the Israelites, because he is Yahweh Rophe, the Lord who heals or the Lord your healer.


And then came Yahweh Nissi, the Lord our banner. The one who fights battles on your behalf. The one who fights for you. And then Yahweh M’Kaddesh, the Lord who sanctifies, who sets you apart as special to him. And then Yahweh Shalom, the Lord our peace or the Lord our contentment. And then in the 23rd Psalm, on the lips of David, Yahweh Rohi, the Lord our shepherd. The one who knows you, and protects you, and guides you. And the Yahweh Sabaoth, the Lord of Hosts. Commander of the angelic armies of heaven. And then Yahweh Tsidkenu, the Lord OUR righteousness. The one who MAKES US righteous, in right standing before him, because we cannot do it ourselves. And then Yahweh Shammah, the Lord who is there. Established. Unmovable. Our rock. Our foundation.


So the Pharisees are arguing with Jesus, and they’re getting angrier, and angrier, and angrier. “I am the light of the world.” “Hey, you can’t bear witness about yourself.” “I and my father bear witness about me.” “Well who is your father?” “You don’t know me and you don’t know him either.” Then he called himself “the son of man,” and Old Testament phrase used to describe the messiah. At this point, John pauses to tell us that in spite of Jesus saying these things, he wasn’t yet arrested. Why? Because any Jew reading John’s gospel would have expected that.


Then Jesus keeps going. “You want to kill me because my word has no place in your heart, even though you are children of Abraham (and should know better). Now, look at Vv. 39-47 because the darts start flying back and forth really fast. Did you hear what they said about Jesus in V. 41. Want to know what the scuttlebutt about Jesus’ miraculous birth was around Bethlehem, Nazareth, and Jerusalem? What Mary had to deal with, day in and day out, throughout her life? The sideways glances. The glares. The whispers. “Immoral.” “Adultery.” “Unfaithful.” Only God and those who followed Jesus knew that she was innocent and clean. Everyone else was wrong, but that didn’t stop the story from spreading. And that all had happened 33 years before and they didn’t have Facebook and Twitter to keep the rumors alive. It doesn’t matter what this world says about you. What matters is what God KNOWS about you, that you’re his child.


And then as things reach a boiling point, Jesus look at them and says, “Truly, truly, I say to you, before Abraham was, I am” (V. 58). He didn’t say, “Before Abraham was, I was.” He said, “Before Abraham was, I am.” And when he said that, they picked up stones to stone him to death. Why? Because when he said those words, he centered that entire Old Testament tradition, all of the Old Testament images and scriptures associated with the name “Yahweh,” “I am,” and he centered them on himself. He was saying “I am the embodiment of Yahweh, the Lord, God himself.” I am your provider and your healer. I am the banner who fights your battles for you and the one who sets you apart as my child. I am your peace and your shepherd. I command the armies of heaven and I am YOUR righteousness. I am the one who is there. I am established like a city wall, unmovable. I am the bread of life and the light of the world. I am the gate for the sheep and the good shepherd. I am the resurrection and the life and the way, the truth and the life. I am the true vine, your source of life. I am all that you have ever needed, and all that you will ever need. Nothing in heaven and nothing on earth can separate me from you. I. AM.


Andrew Greeley said, “The only real Jesus is one who is larger than life, who escapes our categories, who eludes our attempts to reduce him to manageable proportions so that we can claim him for our cause. Any Jesus who has been made to fit our formula ceases to be appealing precisely because he is no longer wonderous, mysterious, surprising.


We may reduce him to a right-wing Republican conservative or a gun-toting Marxist revolutionary and thus rationalize and justify our own political ideology. But having done so, we are dismayed to discover that whoever we have signed on as an ally is not Jesus. Categorize Jesus and he isn’t Jesus anymore.”[ii]


Bono, front man for the rock group U2 and a professing Christian, said, “I think a defining question for a Christian is: Who was Christ? And I don’t think you’re let off easily by saying a great thinker or a great philosopher, because actually he went around saying he was the Messiah. That’s why he was crucified. He was crucified because he said he was the Son of God. So, he either, in my view, was the Son of God, or he was … nuts. Forget rock ‘n roll messianic complexes, this is like Charlie Manson type delirium. And, I find it hard to accept that a whole millions and millions of lives, half the earth, for two thousand years have been touched, have felt their lives touched and inspired by some nutter.[iii]


I Am. Mic drop. There is nothing left to say. Nothing more important to understand. He is I am. Let us pray.

[i] Leith Anderson, “Unlistened-to Lessons of Life,” Preaching Today, Tape 48.

[ii] Andrew Greeley’s introduction to Lloyd C. Douglas’s The Robe, paperback edition (New York Times Book Review. Christianity Today, Vol. 30, no. 9.

[iii] Mauro Pianta, “U2’s Bono says ‘Jesus was the Son of God or he was nuts,” Vatican Insider (4-15-14)