[Jesus is having a ‘discussion’ with some Pharisees in the temple.] He said to them, ‘You are from below, I am from above; you are of this world, I am not of this world. I told you that you would die in your sins, for you will die in your sins unless you believe that I AM. The Jews asked, ‘Who are you?’
Jesus said to them, ‘Why do I speak to you at all?* I have told you already. I have much to say about you and much to condemn; but the one who sent me is true, and I declare to the world what I have heard from him.’
They did not understand that he was speaking to them about the Father. So Jesus said, ‘When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I AM, and that I do nothing on my own, but I speak these things as the Father instructed me. And the one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him.’
As he was saying these things, many believed in him.
Our Lenten theme this year is focused on the I AM sayings of Jesus in the gospel of John.
There are seven times that Jesus says the direct I AM, “ego eimi” in Greek, as he does twice in this reading.
In Hebrew, I AM, ’ehyeh ’ăšer ’ehyeh, is the name God first gave to Moses way back in the day when Moses was standing by a burning bush trying to talk God out of sending him on a rescue mission into Egypt. “Who will believe me?,” Moses asks, “Who shall I say has sent me?” I think Moses figured he had a good line of argument there, but God says, “Tell them, I AM has sent you.”
There are nine times Jesus uses the name of God with images attached to it – I AM the bread of life, I AM the light of the world, the good shepherd, the gate for the sheep, the way, the truth, the life, the resurrection and the life, the living vine. It is those images that we will be playing with in the weeks of Lent. I have invited a number of people to share their reflections and thoughts and associations – and some said yes! Interpreting scripture is the work of the people, a communal act that arises from our own and shared experiences, those moments of saying, “Hey!” or “that’s interesting!”
In order for the sayings to make sense, however, we need to understand the import of those first two words – I AM. It’s not like saying, “I am fond of chocolate,” or “I am who I am.” Both of those statements are true, but it’s not the same thing.
“’ehyeh ’ăšer ’ehyeh” in Hebrew is one of the Seven Names of God accorded special care by Jewish tradition. Beginning around the 3rd century BC – and still today, the tetragrammaton – those four letters, Y-H-W-H, was believed to be unspeakable, too holy for human voice. When it shows up in Scripture, Jewish people substitute the word Adonai, which means Lord, rather than pronounce the sacred name of God.
In ancient Hebrew thought, one’s name expressed one’s essential identity – the meaning of your life. God has a name! Who would have guessed that? God is not an anonymous power, an invisible ‘Force’ to be with you. To disclose one’s name is to be made vulnerable, to have an intimate connection, to be available to be called upon. Moses was put on a first name basis with the Creator of the universe, the ruler and judge of all things! It’s frightening, both for God to let it be known, and for Moses to be in possession of this name, this presence, this powerful first-person verb, this enigma. It’s kind of like when the performer previously known as Prince changed his name to an unpronounceable symbol. It’s an awkward way to be known, but it maintains the mystery. I AM is at both a name revealed and the absence of a name, it’s action, it expresses God’s mystery – infinitely above everything that we can understand, yet this hidden God is eternally present. I AM
So, to get back to John’s gospel, for Jesus to claim that name, for Jesus to tell the Pharisees and Jewish temple leadership, “you will die in your sins unless you believe that I AM,” was beyond presumptuous. It was the most offensive, blasphemous thing he could do. And for him to claim this while not even upholding sabbath or obeying the purity codes of the Law, just dug his hole deeper. He was claiming God’s presence, God’s identity, God’s own holy name as his own – which, of course it was, but the Pharisees couldn’t believe that. And I don’t really blame them.
If you’ve been waiting for centuries for the Messiah to come, if you’re living – stuck – under duress of Roman occupation, if your entire history is one of oppression and belittlement and your hope is that the Messiah will come in the glory of God – lead you into battle like King David – bring down the mighty from their thrones – call down the vengeance of your God… and you see before you… Jesus, with his dusty feet and his smudged face….very much an ordinary earthling…. claiming to be one with the Father – what would you think?
Jesus said, ‘When you have lifted up the Son of Man, then you will realize that I AM : that I do nothing on my own, but I speak these things as the Father has given me. And the one who sent me is with me; he has not left me alone, for I always do what is pleasing to him.”
To his disciples, his closest friends, Jesus says, ‘Do not let your hearts be troubled. Believe in God, believe also in me. If I go and prepare a place for you, I will come again and will take you to myself, so that where I AM, there you may be also. You know me, you will know my Father. From now on you do know him and have seen him.’ You will know that I am in my Father, and you in me, and I in you. They who have my commandments and keep them are those who love me; and those who love me will be loved by my Father, and I will love them. And this is my commandment, that you love one another, even as I have loved you.”
This is Valentine’s Day. It’s an appropriate beginning for Lent, to begin the way to the cross, and to Easter, and to the ascension. Because God loved the world. In the gospel of John, the world isn’t butterflies and bunny rabbits. As I said on Sunday, it is more like Syria in senseless war, more like Wall Street and it’s blind power, more like Congo or Sudan in hunger and stubbornly rebellious tribal conflict; blind, although we see. God loves that world, this world, these people, and, yes, we ourselves, who have our own troubles and pain and blindness and struggle. The Incarnation is the thing. The Incarnation is God saying I AM the BEING, the WAS, the WILL BE FOREVER. God loves it all, came to be part of it all, among us, with us, for us.
“Because I AM,” Jesus says, “therefore you are…. loved and coveted, given comfort and joy.