Before Abraham Was
St. Augustine of Canterbury Episcopal Church
Bishop Peter F. Hansen
Sermon for Passion Sunday
April 7, 2019
“Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day: and he saw it, and was glad. Then said the Jews unto him, Thou art not yet fifty years old, and hast thou seen Abraham? Jesus said unto them, Verily, verily, I say unto you, Before Abraham was, I am.”
MY LAST NAME is Hansen. While other names may mean the family trade, such as Baker or Miller or Cook or Shepherd, my name means I’m the son of Hans. Hans was a Danish man who, years ago, had a son who became my forebear and that’s my name. Before Peter Hansen was, Hans was. Hans is one of the many names derived from the original John, or Johannes, meaning God is gracious. I have no idea how long ago this Hans lived, or when they stopped naming every son after his dad, Peter son of Hans. Giti’s dad lived at such a time in Iran. He was Mohammed, son of – fill in his dad’s name – from the village of Evaz. During his youth, the Shah gave the order for the Iranian people to westernize and take a surname that would stick for good. That was less than 100 years ago. They chose Zarnegar, writers in gold.
The Hebrews held the practice of naming boys for their father’s name, or for the village they hailed from. The son of Mary and her husband Joseph was called Jesus of Nazareth, not Josephson, because they knew Joseph was a foster dad. The holy record of lineage was so precious to the Jews that much of it found its way into the Bible, making long chapters of who begat whom. Not fun reading for us, but it’s their history and their claim to land and social position, and the rights to the priesthood.
St. Luke’s family line for Jesus goes back through the years, “Nathan, the son of David, the son of Jesse, the son of Obed, the son of Boaz,” etc. all the way to “Seth, the son of Adam, the son of God.” Luke 3 In the midst of His ancestry is: “Judah, the son of Jacob, the son of Isaac, the son of Abraham, the son of Terah.” Before Abraham was his father, Terah who moved the family from Ur of Chaldea to Haran in Syria. From there Abraham went south to find a promised land, and began the Jewish race in his son, Isaac. This is a sacred story to the Jews.
The identity of the Hebrews has always been tied up in their history and family lines. It’s kept them a people when religion and land rights and even heaven, it would seem, had failed them. The last thing a Jewish person gives up is being a Jew, a son or daughter of Abraham. That’s never changed. If they are believing Jews, that is, in their faith claims to being chosen by God and maintaining their worship and festivals, they are said to be Moses’ disciples.
While the great English linguist, Samuel Johnson, is credited for saying that “Patriotism is the last refuge of a scoundrel,” in Jesus’ day the scoundrels’ more common recourse was what they claimed to be the Law of Moses. With Moses signing on, as they claimed, they could justify any brutality, judgment, villainy, abandonment of family, or even murder. Jesus never had trouble with Romans. He only had trouble with his fellow Jews, and only on the grounds that He was disrespectful to their practice of the Law. He failed to curb His compassion on the Sabbath, but healed people when their perverted Law told them even good deeds were forbidden. We are children of the Law of Moses, or so they claimed.
At a scene depicted by the Apostle John at the Feast of Tabernacles, Jesus had been gathering crowds to teach them in the Temple. By this time, the priests were salting crowds with those who would oppose Him. Shortly after the adulteress was pardoned by Him, an argument broke out about Christ’s authority to teach as He did. He claimed that His Father gave Him such authority, a Father they did not know because they didn’t recognize the Son. He argued brilliantly, referring to God as His Father, and some believed Him, while others sought to get enough evidence to kill Him, and He said so. “Abraham is our father,” they shouted. “If you were the children of Abraham, you would do as he did. You act like your real father, the devil,” Jesus responded. The verbal battle escalated, its central theme being identity, lineage, and authority. He claimed the Father in heaven, they claimed Abraham. Then He crossed their wires.
“Your father Abraham rejoiced to see my day, and he did see it, and he was glad.” That did it. “You’re not even 50 and Abraham was 2,000 years ago, so you say you’ve seen Abraham. Now we know you’re crazy, just a demonized Samaritan.” Wrong. And Jesus was now to pronounce the most dangerous words He ever spoke to the Jews. “I tell you in all truth, before Abraham ever was, I AM.”
Before Solomon, David. Before Moses, Abraham. Before Abraham? Noah, Seth, Adam and Eve? How far back does our lineage have to go to establish an effective claim for us to exist? In these days, the latest is the greatest, new means better, young is far more attractive than old. It’s not been so in earlier days. The farther back you could claim your lineage, your claim to an estate, your family’s fortune, title, even royalty, made you that much better than Johnny-come-lately. Even today in the Old South, they scorn the people moving into a fine antebellum home from nowhere as being “New Money.”
It was antiquity that made for status, and Jesus had just stepped on the third rail of all antiquity. Before Abraham was enough to claim, but now He harkened to the burning bush and God’s word to Moses.
Moses, trying to defer his appointment to confront Pharaoh, asked God for His Name. Out of the burning bush, God spoke the Name. I AM THAT I AM. It’s been translated I AM WHO I AM, but that is trying too hard to force modern diction upon it. It means the self-existent one. It means everything in existence owes its being to Him. It means all other gods shrink to nothing, for no one but He can claim the Name I AM. From that day forward, no careful Jew would use the phrase in daily speech. None would use it for himself, certainly. Now Jesus said, Before Abraham ever came in to existence, I AM. It wasn’t a mistake in verb tense or decorum. He meant every syllable. They didn’t misunderstand Him, as they took up stones to kill Him for saying it. They didn’t misunderstand Him. They only failed to believe Him. For He was indeed I AM.
Before Abraham was, what? A primitive world of fallen men and women. People had been scattered after God confused their language at the tower. Just a handful of people survived a great flood meant to destroy an early ancestry where everyone did all the evil they thought in their own hearts. A lost garden world of innocence, ruined by the disobedience of our first parents. But before that, before all things existed, before the creation with its vast scope and design, the Mind of God held us in His imagination, built us up from atoms to cells to bone and muscle and nervous system, skin and hair and the spark of life, before, before all things, before even light had sprung from the deep darkness of nothing. Before even that, I AM.
The Son of the Father, I AM, now speaks in the midst of human time. “Your father, Abraham, was a good man. He believed in my Father and in Me. He saw my coming. He rejoiced to see it, far ahead, in a time when his descendants would be numerous as stars in heaven, as grains of sand on the shore, and this seed of his would bless every nation, race and family on earth. God promised Abraham this, and I AM that seed.”
And that seed could not bear its fruit unless it died. So it is with seeds. (1 Cor 15:36) We are entering Passiontide, two weeks before Easter. The events of this fortnight are so critical to our faith, our history, our world, all humankind, that we veil our crosses in respect, and hallow a brief season to focus on that moment when all things ceased and the world was shocked by the death of God’s Son.
As we track Christian heroes down the ages after that day, we can line up saints and martyrs of the faith in order. I have been blessed with a list of men in holy orders of bishops, tracing backward through the centuries, before me Archbishop Morrison, before him Archbishop Morse, before him Bishop Chambers, and so on. St. Augustine of Canterbury’s mentor was St. Gregory the Great. Before them, Augustine of Hippo, Patrick of Ireland, Athanasius of Alexandria, Saints Peter and Paul. A 2nd century writer and saint, Irenaeus, impresses me for his deft handling of theology and understanding of Scripture, but before him was Polycarp, the martyr of Smyrna. And upon his head the hands of St. John, the beloved Apostle, were laid.
And before John? Before John, who wrote so wonderfully that In the Beginning was the Word. That Word was both there with God and was Himself God. Everything was made by the Word, and nothing was made without His making. And that Word became flesh and lived with us. And I, John, touched Him and heard Him and was breathed upon by Him, receiving the Holy Spirit by Him for the forgiveness of sins. Before John was Jesus, the I AM Incarnate. And before the I AM? It’s a meaningless question. There can be nothing before eternal existence, by definition. Think of it. It’s the hardest thing we can try to think – His existence without beginning. It’s one thing to exist without ending – we all hope for that and want it. But never having a beginning, and yet being, I AM? That breaks my noggin. And that’s good for me. I need to have it broken sometimes. I need to see the scope and lineage of our God, who walked this earth and entered time, and was scourged and pierced and reviled and spit on, stripped naked and gazed on by rude misbelieving descendants of Abraham, Abraham who saw this day and his seed coming to save these people, all people of all time. And Abraham was glad. Finally the degraded inhabitants of earth might have a savior.
Before Abraham was. I AM.
Jesus used the phrase I AM several other times, without such emphasis, and yet sketching out features of His unique office and intention for us. “I am the bread of life, I am the light of the world, I am the gate, I am the good shepherd, I am the resurrection and the life, I am the way, the truth and the life, I am the vine.” John 6:35, 8:12, 10:9, 10:11, 25, 15:5
Before Abraham was, I AM. For saying that, six months later they were plotting His demise, these children of Abraham, these disciples of Moses. And for all that, they were doing God’s purpose, for Jesus had to die in order to fulfill His priesthood. His blood had to be spilled on this earth to cleanse it. He had to enter a better tabernacle in heaven having atoned for the sins of mankind, dying in the place of all the sons of Adam and daughters of Eve. He had to die for the New Testament in His Blood to be enacted, this Last Will and Testament of which we are the beneficiaries, praise God. Our inheritance is eternal life, and our inheritance is the One who said of Himself, I AM.
Before Abraham was, I AM.
Son of Hans, meet the Son of God. You in your pews, meet the Son of God. His Name is above all names, for at the Name of Jesus every knee will bow one day, willing or unwilling. Every claim He made He still is making, and every human heart should embrace Him for it. His last name is not Nazareth, nor is it son of Joseph, nor is it Son of Mary or of Moses nor is it Son of Abraham. His last name, if He needs one to be given, is “Before Abraham was I AM.”