Jesus sure knows how to pick a fight! Of course, He does so without sin, because He “knew no sin” (2 Cor. 5:21); His every thought, word, deed, and motivation were “without sin.” (Heb. 4:15). But pick a fight, He does. And not only does He pick a fight with the religious leaders of His day; He also picks a fight with…are you ready?…with YOU!
What else do you call it when you hear Jesus say provocative things like this in our Gospel reading: “If God were your Father, you would love Me” or “You are of your father the devil” or “You have not known [God]” or—and here’s the real kicker—“Before Abraham was, I AM.” Each of these statements by itself lays down the gauntlet. But fire them off like a machine gun, and, well, Jesus is lighting a short fuse to a warehouse full of TNT. Yes, Jesus is picking a fight. And it’s a fight He intends to win.
Now, before you get too incredulous about Jesus picking a fight—and before you swoop in to rescue Jesus by dressing Him up as a silky soft, meek and mild Savior—remember what the Bible says about our God who is a mighty warrior. Psalm 89 sings of God’s steadfast love and faithfulness. But it also sings to God: “You have a mighty arm; strong is Your hand, high Your right hand” (Ps. 89:13). The picture of a warrior charging into battle. And Moses told the Israelites to remember that they were slaves in Egypt, “and the Lord your God brought you out from there with a mighty hand and an outstretched arm” (Dt. 5:15). And how did God do that? By “picking a fight” with Pharaoh and the Egyptian slave masters, sending plagues to show His might, and thus delivering His people. And let’s not forget how Moses and the Israelites sang God’s victory song after they crossed the Red Sea: “I will sing to the LORD, for He has triumphed gloriously; the horse and his rider He has thrown into the sea…. The LORD is a man of war; the LORD is His name” (Ex. 15:1-2).
Truthfully, the whole story of salvation is one of God “picking a fight” with His enemies, that is, with those who undermine His good creation and His people with sin, evil, and death. What happened right after Satan seduced Adam and Eve to eat from the fruit and fall into sin? God promised the evil foe a fight he would not forget: “I will put enmity between you and the woman, and between your offspring and her offspring; He shall [crush] your head, and you shall bruise His heel” (Gen. 3:15). Yes, God picks a fight with those who oppose Him.
It’s exactly what happens in our Gospel reading. The Pharisees and scribes have been dogging Jesus with their snide questions and their innuendos. So, our Lord takes the fight right back to them. “If God were your Father”—but by your thoughts, words, and deeds, it’s clear He’s not!—“you would love me”—and it’s clear you don’t love Me.” And Jesus knew who was really behind their snide suspicion and their lurking unbelief: the devil himself, the same satanic foe who invaded and spoiled God’s good order in the Garden. “You are of your father the devil, and your will is to do your father’s desires.”
Jesus knew who was pulling their puppet strings. He knew they were but the marionettes of the master liar and murderer. And that’s whom Jesus really came to fight—the old evil foe—just as God had promised in the Garden.
But that does not let the Jewish leaders off the hook. They were still willing accomplices as they challenged the Lord, as they accused Him of having a demon and being a Samaritan. In other words, they were trying to protect themselves and safe-guard their own man-made, man-focused religion. That’s why Jesus had to “pick a fight” with them.
It’s also why He has to “pick a fight” with you! You see, you and I are not that different from the scribes and Pharisees. We want to protect ourselves. We want to safe-guard our own man-made, man-focused religion and worship. Like Adam and Eve in the Garden, we want to “be like god, knowing good and evil” (Gen. 3:5).
Pastor Jonathan Fisk has written a fabulous book that exposes this. It’s called BROKEN: 7 “Christian” Rules That Every Christian Ought to Break as Often as Possible. For six chapters Pr. Fisk unmasks six spiritual lies that we Christians often stumble into and hold onto. They have names such as Mysticism, Moralism, and Rationalism. They also have idols—things we fear, love, and trust more than God and His Word—things such as Emotion, Reason, Material Things, Religion and Freedom. What are those six rules, or spiritual lies? Pr. Fisk outlines them: #1) You find God in your heart. #2) You find God in your hands. #3) You find God in your mind. #4) You find God in the world. #5) You find God in the churches. And #6) You find God in God’s absence.
Now, I’m not trying to give you a book report (though I do recommend the book). Rather, I’m leading you to Rule #7 that you need to break—or that Jesus needs to break in you. What is that final rule? It’s the common thread in all of those other rules: that YOU can find God. It’s the rule that you are all too eager to follow, because it leads you to worship yourself—keep yourself in charge of your religion, your faith, your “spiritual walk,” and so on. It’s the lie that we human beings are the measure of all things. It’s the lie that says you and I can fear, love, and trust in ourselves. But when we do, we end up lacking true fear, love, and trust in God above all things.
It’s the lie that Jesus came to fight. It’s why Jesus came to “pick a fight” with the scribes and Pharisees. It’s why Jesus comes to “pick a fight” with you, even on a daily basis. He wants to rescue you from “the father of lies.” He wants you to hear the words of God. He wants you to keep His word so that you “will never see death.”
Martin Luther captured this grand, cosmic fight well in his Large Catechism. Listen carefully for how Jesus picks this fight and what it means for you: “For when we had been created by God the Father and had received from Him all kinds of good, the devil came and led us into disobedience, sin, death, and all evil. So we fell under God’s wrath and displeasure and were doomed to eternal damnation, just as we had merited and deserved. There was no counsel, help, or comfort until this only and eternal Son of God—in His immeasurable goodness—had compassion upon our misery and wretchedness. He came from heaven to help us. So those tyrants and jailers are all expelled now. In their place has come Jesus Christ. Lord of life, righteousness, every blessing, and salvation. He has delivered us poor, lost people from hell’s jaws, has won us, has made us free, and has brought us again into the Father’s favor and grace. He has taken us as His own property under His shelter and protection so that He may govern us by His righteousness, wisdom, power, life, and blessedness” (LC II 28-30).
Yes, Jesus comes to “pick a fight,” a fight with sin, death, and the devil—a fight with the sin that lives in you. Not only was it a fight He intended to win from eternity; it was also a fight to the death—His death. Just as God provided the lamb for a sacrifice in place of Isaac, He also provides the true Lamb—the Lamb of God who takes away the sin of the world—for the ultimate sacrifice in place of you and me and all people. Jesus’ fight for your salvation came to its climax on the Cross. However, instead of flexing His mighty right arm, He extended His arms in weakness to be nailed to a tree. Instead of triumphing with might and power, He gained the victory by giving up His spirit and dying. But the victory would reveal its glory on the third day, when He rose from the grave.
And we can truly thank Jesus for coming into the world and picking this fight with us—that is, with our sinful desire to be like god. As Hebrews says, “How much more will the blood of Christ, who through the eternal Spirit offered Himself without blemish to God, purify our conscience from dead works to serve the living God.” Jesus’ fight with sin, death, and the devil—a fight that bloodied Him and nailed Him to a tree—forgives all your sins, all of your worship of yourself.
And, yes, this fight is a daily event for you and every Christian. After all, “the Old Adam in us should by daily contrition and repentance be drowned and die with all sins and evil desires.” But remember, it’s Jesus, the great I AM, who picks the fight, and it’s Jesus, “Yahweh in the flesh,” who wins the fight. And so in your Baptism, “a new man should daily emerge and arise to live before God in righteousness and purity forever” (SC, Baptism). That’s how Jesus wins the fight in you on a daily basis. That’s also how you live with a pure and clean conscience.
So, as we head into this “Passiontide” phase of Lent, now we begin focusing more on Christ’s cosmic fight against the devil and our sin and our death. What great Good News that He, our Victor, has come to pick that fight and win that fight! Amen.