For just a brief moment pretend that you are Jesus of Nazareth. For a moment pretend that you are Jesus of Nazareth –and that a large group of soldiers and other people who have said they want you dead have come to your house and are standing at your door, leading you to say, “Who is it you want? Who are you looking for?” They say, “Jesus of Nazareth.” You say, “…” What do you say? Wouldn’t you try as hard as you could to figure out as fast as you could what you could say to have them not think you are the one they are looking for – to have them not think that you are he.
Tonight’s three words of truth are Jesus’ answer to a detachment of soldiers and other people who had said they wanted him dead – three words of truth in answer to Jesus’ question of them about who they were looking for– an answer which showed his total control over what was happening right then and his amazing compassion concerning what was going to happen the next day – three words of truth which identify for us the One we want to be looking for every single day of our lives: “I Am He.” Our lesson is from John 18. As I read the words, listen for how many times Jesus asks the crowd of people who they are looking for.
3 So Judas came to the grove, guiding a detachment of soldiers and some officials from the chief priests and the Pharisees. They were carrying torches, lanterns and weapons. 4 Jesus, knowing all that was going to happen to him, went out and asked them, “Who is it you want?” 5 “Jesus of Nazareth,” they replied.“I am he,” Jesus said. (And Judas the traitor was standing there with them.) 6 When Jesus said, “I am he,” they drew back and fell to the ground. 7 Again he asked them, “Who is it you want?” And they said, “Jesus of Nazareth.” 8“I told you that I am he,” Jesus answered. “If you are looking for me, then let these men go.” 9 This happened so that the words he had spoken would be fulfilled: “I have not lost one of those you gave me.”
How many times does Jesus ask them for whom they are looking? Twice. And each time his answer of “I am he” led to a reaction which tells us something about Jesus that means everything in the world to us. But before we think about the reactions of what the answer of “I am he” led to, let’s think about what the answer of “I am he” leads to in our understanding of exactly who this is who is standing there as one against many, but one against many, who because of the One, didn’t stand a chance.
Is there something about the words “I am he” that tells us about who Jesus is claiming to be? “I Am” is the name that God used for himself when talking about himself in the Old Testament Scriptures, which was the entire Bible at the time of Christ. “I Am the Lord, the God of Abraham, Isaac and Jacob,” God said about himself. “I Am who I am” God said about himself. “Tell them, ‘I Am sent you to talk to them,’” God said about himself. When Jesus said “I am he” about himself, we can’t help but see that he is saying something much more than just identifying himself as one of the inhabitants of the small town of Nazareth up north. He was identifying himself with God Almighty. He was saying he was God Almighty. He wanted them to know exactly who it was that they were looking for, and even though they certainly were not looking for God as they looked for Jesus of Nazareth, God is who they found!
This was nothing new, either, because a little earlier Jesus had said something which some of these very same people in this crowd very possibly could have heard in another crowd on a different day, when Jesus said about their forefather Abraham, the man they honored and revered and deeply loved, “Before Abraham was born, I Am.” Before there even was an Abraham, there was a me, because I Am. I am God. I am the Lord.” At that time those Jewish leaders who heard Jesus say that wanted to do what they were now intent on doing at this time. They had wanted to kill him, so they picked up stones to do just that, except that Jesus just slipped away, because it was not yet time for that. But now it was time, and Jesus did not just slip away this time. He asked them who it was they wanted, and when they told him they were looking for Jesus of Nazareth, he just stood there and said, “I am he.”
He just stood there, but they did not, right? And that is the first reaction to Jesus telling them who he was. They heard Jesus say, “I am he,” and all they could was draw back and fall to the ground. Whether they just fell over flat out or whether they fell over each other as they all drew back, we don’t know, but what we do know is that these people who wanted to control Jesus because of his powerful messages to the people were not the ones in control, because Jesus was going to use his power for the benefit of the people, so many of whom, unfortunately, wanted nothing to do with him.
We are going to sing it a few minutes, but what else can we say but,
“What wondrous love is this, o my soul, o my soul!
What wonderous love is this, o my soul!
What wondrous love is this That caused the Lord of bliss
To bear the dreadful curse for my soul…”
Jesus could have walked over all those bodies lying on the ground and made his way back from the Garden of Gethsemane to the house of his friends, Mary, Martha and Lazarus, just a couple of miles away in Bethany in no time flat, but the time had come. He had told Judas earlier that night to do what he was going to do quickly, because now was the time when darkness reigned; now was the time for the Son of Man to betrayed into the hands of sinners. Now was the time for the one in total control as Lord of all to allow some of the all he had come for to control him, even though they wouldn’t have needed a single one of those swords they brought along with them to do it.
Jesus uses his power to do something for each one of us that we are powerless to do by ourselves – get God to love us. You and I are no different than any of those enemies in the Garden of Gethsemane that night, nor are we any different than any of those disciples of Jesus who were so timid that night. It is only by God’s grace that on this night we can look into that same garden where stood those bitter enemies and those faithless friends and say, “Thank you, Jesus. Thank you for not using your power to get away, but for using your power to stay – for using your power to let them put their sin-filled hands on you and to take you to a place I deserve to go – a place where it looked like you had no power whatsoever, but the place where you decided it was time to breathe your last, the place where you cried out in a loud voice, “Father, into you hands I commend my spirit. It is finished.”
But before Jesus let them take him, he asked one more time who they were looking for in order to confirm his control over the situation. “I told you that I am he,” he said. And now in this second reaction to what he said we see specifically how he used his power to show his love. “If you are looking for me, then let these men go.” “I do not want to lose any of those my Father has given me.”
Isn’t it interesting that the one without the weapons is the one who is giving the orders? Isn’t it amazing that the one who is going to give himself over to death is so concerned about the life of those disciples who so often did not understand the very basics of the Christian faith and life? Isn’t it a miracle that he has the same concern for you and me, who so often don’t understand the same things? Jesus, how can you just let them take you – and not me? Jesus, how can you just go through that trial with its beatings and mockings – and not have me receive the same? Jesus, how can just accept the nails in your hands and your feet, when you know very well that nailed there instead of you should be me? In a few moments we will sing this too:
To God and to the Lamb I will sing, I will sing;
To God and to the Lamb I will sing;
To God and to the Lamb Who is the great I Am,
While millions join the theme, I will sing.
The great I Am who said “I am he” said “I am he” because of his love for me. That is why I can sing, and that is why I will sing – through all eternity I’ll sing on. The one in control that night is one whose mercy endures forever. Soldiers falling over at the power of “I am he” and disciples running away because of the compassion of “I am he” are living proof that that is so – and that it always will be so for you and for me. Amen.