So, tomorrow, my family and I are driving back to St. Louis for a couple weeks. My youngest brother-in-law is graduating high school. We’re going to do a gender reveal for the new baby. I’m excited. It should be a lot of fun. But, similarly, there’s something about visiting from out of town that just makes your relatives say stupid things and ask stupid questions.
We’ve all experienced this, right? Whether it’s on a holiday or vacation or whatever. Sometimes you get the basic too-personal question, like when are you going to get married? But sometimes you get the passive-aggressive comments. “You guys are really brave to be having another baby...” th-thank you...... Or you have the relative who constantly makes comments
about your politics or constantly asks why you’re studying what you’re studying or why you have the job that you have.
And one of the reasons I think this is so annoying when it happens is because some things are just complicated! Some questions don’t have simple, straight-forward answers. Some situations aren’t easy to explain. And this is pretty similar to what our Christian faith is like. It’s not always easy to explain. Sometimes, there aren’t easy, clean-cut answers. And we can either run from that or learn from that. Our text this morning is about messy, difficult aspects of our faith.
Now, our text begins with some historical markers. The first two verses of our passage say this: “At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon.” So, let’s split this up. First, we come upon the “festival of the Dedication” in the wintertime. This festival probably doesn’t sound familiar to us as Christians, but you've probably at least heard it by another name: Hanukkah. Now, just a refresher for you: we read biblical Hebrew right-to-left and top-to-bottom. So, the big characters are consonants and the little dots and dashes around the consonants are vowels. “Hanukkah” means “to dedicate” and it references the rededication of the temple after it was overtaken in battle and made into a place to worship the Greek gods. And so, along with this, comes the story of the Israelites only having enough lamp oil for 1 night, but it miraculously lasted 8 nights. And this story actually isn’t in the bible — it comes from secondary Jewish literature outside the biblical canon.
So, all this tells us the time of year and the season and what’s happening at this time. But, John also gives us a geographical marker: “in the temple, in the portico of Solomon.” Now, the temple was in Jerusalem and it was subsequently destroyed in 70AD, but this is an artistic reconstruction of the temple and what it probably looked like. And the Portico of Solomon is described in ancient manuscripts as an enclosed walkway, lined with pillars, on the eastern wall of the temple. So, if we look at our depiction of the temple, that would be right here. This was a place that was often used for people to gather and discuss theology or philosophy and so it was natural for Jesus to take his place here amongst the fellow teachers and thinkers of his day.
Now, while Jesus is walking in the temple, probably teaching his disciples, a group of Jews gather around him and say, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell use plainly.” And, it may not sound like it or seem like it, but this is a complicated question for Jesus to answer. The reason being that it makes a number of assumptions. At the time, the messianic vision of the Jewish community was largely a patriotic and militaristic one. It was the hope of a leader who would come in and restore Israel to be an independent nation unaffected by the imperialistic Roman military industrial-complex. So, for Jesus to say “yes” would be for him to de facto affirm this understanding of what the messiah is. But for Jesus to answer no would be for him to disavow his mission and identity as the messiah he believes he is. So Jesus chooses a third way to answer this question.
“I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them and they follow me.” I’ve spoken a lot, both in my sermons and one-on-one with folks, about faith and doubt. I taught on the “doubting Thomas” story a few weeks ago. And, if you remember any of those conversations, you’ll probably realize that I utilize the language of “event” a lot. The “event of faith”, the “event which moves us out of ourselves and thrusts us into the love and service of another”, etc. And there’s a lot of philosophy and stuff behind that language that we don’t really have time to unpack, but this is the best way I’ve come to understand the nature of faith.
Faith isn’t about our mental capacity to grasp a certain set of principles; it’s not something that we can gain or let go of on our own. Faith is something that never belonged to us in the first place. It’s something that never exists statically in the world. Faith is merely the event of hearing the shepherd’s voice; it’s the event of knowing the one you belong to and subsequently being moved — or, more often, shoved — into following them. I firmly believe that everyone has heard this voice. Those of us who are people of faith are merely the ones who have become conscious of the voice; we’re the ones who have heard and followed.
Now, Jesus tells this group of people, “you do not believe because you don’t belong to my sheep.” And I don’t think it had anything to do with them not wanting to believe, but I think it has everything to do with them only wanting to believe in the messiah they want and not the messiah they have. Does that make sense? Rather than accepting the messiah that God has sent them, they want to hold on hope for a messiah that’s never going to come — a messiah that will be what they want him to be and do what they want him to do. And, to be sure, this isn’t a phenomenon relegated only to this community of Jews in 1st century Palestine. But this is us, all the time, everyday.
The fact of the matter is that we don’t want Jesus to be our messiah. Because when we take Christianity seriously — when we get beyond nominal Christianity and we get beyond evangelical Christianity, which is basically “Jesus is my boyfriend” Christianity, and we get to place where we’re forced to take the gospels seriously — we realize that what Jesus is calling us to be and to do isn’t easy. It’s not easy to constantly subject yourself to the conviction of the Spirit. It’s not easy to constantly deny yourself and take up a cross and crucify yourself on it, but that’s what we need to be doing. I mean, look around — as a community we’re pretty white. If we’re not constantly checking our white privilege as a community then we’re not really following the messiah we have, but the messiah we want. As a community, we’re
pretty heterosexual. If we’re not constantly checking that privilege as a community, then we’re not really following the messiah we have, but the messiah we want. We’re never going to be perfect at doing this kind of work but we at least have to try; we at least have to be engaged in it and constantly trying to get better. If we’re not always seeking to hear Jesus’ voice and follow him more closely, then we’re no different from the Jews in our story this morning.
Now, after Jesus talks about being a shepherd who’s sheep know his voice, he says something that’s really interesting: “I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.” Now, in a way, this kind of cryptic, philosophical talk is common in John’s gospel. So, it shouldn’t really surprise us. However, it’s worth pointing out how incredibly disruptive this is for the Jews to hear. Jesus is equating himself with YHWH. For those listening who don’t ‘belong to [his] sheep’ this is an incredibly offensive statement.
In fact, let’s look at the few verses which come immediately after our passage this morning: “The Jews took up stones again to stone him. Jesus replied, ‘I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these are you going to stone me?’ The Jews answered, “It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you, but for blasphemy, because you, though only a human being, are making yourself God.’” Now, historically, these Jews are just being good Jews. The prescribed penalty for blasphemy, according to Leviticus 24:16, is stoning. So, they’re just doing what the Law tells them to do because they’ve not come to consciously reflect on the fact that the Law has been fulfilled in Jesus. They’ve not come to recognize his voice as God’s voice.
And, in a way, this gets at the most fundamental, yet complex teaching of Christianity: that Jesus is a human being, full-stop — and yet, he’s also somehow God, full-stop. In the world of academic theology, we call this a “dialectic.” Something having a completely natural, mundane explanation and yet recognizing it as the work of God. The Jews are right: Jesus is “only a human being.” But, for those who hear God’s voice in his teachings, does it even matter that Jesus is only a human being? As Christians, we would probably say no because it’s in Jesus’ voice that we find eternal life. It’s in Jesus’ voice that we find our identity and security and hope and we know that nothing can ever change that; that we can never be snatched out of Jesus’ hand.
Just like Jesus, the Christian faith is one of these “dialectics”. It’s messy and there’s not always easy, clean-cut answers, but that doesn’t mean that God won’t use it. WE are messy; we’re full of doubts and questions and disbelief but it doesn’t mean that God won’t use us. There’s nothing we can do that would make God let go of us. So, whatever your story, no matter what you’re struggling with or going through, just know that you’re always welcomed and loved and wanted. And when we come to consciously reflect on that fact, our task becomes to go out into the world and let people know that they are too. So, as we leave today and go home or to work or whatever, take this message with you, and approach every person and every situation with the love and grace that’s already been given to you.