What to make of this reading from John’s Gospel… Jesus is wandering about the Temple in Jerusalem and seems to be causing a bit of a stir. “Tell us plainly if you are Messiah” the Jews want to know. And Jesus gives a not terribly helpful answer: “I have told you.”
There are a number of details that almost escape notice – but let’s take a few moments to notice them.
First – It’s not really a detail, but I think it needs to be mentioned… The author of John refers fairly frequently to “the Jews” in troubling ways. And John makes no effort to try to qualify these references, leaving the impression that somehow every Jew in Israel is up to something. But for the most part, everyone in the picture is included in “The Jews.” The disciples were Jews, the various friends of Jesus, like Mary, Martha, and Lazarus, were Jews. And Jesus, of course, was a Jew.
When the Disciples are gathered in a locked room for fear of “the Jews,” this might have been written “for fear of everyone.” When we hear “the Jews” it tends to signal folks from outside our group identity, but at that time the population of Jerusalem was comprised mostly of Jews – it was the group identity.
Over the years the antisemitism that percolates through our Christian tradition has had horrible consequences – up to and including the Holocaust. It is still a significant concern. And John has been used to foment antisemitism. I just want to note that and not let it slip past.
In this passage, Jesus is working the crowd in the Temple – it doesn’t get much more Jewish… At the time of Jesus’ life, the activity around the temple must have been remarkable. But by the time John’s Gospel is written down, perhaps between 70 and 90 A.D., the temple has been destroyed. This glorious and remarkable place of worship has been reduced to rubble. This story must invoke some bittersweet nostalgia among the faithful Jews who were now followers of Jesus… and more than a little resentment at the Roman forces who demolished the temple.
And just in case we were not already feeling nostalgic about the Temple… According to John this encounter takes place at the feast of Dedication, also known as the Festival of Light – or Hanukkah. This eight-day festival is generally celebrated with lamps and oil – remember there was not nearly enough oil for the lamps, but by some miracle, God allows not nearly enough oil to keep the lamps lighted for the full 8 days…
This pattern of too little turning into more than enough is the same idea behind Jesus feeding of the multitude with too little bread and too few fish… It would seem that John is subtly linking the miracle of Hanukkah, the festival of light, with the Miracle of Jesus, the light of the world.
And John is not done making subtle references. Hanukkah is also known as the festival of Dedication. And the dedication in question is the Dedication of the Temple in Jerusalem, the very temple that Jesus is wandering through… the very temple that has been demolished by the Romans when John’s Gospel is being recorded.
This is a subtle way of telling us that Jesus is the temple. The glorious pile of stone and timber with ivory and gold decoration was not so important. The followers of Jesus don’t need a temple – Jesus is our temple, and by extension all followers of Jesus including us are the temple.
Of course, we haven’t gotten to any actual statements by John… but let’s move on to the second sentence in the reading…
How long will you keep us in suspense is the question. Are you Messiah? The crowd is looking for plain answers – they are going to be disappointed. Jesus says, “I have already told you.” Told us what?
By now, Jesus has performed many miracles that all testify to his divine nature, but somehow, in the face of evidence, it is still hard for folks to believe that Jesus is Messiah. But this is the problem we all face: The Messiah that we expect and want blinds us to the Messiah that comes to us from God.
The crowd in the temple are looking for a great military hero – a Messiah that will deliver them from the oppression of the Romans. Setting this encounter in the soon-to-be destroyed temple, destroyed by those hated Romans, makes that desire especially palpable. The people of Israel have waited patiently for centuries for Messiah… that patience is at an end.
But the Messiah they want is not the one on offer. Jesus is not, and will never be, a great military hero. Jesus calls us to turn the other cheek. We want a Messiah who will destroy our opponent. We don’t want any of this “turn the other cheek” business.
Here is one of the central problems that Christian tradition faces: A meek and suffering Messiah is foolish and ridiculous – Paul tells us that. The Greeks and Jews may not have agreed on much, but they agreed on this.
It’s not that the crowd has not seen or understood Jesus’ words and actions. It’s that they want a different Messiah. And if I’m honest, there are times when I want a different Messiah… a different Jesus. There are days when I want Jesus to smite the folks I don’t like. Jesus never does and Jesus never will.
Then we have this discussion of sheep which is kind of aggressive. I have spent a certain amount of time around sheep, and they are cute, gentle, and more than just a little stupid… Sheep are social and so they cluster into flocks. If they could organize themselves, they could be rather formidable. But that is not the nature of sheep. They do not have much of an instinct to defend themselves other than by scattering. The shepherd is essential to their survival.
While sheep may not be the brightest animals in God’s creation, they do have an interesting ability to recognize voices. They will respond to the voice of their own shepherd. For any other shepherd… not so much. Our dog Molly is a little like this. When Daniel or Roger tell her to do something she’s on it, right away. For me, she is indifferent at best. She knows the voices of the folks that matter, and my voice is not on that list…
Sheep know the voices of people that matter. And what Jesus seems to be saying to this crowd is that they are not as smart as sheep. They do not know the voice of God or of Jesus – which is the same voice.
It could be comforting to hear this as a story about “the Jews” of two thousand years ago being ignorant of God. But this gospel story, like all gospel stories, is not written for ancient outsiders. It is written for us.
Do we hear God’s voice, or Jesus’ voice, and recognize it? Do we respond to it?
I hope the answer is yes. But when I look around at the condition of this world, I can’t get to a resounding yes. There are lots of ways in which we do hear God’s voice, but the injustice that seems to flow through our society is beyond unfaithful. And it refuses to recognize God’s voice.
We know that Jesus calls us to feed the sheep, to tend the sick, to comfort the sorrowful, to visit the prisoners. And we know that Jesus calls us to turn the other cheek, to give up our shirt if someone asks for our coat, to walk two miles (that is 3.2 kilometers…) if someone asks us to walk with them for one…
I don’t know about you, but I have some walking to do…
We hear God’s voice, but perhaps as in a dream. We know what God calls us to do, but we’re half asleep to that call.
And so, our response comes out something like those folks in the temple – Really Jesus… is that really you. Tell us exactly what you want. We just want to double check. We just want to be certain.
And Jesus says “I have told you… I am telling you.” We may be slow to respond, but the Gospel is, after all, good news. God is patient and God is forgiving. When we are ready to hear and recognize God’s voice, God will be speaking.