During our 10:45 Meeting for Worship the joys and concerns on the hearts of worshippers shared with those gathered and the inspired messages shared in our time of open worship led to concluding our time of worship with the reading for this Sunday from the Gospel of John and abbreviating the prepared message by sharing only the last couple of paragraphs. It is posted here in its entirety.
When John finally put pen to papyrus to write his Gospel the followers of Jesus were in fact in open hostility with the Jews. But when the event he reports actually occurred that was not the case. Jesus himself was a Jew, his followers were Jewish. His opponents were the authorities, most of whom were Jewish. The challenges and opposition represented in this text are not between Jesus and all Jews. It is between Jesus and his Jewish followers and other Jews – most especially those with authority and privileged status. Without 2,000 years of hindsight to guide them these conscientious religious leaders were sincerely trying to discern the spirit of Jesus. The Judeans were having a difficult time understanding what to make of what appeared to be Jesus’ deviant behavior. To their minds it could either be caused by an evil spirit or the spirit of God. Jesus’ challenging and provoking the authorities and upsetting social harmony suggests that he is possessed by an evil spirit. Yet on the other hand, “can a demon open the eyes of the blind?”
John sets our story at the Festival of the Dedication which is the only mention in the entire Bible of what today is called Hanukkah. It was not an official feast day of the Old Testament. The Greek enkainia, which translates into the Hebrew Hanukkah, simply means “renewal.” The back ground was that under Antiochus IV Epiphanies the Seleucids profaned the Jerusalem Temple by erecting a statue of Zeus on the altar and tradition has it that they sacrificed pigs there. The incident was called the “abominable desolation” in Daniel 9:27. After the defeat of Antiochus by the Maccabeans that a new altar was erected and the Temple was rededicated. The “renewal” ceremony celebrates a violent and successful revolt of the Jews over their oppressors in 164 B.C. by Judas Maccabeus and his forces. Hanukkah is the festival which celebrates the re-consecration of the Temple.
Obviously, this Feast would be one of Rome’s least favorite Jewish holidays as nationalistic fervor would be at a frenzied level among the occupied Jews. That context helps us to grasp what was really fueling the confrontation in our text today and to understand the significance of the moment in which Jesus has intentionally placed himself.
The plea “If you are the Christ, tell us plainly,” was loaded with images of a conquering king like David or Judas Maccabeus unseating and thoroughly humiliating Rome. The similarities of Jesus’ day and 164 years earlier were too obvious to miss. In the time of the Maccabeans, some elements of the Jewish aristocracy and the Jerusalem priesthood had actually supported Antiochus. Similarly, in Jesus’ day, elements of that same aristocracy and priesthood were now supportive of Rome. Now let’s read the text:
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 the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “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 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.” John 10:22-30
These Judeans “surround” Jesus and begin to interrogate him. Their first utterance seems confusing in the Greek. Most translations have something like: “How long will you keep us in suspense?” KJV has: “How long dost thou make us to doubt?” Rendered literally however it is translated, “Until when you take away our lives?” That hardly makes any sense at all without acknowledging the context which would argue that there was a genuine concern among Jesus’ detractors that a Jewish revolt would result in the destruction of Jerusalem, death of them as individuals and a scattering of them as a people. Of course, they would only have to wait a few more decades before that would actually happen.
The Judeans ask, “If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” To this point in Jesus ministry he has avoided any close identification of himself as Messiah. It has only been to a Samaritan woman, an outsider, that Jesus has spoken plainly of his identity as Messiah and that only reported by John. In the world of that time, the Messiah was commonly thought to be a political, even military figure, who would defeat Israel’s enemies and usher in a great Golden Age of prosperity. Jesus would not be that.
To falsely claim to be the Messiah, or falsely raise expectations of the imminent return of the Messiah, was considered a most serious blasphemy the penalty for which was stoning. In our day Jesus would have to be told “What you say can and will be used against you in a court of law…” Jesus chooses to not answer the request directly. Wes Howard-Brook explains the stakes involved: “Jesus’ ‘confession’ that he considers himself the Christ would be enough to justify his death.” He has, however, just spoken of himself as the “good shepherd” and shepherd imagery was quite often used in reference to the Messiah.
Jesus hasn’t actually told the Judeans much at all. Instead he says “my works speak for me”. These “witness” to him. The word “witness” is found once each in Matthew and Luke and not at all in Mark. For John, who uses it thirty-three times, it is an important concept. Jesus tells the harassing crowd: “I told you, and you do not believe; the works that I do in my Father’s name, these testify of me.” “…you do not believe because you are not of my sheep. “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.”
The word “believe” is also an important word study for us. To believe is more than a statement or a creed. It comes from a word which means to place confidence in someone or something and to listen and obey the someone in whom you have placed your trust. For us to believe in Jesus is to have the confidence to act on our faith, to listen and obey.
When Jesus told the parable of the good shepherd he contrasted the shepherd with “thieves and bandits.” The sheep hear the shepherd’s voice. He calls them by name. He leads them out. They follow because they know his voice. The sheep, however, will not follow a stranger because they “do not know the voice of strangers”. The sheep don’t listen to “thieves and bandits” who come “only to steal and kill and destroy.” Then, he switches to comparing the “good shepherd” with the “hired hands” who don’t really care about the sheep. The antagonism between Jesus and the authorities continue to escalate. The Judeans surrounding understand that Jesus has unceremoniously lumped them in with the thieves, bandits, and hired hands–those who do not hear his voice or care about his sheep, and, moreover, are trying to kill him rather than trust him.
In Verse 27 Jesus says: My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. Jesus’ sheep don’t just “hear” his voice – they recognize it. Think of the people whose voice you recognize on the phone. Yesterday morning I answered my cell phone and what I heard was the voice of my son in law in Maine. The funny part was some how my daughter’s phone called my phone without them knowing it. But, I recognized his voice. The challenge most Christians face today is not in following Jesus. We’ve been taught pretty well about that though we tend to know better than we do. The challenge for us is recognizing Jesus’ voice. Evidently we have not been taught very well how to listen and how to recognize his voice. We have not learned very well how to have a relationship with Christ in which we feel secure, protected and personally known.
“And I give to them life eternal, and they will surely not perish, and no one can snatch them out of my hand.” In Jesus’ day, real sheep were in constant danger of being snatched away by thieves and wild animals. So the assurance that the metaphorical sheep of Jesus’ followers – us – will not be snatched away is powerful. The implication that there are “snatchers” should not be overlooked. We face many real internal and external threats to our relationship with God. The thief steals, the wolf “snatches”, Jesus gives his sheep eternal life.
…”no one can “snatch” Jesus’ sheep from his hand. This is because of his close identification with the Father who, likewise, does not allow his sheep to be “snatched”. All through the fourth gospel, Jesus identifies closely with the Father and the Father with him–indeed, “I and the Father are one”. The pattern of this relationship is mirrored in the close identification between Jesus and his followers. All through the fourth gospel, the same “mutual indwelling” between the Father and Jesus is also reflected in the “mutual indwelling”–the intimacy and affection–between Jesus and his community.
Our sheep-y-ness refers to that about us that is instinctively able to hear the shepherd’s voice, and separate truth from falsehood; to separate the “true shepherd” from the false one.
I’ve got a question for you. Are your images of Jesus rooted in who he really was or who you might want him to be?
Do you see him as some nationalistic hero or someone who is going to ride in and under gird your self-righteousness?
Our life is a process in which we either become increasingly able to recognize Christ’s voice and follow or we become enamored with our own voice and reject his call. Everyday I must practice listening, everyday I must place myself where I can hear his call, or everyday I will come to mistake my voice within my head for his. It is important that we ask ourselves: Where can I go that I am most likely to hear his call today? What can I do to make me humble enough to hear his words and follow them today?”
Of course, I can also listen and then not follow. But the work of a follower is just that: to follow. “My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me.” To hear and to follow! Jesus’ works spoke plainly enough. But do my works speak with such clarity? Eventually, nothing will illustrate your allegiances and mine more than our works. So, “to whom” do my works testify that I follow?