Fourth Sunday of Easter
As our Gospel lesson begins, we find Jesus strolling on Solomon's porch in the temple courtyard. It was the Feast of Dedication, a time we know better as Hanukkah. By this time, Jesus had become pretty well-known: He was the man who taught with authority and healed all manner of diseases incurable by the medicine of that time (some, even of ours) and cast out all kinds of demons. As great as a following He had acquired, so was the reputation He had developed throughout all Judea.
The time, location, situation, and reputation all lead up to the question the Jews ask Him: "How long do You keep us in doubt? If You are the Christ, tell us plainly." "Why are you keeping us in suspense? We know who you are. We've seen and heard of what you've done. Why don't you just come out and say it, you're the Christ, the Anointed One...the Messiah." To understand what they are asking and demanding of Jesus, we have to understand what they are expecting of Him.
Like I said, the time, location, situation, and reputation all lead up to the question they ask Him:
- The time was Hanukkah, the Feast of Dedication. It was a commemoration when the temple was rededicated after the defilements of Antiochus IV of Syria, who had been a ruler of Judea in the line of the Seleucids following the death of Alexander the Great. You might recall from some study or class or history program on Alexander the Great that following his death, his empire was divided among three of his generals whose descendants ruled those regions: the Ptolemids in Egypt, the Antigonids in Greece, and the Seleucids in the Middle East and Asia. Antiochus IV thought himself enlightened, taking the epithet Epiphanes, and in his "enlightenment" thought the Jewish religion ridiculous to the point of outlawing its practice and defiling the temple. The Jews revolted, took over Jerusalem, and rededicated the temple, but only had enough oil to burn in their lamps for one day—this oil lasted eight.
- The location, then, follows. Jesus was surrounded as he walked on Solomon's porch on the temple grounds. This was the very same temple that was rededicated following the recapture of Jerusalem.
- The situation is that the Jews now find themselves under rule from another outside government, another outside ruler. It wasn't long after the Seleucids were overthrown that the Romans came in took over control of the region. While the Romans didn't forbid Judaism, they did allow it with the caveat that homage be paid to the Caesar as would be given to a king, and not merely a king as we would view a king, but a king that was placed in power by the will of the gods—their gods. Never mind that the Jews also didn't like paying taxes to Rome.
- Finally, the reputation that Jesus had acquired was that which is something that was expected of a messiah. This reputation is deeply connected with the time and situation. It was during the reign of the Seleucids at the time that we call the "Inter-Testamental Period" that the Jews rose up, led by a family known as the Maccabees. Their exploits can be read of in the Apocryphal books known by that name. The Maccabees were charismatic leaders and won a great victory over an occupying force, freeing the Jews to live in the grace of the one, true God. Such were the events in the Maccabees' revolt, that many thought them to be the messiah, especially Judas Maccabeus, who won a victory over Nicanor which liberated Jerusalem and the temple, allowing the Jews to restore the temple.
So, the elements are perfectly set up for the Jews to ask Jesus, "How long do You keep us in doubt? If You are the Christ, tell us plainly." In other words, "How long are you going to take to act? If you are the Messiah, tell us and get to work. Throw the Roman rulers out so that we can rightly and fully take up living in God's grace." As you, no doubt, have guessed by now, their idea of what the Messiah is and what he does is skewed by their view of history. They thought the Messiah to be a political hero, someone who would restore the nation of Israel who would inevitably cause the restoration of right religion. Everything would be set right under his rule, and life could go on as it is supposed to, as God had intended it to.
Jesus has the resume to back up their assumption. He is certainly a charismatic leader and teacher (not charismatic as it has come to be understood in this day and age, but generally being appealing to the general populace). He does things that are miraculous, keeping in line with the miracle which confirmed Judas Maccabeus to be messiah-like. Jesus' reputation is in line with their recollection of the Maccabean history.
"Look, Jesus, you certainly act like a Maccabee, so you must be the Messiah. Tell us and go all the way."
Therefore, Jesus responds,
I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in My Father's name, they bear witness of Me. But you do not believe, because you are not of My sheep, as I said to you. My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand. My Father, who has given them to Me, is greater than all; and no one is able to snatch them out of My Father's hand. I and My Father are one.
"I told you, and you do not believe." Jesus has said as much to them, yet they refuse to believe. He has claimed to be the Christ, yet the Romans still rule Judea. He refers to his reputation, works that He does in His Father's name. These are the very same works that the Law and the Prophets wrote of by which the Messiah could be identified. Oh, to be sure, some of them resembled the works done by the Maccabees, but not all of them, nor some of them fully. But in Christ, they are all fulfilled or will be fulfilled.
And this is the end, the purpose, of His work as Messiah: "My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand." He speaks and His sheep follow. His Word gives them eternal life, and no one can take that away from them.
Yet they do not believe because they are not His sheep. His is very much the Christ, but not the Christ they had in mind. It's not Him keeping them in doubt; they are keeping themselves in doubt. They want the Christ to be in the vein of Judas Maccabeus—the conquering hero, as G.F. Handel called him. Jesus calls Himself the Christ by pointing to His Works and His Word of Scriptures which paints a different picture of the Messiah—one of being a gentle shepherd who lays down His life for the sheep.
This is the will of the Father, not that the country be restored so that the old religion can be practiced and life go on as it once had. The will of the Father is this, as Jesus said a few chapters earlier in St. John's Gospel:
This is the will of the Father who sent Me, that of all He has given Me I should lose nothing, but should raise it up at the last day. And this is the will of Him who sent Me, that everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day.
That is complete and full and final restoration. It is not dependent on the restoration of the country (or any country). It is not that any temple defilement be restored. It is not the return to any old religion. It is this: "[T]hat everyone who sees the Son and believes in Him may have everlasting life; and I will raise him up at the last day." It is dependent on the death and resurrection of the Good Shepherd.
Therefore, "I and My Father are one," Jesus concludes. The Father's will is His will. He was sent as Messiah to do this and be this, and only He could. Only He could because He is God. Judas Maccabeus never could; his will was not that of the Father's. Judas was not God. Judas sought to liberate the country from the Seleucids, a noble deed to be sure, but he could not lay down his life for the people and rise again for them to bring them complete and full liberty.
This false perception and expectation of a messiah still exists today. Among modern Jews exists the idea that the messianic age cannot exist without the restoration of the temple, which is currently "defiled" in the form of a Muslim mosque. They seek another conquering hero, but not exactly of the same order as Judas Maccabeus. They will go so far as to state the the Messiah is not supposed to be a person, but an idea or concept that will only be realized with restored temple worship and sacrifices—Judaism the way it once was. Therefore, Jesus is not the Christ.
Even among some modern Christians, and I use the term loosely, there exists this idea that Israel and the temple must be restored in order for Jesus to return. These seek a conquering hero, too, so that Jesus can complete His task as Messiah. It goes against what Jesus taught as being the will of His Father. It goes against what He said from the cross as He breathed His last: "It is finished."
We can even mention a false idea shared by Christians and non-Christians alike. And, I'm sure many of us hear have shared in this idea from time to time. There is this notion that Jesus is Messiah to fulfill a person's expectations. The pop group, Depeche Mode, sang a song called "Personal Jesus" which relates to this notion. They sing, "Your own Personal Jesus / Someone to hear your prayers / Someone who's there;" it sounds as if they are singing about a Messiah who's purpose it to fulfill one's desires. In fact, Martin Gore, the song's author, says of the song:
It's a song about being a Jesus for somebody else, someone to give you hope and care. It's about how...everybody's heart is like a god in some way, and that's not a very balanced view of someone, is it?
It's the old "God in a Box" syndrome.
Related to this, then, is how we portray Jesus. The mode in which we speak of Jesus says much regarding what we think of the Messiah. We cannot emphasize one quality of Jesus over and against another, to the detriment of another. Doing so limits the scope of what the Messiah is, who the Messiah is. This is reducing the Savior to graspable chunks, as I once heard it described. It makes Him more appealing to certain segments of the population. For instance, someone struggling to cope with illness will find it easier to grasp Jesus the Great Physician, so you'll have a congregation or group that "ministers" only to the sick, but this "ministry" leaves them empty with regard to salvation. Similarly, a person struggling with poverty would find it easier to grasp Jesus the Defender of the Poor and Downtrodden, so you'll have a congregation or group that "ministers" only to the homeless, but this "ministry" leaves them poor with regard to salvation. The list can go on and on.
Jesus is all of these things, to be sure, but recall what Jesus said, "My sheep hear My voice, and I know them, and they follow Me. And I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; neither shall anyone snatch them out of My hand." Earlier He had also said, "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep." His Words are life, and He gives His life for all; those who follow Him, the Good Shepherd have eternal life.
Follow Jesus only as Defender of the Poor and the Downtrodden, and there is no death and resurrection there. Follow Jesus only as Great Physician, and there is no death and resurrection there. Make Jesus a "Personal Messiah," and there is no death and resurrection there; logical Old Adam doesn't like that...doesn't understand that. Seek in Jesus only a conquering hero, and you miss the Messiah mark entirely.
But, that's why we gather here. We are gathered here by the Good Shepherd, sheep of the Good Shepherd, to hear His voice, to hear His Words. We are gathered to hear of the Good Shepherd's life, death, and resurrection. Because here, God help us, the Good Shepherd's voice is speaking to us.
Doris asked me on Wednesday night if when I speak does it feel like someone else is talking. The answer is "yes." I am a, most simply, a mouth piece for God. Certainly, my personality comes through as I preach to you, but what I have to say is not from me but from God, and I need to hear it as much as you do. I'm not trying to claim that I am Holy Inspired, as the writers of Scripture were, but that as an under-shepherd of the Good Shepherd, I have been given a message to preach: of sin and forgiveness, of death and resurrection, of Law and Gospel. It is the voice of the Good Shepherd, and we are gathered to hear it.
And in hearing His voice, we receive exactly what He says, for His Word is life, and it is forgiveness and salvation. He speaks, and His Word does exactly what He says. He speaks of forgiveness and life and salvation and gives them when He speaks and through means—Word, Sacrament, and Office. "The words that I speak to you are spirit, and they are life," Jesus said. "I am the good shepherd. The good shepherd gives His life for the sheep."
And here's the kicker. As the Good Shepherd is preached, the Great Physician and Defender of the Poor and Downtrodden follow. The Good Shepherd gives His life for the sheep; He gives His life to the sheep. "Where the soul is healed, the body also benefits," we are taught; therefore, if Christ crucified is preached, Christ the Great Physician and Christ the Defender of the Poor and Downtrodden is included (as is every other quality of the Messiah). Moreover, if Christ crucified is preached, so is Christ the Conquering Hero, for by His death and resurrection He has conquered that unholy trinity: the devil, the world, and our own sinful flesh. By His death He has destroyed death, and by His rising against He has restored to us everlasting life.
Therefore, dear sheep of the Good Shepherd, hear his voice: Christ was crucified for you, died with your sin that you may live eternally without sin. Christ is risen for you, lives again that you may be where He is. He is your Good Shepherd, your Great Physician, your Defender, your Conquering Hero, therefore, you are forgiven for all of your sins!