Fourth Sunday of Easter, April 17th, 2016
Acts 9:36-43, Psalm 23, Revelation 7:9-17, John 10:22-30
Preached by Pastor Anna C. Haugen, Augustana and Birka Lutheran Churches, Underwood, ND
May the words of my mouth, and the meditations of my heart, be acceptable in your sight, my rock and my redeemer.
Grace and peace to you from God our Father, and the Lord Jesus Christ. Amen.
People gathered around Jesus and asked him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Now, the thing is, this is half-way through the Gospel of John. Jesus has already spent ten chapters teaching, preaching, and giving miraculous signs that he is the Messiah, the Son of God. And there are, by this point, PLENTY of people who have recognized who Jesus is. It’s not like it’s this hidden, secret thing. Jesus has not been hiding his light under a bushel. And he’s in the Temple, right? The home of the Jewish faith. If anyone in the world could recognize the Messiah, the chosen anointed king of the God of the Jews, it should be these people here. And they’ve figured out he’s something special—that’s why they’re asking the question—but they’re still on the fence. Still wondering.
Now, there were probably a couple of reasons for that. A couple of reasons why they couldn’t bring themselves to accept that Jesus was the Messiah, the Good Shepherd, the anointed king of David’s house sent to save them. And the first reason was simply that Jesus was not the first claimant to come along. There had been, by that point, several Jewish leaders who claimed to be the long-awaited Messiah. Some of them had had pretty good evidence to back them up, at least in the short term, and still ended up disappointing everyone by not actually being the Messiah. We forget, now, but in the couple of centuries around the time of Jesus’ life there were half-a-dozen men who claimed to be the Messiah—and probably at least that many more that are lost to history. Reason enough for people to be a little skeptical at the latest wandering holy man.
The other big reason for them to be skeptical, though, is that Jesus … didn’t look that much like a Messiah. I mean, by this point, they’d had almost a thousand years to build up a picture of what the Messiah would look like. And the greatest thing they knew about him was that he was to be David’s descendent. So they expected him to be, well, like King David. A king, a great warrior who could slay the giant. David slew Goliath and defeated the Philistines, the great enemy of his day; they expected the Messiah to slay the legions and defeat Rome, the great enemy of their day. It was a reasonable assumption. After all, the Messiah did come to slay the great enemy … except on a rather larger scale than they were expecting. The great enemy that the Messiah came to slay was death, the enemy of all living things that ever have been or ever will be, not just the empire that was the current enemy du jour. They had their eyes firmly on their current political problems, and wanted God to fix them. They were faithful people, who believed that since they were faithful people, all the things they were concerned with must also be God’s concern. They assumed that God thought the same way they did; they assumed that God agreed with them. And so they assumed that the Messiah would kill their enemies, help them and their friends, and establish the kind of earthly kingdom they most wanted to see. But God had his eyes firmly fixed on the far greater problems facing all of creation. It’s not that God didn’t care that the Romans were oppressing them; it’s just that God was trying to save the universe, not limiting himself to a small group of people in one place and time.
But that was not what Jesus’ contemporaries wanted to hear. Sure, they hated death, who doesn’t? But it never even occurred to them that the destruction of death could be on the menu. In any case, the empire that currently had its boot on their neck was a far more immediate problem for them. And because they were concentrating on that problem, they assumed that God must be too. They saw their immediate problem, but couldn’t see beyond it. And so here’s this Jesus fellow, obviously some sort of holy man. And he went around preaching and teaching, which the Messiah was supposed to do; he went around talking about the Kingdom of God, which the Messiah was definitely supposed to do, because after all, wasn’t Israel God’s Kingdom? And as for heavenly signs, well, between miraculous feedings and healings and whatnot, this Jesus fellow obviously had signs of God’s favor. And he drew crowds, a very promising thing for someone who is going to have to start raising an army pretty soon if he’s going to start taking on the Roman legions. Except … he’s not raising an army. He’s not even trying to. He’s just continuing to teach and preach and heal and feed. You can see why they’re a bit confused. “Tell us plainly!” they say. “Are you the Messiah, or not?” In other words, are you the political and military leader we think God is going to send us who’s going to solve our immediate political and military problems?
You can see why Jesus doesn’t give them a straight answer. Because yes, he is the Messiah! But he’s not the Messiah they’re expecting. If he says “yes,” straight up and unambiguous, they’re going to assume he fits neatly into the little box in their heads marked “Messiah.” They’ll probably start buying weapons and recruiting soldiers for the army they assume he’s going to need. And they’ll go back and interpret everything he’s ever said in light of “how will this help us beat the Romans.” Which will be completely missing the point. I mean, they’re already missing the point, but they will miss the point even more if they get the straight answer they want. So instead Jesus continues to talk in metaphor and tells them to look at what he’s done and judge by that. And, by the way, by this point the middle east had been using the “shepherd” metaphor to describe kings in general for centuries. It’s kind of like if we asked someone if he were the President, and he started soliloquizing about what it means to be Commander in Chief. It’s pretty much answering the question—but it’s sidestepping it at the same time. You can see why they were annoyed with him—why wouldn’t he just tell them what they wanted to hear? And if he wasn’t the Messiah, if he wasn’t going to free them from the Romans, why was he taking up their time?
We don’t assume that Jesus is going to save us from the Romans—in fact, the Roman Empire has been gone for a long time, which the people of Jesus’ day would have been shocked about—but we’re just as likely to put Jesus and his message into a nice neat box in our heads and assume that we know what it means that he is our Savior and Lord. We tend to assume we know what he wants; we tend to assume that our goals are his goals; we tend to try and fit him into our view of the world, rather than conforming our minds and our lives to him. But if you’ve been sitting here shaking your heads at those crazy people in Jesus’ day who assumed that getting rid of the Roman Empire was God’s greatest worry in the world, maybe you should take a look at the things we tend to assume are God’s greatest worries in the world today.
If you ask the average American Christian what problems they think God is worried about in the world today, they would throw out a lot of different answers. But we’re like those Jews who questioned Jesus because a lot of those problems are based more on our own immediate worries than on the true scope of God’s saving power. Like the ancient Jews, we tend to assume that because we are faithful followers of God, God agrees with us. We tend to try to fit God into our preconceived notions of what God should be like rather than let God shape our hearts and minds. We focus on changing morals, or our worries about America’s future, or our worries about terrorists and other foreign enemies, our or worries about the future of church institutions—buildings, denominational structures, that sort of thing.
And God cares about those things, of course. But, just like the military might of the Roman Empire, these things are not necessarily God’s primary concern. Jesus came that we might have life, and have it abundantly. He came to destroy death so that we—and all people, all of creation—might live. The people in the Temple asked him if he was the Messiah, and he told them to look at the works he had done in his Father’s name, and that would answer their question. It forced them to look beyond their preconceptions to see what God was actually doing in them and among them. Because while Jesus’ mission and his ultimate work, his death and resurrection, was great beyond their imagining, the seeds he was planting were often too humble for their notice. This is what Jesus did in our Father’s name: he brought forgiveness where there was sin and separation. He brought love where there was hate. He brought healing where there was illness. He brought food where there was hunger. He brought wisdom where there was ignorance and confusion. He brought life where there was death, and he brought it abundantly.
We can’t fight the great battle that Jesus fought in his death and resurrection. We don’t have to; Jesus has done it for us. But we can participate in the work that supports it in our world today. We can work for forgiveness and understanding and love. We can work for healing, physical, mental, emotional and spiritual. We can feed the hungry. We can bring life, in a thousand different ways, great and small. And we can trust that God, who created the world, who saves us from the great enemy which is death, will lead us in his path.