Easter 4, Year C
I was leading a mission trip several years ago, and we got to about Thursday of the week, which if you’ve ever traveled with a large group of people, you know that’s about the time when you’ve all had just about enough “togetherness.” So, I gave everyone the 5-minute warning before we left for the day, which was also when I realized that I could not find the keys to the van. I had EVERYONE searching for those keys and could. Not. Find. Them! All of a sudden, one of the participants looked at me and said, “Hey Paul… Those keys you’re missing… Are they the ones hanging from your pinky?”
I tell you that story because there’s a parallel to today’s Gospel reading. As he does throughout the Gospels, Jesus is encountering very pointed questions from those who can’t or don’t want to see him for who he is. Jesus, the Way, the Truth, and the Life, is standing right in front of these people, just the same way we heard him standing in front of Pontius Pilate a few weeks ago, and yet they still ask, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you’re the Messiah, tell us plainly?” Another way to translate the Greek is “Why do you keep annoying us with this stuff!?”
Before we go any deeper, we should set the scene—John is pretty good at giving us the context of Jesus’ teaching. The Festival of the Dedication is known today as Hanukah, celebrating the rededication of Temple after its desecration by Antiochus Epiphanes. You can read about that in First Maccabees. The portico of Solomon was where, after his Resurrection and Ascension, Jews who followed Jesus and saw him as the Messiah would gather to share his teachings. So it’s no small thing that this is the spot in the Temple where John tells this story. The other important feature of this story is that it one more time in the Gospels where Jesus is seen keeping the important festivals of his faith.
Which leads me to another important scene setting question… I wondered all week: What in the world is this story doing as an Easter reading? We should be hearing about the stories of Jesus with his disciples after the resurrection, not something about sheep and wondering whether Jesus is the Messiah. However, in the early days of Christianity, images of Jesus were not of him on the cross or as an infant in the manager or even an empty tomb with a triumphant Christ. They pictured Jesus as a gentle shepherd. What is believed to be the earliest painting features a young Jesus in a white tunic with a lamb over his shoulders. What the religious leaders were expecting was a military/political leader who would talk about ousting Romans. Not someone who talked about being a shepherd.
In John’s Gospel, Jesus hasn’t really revealed himself as the Messiah since early on with the Woman at the Well (Chapter 4). So this call to “tell us plainly” strikes a chord because almost everything Jesus has been doing up to this point has led plenty of other people to acknowledge him as the Son of God or the Holy One of God as Peter says at the end of Chapter 6. This little snippet from the 10th chapter today is part of Jesus’ longer teaching on being the Good Shepherd and about sheep and the religious leaders are divided over what is saying. In fact, just one verse after what we heard today, it says, “The Jews took up stones again to stone him.” (They did this in chapter 8, and he slipped past them!) It was prompted by his statement “The Father and I are one.”
Swaths of people are following Jesus, many of whom we can assume are watching this exchange happen. And many of those same people either see him as the Messiah or they could really care less if he’s the Messiah because they see the power of his work. Jesus has said in previous passages (and even alludes to it here) that titles don’t really matter. Doing what is best for the Kingdom of God, right then and maybe for the future, is what’s most important. And yet… there is a whole group of people who can’t see Jesus for who he is. The reality for those folks is that whatever the Messiah was supposed to look like, Jesus didn’t fit the bill. He didn’t have the military clout to overthrow Rome. He bucked up against religious leaders, even as he observed the customs and requirements. He didn’t aspire to any sort of political power. And yet…
He seemed to be drawing people closer to God, closer to an understanding, some would say a new or a renewed understanding of what it was to be a child of God, what it meant to be in presence of God, for God to come near (Emmanuel = God with us) and for God to live and breathe and speak to them in ways that weren’t legalistic or over-bearing. But in ways that conveyed the very heart of God as it was conveyed all those years ago to Moses, the first Shepherd of God’s flock.
When I was in a Bible study group a number of years ago looking at a text similar to this, a friend of mine said, “There’s a cast of hundreds if not thousands hanging on Jesus’ every word, and yet the Gospel writer was more concerned with Jesus’ detractors. What’s up with that!? Why not focus on where Jesus is getting his message across instead of those who don’t get it?” And the answer is two-fold. One – The Gospel writers, especially Matthew & John, are trying to show Jesus as the perfection of the Jewish faith, so it’s those who don’t get it who are wrong and we need to see Jesus teaching them a few things to set the record straight. The Scribes and Pharisees are foils to the plot, if you will. And Two -- we often learn the most from the people whose question our motives and make us say more about what we’re thinking.
Before we get too high on ourselves, that we’d most certainly be in the crowd that was amazed at all Jesus said and did, how many times have you missed seeing God and-or Jesus because what you were seeing didn’t match up with what you thought you were looking for?
How many times have we as a people of God insisted that Jesus looks, acts, calls, believes (whatever it is!) one way, only to discover it’s 90 or 180-degrees different than what we thought?
I don’t know how many people I’ve talked to over the years, both as a lay professional and an ordained one, who have said, “I keep looking for God, but maybe I’m looking in the wrong places.” Or “I don’t think God is anywhere near me. I think it’s supposed to feel/look/sound this way and it just doesn’t.” People of all ages and walks of life. And I totally get it. It can be painful and lonely and deeply unsettling. I’ve been there, and there’s no guarantee that I won’t walk that path again myself. (Clergy aren’t immune!)
My typical response is to ask, “What are you looking for? What are you expecting to hear/see/feel?” Just as Jesus was doing amazing things for throngs of people to experience, there were people who set their expectations on one thing, only to miss what was right in front of them. We get so preoccupied on where we think we left our car keys to miss the fact that they are in our hand. When we begin to let go of those preoccupations and see that God/Jesus/Holy Spirit don’t always look/feel/sound like we expect, we can begin to see/hear/know that our Triune God is not only right in front of us and all around us, but in some of the most unexpected places. Remember, people were looking for a military or political leader. But a shepherd? That’s not what anyone expected a Messiah to look like. But this is Jesus we’re talking about.