A Sermon for the Fourth Sunday of Easter

April 17,2016
by Louise Browner Blanchard, Interim Rector

John 10:22-30

 “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”

 It all depends on what kind of Messiah we’re looking for…The people who were in the temple with Jesus that day were very likely looking for a Messiah quite different than the man whose actions and teachings were challenging the tenets of their faith. After all, where they were listening to him was in a part of the temple that had existed for nearly 1,000 years. Solomon’s temple had been a towering symbol of the united kingdom of Israel and Judah under Solomon and his father David. David, the shepherd boy who God had anointed king. David, the greatest king the Jews had ever known, and the model for the Messiah that many who listened to Jesus that day on Solomon’s portico had been anticipating. The people who were in the temple with Jesus that day longed for a Messiah who would return them to the glory days of the united kingdom under David and Solomon.

They were in the temple that particular day for the Feast of Dedication, the celebration that we know as Hanukkah, when Jews commemorate the rededication of the temple following a period of occupation. A fierce guerilla revolt led by the Jewish Maccabees ultimately succeeded, and the eight days of celebration surrounding the victorious temple rededication is Hanukkah the festival of Dedication. Many who listened to Jesus in the temple that day believed that the Messiah would lead the overthrow of their present-day Roman rulers and collaborators in the same way that the Maccabees had avenged their occupiers 200 years before. They longed for someone who would return them to the ranks of the victorious.

It all depends on what kind of Messiah we’re looking for…Jesus did not fit the mold of a conquering hero royal Messiah. Jesus talked about a new way of understanding God’s kingdom, not the restoration of the status quo. Jesus talked about relationships among all people and between all people and God. Often, his power manifested itself in healing people indiscriminately, and not being afraid to do so on the Sabbath. He welcomed children and advised adults to be more like them.[1] He offered forgiveness and withheld judgment and spoke most often in terms of peace, not war. “Blessed are the peacemakers.”[2] “Go in peace.”[3] “Peace be with you.”[4] “Peace be with one another.”[5] And “Peace I leave with you; my peace I give to you.”[6] Jesus spoke openly of his closeness with the Father, a presumptuousness that was shocking and infuriating to people who believed that only the highest priests could approach the holy of holies. Yet, despite all these contradictions to the traditional view of the Messiah, there remained something so compelling about this man named Jesus that even some of those who found him maddening couldn’t help but wonder. Thus, the question, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”

But he couldn’t really tell them or show them anymore than he already had. “I have told you and you do not believe,” he said. In other words, if the healings and miracles and preaching that you’ve witnessed haven’t moved you, if the experience of being around me hasn’t convinced you, if you’re still trying to make me into someone who avenges wrong, enforces laws, and imposes order, then nothing that I say now is going to make a difference. It all depends on what kind of Messiah we’re looking for…

Writer and theologian Frederick Buechner describes it as the difference between “believing in” something, on the one hand, and “believing” it, on the other.[7] To believe in something, Buechner notes, is an intellectual choice. The people in the temple who are questioning Jesus in today’s gospel are trying to decide whether to believe in Jesus as the Messiah. They’re listening to Jesus’s words and weighing the circumstances around his appearance in the temple to decide whether or not to make that choice. But the people who believe Jesus–what he says and does and how he lives–have done so in spite of themselves. They have done so because he has changed them–he has heard them and healed them, and their encounter with him is just the beginning of their life with him. They are not so much choosing to follow as letting go of reasons not to. He is the shepherd whose voice they follow; they are the sheep that he’ll never let go.

“Believing in” something is a risk-free proposition. For example, we can believe in Jesus as the Messiah, or the Son of God, or the good shepherd, or not, and nothing about our day-to-day life changes. We can “believe in” Jesus who said, “Blessed are the poor” and “Love your enemies” and “Do not judge, and you will not be judged,” and nothing about our day-to-day life changes. But if we actually believe him, if we hear that call, and trust that it’s true, the ground starts to shift. We have to ask some questions. Are we being called to do something different or new, something out in the world as opposed to something right here at home? We have to make some choices. Does this part of my treasure go to God or a new car or new shoes? We have to change our ways. We have to welcome the stranger, help the poor, or work for peace. Is that scary, or what?

But believing Jesus also means that we need not be afraid, that he will never leave us, and that our sorrow will turn to joy. ”Believing in” something can happen rather quickly, but believing strengthens over time, and it’s hard to do alone. Believing doesn’t mean that we don’t have doubts or questions, but that we lean into them rather than rationalize them. We pay attention to the voice of the good shepherd, and we pray to listen for it; in the words of today’s collect, “Grant that when [not if] we hear his voice, we may follow where he leads.” And in the words of the Prayer for the Future of St. Mary’s Church, “Show us the way forward. Help us plan a ministry which will reflect your glory, a ministry which will serve the needs of your people and which will be an important witness of your love for the world.”

It all depends on what kind of Messiah we’re looking for…

[1] Matthew 18.3, 19.13-14; Mark 10:13-14; Luke 18.16; John 1.12, 12.36

[2] Matthew 5.9

[3] Mark 5.34, Luke 7.50, 8.48

[4] Luke 24.36

[5] Mark 9.50

[6] John 14.27

[7] Whistling in the Dark, pp.21-22.