Preached by Rev. Gary Dalton, April 17, 2016
Taken from John 10:22-30
Our Gospel reading this morning drops us into the middle of the ongoing confrontation between Jesus and the Jewish authorities. Things have gotten pretty intense by this time. At the end of chapter 8, John tells us of an earlier day in the Temple in Jerusalem, how Jesus so enraged these men that they picked up stones to throw at Jesus (John 8:59)
Now, Jesus is back, teaching in the Temple. As on that earlier day, Jesus so angers these Temple leaders, John tells us in verse 31 that they took up stones again to stone him. Which makes me wonder, what’s with these stones just lying around on the Temple grounds? Why do they always seem have a pile of rocks on hand of sufficient size and heft to stone an adult to death there at the Temple?1
So, things are tense here in verses 22-30. As Jesus teaches, he makes use of two images. The first image is that of the shepherd and the sheep. Verses 26 and 27, Jesus tells his adversaries, you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice, and I know them and they follow me. This follows on the much longer description Jesus offers in verses 1-18, using this figure of Good Shepherd and sheep.
Then, Jesus turns to use a different image. He may still be thinking in terms of shepherd and sheep; probably so. But he offers this very powerful visualization. In the second half of verse 28, Jesus says of those who believe in him, no one shall snatch them 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 the Father’s hand. I and the Father are one.
Visualize what Jesus is saying. No one is able to snatch them out of my hand…no one is able to snatch them out of my Father’s hand…I and the Father are one. It’s one hand, wrapped around another hand, both holding on to same precious thing. That’s what I call a “double-grip guarantee”.
We’ve all seen the poster: the kitten hanging on to the end of a rope. What’s the poster encouraging us to do? “When you get to end of your rope, tie a knot and hang on!” This isn’t that.
This is, “when you lose grip of the rope and you’re in free-fall, you will discover someone had the foresight to tie that rope around you so they can catch you and start hauling you back up, and that someone is God.” That would be a lot to on a poster.
In every action movie, it’s almost required that at some point, somebody either falls over the edge of a cliff or off the roof of a skyscraper or out the door of a helicopter. Suddenly, a hand reaches out and grabs the flailing hand of the person as they fall out into open space. Can our rescuer hold on?! Can they pull their friend to safety?! Must we watch as the victim’s hand slowly, slowly slips free of the rescuers grasp? This isn’t that.
This is God holding on to us, wherever and whenever, so we don’t go over the edge or off the roof or out the door. We might get really close, and it may be terrifying, but, really, it’s o.k. God has got us.
Or, as Jesus and his listeners most likely pictured it, it was the shepherd holding the sheep close with one hand, as the shepherd wields a club in the other, giving that wolf reason to pause and go find lunch somewhere else. The wolf will not be snatching this particular sheep from the shepherd.
Which was a pretty bold thing for Jesus to be saying, given his own present predicament. So, let’s back a moment and unpack these verses just a little bit more
As John sets the scene for us, Jesus is once again walking the Temple grounds, where, apparently, piles of stones are kept lying about.
John tells us it is winter, by which he means it’s somewhere along into November or December. It is the feast of Dedication, also known as the Festival of Lights. In other words, it’s Hanukkah!
Jesus is celebrating Hanukkah in Jerusalem. It’s not spinning dreidels and eating fried potato pancakes yet. It’s certainly not Adam Sandburg singing his annual “Happy Hanukkah” song yet.
But, it is Hanukkah. It is the festival in which Jesus and his fellow Jews celebrate the rebellion, nearly two centuries earlier, when the Jews had recaptured control of Jerusalem from the Syrians. These Jewish liberators were called the Maccabees.
The priests among the Maccabees set about ritually cleansing the Temple. When they go to relight the sacred lamp that’s suppose to burn from sunrise to sunset every day, the priests discover there’s only a one-day supply of consecrated olive oil. Yet, the one-day supply somehow fuels the sacred lamp for eight days, while more olive oil could be pressed and consecrated.
As part of this rebellion, the Maccabees depose the High Priest and his family who had conspired with the Syrians. They install a new High Priest and his family. This new High Priest, his family, and their descendants, are responsible for keeping the Temple pure. To them belongs the sacred call to shepherd God’s people in the way pleasing to God.
So, this Feast of Dedication commemorated the Temple of God cleansed, the sacred Light of God relit, the true High Priest installed who would once again shepherd God’s people. I’m sure you can see the problem the High Priest has with Jesus.
Here is this radical rabbi from Galilee, walking on the Temple grounds at Hanukkah, with all its revolutionary meaning. Jesus, who claims that he is God’s chosen shepherd to lead God’s people. Jesus, who on an earlier day, violently disrupted the marketplace on the Temple grounds that he said defiled the Temple. (John 2:13-17) Jesus, who says that he himself is the miraculous source of Divine Light. (John 8:12ff.)
The High Priest and his administrators are fed up with Jesus. They want this Jesus-problem over and done with. They see Jesus walking along one of the covered porticos that border the Temple grounds. The High Priest sends out his enforcers. John writes in verse 24, So the Jews gathered around him…
Two things to note in this verse. John, in his Gospel account, always refers to Jesus’ opponents as the Jews. We need to constantly remember that John did not mean the Jews as a people…everyone in John’s account are Jews: Jesus is a Jew; his disciples all are Jews, crowds who follow Jesus are all Jews. John uses the phrase, the Jews, to refer to the Jewish religious authorities opposed to Jesus. In particular, John means those who served at the pleasure of the High Priest and his family.
So, here they come, these emissaries of the High Priest. Picture them, this group of men, marching down the portico towards Jesus. John says they gathered round him. Here’s the second note. The word John uses here means that these subordinates of the High Priest physically surround Jesus so that he is blocked, going and coming. The word, as you might guess, carries the idea of hostile intent.2
In other words, they’ve surrounded Jesus to bully him into submission. Here and now, they intend to bring this conflict to a head, where either Jesus is going to have to back off or else Jesus is going to give them what they need to stone him right then and there.3 Either way, this is the day their Jesus-problem goes away.
Has a group of bullies ever encircled you? I hope not; I hope you’re not presently in such a physically intimidating situation. It is frightening when bullies encircle you, and its effects linger in your heart and mind long after whatever physical harm may come. Imagine being encircled by bullies, each one holding a stone with which they hope to bash in your skull.
If not bullies, we may have experienced harsh circumstances marching toward us; a situation hemming us in, pushing us to edge of our resources and beyond.
We may appear to all those who know us to be the models of composure and self-discipline, but within our own minds, uncertainty and confusion have laid siege upon us, dark and even deadly voices shouting us down and drawing us where we dare not go. Jesus has been there, in each and every one of these threatening scenarios. The danger, the threat, the awful snapping maw of a violent beast preying on the most innocent of God’s lambs.
Singer and songwriter Brandi Carlyle has this beautiful song called, “The Eye”. I heard it last week on the radio. Maybe I’d heard it before but for some reason this time, it took. The rest of the week I had this song, “The Eye”, playing on a steady loop in my head as I thought about this account of Jesus. I posted it on the church’s Facebook page, if you want to listen to it and get it stuck your head, too.
In “The Eye”, Brandi Carlyle sings about someone she loves whom she sees going into this downward spiral of hurt and harm. In the refrain, over and over, she sings, “you can dance in a hurricane/but only if you’re standing the eye…you can dance in a hurricane/but only if you’re standing in the eye.” Jesus, somehow, can do that. Jesus dances in the eye of the hurricane.
We watch our Lord, over and over in his life, where this hurricane of opposition overtakes him; people like these men of unassailable authority, who surround him, who literally take up stones to brutally kill him where he stands. Yet, he does not cower; he does not shrink back. Our Lord does not lose his voice, nor does he show any reservation whatsoever when challenged to explain himself.
Jesus our Lord “dances in the hurricane”, because Jesus has found his place in the eye of the storm. Jesus, his human frame the same as our frame; his human brain processing what’s going on around him the same as ours; his human soul no different than our own souls.
The only thing separating Jesus in his human experience from our human experience is this most essential thing: Jesus has learned that perfect faith, that God holds him in the Divine Hand out of which no force can snatch him. Though they may pick up stones to break his body and extinguish his life, they will never remove him from his God. Jesus in perfect faith is so united with God that he alone may say truly about himself, I and the Father are one.
Jesus could dance in the joy of the angels, for this reason: he carried within himself the serene eye of the hurricane. Where Jesus was, God was.
At whatever point in Jesus’ emerging consciousness of who he might be, he looked to God in faith and the Spirit of God took hold of the son of Mary and did not let him go: he was the Son of God, and of that Jesus never doubted.
Whose daughter? Whose son are you? From whatever branch in this great human family you may come, has the Spirit of God yet spoken to you of your identity, your place in God’s family? Have you heard, as that voice quietly but persistently lays claim on you, whispering to your soul? Are you ready, here and now, to let this truth awaken in you, that you are the child of God?
God does not force that claim. But, God does guarantee, receive your place with God, and you will know God for all time and eternity.
What about these men who encircled Jesus like so many predators, hoping for any opening Jesus might give them to grab him up and devour him? What separated them from these other men and women who heard Jesus and discerned the voice of God, who saw Jesus’ great acts and saw in them God’s own witness to Jesus?
Well, Jesus tells us when he answers them. In verses 25 and 26, Jesus says, I told you, and you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name, they bear witness to me; but you do not believe…
It’s not the accumulation of words and facts that are in question here. These men had words and facts aplenty about Jesus. Their problem was, they simply would not trust themselves in this truth of Jesus and in this way Jesus was seeking to lead them.
Jesus was offering to be their Shepherd, but they simply would not trust him, so, as Jesus says, you do not belong to my sheep. Instead, they belong to the High Priest; that’s the one in whom they believe and trust. Yes, the High Priest can give them position and prestige, but it will not last.
As a congregation, we are a gathering of God’s children; or, to stay with John 10, we are a gathering of Jesus’ flock. Do we for a moment think that Jesus would abandon us to the whims of circumstance? Do we really think something so fleeting as our present frustrations could cause Jesus to lose grip on us and let us slide by the wayside?
Jesus didn’t even ask that we have the perfect faith he knew within himself. What did Jesus promise? If you have the tiniest bit of faith, the faith the size of a mustard seed, you will do even greater things than you’ve seen in me. (Mark 11:22ff.)
So great is the chasm between unbelief and faith…the tiniest seed of faith once brought to life far exceeds even the greatest force of unbelief.
Information is good; facts are helpful. But information and facts never saved a soul nor sustained a church, just like information and facts never changed these opponents of Jesus into disciples of Jesus. What saves a soul and sustains a church and nurtures a vital community of faith is the one thing these folks lacked…believing trust in Jesus to shepherd them into the fullness of God’s eternal life.
Will we be such a congregation of believing trust? Will you as a professed follower of Christ, be such a person of believing trust? Is that something you need to reaffirm this morning, either privately with the Lord or publicly before this congregation?
If you remain undecided about Jesus, won’t you now say “yes” to the Spirit of God who witnesses to your soul? In Baptist circles, we use the word “profess”. By that we mean that, first, you say “yes” to God, whatever an inward yes to God might mean for you personally. Then, we encourage you to be baptized and to join our congregation.
Will Brown will be standing here as we sing this last hymn, and he would love to help you through that process. So, do that inward ‘yes’ thing with God while we sing, and then come to the front and talk with Will.
1Raymond E. Brown attributes the ready presence of stones to the on-going construction by Herod on the Temple (The Gospel According to John, I-XII, The Anchor Bible; Garden City, NY: Doubleday & Co., 1966; n.59, p. 360). Leon Morris states there would be no stones lying about on Solomon’s colonnade, so the men would have had to bring stones with them—which must have been an odd and intimidating sight (The Gospel According to John, The New International Commentary on the New Testament; Grand Rapids, MI: Eerdmans Publishing Co., 1971; n.81, p. 524)!
2kuklow, BAG, p.457.
3Morris, pp. 518-519.