I had a dream one time. It was a variation on the final exam dream. You know, the one where you wake up and realize you’ve missed the test.
I had that dream. Only in my version of it, I made it to class at the very last moment. I walked in out of breath. Everybody looking at me. When I apologized to the professor, she said something to me I couldn’t understand.
“I beg your pardon,” I said.
So, she said it again. I still didn’t get it.
I must have looked confused because students in the class started trying to explain to me what she’d said. But I couldn’t understand them either.
Here’s the weird part: They were speaking English. I understood all the words they said. I just couldn’t figure out how they were using them. They didn’t make any sense. It was like reading Derrida or listening to Rudy Giuliani.
I think that’s something like what’s going on in our Gospel this morning. Some questioners come to Jesus and they want to know once and for all if he’s the Messiah.
And I’ve got to tell you, I’m on the side of Jesus’ questioners in this one.
“Come on, Jesus. How long will you keep us in suspense? If you’re the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
The problem is that Jesus spends the better part of the Gospel of John not speaking plainly.
I am the bread of life. I am the light of the world. I am the vine and you are the branches.
At the end of chapter nine, prior to our Gospel, Jesus says, “I came into this world for judgment so that those who don’t see may see, and those who do see may become blind” (9:39).
See what I mean? It’s like conversing with a Zen monk who’s always talking about the sound of one hand clapping.
So, these questioners come to Jesus and they want the straight dope. Are you or are you not the Messiah?
Jesus responds by saying, “I have told you.”
They look at each other, trying to see if anybody remembers. Nope. Nothing. They’re thinking, “Pretty sure if you told us, we wouldn’t be standing here asking you.”
Jesus says, “The works I do in my Father’s name testify to me.”
And therein lies the problem: These questioners can see what Jesus is doing; they just don’t recognize it. They ask Jesus if he’s the Messiah, because, though he’s fast acquiring a reputation as a messianic hopeful, he sure doesn’t act like one.
Messiahs are supposed to come in and start kicking the enemies of Israel in the teeth. Messianic figures in Jewish history stood against the tyranny of foreign occupiers … and prevailed.
This understanding of God’s anointed running the oppressors out of the promised land was very much on their minds.
How do I know that?
Our passage opens, “At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem” (10:22). Hanukah, the feast that commemorates the rededication of the Temple after Maccabean guerrilla fighters booted the Greeks out of Israel … a little less than two hundred years before Jesus showed up on the scene.
In our passage from John this morning it was Hanukah. The Jewish questioners in our passage this morning had the Maccabees on their minds—that band of Jewish insurrectionist folk heroes, the guerrilla fighters who’d liberated Israel, and whose memory they were celebrating when Jesus walked into the temple.
It makes sense that they want to know if Jesus is like his heroic forebears. Is he going to incite the Jews to rise up and throw off their Roman oppressors? Be clear. Speak plainly.
“Are you God’s anointed one who will lead us out of bondage again?”
Jesus answers them in his usual cryptic fashion—but in this case, it’s as clear as he’s going to get: I’ve been doing Messiah stuff all along, and you don’t get it because you don’t understand what kind of Messiah I am.
To be fair, at this point in the story nobody else understands what kind of Messiah he is either. Setting aside for a moment Jesus’ protestations about his real sheep understanding, nobody present in the temple that day had any idea about what kind of Messiah Jesus was going to be.
Oh, his sheep would understand … but later. There were folks present in the temple that day who would eventually hear the voice of the shepherd and get it. John’s readers, for example, are in on the joke, as are we. But not on that day.
But even after all this time, it’s still difficult to wrap our heads around the kind of Messiah Jesus is, isn’t it?
He’s got a bigger stake in blessing the woman caught in adultery than in picking up stones to do her in.
He seems more interested in healing the blind than in gouging out the eyes of his enemies.
He looks to have more invested in feeding the hungry than in owning the food processing plant.
This Messiah doesn’t make sense the way we’re used to Messiahs making sense. That’s why people have such a hard time hearing him:
He reveals more about himself by his life than by his claims about who he is. And what his life reveals is so counter-intuitive that we have a hard time taking him seriously.
We want so badly to hear what he has to say. But Jesus points beyond his words.
Davon Huss tells a story: Mother Teresa visited Australia. A new recruit to the Franciscan order in Australia was assigned to be her guide and “gofer” during her stay. Thrilled and excited at the prospect of being so close to this woman, he dreamed of how much he would learn from her and what they would talk about.
But during her visit, he became frustrated. Although he was constantly near her, the friar never had the opportunity to say one word to Mother Teresa. There were always other people for her to meet.
Finally, her tour was over, and she was due to fly to New Guinea. In desperation, the friar spoke to Mother Teresa. “If I pay my own fare to New Guinea, can I sit next to you on the plane so I can talk to you and learn from you?”
Mother Teresa looked at him. “You have enough money to pay airfare to New Guinea?” she asked.
“Oh, yes,” he replied eagerly.
“Then give that money to the poor,” she said. “You’ll learn more from that than anything I can tell you.”
It’s tough. We live in a scary world.
How do we make sense of a world in which the houseless are rousted by the police so that we can spare the “out-of-towners” a real look at how we treat people?
How do we make sense of a world in which children often suffer the consequences of our hatreds?
How do we make sense of a world in which our leaders cannot muster the courage to vote to require people seeking to buy a gun to have somebody take a look at their background?
We’d feel safer if we had a Jesus who was a bit more … you know … Messiah-like—ready to ride in on a dragon and storm the castle. Administer a little, you know, old-fashioned American justice.
Turns out, though, the justice Jesus wants to administer doesn’t come at the end of a weapon. Or maybe it does, except the weapon is never in his hands. He always seems to be on the wrong side of the gun, never looking down the sights; always looking down the barrel. The justice Jesus has in mind, the kind of messiahship Jesus embodies is one that seeks out those on the edges, in order to bring them in.
And that’s an interesting Jesus. There are people who would like to meet that Jesus—questioners who want to know whether Jesus really is the one for whom they’ve been waiting. But the problem is … many of these questioners have already given up on the church. They’re convinced that whatever else they might find in church, it won’t be Jesus.
The fastest growing religious self-designation in America over the past ten years, according to the Pew Forum on Religion and Public Life, is “None.”
When asked to check off a box about their religion, more and more people check “None.”
Atheism and agnosticism have risen slightly over that time. But the biggest increase is among those who, when asked about institutional religion, respond, “Meh.”
It strikes me that much of what drives this unenthusiastic response to religion—at least in the case of Christianity—centers on the apparent inability of Christians to hear Jesus, and then to live like him.
The “Nones” have heard endlessly about Christianity and how everybody would be better off if the world would just believe the stuff Christians believe.
But many of them have read the Gospels. They’ve seen all the stuff Jesus did. But then they look around at his followers, and they see something different. They see people worried about stuff Jesus never uttered a single word about, stuff he never spent a single minute worrying about.
So, here’s the thing: Christians can’t just believe stuff. People want to know what turns on these much-discussed beliefs, what difference these beliefs make in our lives.
Do our beliefs help us care for the poor, feed the hungry, clothe the naked or welcome the outcast?
Or do they merely represent a golden barrier that offers protection against blame?
In short, people who’ve lost interest in institutional Christianity might just like to see Christians for whom believing “this stuff” is merely the first step to actually living it out.
Here’s a thought that ought to scare all Christians: What if part of the reason the “Nones” are so underwhelmed by organized religion isn’t because they don’t find Jesus interesting, but because it appears to them that Christians don’t find him sufficiently interesting enough to take seriously?
There are people—people who are afraid of the church, people who’ve been hurt by the church—who are patiently listening for Jesus, trying to hear his voice. But Jesus doesn’t talk a whole lot, at least in ways people can easily understand.
So how can we hear what he has to say? How can those who earnestly seek to be his sheep know what his voice sounds like?
You want to hear Jesus? His voice sounds like a hungry child being fed.
You want to hear Jesus? His voice sounds like an undocumented immigrant being treated like a human being—with kindness and dignity.
You want to hear Jesus? His voice sounds like the hand of an old woman being held as she struggles to take her final breaths.
You want to hear Jesus? His voice sounds like a gay teenager being treated like a normal kid in a world intent on treating him like he’s got something wrong with him.
You want to hear Jesus? His voice sounds like a poor mother finding medicine for her sick children.
Jesus doesn’t talk a whole lot, at least in ways people can easily understand. So, he’s got to rely on action, on the lives his followers live pursuing the same justice Jesus pursued, looking out for the same people he fought so hard to care for.
There are genuine questioners out there who want to know whether this Jesus is the real deal. The problem is, the only way they’re going to be able to hear his voice is if we—who are his followers—live lives that communicate that we’ve heard it before … and are actually trying to live like he said to live.
There are people who are just trying to hear.
So, what will our lives say to them?