[This post is the transcript of a sermon I preached this morning at the local Anglican church I attend.]
Today’s Gospel reading is John 10:22-30. You can read the text here.
In the year 167 BC, nearly two centuries before Jesus was born, disaster came upon Jerusalem.
Israel was under the control of the Seleucid Empire and its king, Antiochus IV, who came to power in 175 BC. He chose for himself the name Antiochus Epiphanes, which means “God manifest”; that gives you some idea how he saw himself. He immediately began to persecute the Jews, outlawing their religious practices, including the observance of kosher food laws, and ordering the worship of the Greek god Zeus. He had a gymnasium, symbolising the supremacy of Greek culture, built just outside the Temple. And in 167 BC, he committed the ultimate act of sacrilege, vandalising the Temple, setting up an idol on its altar, and outlawing various central practices of Judaism, including circumcision and the Sabbath. He set up altars to Greek gods and idols in every town and put to death anyone who refused to pray to them.
This, obviously, was the worst kind of humiliation for the people of God. For them, the Temple was much more than just a building where you went to worship: like the Ark of the Covenant and the Tabernacle before it, it was the place where God himself dwelled among his people. And practices like circumcision and observance of the Sabbath were much more than mundane religious rituals: they were vital markers of Israel’s identity as the chosen, covenant people of the one true God.
Who would rescue the Jewish people from this awful humiliation and repression?
Well, to condense a lot of history into a very brief overview, there arose a warrior called Judas Maccabeus. One possible meaning of Maccabeus is “the hammer”, so some historians think this nickname was chosen to indicate his ferocity in battle. He raised up an army, led a revolt, defeated Antiochus and his armies and took back Jerusalem. In 164 BC the Temple was rededicated.
If you’re so inclined, you can read about these events in the books of 1 and 2 Maccabees, which form part of the apocryphal books that are found in some Bibles between the Old and New Testaments. And to this day, the restoration and rededication of the Temple is still celebrated every year by Jews all over the world in a festival you might have heard of, called Hannukah.
The big question
But why the history lesson? Why am I telling you about things that took place two centuries before the events depicted in today’s Gospel reading?
The answer lies in the very first verse of the reading: “At that time, the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the Temple…” In other words, this exchange between Jesus and a group of Jewish religious leaders happened in the very place that symbolised the victorious rescue of Israel from its oppressors – the Temple – and on the very date when that rescue was commemorated and celebrated by the nation – the festival of the Dedication, known to Jews as Hannukah. And against that highly evocative backdrop, what’s the question that’s put to Jesus? “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
Remember that the Jewish nation is once again occupied and oppressed, this time by the Romans. Once again the Jewish people’s freedom and identity are under threat. Who will rise up to rescue them this time? Who will be the new Judas Maccabeus, the “hammer” that will smash the might of the Roman military and political machine? Could Jesus be the chosen one?
Interestingly, this is the only time in John’s Gospel that Jesus is directly asked if he’s the Messiah. And how does he answer? “The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me.” What are the works Jesus has been doing? Well, he’s been travelling around preaching and teaching, healing the sick, sharing table with the marginalised and the despised, embracing the forgotten and the socially excluded, and generally making time for the least, the last and the littlest in society. These are the works Jesus does in his Father’s name, and as he says, these are the works that testify to him. In other words, these things he’s been doing point to the kind of Messiah he’s going to be.
And therein, of course, lies the problem. Many people wanted another conquering messiah, a warrior like Judas Maccabeus who would rise up, form an army, drive out the Romans and regain the throne in Jerusalem, ushering in a new age of power, peace and prosperity. I think we could even say that many people could conceive of no other kind of messiah. Surely the only way the evil violence and power of the Romans could be overcome was through the righteous violence and power of a new Jewish champion? What good were compassion and inclusion against a brutal enemy like the Romans?
The Jewish leaders didn’t like Jesus’ answer to their question. In the very next verse after today’s reading, the Gospel writer tells us they took up stones to stone him to death. Being a messiah was dangerous – especially if you were the wrong kind of messiah.
What kind of messiah?
Jesus disappointed most of his contemporaries because he didn’t meet the definition of what a messiah was supposed to be. The question for us is, what kind of messiah or saviour are we looking for Jesus to be?
Now, you and I may not have a physical enemy like the Romans oppressing us, but we all have our battles, causes that are important to us and – dare I say it – prejudices that grip us and even define us. When we call Jesus our messiah or saviour, what expectations do we load onto that name? Do we expect him to always agree with us and fight our corner? Do we think he should always like what we like and be offended by the same things that offend us? Do we think our messiah should automatically exclude the same kind of people we exclude or consider unworthy? If that’s what we expect, we’re going to be disappointed. Just as Jesus didn’t fit the mould of the kind of warrior messiah many of his Jewish contemporaries were looking for, he simply won’t be forced into the mould of our misguided expectations.
Hearing and following
So how do we know if we’re seeing and hearing Jesus clearly, and not just imposing our own desires and expectations onto him? Here’s what Jesus says about those who know him as messiah: “My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me.”
When we listen for Jesus’ voice, what do we hear him say? He doesn’t tell us to try to destroy our enemies; he tells us to pray for them. When someone takes our coat, he tells us to offer them our tunic as well. When we’re tempted to point an accusing finger at somebody and cast them out because of how wrong, sinful or just downright distasteful they are, he tells us to instead search our own heart and cast out the sin we find in ourselves. In short, he tells us to do to others as we’d want them to do to us.
If, when we listen for Jesus’ voice, this is what we hear him say, then we can be assured that we are among his sheep, the ones who hear his voice. But if what we hear is the voice of judgement, condemnation and exclusion, or if we hear the promise of triumph over our enemies, of power, peace and prosperity… well, if that’s what we hear, then I don’t know whose voice it is we’re listening to, but it’s not Jesus.
Finally, Jesus says his sheep not only know his voice but follow him. If we’re to follow Jesus, where is he going?
In John’s Gospel, the encounter we heard about in today’s reading was Jesus’ last public teaching before Palm Sunday, when he would ride into Jerusalem not as a warrior king on a white charger but as a humble servant king on a donkey’s foal. Soon after that, he would set the example for inclusion by eating and drinking with the very ones he knew were going to deny and betray him. And, of course, his final destination was the cross, the place of ultimate self-sacrifice and, in human terms, the place of humiliation, failure and defeat.
Theologian and former Bishop of Durham N.T. Wright put it this way:
“The crucifixion of Jesus, understood from the point of any onlooker, whether sympathetic or not, was bound to have appeared as the complete destruction of any messianic pretensions or possibilities he or his followers might have hinted at. The violent execution of a prophet […], still more of a would-be messiah, did not say to any Jewish onlooker that he really was the Messiah after all, or that Yahweh’s kingdom had come through his work. It said, powerfully and irresistibly, that he wasn’t and that it hadn’t.”
Compassion, self-sacrifice, and self-giving, other-centred love, even at the cost of his own life: in the words of a song we sometimes sing, “This is our God, the Servant King; he calls us now to follow him”. Following Jesus along this path, trusting him as our shepherd to lead us to safety: that’s how we’re saved, and that’s how messiah Jesus saves the world.
So as we gather at the table today, may we hear clearly the voice of Jesus our shepherd messiah, and may God grant us the courage to truly follow him. Amen.
 Wright, N.T. (2003), The Resurrection of the Son of God (London: SPCK).