© 2022 Evan D. Garner
Happy Hanukah! That’s what Jesus and his disciples were saying to each other in today’s gospel lesson. The word Hanukah means dedication, and John tells us that Jesus was in Jerusalem for the Feast of the Dedication—the dedication of the temple. Actually, that was a little unusual because Hanukah was, and still is, a relatively minor celebration in the Jewish year. Back in Jesus’ day, there were three festivals when Jewish observers were expected to make the trip to Jerusalem for the celebration (Passover, Weeks, and Booths), but Hanukah was something you could celebrate at home. For whatever reason, though, Jesus was in Jerusalem, walking in the courts of the temple, and that changes the way we hear the rest of this story.
Hanukah is the celebration of the rededication of the Jewish temple after it had been defiled by Syrian occupiers in the 160s BC. Antiochus IV, a true enemy of the Jews, was in power at the time. While his predecessors had allowed the Jewish people to continue to worship according to their own tradition, this Antiochus ordered that essential practices like temple worship and circumcision had to stop. To make his point, and perhaps to flex his imperial muscle, he erected an altar to Zeus in the Jerusalem temple and commanded that pigs be sacrificed on the altar that had once been used for daily offerings to Israel’s God.
This abomination was too much. A faithful priest, Mattithias, and his five sons led a rebellion, and one of those sons, who went on to earn the nickname “Judah the Hammer,” became the deliverer of God’s people. Under his leadership, a small but fierce army drove the Syrians out of the capital city, and a quasi-independent Jewish state was established. But the temple needed to be cleansed of the desecration, so a new altar was built and new holy vessels were fashioned. Yet, at the appointed time for the rededication of the temple, they could only find one container of undefiled oil—only enough for the temple lamp to be lit for one day—but somehow, miraculously, God made sure that the sacred oil burned uninterrupted for eight days, long enough for new oil to be ritually prepared. It was and is a reason to celebrate.
Two hundred years later, Jesus walked through those same temple precincts. A charismatic leader with a reputation for religious fervor and a strong following among the people, Jesus was asked, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” That question sounds different during the Feast of the Dedication, when everyone is sharing stories about how Judah the Hammer led their ancestors to overthrow their unholy occupiers. Could the same be true about this new Jewish leader? Maybe Jesus had come to lead a rebellion against the Romans. Maybe he was the one to restore the kingdom to Israel.
“How long will you keep us in suspense?” they asked. “If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” But Jesus answered them, “I have told you, and you do not believe.” In the first nine chapters of John’s gospel account, again and again, Jesus had performed mighty prophetic works in God’s name, revealing his identity as God’s anointed, but they weren’t the sort of prophetic acts that the people were looking for. He had overturned the tables in the temple precincts in John 2, questioning contemporary ritual practices. He had healed a paralytic on the sabbath in John 5, challenging regulations about sabbath observance. He had fed the 5,000 in the wilderness in John 6, rejecting traditional assumptions about how God would sustain God’s people. He had healed the man born blind in John 9, confronting widespread understandings of sin and sinners. And, each time, he had explained to them that his actions and teachings were not his own but those of his Father in heaven. But they couldn’t see it. The majority of the people were looking for a Messiah to come and defeat the Romans, not one to come and challenge their own faith traditions.
Are we any different? Do we come into this sacred place seeking to encounter the one who questions our assumptions about who God is and how God works among God’s people? Or are we here to make sure that the Jesus we follow conforms to our own image of what a savior is supposed to be? Given our tendency to seek a Messiah of our own imaginings, should it surprise us that we so often have a hard time recognizing how God is present in the world today?
To those who struggle to recognize him, Jesus says a remarkable thing about faith: “You do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep.” Belonging comes before believing. We don’t belong because we believe; we believe because we belong. Think about that. Think about the implications of that. Think about what it means to belong to a God who loves us first and who, in that love, only then invites us to believe. Our faith isn’t something we create on our own. It isn’t a decision we make or an understanding we achieve. It is something that grows out of God’s claim on us. Because God has already chosen us as God’s children, we can believe in the one to whom we belong.
The sheep do not choose the shepherd. They hear his voice, and they follow him. They recognize the one who knows them and cares for them. It is in being known and cared for that we come to trust in the one who calls us each by name. We follow him because we belong to him, not the other way around. And that is as challenging for us as it was for Jesus’ contemporaries.
As long as faith is something that starts in us, we get to decide what sort of savior we need, and we get to decide which religious figure fits the bill. And, as long as it is up to us, we will always design a Messiah who is tailored to our own specific preferences and cast that idol in our own idealized image. But that makes it impossible for us to recognize Jesus. Is it any wonder that contemporary Christians, splintered into our own self-affirming factions, cannot agree about even the basics of who Jesus is? We struggle to believe because we have forgotten what it means to belong.
We cannot believe in Jesus until we recognize the one to whom we belong. We belong not to the one who builds up our own authority but to the one who establishes the reign of God. We belong not to the one who comes to make us rich but to the one who comes to rescue the poor. We belong not to the one who defeats our enemies but to the one who teaches us to love them and pray for them. Until we remember that we belong to that Jesus, we cannot believe that he is the one who comes to give us eternal life.
If we want to grow in our faith—if we want to know what it means to have confidence in God’s salvation and trust that God will always take care of us—we need to spend less time and effort trying to reconcile Jesus with our own agenda and spend more time and effort listening for his voice. Where will we hear it? It comes when we sit quietly in prayer, seeking the companionship of the one who loves us best. It comes when we stand beside those who are hurting in this world, trusting that Jesus will always be found in their midst. It comes when we listen to those who are vulnerable and who are ignored by people in power because their voices give voice to Christ among us. When we hear that voice and remember that we belong to him—to the one who has come to rescue to lost and lead them into green pastures—then we learn how to trust in the one who has come to save us. If the only voice we’re listening for is our own, where will we turn for help?