I haven’t cracked open any commentaries on John 10 yet, but it seems that “the festival of the Dedication,” which John names as the scene for this Sunday’s gospel lesson, may play an important role. Nowadays, we call that celebration Hanukkah, and the search for a messiah probably felt a little different during the celebration of the dedication of the Temple.
I am not an expert on second-century BCE Palestine, but I gather that the Jerusalem Temple (version 2.0) was desecrated by Antiochus, provoking a strong reaction from the inhabitants of Judah. During the revolt that followed, the Temple was cleansed and restored, and the always-burning menorah was relit. At the time, however, only enough oil for one night’s burning was available, yet the flame stayed true for eight nights—until more could be procured. Yes, Hanukkah is a festival of lights, but it’s also a festival of Jewish victory over oppression.
So, in this Sunday’s gospel lesson, when the Jewish authorities come looking for Jesus and ask whether he’s the messiah, they don’t mean, “Are you the one to come and shepherd the lost sheep of Israel?” They mean, “Are you the one to come and defeat the Romans like Judah the Hammer did two-hundred years ago?” Jesus’ reply shows that the problem isn’t that they refuse to recognize his authority but that they’re looking for the wrong kind of messiah in the first place.
If you’re looking for an anointed one who is going to lead a rebellion against the unholy Roman occupiers, Jesus probably isn’t the right guy for your cause. Now, he shows promise. He’s saying lots of exciting things about God’s kingdom. He’s performing some pretty amazing feats. The crowds are starting to flock to him. But something’s missing. He doesn’t have that killer instinct. It’s easy to understand why the leaders missed Jesus’ messiahship. And that means it’s easy to understand why we miss it, too.
What sort of messiah are you looking for? Although I’m not Jewish and can’t quite identify with the rededication of the Jerusalem Temple, I have my own messianic needs that aren’t really what Jesus has in mind. I want to be noticed. I want to be affirmed. I want to be successful. I want to be right. And I want Jesus to want all of those things on my behalf. I want him to win my own personal victories. But that’s the wrong Jesus. That’s the wrong messiah.
Jesus looks at his interrogators and says, “I have told you, and you do not believe. I do works in my Father’s name to testify to me, but you do not believe because you do not belong to my sheep.” I’ve heard what sort of messiah Jesus really is. I’ve read about the miracles and feats of wonder. And I know they’re all pointing to his messiahship, but none of it has been about my own need for victory. Belonging to his fold—being one of his sheep—means accepting a different sort of messiah.