May 12, 2019 – The 4th Sunday of Easter
© 2019 Evan D. Garner
Do we want Jesus of Nazareth to be our rabbi, our teacher, our spiritual guru? Or do we want him to be our messiah, our anointed one? Before you answer, take a minute to think about it. We all know what the presumed right answer is, but the safe choice is rabbi. We don’t have to listen to our rabbi. Clergy are wrong all the time. If we don’t like them or the brand of religion that they are peddling, we pick up and move to another congregation. We can disagree with them, and it doesn’t cost us anything. But, if Jesus is our messiah, if he is God’s anointed one, we don’t have a choice any more. If he is our messiah, we don’t get to duck the hard truths he gives us. We’re forced to accept them or accept the fact that we are turning our backs on God himself. So what will it be?
That’s the question John leads us to in this gospel passage. It’s winter. It’s the Feast of the Dedication. (Happy Hanukkah!) Some of God’s people had gathered together in the temple to celebrate the anniversary of its rededication. About two hundred years earlier, Jewish rebels had overthrown the tyrannical and unholy dictatorship of Antiochus IV. He was the one who had built an altar to Zeus right in the middle of the Jerusalem temple, desecrating the most holy place in Judaism by sacrificing pigs within its walls. In response to such evil, God had raised up an anointed leader to deliver God’s people.
In that generation, God’s messiah had been Judas Maccabeus or “Judah the Hammer,” who had earned his nickname because of his fierceness in battle. He had proven himself to be God’s anointed one by leading God’s people in victory over the unholy occupiers of God’s Promised Land. You remember the Hanukkah story. After defeating their enemies, Judah and the other priests purified and rededicated the temple, but they discovered that they only had one day’s worth of oil for the lamp that must never go out. Miraculously, however, the one-day supply burned for eight days instead of one—long enough for new kosher oil to be produced. It was a sign that God’s Spirit had come back into the holy place.
And now it was Jesus’ turn. With thoughts of that anniversary filling their minds, the religious authorities approached Jesus and asked, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the messiah, tell us plainly.” In the centuries that followed the rededication of the temple, the Seleucid Empire had given way to Rome. Antiochus and his supporters had been replaced by Caesar and Pilate and Herod. Again, God’s people and God’s Promised Land were in need of a deliverer. The religious experts must have wondered whether this radical rabbi, who preached unabashedly about the imminent coming of God’s kingdom, might be another Judas Maccabeus, another messiah. “If you’re the one, tell us plainly!” they begged him. But Jesus replied, “I have told you, and you do not believe.”
What had Jesus told them? This chapter in John is full of Jesus’ explanation of who he is. “I am the good shepherd,” he had said to them. Of course, the image of a shepherd brought someone else to mind. Another anointed leader of God’s people had gotten his start as a lowly shepherd boy. But, by the time he died, King David had grown the kingdom of Israel to the largest and most prosperous it would ever be. He had led God’s army victoriously into battle. Under his leadership, they had overthrown the enemies of God’s people. In his own generation, David had been God’s messiah, and it must have been tempting for the religious leaders to imagine that this radical rabbi from Nazareth might turn out to be another David. But powerful leader wasn’t the kind of messianic shepherd that Jesus had in mind.
“I am the good shepherd,” Jesus said. “The good shepherd lays down his life for the sheep.” For Jesus, the role of shepherd wasn’t a quaint part of the story—a humble persona for the anointed leader to project. It was the very essence of messiah. It was the definition of the work God’s anointed one was commissioned by God to do. Jesus did not pretend to give up power and wealth in order to win over the hearts of the people. He believed that powerlessness and poverty are the way of God. He did not feign vulnerability in order to trick the enemies of God’s people and lead them into a trap. He accepted the cross as the fulfillment of his ministry. He accepted the crown of thorns as the symbol of his majesty. “If you are the messiah, tell us plainly,” we say, searching for victory and success and triumph within the one we follow. But he already has told us and has shown us what messiah means.
Some cannot recognize in the crucified one the anointed one of God. To them the concept of an executed savior or a defeated messiah is complete nonsense. Others can see it, but they understand and believe not because Jesus the lowly shepherd messiah, the Christ who is killed on the cross, makes sense. They believe it because they belong to him. “My sheep hear my voice,” Jesus said. “I know them, and they follow me.” Believing is belonging. “You cannot believe in me unless you belong to me,” Jesus said. That means that, unless we belong to the vulnerable, powerless Son of God, we cannot believe that Jesus, the crucified one, reveals the truth of God to the world. Until we belong to the one who empties himself and lays down his life for the sheep, we cannot recognize Jesus as God’s messiah.
Do we want Jesus the crucified one to be our messiah? Is he the one whose truth about God we want to believe? Is he the one to whom we want to belong? If he’s just a radical rabbi, we can enjoy his fiery sermons and then go back to our regular lives. But if he is the one to whom we belong, if he is our shepherd, then we cannot just listen and move on. We must take up our cross and follow him. We must give up everything we hold dear—family, friends, career, and wealth—for the sake of God’s reign. We must even die beside him because, in him, we see the way to eternal life.
If Jesus is our messiah, we cannot have wealth as long as the poor are among us. If Jesus is our messiah, we cannot have security as long as there is violence in our schools or in our streets. If Jesus is our messiah, we cannot have a nation as long as there are refugees being turned away at the border. If Jesus is our messiah, we cannot have mothers or fathers or siblings or children as long as there are vulnerable widows and orphans in our midst.
Either Jesus is our messiah or he isn’t. Either he represents who God is and what God wants in this world, or he’s just another enthusiastic preacher who had some good ideas a long time ago. If he is our messiah, then the way of the cross must be our way because only by following him can we ever enter the reign of God. And, if he’s not our messiah, then power wins and greed wins and wealth wins and nothing ever changes. To whom will you belong?