22 Then came the Festival of Dedication at Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was in the temple courts walking in Solomon’s Colonnade. 24 The Jews who were there gathered around him, saying, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
25 Jesus answered, “I did tell you, but you do not believe. The works I do in my Father’s name testify about me, 26 but you do not believe because you are not my sheep. 27 My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they shall never perish; no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all; no one can snatch them out of my Father’s hand. 30 I and the Father are one.”
31 Again his Jewish opponents picked up stones to stone him.
Theologian Jürgen Moltmann tells the story of Elie Wiesel in his book The Crucified God. Wiesel is a Jewish survivor of the Holocaust, who writes about his time in Auschwitz. The Nazis had gathered the prisoners for a public execution of two men and one boy, all to be executed by hanging. The two men died relatively quickly, but the young boy was too light and hung in the gallows by his neck for over 30 minutes, struggling to breathe, struggling to live. As Wiesel watched this, he heard another man cry out, “Where is God?” and then again a few minutes later, “Where is God now?”
It was then that Wiesel heard a voice speak to him, “[God] is here. He is hanging there on the gallows…”
That is one of the heaviest stories that I’ve ever begun a sermon with, and it may not seem appropriate for this text. This is “Good Shepherd Sunday,” after all. I think that this story is very appropriate today because I feel that we often miss something very important in today’s text. We miss the fact that in Jesus, God lived among us. And in Jesus, God experienced every joy and every pain that we experience. And because of that, we know that God was there, suffering with the boy even in the gallows of Auschwitz.
Perhaps you aren’t familiar with what John calls the “Festival of Dedication” in our text for this morning. So I think that it would be helpful to turn to the famous Hebrew theologian, Adam Sandler, for some insight. I’ll quote Mr. Sandler and allow you to fill in the rest: “Put on your yamaka, it’s time to celebrate…” That’s right, the Festival of Dedication is what we commonly call Hanukah. Hanukah simply means dedication. Hanukah is where, according to Sandler, the Jewish people celebrate “eight crazy nights.”
In the year 167 BC, the Greek tyrant Antiochus Epiphanes marched his troops through Jerusalem, went right into the temple, and offered a sacrifice to the Greek god Zeus. But Antiochus Epiphanes didn’t just make any old sacrifice in that Jewish temple. He sacrificed a pig. And pigs are considered unclean by Jewish tradition and in offering a pig to the Greek gods, Antiochus Epiphanes defiled the most holy of Jewish places.
However, the Greeks were met with great resistance. And the resistance was led by a family known as the Maccabees, including their leader, Judas Maccabaeus. The Maccabean revolt was able to overthrow the much-larger, much more powerful Greek army, took back the temple, and had a dedication service to re-consecrate the temple. And according to the stories, candles were burned for eight nights using oil that normally would have lasted only one day.
Of course, the people wanted to make Judas Maccabaeus the king. Some even called him “the Meshiac,” the anointed one. In English, we would translate that word as Messiah.
Recall that in the Hebrew tradition, the title of Messiah did not necessarily imply that a person was divine. Both Saul and later David were called the Lord’s meshiac. Even a non-Hebraic king, Cyrus of Persia, was called God’s meshiac. The title of meshiac was given to people whom God had anointed for a particular calling, often as a king or a priest.
But there were meshiacs, and there was “THE” meshiac. Again, this title did not imply divinity in the Hebrew context, but it was believed that God would send his anointed leader to the Jews to deliver them. And in the first century, it was believed that God would send a meshiac to deliver the Hebrew people from their Roman oppressors.
Let me make sure you are aware of this before I move on. I believe that Jesus is divine, God in human form. But again, terms like messiah, Christ, or lord did not mean the same thing as divine. The Jews were expecting a messiah, but they assumed that he would be a prophet like Moses, who led the Hebrew people out of Israel, or like the Maccabees who re-consecrated the temple. But the expectation was that the Messiah would be a human being.
So Jesus has been teaching, preaching, and performing miracles throughout the region, and people are beginning to wonder if he might be the Messiah. Of course, some people are adamantly denying that there is any chance that this guy is from God. Remember that the chapter and verse divisions in our Bibles came along much later, so when John wrote these words, he wrote them as one, long, continuous story. In chapter 9 we find the story of Jesus healing a man who was born blind. And there is a bit of a heretic hunt going on, led by the Pharisees. Why would they consider Jesus a heretic? He healed this blind man on the Sabbath! So to the Pharisees, there was no way that Jesus was sent by God, and surely he wasn’t “THE” Messiah.
But not everyone is so sure. The Pharisees interview this man born blind, and they ask him who he thinks Jesus is. And the now-healed man says that Jesus must be a prophet. And by the end of the chapter, he is calling Jesus “Lord.”
We come to our text for this morning, and the people are tired of beating around the book. They want to know if Jesus is the Messiah, so they just come out and ask him. And Jesus tells them to just look at what he is doing. Even though he doesn’t come out and say it clearly yet, he says this little gem in verses 26-27: “You do not believe because you are not my sheep. My sheep listen to my voice; I know them, and they follow me.”
You don’t believe because you are not my sheep. That’s a confusing line, to be sure. My Calvinist friends will say that this is a reference to predestination. God has already decided whom God will save and it isn’t up to us. Jesus says so right here! You don’t believe in Jesus because you aren’t a part of his group.
I would say that if someone arrived at this point, they didn’t do so just by reading these words of Jesus. To understand this a speaking about predestination requires that you take an interpretation about something confusing that Paul said a generation or two after Jesus lived and read Jesus through Paul.
I bring this up not to argue against the heretical teachings of predestination J. I bring this up to point out something that we all do naturally and without thinking about it. We understandably and necessarily read the scriptures through our own life experiences and previously-held convictions. If you believe in predestination, you will see predestination in this text. The same thing was true in Jesus’ day. And if you will allow me to paraphrase Jesus a bit here, I think that when he says that the people don’t believe in him because they are not his sheep, he is saying that they don’t believe in him because their preconceived expectations–which we all bring to the text!–keep them from believing. It’s not that they don’t believe because God didn’t predestine them to believe. They don’t believe because they are a part of a group or a flock that was expecting the Messiah to come in a particular way. And that way didn’t include healing on the Sabbath, eating with tax collectors and sinners, and hanging out with prostitutes.
But notice that by the end of today’s text, the people are picking up stones to throw at Jesus. Jesus asks them which of his good deeds they want to stone him for, because, as they say, no good deed goes unpunished. And a person answers him in verse 33, “We are not stoning you for any good work, but for blasphemy, because you, a mere man, claim to be God.”
If we just debate about whether or not the passage is about predestination, or the perseverance of the saints, or any other obscure theological belief, we are missing the point. The point of this passage isn’t about salvation, predestination, or things of that nature. This passage is about who Jesus is.
Remember that we started this discussion with a person asking Jesus if he is the Messiah. Tell us plainly, now! None of that double-talk or those parables, please! Jesus replies by saying that he has been telling them. But because he isn’t what they have been expecting, they don’t hear him, or they don’t want to hear him. So Jesus ratchets things up a bit, a lot, actually. We just miss it, and this includes me, because we don’t know our Old Testament well enough.
As I was studying this text, I found a reference in a commentary that said that you really can’t understand what Jesus was saying here unless you read it with Ezekiel 34 in mind. And I thought to myself, “Of course, that’s what I’ve been missing.” You know, because I know what Ezekiel 34 is about.
So I opened up my dusty Old Testament and read Ezekiel 34, and I believe the writer of the commentary is exactly right. This is extremely helpful for understanding John 10, and also Luke 15, where Jesus talks about God as a shepherd who goes searching for his lost sheep.
Remember that Jesus’ Jewish audience would have known this passage well, and some would have had it memorized. Ezekiel 34 is God speaking through the prophet to the king of Israel as well as the other leaders and people in positions of power. God is criticizing these leaders in the way the God often criticizes leaders in the prophetic books. These leaders are greedy, they are getting rich and fat while the people they are supposed to be ruling over are starving and wasting away. The people are sick, living in the streets, while the leaders are living it up.
In Ezekiel 34, God uses a metaphor to refer to these rulers. He calls them “shepherds.” But they are bad shepherds because of the way they are abusing the very people they are supposed to be caring for. A shepherd’s job is to care for the sheep, not ignore them and allow them to wander off. So God, through the prophet Ezekiel, calls himself the good shepherd. He will search for the lost sheep and gather them in. He will feed them, care for the sick and wounded sheep, and lead them to healthy grazing lands.
So on this day, when they are celebrating Hanukah, and God reclaiming the temple from the Greeks and rededicating it after its desecration, Jesus comes in and says “I am the good shepherd,” and “I will lay down my life for my sheep.” This would have been heard as both a criticism of the leaders of the day and a claim by Jesus to be divine.
And if Jesus’ Jewish hearers didn’t catch the reference to Ezekiel 34 and God being the good shepherd, Jesus says in verse 30, “I and the Father are one.”
That seems like a pretty strong statement to me. But again, let’s think about it from a Jewish perspective, because it is even more powerful when you remember the strong monotheism of the Jews.
Recall that even to this day, a practicing Jew will recite the Shema, from Deuteronomy 6:4, at least twice a day. The Hebrew can be translated in a couple of ways, such as “Hear, O Israel: The Lord is our God, the Lord alone.” This is a perfectly good translation, which speaks about how while there might be other gods out there that other religions worship, the Israelites are going to worship the Lord alone.
Another translation is “Hear, O Israel: The Lord our God, the Lord is one.” Even though this sentence seems repetitive, it is probably the more common translation (see the NIV). This is a statement about God’s oneness, a statement of monotheism. There is only one God! The word translated as Lord is the tetragrammaton, the unspoken name of God, which we Americans would translate as Yahweh.
Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one. Yahweh is our God, Yahweh alone. No matter how you want to translate it, the Jews would say it every day, at least twice a day. Yahweh our God, Yahweh is one.
And now Jesus says, “Yahweh and I are one.”
They wanted to know plainly if he was the Messiah, so he says I have been telling you. But not only am I the Messiah, Yahweh and I are one.
No wonder they wanted to stone him.
Many of us have at least heard the name C.S. Lewis. Lewis is probably best known for writing The Lion, the Witch, and the Wardrobe, as well as other children’s books in his Chronicles of Narnia series. Lewis also wrote a number of adult books on the subject of Christianity, particularly on Christian apologetics, or defending the Christian faith.
In his book Mere Christianity Lewis lays out what is often called his “trilemma;” not a dilemma, which would be two options, but a trilemma. Three choices. Mere Christianity was written in the 1950’s when it was popular in some circles to claim that Jesus was a wise moral teacher, but that he was not actually divine. Lewis’s response:
A man who was merely a man and said the sort of things Jesus said would not be a great moral teacher. He would either be a lunatic—on the level with a man who says he is a poached egg—or he would be the devil of hell. You must take your choice. Either this was, and is, the Son of God, or else a madman or something worse. You can shut Him up for a fool or you can fall at His feet and call Him Lord and God. But let us not come with any patronizing nonsense about His being a great human teacher. He has not left that open to us.
There are a number of problems with Lewis’s response, but I think it is still very helpful. We often call this the “Liar, Lunatic, or Lord” trilemma. With the claims that Jesus made, such as calling himself the good shepherd and saying that he and God are one, as well as things we find elsewhere, like Jesus saying that if you have seen him, you have seen the Father, leave us with only a few options. He was a liar, simply out to deceive people. He was a lunatic, suffering from some kind of mental health disorder. Or he was who he said he was, and is who he says he is. Jesus can’t be a good moral teacher and not be God. There is no dilemma there.
So why does it matter that Jesus is God? As the author of Hebrews tells us, Jesus has experienced everything that we have experienced. Even more than we have, because I don’t think any of us have experience death on the cross. We don’t have some distant god who sits on Mount Olympus and shoots lightning bolts at us. We serve a God who came and lived among us. He knows what it means to be hungry and thirsty. God knows what it means to feel depressed and lonely. God knows what it feels like to experience pain and suffering.
My friends, one of the fundamental tasks of the church today is to speak words of assurance to the world that we serve a God who loves us. We serve a God who entered into this world and lived among us. So where is God in the midst of suffering, pain, or even just the struggles of everyday life? God is with us. God is up there on the gallows.