At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So the Judeans gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand. The Father and I are one.”
“How long will you keep us in suspense?” It’s a fair question that is asked of Jesus in today’s passage. “If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.”
Jesus doesn’t often speak plainly in the Gospels about his own identity or even much else, preferring parables and figures of speech to get his message across. In Matthew, for example, in describing the commonwealth of God, Jesus tells a story in which a servant is criticized for not investing his master’s money with the bankers. I’m not sure that clears things up very well. In Mark, Jesus tells a parable about a sower who casts seed haphazardly, planting among rocks, thorns, and good soil. And right afterward, his disciples ask essentially, “Now, what was that story all about?” In Luke, when asked who should be considered neighbor, he tells the famous story about a particular Samaritan who is attacked and left in desperate need along the side of the Jericho road. And when asked why he spent so much time with less respected individuals, he tells an incredibly rich story about a son who returns home after losing his entire inheritance in a foreign country. They’re powerful stories, but they can lead to even more questions. We spent most of Lent here at Holy Trinity reflecting on the Prodigal story, and we haven’t exhausted it by any means.
In the Gospel of John, Jesus doesn’t tell stories, but he does use “figures of speech” or metaphors: I am bread, I am light, I am the gate, I am the Good Shepherd. All of these sayings are left open for interpretation; they’re definitely not plain speech. And if comparing himself to a shepherd was confusing to his contemporaries 2,000 years ago, how much more obscure it may be to us, 21st Century urban dwellers whose only encounters with live sheep might be an annual trip to the State Fair?
“Tell us plainly, Jesus, who are you? Just give us the answer. Don’t keep us in suspense.”
None of us likes to be kept in suspense. In today’s technology based society, we’re probably even less comfortable with it than ever. We want the whole story as quickly as we can get it, which is why TV directors love to end their seasons with plot cliffhangers and why telling someone you spent a weekend binge-watching a show on Netflix is likely to be met with nods of understanding. It’s in our nature to want to know what happens next.
“How long, Jesus, will you keep us in suspense?”
It’s an honest question that arises out of sincere longing, not one meant to trap or accuse. In fact, we could even think of it as a prayer, a petition on the hearts of the first followers of Jesus and on ours, too. And I don’t think it’s wrong that we want an answer now. For them the question was Is Jesus someone they could look to when empires threatened to overpower them and destroy their very way of life? For us, it may be Is Jesus someone we can trust in when wars persist and so many throughout the world hunger and thirst for peace and for justice? Or on a more personal level, does Jesus have anything to say to us in our own individual life struggles? Will Jesus be your Messiah as you, say, come to grips with a serious diagnosis…
or when you suddenly become unemployed…
or when you’re afraid that there won’t be a job for you when you need it…
or when the daily stresses of life are becoming just too much…
or when a family member suffers abuse…
or when a relationship ends.
“Tell us plainly, Jesus. Don’t keep us in suspense.” It’s an honest prayer.
When Jesus was walking through the temple, in the portico of Solomon, it was the perfect opportunity for those curious religious observers to interview him about his identity and future plans, to get the full story. The portico was an old part of the temple, a place where kings used to sit and issue judgments, a place named for Solomon, King David’s son and Israel’s wisest leader of the past. What better setting to announce his candidacy for Messiah? Think of Barack Obama’s announcement nearly a decade ago, standing where Lincoln had years before in Springfield, Illinois. Similarly, Jesus was in a place that called to mind the greatness of history. It was an ideal moment to place himself in that line of succession and to make a case for gathering new disciples.
And what if he had? What if he had grabbed the microphone and said, “Yes, I am the Messiah, the Christ for whom you have been waiting?” Would that have changed anything? Would that have made his message any more clear or persuasive? Would anyone have followed him because of it? Or would they have continued to merely observe him to watch and see what he would do, while still maintaining a safe distance? Most likely, he would have become just another issue to discuss and debate and fight about.
So Jesus did not give them the plain answer they were hoping for. Jesus clearly was not interested in titles or theological formulas or even drawing attention to himself. He was passionate about inviting people into relationship with God and into joining God’s work in the world. Calling Jesus the Messiah is good and right, but you can’t really understand what that means until after you have joined in and opened yourself to the new thing that God is doing. Belief, he says, follows belonging. Belief is not a prerequisite for being a part of the flock; it’s something that emerges along the way. Our lives of faith are complex and deserve so much more than simple, easy answers. We can speak plainly and honestly about faith, but we also recognize that there is a mystery to faith. It involves a journey of learning and growing and questioning and doubting and believing.
So I guess it would make sense that the answer Jesus gives to our questions for him is still likely to be a story. It’s the story of our own lives. Keep watch today and tomorrow and see how the risen Jesus will accompany. Open yourself to trusting that you are not alone and that you and this world are still so deeply loved. Faith isn’t about getting the right answer. It’s about relationship and about being part of God’s unfolding, amazing story.
Surely, there is much to faith that is complex and confusing, but we do have a plain and sure promise from God: we belong. You belong to God’s promise of love and eternal life. You belong to God, and God will never let you go, through all of the joys and challenges you encounter and even through death into eternal life. No matter what, you can be assured that God chooses you and chooses to surround you with love and grace.
Today Jesus may be inviting us to leave our worship today a little unsettled. We leave from here not in suspense exactly but hopefully with at least a sense of anticipation. We go from our worship looking for the risen Christ, whose story is still unfolding in our lives, in our church, and in the world. We can’t predict all of the plot twists and turns that may be ahead, but we can trust that no matter what, we will not be alone.
I’m grateful for a thought-provoking essay by Debie Thomas on this passage at http://www.journeywithjesus.net/essays/919-belonging.