As Jesus celebrates the next Jewish feast, in this case Hannukah or the Feast of Dedication, we get another “I am…” statement: “I Am the Good Shepherd.” This is not only a beautiful metaphor of Jesus’ ministry, but also a public accusation of the temple leadership.
While the Feast of Dedication was a celebration of the anniversary of the dedication of the temple, it also became a feast of remembrance of the Maccabean Revolt. In the time between the testaments, a time not recorded in scripture (except for the Apocrypha, a collection of writings inducted into the Catholic bible but not the Protestant one), a group of Jewish rebels called the Maccabees rose up against the Romans in a successful, if temporary, revolt. Hannukah was a celebration of this revolt.
During this festival, the temple priests read aloud from the book of Zechariah the prophecy of God’s judgement on the bad shepherds of Israel at the time, namely the priests and rulers. It was likely during the reading about God’s judgement on the Bad Shepherds that Jesus stood publicly and proclaimed Himself the Good Shepherd. While the lower class people would love this creative way of calling out their current leadership and likening them to the bad shepherds of Zechariah, it also placed Jesus in a role reserved for God alone, that of Shepherd of His People.
It was yet another way that Jesus identified Himself, through the Jewish feasts, as both God in the flesh and the true leader of God’s people.
Each time we have a sermon on financial stewardship, the basic message is “we need to give more”. Whether out of need (like a building campaign or to meet a budget to fund a mission project), or out of thanksgiving (God has given us so much that we really should give some back to Him), or out of discipleship (we need to let go of our addiction to money by giving it away), the message is always basically the same: we need to give more. This is not a bad message. It is true to the gospel. It maps out a Godly use for our money. But there is another message we could share.
This text (1 Chron. 29) is seldom used for a lesson on financial stewardship, and yet it may be just what we need. David begins this prayer with a beautiful ode to God, and then comes something new. “Who am I, and who are my people, that we should be able to give as generously as this?” The Israelites have just caught David’s vision for a temple to God and have given a ridiculous amount to see it happen. And in thanksgiving for their generosity, David prays this prayer.
It is not a prayer of thanksgiving to the people for giving, but to God for blessing them to such an extent that they have so much to give. This prayer is humble, heart-felt, and bursting with gratitude. It is the very prayer we should be praying today.
God, we have given so much to Your work, yet all we have given came from You in the first place. Why me, God? Why have you determined that we should be so blessed with abundance that we can give so much, and even that comes from our excess most of the time. If we could pray this prayer, we might remember (1) that all we have comes from God and is still His to do with as He pleases, (2) we have infinitely more wealth than most of the world, and therefore a duty to use it righteously, and (3) it is a privilege, not a right, to have so much that we can give it away to God and others.
“Light” and “Darkness”, “Blind” and “Seeing”… John uses these metaphors regularly throughout his gospel, and they are good ones for us to ponder today. As we look at Jesus healing a man who was born blind, this question of Who is Really Blind? comes home to the Pharisees.
Jesus and His disciples approach a man who is blind from birth and the disciples ask the typical question for a first century Jew (and a 21st century American): “Why?” Why was this man born blind? Why do bad things happen to the innocent? How can a loving and all powerful God allow evil like blindness to happen if He could stop it? For the disciples, the assumption that God is all powerful is a given, so there is no question of God causing the blindness. The question is why. Was it his parents’ sin? Was it his?
Jesus gives us the only answer we get to such a difficult and ever-present question: Neither. This blindness is not a punishment for sin but is a means of revealing God’s glory. And through Jesus’ miraculous healing, God’s glory was indeed revealed. Sadly, this is not the answer we want for our sicknesses, grief, or pain. That God might inflict unhappiness on His people just so He can reveal His glory seems wrong at best, sadistic at worst. But this reveals once again what I consider the biggest idolatry in our world today: ego. Of all the idols we can list, our own self-focus and self-interest is our biggest idol.
To believe as we do that reality, life, and even God’s responsibility begins with us and our happiness is idolatry. To begin every philosophy and even theology with me denies the Kingship of God in my life. And it is this that leads us to the epidemic of godlessness we are seeing from the top to the bottom of our culture. “It’s ultimately all about me” is the motto of the world Jesus came to save from itself.
Why was this man born blind? Why would God do something that made someone unhappy for His own purposes (without checking in with us about it first!)? Because He’s God!
And this may be our biggest blindness of all. May God heal us of it that we might follow Him in truth.
The stereotypical playground chant, “My daddy can beat up your daddy” seems strangely apropos in today’s reading. The question between Jesus and his detractors is this: “Who’s your daddy?”
For Jews, being able to say that Abraham was their father was code for saying that they were righteous, Law-abiding Jews. But Jesus turns the tables by saying that it is not Abraham who is their father but Satan. He then goes on to say that only He is a legitimate Son of God the Father. “If God were your Father, you would love me, for I have come here from God.”
We all can call Father He whose will we try to carry out. If we are doing the work of God, then He is our father. If we are trying to carry out the will of someone else, then they are our father. So, I ask today, “Who’s your daddy?” Whose will are you trying to accomplish? Is it God’s? Is it your own? Is it this World’s?
Jesus ends with a warning: only children of God will enter the Kingdom of God. So, is God our Father? If so, let’s give Him thanks for His adoption. If not, then maybe like the Prodigal we need to remember our identity, leave our pigsty, and return to Him. He will always come running to meet us if we do.
Again, Jesus speaks at the great Festival of Tabernacles, which, we have already noted, used the symbols of water and light as their main foci. Yesterday, He used the water metaphor to say, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink, and rivers of living water will flow from them.” Today, He uses the powerful Tabernacle symbol of light.
During the feast of Tabernacles, the Jews erected 4 tall stone pillars in the temple courtyard and filled huge bowls resting on top of the pillars with oil. They lit the oil and the light from these Olympic Cauldron-sized fires lit the night for miles around Jerusalem. It was probably standing below these enormous lights that Jesus spoke today’s lesson, “I am the light of the world. Whoever follows me will never walk in darkness, but will have the light of life.” Imagine that scene for a minute.
Light – it reveals what is hidden, brings comfort in darkness, guides down shadowed paths, and warns against dangers. Light is, therefore, a perfect metaphor for Jesus and for our faith. In fact, earlier in the Sermon on the Mount, Jesus had said to His disciples, “YOU are the light of the world.” That light is His, but it is also ours.
At my first church, we sought to change the name from “the Evangelical Covenant Church of Cheboygan” to “Lighthouse Covenant Church” for many reason, from identification to symbolism to unity with the community (the symbol for Cheboygan was a lighthouse). While it didn’t fly, I still feel that a lighthouse is the perfect symbol for a church. Churches are meant to reveal what is hidden in this world and our own lives, to bring comfort to people in their darkness, to guide them down shadowed paths (or through shadowed seas) and to warn against the dangers of this world.
“Are you willing to be obscure in order to be faithful?” With this one question, our bible study leader hit on one of the most exposed nerves in his entire American audience. Like James and John, we are taught, commanded, and rewarded when we strive for greatness, and just the opposite when we are subtle. With aphorisms like, “Any publicity is good publicity” and “It’s better to burn out than fade away”, we are all directed toward fame. We celebrate the loudest, the most flashy, the best known on any team, in any group, and sadly in any denomination.
So it is hard for us to understand how God forbidding David to build the temple is anything but punishment. David has striven his entire life to please God, has done more than anyone should be expected to do, and still God refuses his request to build the temple. David has been threatened, exiled, praised and cursed, and is the King of Israel. Yet his kingship would be capped if he could build “David’s Temple” to the Lord. And still, God says no. And so instead we know of Solomon’s Temple.
Of course, David did not live an obscure life. Jesus Himself is called the Son of David, and is born in the City of David, but for most of us this is not the case. So what happens when God’s call on your life is to work hard and toil your life away in obscurity? How hard it is to do God’s work and never be recognized for it? Is it enough to believe that we will be praised by God in heaven even if nobody knows our names here on earth? Are we willing to be obscure in order to be faithful?
I have to admit, I have an immediate skepticism of anyone who is “famous” in their own area. From pastors to teachers to athletes to superstars, famous people make me nervous. And yet along with the rest of America, I do not want to be unknown. I want to make a name for myself. Unfortunately, the most famous example of this in scripture is at the Tower of Babel, and things did not turn out well for them.
So I am willing to be obscure in order to be faithful. I will follow Jesus even if that means nobody knows my name, or even that I do His will. Are you?
In the Book of John, Jesus uses both the symbols of the Jewish faith (ceremonial cleansing, the Temple, a Rabbi, and a Holy Well) and the feasts of Israel to show his followers who He is. The next feast Jesus uses is the Feast of Tabernacles (7:2). In the next few days, we’ll see how Jesus uses the symbols of this feast (water and light) to identify Himself.
Every year, the Jews were commanded to come to Jerusalem to celebrate the Feast of Tabernacles, a feast that celebrated and remembered their 40 years wandering in the wilderness (each family built a temporary shelter and lived in it for the week of the festival to commemorate the temporary shelters they lived in while wandering), God’s provision for them during that time, and the promise of a Promised Land “flowing with milk and honey”. One of the great symbols of the feast was water.
The priests would travel in the morning to the Pool of Siloam and gather water in a ritual pitcher. They would then process back to the temple with the water and poor it, along with another pitcher of wine, at the base of the altar. This water symbolized God’s Holy Spirit poured out on His people. On the last day of the feast, after the pouring of the water, there was a time of silence to reflect on this. It was probably during that silence that Jesus cried out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and drink. Whoever believes in me, as Scripture has said, rivers of living water will flow from within them.” This Living Water is the same Holy Spirit symbolized by the water poured out at the base of the altar. No wonder the priests and scribes were so incensed!
In one of my former churches I worked as a Youth Pastor and then an Associate Pastor to Youth. Our Senior Pastor had a plaque on his desk that quoted a verse from today’s reading: “Lord, to whom shall we go? You have the words of eternal life.” While I appreciated the plaque, I always felt a little uncomfortable with it.
Whenever I read it, I felt like it was saying, “Jesus, nothing better has come along so you’ll do for now.” I know that’s not the point, but it’s how I felt about it. And maybe that’s because I see that sentiment so often in our world today. We follow Jesus, but as soon as something better comes along, it gains our allegiance. When we can comfort ourselves with a rival belief, we do. When we can find relief from the pains of life in a bottle, a pill, or another addiction, we do. Jesus is great as long as He gives us what we want and there isn’t anything better.
Maybe it would have been better had the plaque included the next verse as well: “We have come to believe and to know that You are the Holy One of God.” We cannot turn away from Jesus once we have been convinced that He is the Messiah, the “Holy One of God”, for that belief demands a commitment. I’ve spoken with people who don’t believe, or who question their beliefs, but never with someone convinced that Jesus is who He said He was yet not following Him. If Jesus truly is the Messiah in all that the Messiah is supposed to be, then we have no choice but to follow. If we don’t, it’s not Him who has failed, it’s our faith in Him.
There is only one food that is common to every culture on the planet, and that is bread. Each culture has their own version, from Native American fry breads to Swedish limpa, but every culture in the world has some sort of bread. This makes it a perfect metaphor for Jesus to us, one that is translatable to every context to which we might wish to minister.
Jesus is in the midst of identifying Himself using the primary Jewish festivals. He has spoken of Sabbath, the weekly day of rest, to speak to the fact that He is doing the Father’s business. And now He is speaking of Passover to say that He is the only “bread” that an sustain us for eternity; not the unleavened bread of the Passover and not the manna that came to them in the desert.
In fact, as Jesus identifies Himself as “the Bread of Life” far better than the manna of the wilderness, we get Jesus’ first “I am…” statement, the first of 7. Through them, He is not just making a metaphorical lesson, but He is saying something far more. When Jesus says, “I am…”, the word He is using is Yahweh, the name God gave to Moses when asked. By making such blatant statements beginning with “I am…”, Jesus is proclaiming Himself to be God, the teaching that most infuriated the Pharisees, and the charge that ultimately got Him crucified.
As we continue to learn of Jesus, “I am…” statements, we have to ask ourselves what Jesus is to us? If we take an honest look at ourselves and our faith, what is Jesus to us? And what metaphor might we use? “I am Aladdin’s lamp, giving you anything you want.” “I am the Sheriff, ready to shoot you down if you slip up at all.” “I am the Parlimentarian, making sure everyone knows and keeps the rules.” What “I am…” metaphor would best describe your view of God?
Continuing with the theme of the Jewish feasts, Jesus today takes on the Festival of Unleavened Bread, which begins with Passover (6:4). Passover is the first day of the Unleavened Bread Festival, and itself begins with the Seder feast. It is the celebration and remembrance of the Exodus, God’s act of freeing His people from slavery in Egypt through Moses. When God was finished demolishing Egypt through 10 plagues, He prepared His people for their exodus by commanding that they bake bread without yeast so it would keep on the march to freedom. Thus, bread becomes a powerful symbol of this feast.
When Jesus fed the 5000 (actually far more: there were 5000 men but an uncounted amount of women and children as well), he used bread not just to feed a hungry crowd, and not just to prove His miraculous power, but to speak through symbol to the Passover. Just as the people were given their freedom from Egypt, so Jesus was about to give them an even greater freedom from their sinfulness, from the Law that bound them, and from the uncleanness that was their state because of sin.
This miracle pointed to the bread of the Passover feast, but also to the manna given them during their 40 years of wandering in the wilderness. As God provided for their need through the bread from heaven, so Jesus is providing for their immediate hunger and eternal salvation through Himself. In fact, tomorrow we will talk about one of Jesus’ seven “I Am…” statements when He says, “I Am the bread of life…”
How has Jesus provided for you? Beyond the obvious death and resurrection, what other ways has Jesus met your needs and, like the 12 baskets of leftovers, done so bountifully? And what is your reaction? Do you follow Him as He asks, or do you follow your own plan like those fed who tried to make Him king by force?