4TH OF EASTER — 25 April 2010
Trinity, Iowa City — 7:45 and 8:45 a.m.
Acts 9:36-43 | Psalm 23 | Revelation 7:9-17 | John 10:22-30
“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.”
This Sunday is traditionally referred to as “Good Shepherd Sunday,” because today in the Gospel reading each year we hear a portion of the tenth chapter of St. John’s Gospel in which Jesus talks about the “good shepherd” and himself as “The Good Shepherd.” In this third year of the cycle of readings, Year C, we hear a follow-up or extension of that theme. We also refer to Jesus as the Good Shepherd in the Collect today, and you may note that we read Psalm 23, "The Lord is my shepherd," as well!
“At that time,” the Gospel reading begins. Well, not exactly. The last time stamp, back in chapter 7 [7:2], was the Feast of Tabernacles, which occurs September-Octoberish, and chapters 7, 8, 9, and the first part of 10 (the “Good Shepherd” sayings) appear to be part of a continuous time frame. Or not. Neither John, nor Mark and the other Synoptists, are all that committed to chronological precision; they build their narrative themes in other ways. But in any case, the beginning of today’s reading is better translated as “It happened that…” and the temporal reference is now to the festival of the Dedication (of the Temple). If that doesn’t immediately ring a bell, that’s because we now normally refer to this celebration by its Jewish name, Hanukkah (“Oh, right!”), which occurs in December. And although winter in Jerusalem is hardly like winter in Iowa, still it could be a little chilly, and Solomon’s Portico was on the east side of the Temple where it was in the lee of the December winds.
That this conversation between Jesus and “the Jews” — in this case the Greek probably more specifically means “the Judeans,” residents of Jerusalem — that this takes place at Hanukkah is not just passing trivia. (There are no passing trivia in the Fourth Gospel. We don’t always catch on, but this Evangelist never uses any stray or throwaway words.) Hanukkah, of course, is the celebration and commemoration of the Rededication of the Jerusalem Temple. King Antiochus IV Epiphanes (you remember Antiochus!), the Seleucid Emperor (you remember the Seleucids -- they were the Syrian partition of the Hellenistic empire of Alexander the Great a century and a half earlier) -- Antiochus had militarily took Judea away from the Ptolemaic Empire (that was the Egyptian partition of Alexander’s brief domain). Antiochus was rabidly Hellenistic, that is, culturally Greek, and one of the things he did in the year 167 Before the Common Era was to erect an idol of the Greek god the Olympian Zeus (whom the Syrians called Baal Shamem) in the Jerusalem Temple. This was an act of unspeakable defilement which the Jews called the Abomination of Desolation. Three years later the Jews under Judas Maccabeus drove the Syrians out of Judea and cleansed and reconsecrated the Jerusalem Temple. Most of us have at least a little familiarity with how Hanukkah is celebrated among Jewish people today, especially in the United States (where in December there is all that quasi-Christian stuff going on around them). I’m not sure what they did in Jerusalem in the first century of the Common Era, though I suspect it did not involve dreidels, but for the Jews of Jesus’ time Hanukkah was not a happy domestic holiday but was still very much a Big Patriotic Deal — the liberation from the Hellenistic Syrians was, if not exactly living memory any more, at least an emotionally very powerful remembrance. It was like the Fourth of July. But the bitter irony was that Judean independence had only lasted for a hundred years or so, and Judea had then again been conquered, this time by the Romans under the general Pompey the Great. The Romans had the good sense not to try to mess with the Temple, on the whole, and they installed an Idumean puppet king, that is, an Edomite, which was sort of like being Jewish, known to history as Herod the Great. Herod wanted to curry favor with the Jews and he sponsored a major renovation of the Jerusalem Temple, about which the Jews on the whole had very mixed feelings. (They were glad of the renovation, but why did it have to be Herod who did it?) And so the celebration of Hanukkah in those years was dripping in irony: "We rejoice in the liberation of our people from the conqueror and the rededication of the Temple of the Lord; but on the other hand now we are occupied by another conqueror and so we need God’s Anointed One, like another Maccabee, to liberate us again."
So anyway, the opening verses of the Gospel reading this morning are Very Heavily Loaded. And so they come to Jesus, walking in the Temple during Hanukkah, and they ask, “How long will you keep us in suspense?” Or something like that. It’s a somewhat obscure idiom in Greek, literally meaning “How long are you taking away our life?” So it's something like, “How long are you going to keep driving us nuts? If you are God’s Anointed One, the one who is finally going to liberate Israel permanently, then say so!”
And Jesus says, “I did say so, only you didn’t get it! I am the Shepherd, yes, like David if you will, but you aren’t my sheep.” One of the reasons why they ask Jesus whether he is the Anointed One (in Hebrew, the Messiah; in Greek, the Christ) is because he has not said so directly. (Well, in John he tells the Samaritan woman, and he hinted at it to the man born blind, but those conversations were private and in a sense off the record. In Mark's Gospel we do talk about the “Messianic Secret,” but scholars may push that a little too far. Nevertheless, Jesus does not go around saying, “Hi, folks, I am God’s Messiah.” Not directly. Jesus just does the works of God’s Anointed One, indeed of God’s Son, of him who is One with the Father, and then he asks, “Well? Do you get it?” The problem is that for everybody but Jesus himself, and that includes the disciples, the “Messiah” means the one who militarily, or miraculously, or both, is going to drive out the Romans and liberate Israel (as Judas Maccabeus had driven out the Syrians and liberated Israel, for a while, almost two hundred years earlier) — thus the irony of this encounter in the Temple during Hanukkah.
And Jesus says, “You have your expectation of the Messiah, but that’s not who I am, and that’s not what I am doing — what I am doing in my Father’s name and in union with my Father. The true sheep hear me and they follow me as their true Shepherd King, but what I give them is not mere political independence. Babylonians and Greeks and Syrians and Romans come and go. What I give them is fullness of life eternally, and they can never be snatched out of my hand.”