When Louis Armstrong was asked what Jazz is, he famously responded, “Hey man, if ya gotta ask, you’re never gonna know!” Often Jesus’ responses to those questioning him are like this in John’s gospel. He does answer the question, but hardly ever straightforward. When the first disciples come after Jesus and ask where he is staying, he responds, “come and see.” There is no landmark but an invitation into discovery. When Jesus cleanses the temple, the Jews ask him for a sign. His response is coded: “Destroy this temple and in three days I will raise it up” (2:19). The narrator is the one who tells us this is about his own body. This is the spirit of the entire conversation about being born again and being born from above with Nicodemus. This is his disposition with the woman at the well as they seemingly talk on different planes about “living water.”
Today’s text is not exempt from Jesus’ cryptic language throughout John’s gospel. The powers that be of the time call the question on him: “tell us plainly! Are you the messiah or not!” Jesus’ answer: “I have told you, and you do not believe.” I find myself even scratching my head along with his opposition sometimes. Now, I don’t believe my reaction is quite the same; I’m not looking for stones around to start throwing. It tempts me to flip over to the stories of Jesus in the Synoptics, where his sayings are less opaque, and gravitate toward those Scriptures. However, ignoring Jesus’ response would betray what he is indeed offering both his critics and his readers—another invitation into the intimate life between he who is God’s chosen messiah and God the Father.
The confrontation of this pericope comes curiously at yet another Jewish Festival. John marks time with these times of celebration: Jesus cleanses the temple at Passover (chapter 2); Jesus offers “living water” at the festival of tabernacles or booths (chapter 7). Here in chapter 10, John is quick to let the reader know all this conversation happens during the festival of Dedication. Later, his death and resurrection will be tied to the Passover festival. This context helps us decipher Jesus’ hints of who he is and whether or not he is Israel’s chosen.
The Dedication festival celebrates the Maccabean cleansing of the temple after its desecration at the hand of the Greek oppressors. The Greek Seleucid Emperor, Antiochus IV, erected an idol of Zeus, sacrificed pigs, and outlawed circumcision (all anathema to the Jews). Through a violent revolt, Judas Maccabeus led the Jews to take back the temple, rid it of all the desecration, and dedicate it to the one true God of Israel.
This undoubtedly colored the expectations for those in power who question Jesus. This is a matter of expectation. Throughout John's gospel, Jesus’ actions and speech are all the answer to the question, “are you the chosen one?” The responses always come off as unfathomable because of the way Jesus defies the expectations of what the messiah would be.
Each year through Holy Week into Easter, I’m continually amazed at the way Jesus defies expectations. Once again, I’m conditioned along with these opponents to want the strong man to come beat up my enemies, send them packing, and live in peace doing our own thing. We all want to win and win at all costs. But Jesus does something different; he rides in on a Donkey. His crown is thorns. His purple robe is stripped of his body. He is crucified. He is mocked. His people are mocked as he is crucified (here is the king of the Jews). The good shepherd of Israel works not from strength but weakness.
My preaching schedule has taken me away from the gospels and into Revelation this year. This week’s New Testament lection, Revelation 5:11-14, is the final song of a series of the mass choir of living creatures, elders, and the myriads on myriads of angels. It, too, is a defying of expectations. It is announced that the Lion of Judah is worthy to open the scroll. We assume it can do so with all its brute and noble strength. When we turn, there are a few surprises. First, there is no lion but the lamb who was slain. God’s shepherd of Israel became the lamb. God has vindicated this one who was faithful even unto death. Second, the lamb shares the throne with God. This is a stunning picture of the throne room that keeps true to Jesus’ words – the lamb and the almighty sit on the throne as one.
The way Jesus defies expectations in John 10 is subtle. It isn’t the sensationalism of Revelation 5 but comes to us through an invitation. Like his extended invitation to his first disciples, “Come and see,” and later, “I’ll give you living water,” he is still offering an invitation into his life. What makes him God’s anointed? It is that he and the father are one. This is the defining aspect of Israel’s anointed would become—one in full communion with the Father. This is not a matter of strength, political savvy, charm, or position but unity with God. This revelation is marked out: “In the beginning was the Word, and the Word was with God, and the Word was God” (1:1). Even wilder is that Jesus isn’t condemning those who question him. The invitation is still open to them. This cuts a bit deeper to them and to us because while it has become easy to reject a messiah that is the means of aspiration for power, wealth, and prestige, we’re left with a different kind of question for the messiah we want: do we actually desire God’s anointed to show us what it means to be one with the Father?