By Jared Warner
Willow Creek Friends Church
May 8, 2022
John 10:22–30 (ESV)
22 At that time the Feast of Dedication took place at Jerusalem. It was winter, 23 and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the colonnade of Solomon. 24 So the Jews gathered around him and said to him, “How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.” 25 Jesus answered them, “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, 26 but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep. 27 My sheep hear my voice, and I know them, and they follow me. 28 I give them eternal life, and they will never perish, and no one will snatch them out of my hand. 29 My Father, who has given them to me, is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand. 30 I and the Father are one.”
Today we meet together and we celebrate the women in our lives that have encouraged us the most. We celebrate not only mothers, but all the women in our Meeting because each one is important. Every person in this meeting is important. We are all important because we bear the image of God to one another. As we interact with each other, hopefully we get a deeper look or a deeper experience as to who God is. I do not usually give a Mother’s Day sermon, and Father’s should not expect one either, but this year I want us to remember the women in our lives that have been fundamental in our journey of faith.
When I look back on my life it can list off women that have been incredibly important in my journey. Edith Williams was the pastor at Mt Ayr when I was in elementary school. The main thing I can say about her is she was brave. She took a bunch of elementary and middle school aged kids and taught them about the Friends Church. Through her teaching if fell in love not just with Christ, but with the traditions and expressions of Friends. And as I have served on the Elders’ board for the yearly meeting for nearly ten years now, I have been glad that Edith took the time to teach me why we can be strange at times, and why that is important. Edith could also play a mean accordion and played it often at church, which can also show you just how brave she was.
Then there are other women that have been important. My great grandmother prayed a simple prayer using the same words nearly every day. I always thought it was odd because I did not grow up using written prayers as a child, but she always said the same thing. And then I learned about her life, her story. That simple prayer in a few words expressed the testimony of a saint.
My grandmother. There is a special place in my life for my Grandma Bales. I used to work on my uncle’s farm and every day we would eat lunch at Grandma’s house. My grandma could cook. She collected recipes and I remember once that the news paper did a story about my grandma’s recipe collection. She was also a master in the sewing arts. And the quilts she made are some of my most treasured possessions. But the best thing about my grandma is that she was the most loving person, but also one of the most abrupt people I have ever known. If she did not think you were doing something properly, she would let you know, she would make you so mad when she did that, but then after everything was done, she would have a piece of sourdough cake waiting for you. Most of you know that my oldest son was born out of wedlock, the person that was the most difficult to tell was my grandma, she was the one person that I never wanted to disappoint, the one person that was honest and encouraging, she could say a word and I would understand exactly what she meant. When I told her, she said this and I quote, “Well… that was pretty stupid wasn’t it.” She then gave me a hug and looked me right in the eyes and said, “if you do not take care of that boy, we will have problems.” You might not see her words as loving or encouraging. To me those words were filled with acceptance, grace, direction, and encouragement.
Then there is Lois Smuck. She was the wife of my pastor when I was in high school and college. She told me one day that I was going to be a missionary. I laughed at her. She did not care that I laughed at her, she continued to teach me and encourage me even though she knew everything about me. She knew my sins, and she still would tell me I was going to be a missionary. She would not for one moment, let me consider that God did not love me. She did not allow an opportunity for me to even humor the idea that my past could limit what God could do in the future. She just continued to teach and encourage through it all.
Then there is my mom. My mom is someone I wish I could be like. She married young, had two kids, and got divorced. Then she married again, had another child, then went to college to become a nurse and while she was in college, had a fourth child. She then worked as a nurse full-time, became an administrator at a hospital, walked away from that position and started her own business. My mom would always find a way to do what needs done. If I need advice, it is mom that I call and there is a reason for this. The first thing she will always say is have you prayed about it. It is in prayer that my mom found strength and this is the lifestyle she taught me. When you get stressed the first thing you do is stop and pray.
I mention these women in my life because they are important. Every individual in the church is important. There is a reason that you are here in this meeting. You may not know what that reason is at this moment, but there is a reason.
I will mention another lady from my past, Virginia. She was not my Sunday school teacher, she was not the pastor’s wife, she was just the mom of other kids in my church, and she worked at the library. She always brought home made cream style corn to potlucks and there was this one time she failed to fulfill what was expected. You would have thought someone died when all the kids got to the serving tables and saw that one crockpot was missing. Every child in the church looked forward to eating Virginia’s corn and suddenly it was not there. Thank God the next month she brought it again. But there was more to Virginia than the corn. She was often one of the parents that would either drive us to or pick us up from church camp. And it was always fun. But it was the library that was the most important part. She would occasionally give me a little suggestion of what I might like, and I remember once I wanted to be a bit rebellious and I checked out a book Interview with a Vampire. She did not judge me, because they aren’t supposed to, but she said something very interesting. She said, “this is one I didn’t think you’d pick out.” Then she said, “I’ll see in a couple of days.” I started reading the book and took it back in a couple of days because I did not care to read it, and when I brought it back, she like usually just suggested something else she thought I might like to read.
We never know who we are encouraging. And we might not realize how important our lives are to those around us. Each of us is important and each of us have an important role within this meeting and in the Kingdom of God. And we should remember those that have encouraged us and remind ourselves that we need to be encouragers too. I would not be in this Meetinghouse if it was not for those women. I would probably not even be in the church if it was not for those women. And of course, I would not be alive without a couple of them either.
But we need to take time to remember the important things. We need to remember important events, and people that have shaped our lives and our heritage. Today’s reading, we meet Jesus prior to his trial and crucifixion. This is one of the interactions that Jesus had that instigated the trial. John tells us when this interaction took place. It was at the time of the Feast of Dedication, in the winter, it is Hannukah. This celebration lasts eight days and it celebrates the rededication of the temple in Jerusalem after the gentiles that ruled over them defiled it through pagan worship. John tells us what they are celebrating and remembering at this time, during this discussion, because it is part of what is discussed. Often, I have just overlooked the feasts, thinking they are just filler words that tell us what time of year or assist in letting us know where Jesus would be. But there is more to this.
This feast came at the end of a great war. A war of independence. Actually, it was a war of survival. The Greeks had ruled over Judea and when they came in, they loved their own culture so much that they felt it was essential to make everyone around them love it too. They came into Israel and began making laws. We often think of the Jewish heritage as being based on Laws, but really it is the Greek influence that gives us laws in this manner. The torah is Hebrew Law, but it is different. It is more like moral teaching and discussion than regulation. It is ok to cringe a bit there, I cringe as well, because we always think of the Hebrew Law. We discuss the vast numbers of laws that are in the Torah. We cringe because when we think of law, we have a western understanding that comes from ancient Greek influences.
This festival celebrated the triumph religious freedom. It recognizes the hand of God providing for the people that call on his name. This festival celebrates revival. They remember they celebrate and Jesus is there at the temple celebrating with them. He is walking in the colonnade of Solomon and people are gathering in the area to listen to him teach. They are there at the temple, getting away from the winter’s wind. And the people come to Jesus asking questions.
John often gets ridiculed for using the term Jews by scholars. I think the criticism is taken out of context but I do understand the point. There is a long history of violence against this people group. We know about this more today because of the actions that were taken during the Holocaust, and I did visit Union Station to tour the exhibit about that horrid event. I do not have words that can fully express the sorrow I felt especially when I am fully aware of how easily the villain of the narrative could have just as easily been me. I have that same capacity to allow that kind of horror to exist. But that was not the first time this group of people experienced that kind of hatred. We see it in the pages of scripture, and throughout history. The feast of Dedication celebrates victory over one such episode.
The Jews, John says, come to ask questions. There is a reason he speaks in these terms. He is speaking against a religion based on heritage and one of faith. Those who base their identities on their heritage alone claim that name, but those who live according to faith rarely take a name. They do not take a name because they simply live their lives. They are not concerned with their own rights or potential power because their focus is on honoring that of God in themselves and those around them.
They ask Jesus, “How long will you keep us in suspense?” This question has caused me some suspense. As powerful as the written word is, there is a weakness. How often have arguments been started over the misunderstood text message? You might have experienced this. You ask a question and someone responds with, “OK”. And you assume that there was a certain tone in that OK, and now you are preparing for battle. It can be difficult to adequately convey emotions in text, so we have tried to remedy this by incorporating the use of contemporary hieroglyphics. The context around this interaction is troubling. We do not fully know the tone. And because we do not know the tone the translators infer tone into the text. Most contemporary translations take a neutral tone, “How long will you keep us in suspense?” But many commentators question this translation because there are some indications that the tone could be a bit different which make a translation like, “Why do you plague us?” or even “Why are you taking away our life?”
I want us to consider the possible tones. If the emotional tones were a bit more sinister, they are not just wanting to know if Jesus is the Messiah, they are wondering why he is potentially causing this trouble when he is not meeting their preconceived idea as to who or what the Messiah should be. They have this mental construct of Messiah that has been developing over the centuries. He will be a great priest, he will be the conquering king, he will be a great prophet. Some of these ideas are so intense that some came to the conclusion that this would require a messianic team. Which is why they ask John the Baptist if he is the prophet. They have these ideas, and Jesus they acknowledge is a great teacher, but his teachings threaten the status quo of the established religion. They may be asking something more like this, “If you are not the messiah why are you ruining everything, we have struggled so hard to preserve?”
I want us to consider this for a moment. Why are you ruining everything we have struggles so hard to preserve? This question is coming during the feast of dedication, the feast that celebrates the reemergence, the victory, the triumph of righteousness over the efforts of the evil one to silence the people of Israel. I can see why some commentators might see a negative tone within these words. I have had similar thoughts over the years. As an elder within the Yearly Meeting, it is part of my job to toil for the preservation of our faith and practice. I have on many occasions felt emotions similar to this, at times I have directed some of those emotions at myself. Why am I ruining everything I have struggled so hard to preserve?
Then they ask that he tell them plainly. I have a confession. I am triggered by the use of the word plainly in this manner. I am triggered because it is a desire for a simple one-word answer to a complex multifaceted ideological construct. How do you answer this question, “Do you believe in war?” How can a person that holds a peace testimony answer that question? To say you do not believe in war is ridiculous because the news tells us daily that war is a reality if you believe it or not. The real question is how do you balance the reality of war with a testimony of nonviolent resolution to complex problems? Tell us plainly, they implore Jesus.
And this is where things get interesting. “I told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name bear witness about me, but you do not believe because you are not among my sheep.”
Theological debates abound around these verses and those that follow. My sheep is seen as being the elect that are predestined. The idea of no one will snatch them away speaks to eternal security. We quickly skip over the answer Jesus gave and look at the illustration. His answer is that he did tell the people exactly who he was, but they do not believe. The works, this means his lifestyle. The things he says as well as the actions he takes speak a consistent message.
The early Friends first began for this very reason. Our recognized founder, George Fox, told a story about his journey of faith where he sought spiritual direction from religious leaders of his day. One leader said George just needed to get married and then he would stop worrying about these things. Another told him that he should just take up smoking. And another just yelled at him because he stepped off of the pathway and onto some flowers. He was seeking answers, he needed direction and spiritual encouragement, and the answers the religious leaders gave were platitudes, distractions, and ire. Words and actions.
Jesus illustrates his answer with a discussion of sheep. I grew up on a farm, but we had cattle not sheep. The care of these animals is different. You drive cattle, where you lead sheep. There is a relationship built between the sheep and the shepherd. This relationship is built over time and constant interaction. At first the sheep are afraid and they will run away from the shepherd but they will continue to talk to the sheep, plead with the sheep, call out to them often by name. Over time the sheep respond to the voice and with a word or whistle a single shepherd can gracefully lead the sheep from pasture to pen, without any trouble.
The people encircled Jesus and demanded an answer, Jesus responded by telling them that the answer they sought had already been given, and the reason they have not heard is that they do not yet recognize the shepherd.
This is where it begins to get even more interesting. The sheep reference is not lost on the people that encircled Jesus here at the temple. The Hebrew people have a long tradition of sheep and shepherd illustrations. In their mind they are God’s sheep. And this increases the tension of the question. Is Jesus saying he is the Messiah, is he saying that he is building his own sheepfold, what exactly is Jesus saying?
“My father, who has given them to me is greater than all, and no one is able to snatch them out of the Father’s hand.” There is debate as to what this passage means. There are even various renderings within contemporary translations. Some of the translations, like the English Standard Version, focus on God. Where others like the New Revised Standard render their translation with a focus on the community, “What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.” I actually like the tension in the translations. It causes us to wrestle a bit in our minds. Is there power in the church or is it only in the Father? Is there a difference between the community of the Father and the community of the son? I wrestle with scripture and wonder.
The wrestling is good, because in the struggle we find clarity. The people encircling Jesus see themselves as the sheep of God. When Jesus says that his sheep hear his voice and follow him this gives them an answer. There is a difference between the voice that they are listening to. In their minds they are following God, and Jesus is just ruining everything they have struggled so hard to preserve. Jesus acknowledges them in this position. They are heeding to the voice of their shepherd. They are following, their lifestyle and their works all reflect the voice that they are listening to.
Remember up to this point Jesus is saying that the works; his life, lifestyle, and his words all direct those that will listen to the answers they seek. If they listen to his voice, they will be able to discern if he is the anointed one of God or not. He then illustrates his teaching by speaking about how the sheep follow their shepherd because they know his voice.
And then he drops the mic.
“I and the Father are one.” Again, we can get into theological debates over if Jesus is claiming to be God with this statement or if he is merely speaking of life and lifestyle. You can debate among yourself, but the rest of today’s reading is speaking about the life and lifestyle of Jesus. And because of this he is saying something profound. He is saying that the works of the Father and the works of his own are the same. What he is doing is what the Father is calling his sheep to participate in. He is telling these people that have encircled and interrogated him, that they would have their answer if they would just listen to the shepherd. If they are truly the sheep, they say they, are they could see that Jesus and the Father are acting in one voice. The fact that they are asking the question means that the things are not in sync. They accuse Jesus of trying to ruin everything they have struggled to preserve, but what are they preserving? What are they truly honoring with their feast of dedication? Whose voice are they listening to? Have they become the very thing they once fought against? And can we fall prey to the same?
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