Preacher: The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson, Precentor

The Rev’d Canon Jenny Wilson

In the name of God, creating, redeeming, sanctifying, … Amen.

One hundred and sixty four years before the birth of Christ, a Syrian army marched into the Jewish Temple in Jerusalem and set up an altar to the pagan god Zeus. A blatant breaking of the first commandment, this horror was known as the “desolating sacrilege.” A revolt by Judas Maccabaeus resulted in a cleansing of the temple and a restoration of the temple to Jewish worship. This act of rededication, this restoration of the temple to the worship of the one God, was celebrated each year in the Feast of Dedication, known also as Hanukkah.

It was on an occasion of this festival, the Feast of Dedication in Jerusalem, that we see Jesus in our gospel reading from the 10th chapter of John’s Gospel this morning. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. The Jews gathered around him and said to him, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’(John 10:22-24)

Jesus is no stranger to the Jerusalem temple and to Jewish festivals. In John’s Gospel he spends a lot of time there. In the 2nd chapter of the gospel, when the Passover was near, Jesus barged into the temple and, finding people selling cattle, sheep, and doves, and others changing money, he made a whip of cord and he drove all of them out of the temple. He also poured out the coins of the money-changers and overturned their tables. He told those who were selling the doves, ‘Take these things out of here! Stop making my Father’s house a market-place!’ (2:13-16) Jesus performed his own temple cleansing.

As we read on in John’s Gospel, we find Jesus taking for himself many of the images fundamental to the Jewish faith. In chapter 4, when Jesus encounters a Samaritan woman at the well, Jesus names himself “living water”. (4:7-15) In chapter 6, after feeding a large crowd, Jesus says that he is “the bread of life.” Jesus thus takes upon himself both the images of water and bread, the sources of sustenance with which God nurtured the people of Israel in the wilderness. “Our ancestors ate manna in the wilderness,” those struggling to understand who Jesus was, said to him. “I am the bread of life.” Jesus replies. “Whoever comes to me will never be hungry and whoever believes in me will never be thirsty.” (6:35)

If this was not enough, chapter 7 of John’s Gospel portrays Jesus teaching in the temple at the festival of Tabernacles or Booths. This eight day celebration in the Jerusalem Temple, which celebrated the completion of the harvest, and also God’s protection of the Israelite people in the wilderness, used light and water to symbolise the presence of God. On the final day of the festival Jesus cries out, “Let anyone who is thirsty come to me and let anyone who believes in me drink.” As those looking on struggle with to discern whether Jesus is a prophet or a heretic, Jesus claims yet another image critical to the Jewish faith, particularly at the festival of Tabernacles and says “I am the light of the world.” (8:12)

Chapter 9 tells the story of the healing of the man born blind, a healing whose story takes the whole of the chapter to tell, as the Jewish leaders struggle with the man and his family to understand what has taken place. Immediately after his encounter with this man and those who struggle to understand his healing, Jesus speaks of himself using another image critical to the Jewish faith – that of a shepherd. The psalms are the prayers of the Jewish people and we heard the dearly loved Psalm 23 sung by our choir this morning. God is portrayed as a shepherd who accompanies his sheep through “all the changing scenes of life,” as one hymn writer put it. In Jesus’ time and place, the relationship between a shepherd and his small flock of sheep would have been an intimate one. The shepherd led his sheep in green pastures, beside still waters, in the presence of those who threaten, and in the valley of the shadow of death. The shepherd knows his sheep and as Jesus beautifully portrays it, the sheep hear his voice. We know the psalm so well that it is easy to view it sentimentally but it in fact portrays an extraordinary and tough truth. Wherever the sheep go, the shepherd goes. In times of blessing, the shepherd is the one who blesses. When an enemy looks on, “in the face of those who trouble” the sheep in other words, the shepherd, undeterred, spreads a table. And in the valley of the shadow of death, that valley where we struggle to accompany those we love, and that valley that most of us must surely face with trepidation, the sheep are in close company with the shepherd whose presence brings deep comfort.

This image is strong in the Jewish catalogue of images for God and Jesus claims this one too. Small wonder those given the responsibility for the religious life of the people struggle with him. Small wonder they asked, ‘How long will you keep us in suspense? If you are the Messiah, tell us plainly.’

Telling things plainly, though, is not always Jesus’ style. They’d like a “yes” or a “no”. But instead, Jesus says,

 ‘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.  (10:25-29)

Echoes of a certain psalm.

The scene we have been given here to ponder as our gospel reading is the final scene in Jesus’ public ministry. After this, Jesus heads towards his passion. Jesus is effectively interrogated about his identity and his answers point to his relationship with God and his relationship with those who follow him. This Gospel is about faith, belief. The writer of John’s Gospel says, near the end of his gospel that his book was written that we might believe. And through believing have life. (20:31) In chapter 1, in the Prologue, he writes that Jesus, the Word, was in the world, and the world came into being through him; yet the world did not know him. He came to what was his own, and his own people did not accept him. But to all who received him, who believed in his name, he gave power to become children of God … (1:10-12)

There is a sharp contrast here and Jesus is speaking into that contrast with the leaders who challenge him. He is the Messiah but not the one they expect. He is not about to charge into the temple, or into the streets and violently remove whatever it is that oppresses the Jewish people. He is not like the Judas Maccabeaus of two hundred years before, the one who is remembered in the Feast of Dedication, in which this conversation takes place. Jesus gives power to become children of God. He is water, bread, light …all that brings life in God. He is shepherd. The one who speaks and the sheep hear his voice.

In John’s Gospel, Jesus claims for himself image after image that the Jewish people held for God, for life. We might wonder about that. Where is it that we find life? What image do we hold dear? Hopefully we find God in our cathedral, its worship, its music, our companions, literally the ones with whom we eat bread, and with our sense of gathering others in. But it is not only here that we find life. Do we find life by the sea, or walking in the bush? Do we thrive when we are reading, or sitting with family or friends at a meal? Does our work bring us life? Or is it when we are alone sitting in the garden, watching and listening to the birds at their work?

Can we imagine Jesus barging in and claiming those life-giving places as his own? Can we imagine him saying “I am the path” as we walk in the bush, “I am the sea”, “I am the books that nourish you”, “I am this meal”? Can it possibly be that Jesus, God, is at the heart of all that gives us life? This is what the writer of the Gospel of John seems to be portraying Jesus as doing. Can we imagine that? Is it this that makes us children of God, sheep of this most loving shepherd? That this God, this Jesus, is at the heart of all that gives us life?