Now that he is finishing his two terms in office with about 9 months or so to go, it can be a bit startling to realize that a scant decade ago, not only was the name of Barack Obama relatively unknown, the man himself could walk around Chicago or anywhere else freely and without the need of protection or security. The rise to world-wide fame of this particular man was particularly meteoric, as illustrated by this story from Newsweek that recounts something that happened in 2004, just four years before Obama himself managed to get nominated for the presidency:
On the eve of his keynote speech to the Democratic convention in 2004, the speech that effectively launched him as the party’s hope of the future, Obama took a walk down a street in Boston with his friend Marty Nesbitt. A growing crowd followed them. “Man, you’re like a rock star,” Nesbitt said to Obama. “He looked at me,” Nesbitt recalled in a story he liked to tell reporters, “and said, ‘Marty, you think it’s bad today, wait until tomorrow.’ And I said, ‘What do you mean?’ And he said, ‘My speech is pretty good’.”
Obama’s 2004 convention speech launched him into the strange world of celebritydom; he acquired the kind of aura that can transform a skinny, scholarly man with big ears into a sex symbol. Eureka Gilkey, one of Obama’s aides, recalled going with him when he made a speech to the Democratic National Committee shortly after he began his campaign. Obama was mobbed outside the bathroom. “These were DNC members; they’re supposed to be jaded by politicians,” recalled Gilkey. “Not trying to tear their shirts off. I remember going home that night, and my boyfriend saying, ‘What is that purple bruise on your back?’ I had bruises on my back from people pushing and shoving, trying to get to [Obama] … I remember grabbing women’s hands because they were trying to pull his shirt from his pants. I couldn’t believe it.”
And that’s what we expect in this world. We expect people to enjoy celebrity status, to work hard to achieve it and to then revel in it once it arrives. We expect the people who may become great leaders to herald that fact, to placard it on billboards and advertisements so as to have a chance to make a difference. Our expectation of this is so entrenched that we often don’t bat an eye when we hear politicians or sports heroes making comments about themselves that would strike us as the height of vanity and arrogance if we heard such things said by anyone from within our own families or with whom we work Monday-Friday.
But the famous in our society routinely get away with self-aggrandizing rhetoric because that’s just how things work in this world. Although we like and expect a measure of modesty and humility in politicians and other famous folks, we give them a bit of a wide berth given who they are and what they have achieved. (Jimmy Carter found out about this while serving as President: he thought it was entirely too much fuss and too haughty a display to have the song “Hail to the Chief” played every time he entered a room for an event and so he suggested they not do that anymore. But it turned out that people wanted and expected to hear that regal music played when the President arrives, and so Mr. Carter relented and let the tradition continue.)
Pope Francis is reportedly a humble and private man who has his whole vocation long eschewed the trappings of whatever office he was in. He took public transportation in Argentina, lived in a small-ish apartment where he did his own cooking. Since becoming Pope, he has struggled to find his way between who he has always been and the glittering trappings of his office. It’s hard to be the Vicar of Christ these days and actually live like Jesus.
After all, isn’t it curious to see that when the actual Son of God, the true Messiah of the world, arrived here and lived here, he was so loathe to trumpet his credentials and was so adverse to putting himself forward that people actually had to beg him to come clean as to whether he was The One or not? Apparently Jesus was content to let his actions speak for themselves, to allow himself to become a window through which those willing to look would be able to see no less than the one true God, the one Jesus called his Father. If you were interested in that Father, then it was probably because you were one of the chosen “sheep” to begin with. If you were willing to look through Jesus to see the Father with whom he was one, then the mere fact that you were interested and willing to believe indicated that something else was already stirring in your heart. But for those who were unwilling to believe, no amount of overt speech by Jesus would have made much difference anyway.
Years ago my wife and I saw a somewhat humorous portrayal about the differences between how men and women communicate. One part of that presentation showed a husband asking his (obviously distressed) wife “Honey, what’s wrong?” The wife replied, “If you have to ask, then I am not going to tell you!” It was a way of saying in essence, “You know full well what’s up and so your question is a dodge to make it look like you did nothing wrong! What’s more, if you really don’t know, then you’re past help anyway and so I am not going to tell you!”
If you have to ask . . .
It reminds me of the secret room at Hogwarts School in the Harry Potter stories. The Room of Requirement contained many secrets that could help someone in need. But its doorway was invisible and so you had to know where to go (and then be in need) for it to appear. The saying about finding this room was “If you already know, you need not ask. If you need to ask, you will never know.”
Similarly in John 10: if the people celebrating Hanukkah that year in Jerusalem had to ask Jesus if he would plainly fess up to being the Messiah, then Jesus was not going to answer. They either already knew Jesus was the Christ or they did not and if they did not, it was because they were refusing to make the logical connections between Jesus’ work and his unity with God the Father. So their query was one-part a trick question, one-part a prelude to exactly what does follow just beyond the fringe of this lection; namely, an attempt to kill Jesus for blasphemy.
So Jesus’ reply to their question really did amount to his saying, “If you have to ask, then I am not going to tell you!” They had no ear for a tune. They had no ability to hear the Good Shepherd’s voice. Jesus could make any claim for himself that he wanted but they were not going to believe him, listen to him, or most certainly follow him. Their ears were not attuned to hear his message, their eyes were not sharp enough to see the Father who stood behind Jesus every miracle.
And yet they had to ask their question—even if they asked it with cynicism and doubt abounding—because the truth is they were looking for a more typical world leader. They were looking for the dashing figure who was willing to put himself forward because they thought that was the only kind of Messiah who could stand a chance at routing Herod, Pilate, and finally the Caesar himself.
Jesus, however, came to point a different direction, telling us that the secret to life is the willingness to give life away, that sacrifice leads to new life, that dying leads to resurrection. Jesus came and provided so many signs that pointed to a different kind of kingdom. Those who wanted to be part of God’s new order of things followed where those signs pointed. Those who were still hung up on worldly definitions of authority, prestige, and success—and who wanted to amass some of that for themselves—saw Jesus as a loser and as a non-starter. Nothing Jesus could have said would have convinced them otherwise, not even had he said plainly that day while strolling through Solomon’s Colonnade, “Yes, I am the Christ.”
I wonder sometimes if we as preachers need a reminder of this, if in fact the whole Church sometimes needs a reminder of this. I mentioned Pope Francis above but you don’t need to be the Pontiff of the Catholic Church to feel the lure of fame or get tempted by the trappings of worldly power and success. The Church struggles with this. We pastors often like putting ourselves forward. We like getting quoted in articles in the newspaper or in a Christianity Today article if we could manage it. Congregations love it if they sense they have managed to become THEE ecclesiastical hot spot in a given city—the place to see and be seen in the church world.
John 10 challenges us to wonder if we always know what is what with Jesus and with being his disciple. It kind of looks like putting ourselves forward just maybe isn’t the first or best thing we could do . . .
This lection is fairly short and abruptly ends just before the Jews take up stones to do Jesus in for his alleged blasphemy in identifying himself with no less than Almighty God. One suspects, however, that perhaps a partial reason for not extending this reading a bit farther is that Jesus goes on to quote Psalm 82:5 in what ends up being a rather cryptic use of a verse that seems a little odd even in the context of Psalm 82 itself. In any event, Jesus’ use of that as an answer to the charge that he has committed blasphemy seems a little “off.” Just because there may be some wider sense in which all people can be called “gods” or “children/sons of God” hardly would get Jesus off the hook for saying that as THEE singular Son of God, he and God (the Father) are truly one and the same. But in the end, Jesus does not stick with that line of thought anyway but instead goes on to highlight the consonance of his own works with those of God (the Father) as the real evidence that should count in his favor as being God. As Nicodemus said as early in this gospel as the third chapter, the only person who could do the things Jesus did would have to be sent from God (and, by extension, would all-but have to BE God as well).
Some years ago at a conference at Emory University, I heard a speaker—who was an expert in all things related to Russia—mention something that happened to him in a Moscow Russian Orthodox cathedral one Sunday morning during the worship service. As was customary, the worshipers all stood for the entire service. As is also typical of the Orthodox tradition, this soaring cathedral’s ceiling and walls were covered almost 100% with icons, bright paintings depicting the apostles, John the Baptist, the Virgin Mary, and of course the Lord Jesus Christ himself. At one point early in the service, the professor from Emory was staring up at some of the icons/paintings on the ceiling, admiring their beauty. Suddenly he felt someone whack him on the shoulder from behind. Turning around, he saw an older man who then said to him, “You are disturbing the worship: this is not a museum!” The Orthodox claim that they most certainly do not worship the icons nor do they merely admire them. Rather icons are windows on the divine: you worship God by seeing God through them. The professor merely staring at the icons was messing up everyone else’s worship.
Jesus’ miracles were like that, and Jesus makes this clear in John 10. People were supposed to see God through the miracles. They were not supposed to get hung up on the sign itself but follow to the place to which the sign pointed. Maybe that’s why in John 2 even something like turning water into wine was said by John to have been a great sign of Jesus “glory.” From the outside looking in, there does not seem to be much “glorious” about Jesus providing wine to already besotted wedding guests. But if you looked through the miracle to see the divine Father standing there, well, then there was glory enough to go around!
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Sermon Commentary for Sunday, April 17, 2016
John 10:22-30 Commentary