At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. So 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.” Jesus answered, “I have told you, and you do not believe.
Today is Good Shepherd Sunday. Each 4th Sunday in the Season of Easter is reserved to hear about Jesus the Good Shepherd. And here at Good Shepherd Lutheran Church, we could consider this Sunday an opportunity to celebrate our congregation. Just as congregations with names like St. Matthew’s, or St. John’s often celebrate on the feast days of their saints.
But this year we get short changed in the shepherd department. We are in the 3rd year of our 3 year cycle of readings for each Sunday. And last year and the year before, Good Shepherd Sunday got the good readings. “I am the Good Shepherd” readings. Today we get a passing reference to sheep and that is it.
In fact, as we encounter Jesus, it is an entirely different celebration. The festival of Dedication. Or more commonly known as Hanukkah – nothing to do with shepherds.
Instead of Shepherds, sheep, meadows and spring, we get the dead of winter. Jesus is walking through the temple, the Portico of Solomon. A space along the East wall where crowds would have gathered to celebrate Hanukkah – a winter festival of lights. It was an 8 day celebration to commemorate how the temple had been liberated 200 years earlier from oppression by the Seleucids – the empire of Alexander the Great. The liberating rebels found the temple defiled and the only undefiled thing was a sealed bowl of olive oil, enough to light a lamp for one day. But the oil lasted 8 days, long enough to complete the ritual cleansing.
Hanukkah, this winter festival of lights was a time for families to gather, to remember how they had been freed from oppression and how the nation of Israel had been restored. But by Jesus’ day, the celebration would have been bitter-sweet. The people now lived under different oppressors – the Roman Empire.
And so the crowds gathered at the temple for Hanukkah see Jesus, and they are looking for liberation again. They want to be saved, restored to former greatness, they want control of their destiny and future. They press in on Jesus wanting answers. They long for the day when their nation would be their own again – they want a Messiah to come and lead them to greatness, just like the rebels had done 200 years before. “Tell us plainly” they demand of Jesus, give us the quick and easy answer to our problems.
Jesus doesn’t give them answer they are looking for, instead he talks about sheep knowing his voice and people being snatched out of his hands. A cryptic non-answer for a crowd wanting a plain and straight forward response.
In many ways, the bitter-sweetness of celebrating liberation while living under oppression is something we know too. No we haven’t needed liberation from anything here in Canada. Nor do we know what it is like to live under oppression.
But we do know what it is like to feel like for our identity and place in the world to be taken away. On a day when we could be celebrating Good Shepherd, it is easy to carry concerns about the future. It is easy to feel like an older, thinner and more tired version of ourselves. It easy to feel like those crowds did, like we are celebrating something that is already gone from us.
This week as the ACTS group met for bible study and considered this gospel lesson, it was Jesus’ answer to the crowds that generated questions. One question in particular stuck with me throughout the week, “If Jesus says he won’t let us be snatched from God’s hand, what does being snatched out look like.”
What I think our group was really asking was, “If Jesus is the Messiah, why does it feel like our church is shrinking and dying. Why does it feel like the world doesn’t care about us anymore? Why do people who were once here, once parts of our family, once parts of our community, no longer come? What about all the people who are gone? Have they not been snatched away?”
The question that the ACTS group asked is most certainly on the minds of Christians all over. And it is one we consider lots here at Good Shepherd too.
And we get frustrated too when we just want a plain answer from Jesus, but he gives us something vague and cryptic. Or at least he gives an answer that doesn’t satisfy our questions.
When the crowds demand to know if Jesus is the Messiah, he rejects the premise of their question. “I have told you, and you do not believe”
The crowds are asking for their temple and nation to be restored. They want a Messiah who will bring back the glory days, who will make Israel great again (as some politicians these days are fond of saying). The crowds are looking to return to the glory of Hanukkah… to relive the story of human triumph in the world. Of one group overcoming and having power over another.
But this is not about God’s work in the world. They are not remembering the covenant with Abraham, God delivering them from Egypt, nor God giving them a King in King David (despite God’s objections). They remembering their own glory.
And Jesus is not talking about a Messiah King, or Messiah warlord or Messiah President. Jesus is talking about a Messiah who has been sent for God’s work in the world.
So what are we asking of the Messiah? What do we want Jesus to tell us plainly? Sometimes we get wrapped up in asking the Messiah to restore our church, to build our membership, to increase our attendance. Sometimes, without thinking, we can equate how we feel about church with how we talk about God. We say that our church is shrinking, dying, getting smaller, becoming tired, a shell of what it once was… we say that God seems to be shrinking, dying, getting smaller, becoming tired, a shall of what God once was in our world. How we feel about church is how we talk about God.
Jesus is reminding us that it is actually the other way around. How God feels and acts towards us is how we should be talking about church.
Who is here and who is not hear is not a measure of whether or not we have been snatched out of God’s hand. How many people keep up weekly attendance is not a measure of the church or the Good Shepherd.
Jesus is telling us today the fullness of the church, that the aliveness of the church is about what God is doing here.
The church is full because the Word of God fills it with the Good News of God’s love for sinners, for the broken, for the forgotten and marginalized. The church is full of God’s love for us.
The church is full because the waters of baptism overflow here with grace and mercy. Just as Jaxson is baptized this morning, so to are we reminded that because we are baptized too, that God’s grace is overflowing here, filling this place. The church is full of God’s hope for us.
The church is full because the bread and wine of new life are in abundance here. Because when the Body of Christ gathers, we become bread for the world and we are send out with good news for the world. The church is full God’s gifts for us.
Like those crowds gather for Hanukkah, we can easily can get wrapped up in wanting to restore former glory, with wondering what God is doing with a seemingly shrinking, dying place, with measuring our fullness by who is here and who is not. We can starting talking about God using the language of how we feel.
But Jesus reminds us of how God feels and acts towards us. That the Messiah is about doing God’s work. And that God’s work fills this place, not with us, but with God. God fills this place with love and mercy and grace – God’s work done here and done for us.