Speaking out in the world
The Reverend Dr Sam Cappleman
Jesus’ exchange with the Jewish authorities takes place at the time of Hanukkah, which means ‘dedication’, the festival of light.
The gospel passage comes at the end of the passage where Jesus describes Himself as the Good Shepherd, speaks about how the hired hand runs away when times get tough, when the wolf comes, and the sheep are scattered because the hired hand is not really concerned about the sheep, only himself.
We know the words Jesus spoke cause consternation and division among the Jews and now it would appear a mob has gathered in the Temple to confront Him and ask Him again who He is (and what He thinks he is doing). It’s probably a heated and somewhat hostile exchange!
But it’s a practical example of what He’s just been speaking about. In the face of danger, this shepherd does not run away but faces it head on.
It’s almost as if they are saying, ‘Stop talking in riddles and about Shepherds, are you the Christ, yes or no?’
Hanukkah is the festival which celebrates the rededication of the Temple and the relighting of the Temple lights.
Some 100 years earlier Judas Maccabaeus had defeated the Graeco-Syrian King Antiochus Epiphanes (IV) and the Seleucid Empire, which ruled over them from Syria.
He had cleansed the Temple, from all its Greek imagery, statues and sacrifices (reported often to be pigs) and rededicated it, a place of God’s special presence.
At the rededication the lights/candles/lamps were to be lit. But when the lights came to be relit there was a container of oil with enough oil just for one day, but despite this it lasted eight days (the time taken to get more oil).
Hanukkah is the festival of light – the spiritual light which is never extinguished. A candle is lit on the menorah each day during the festival.
But the festival is not so much marking a military, but a victory of the spiritual over the material. Of light over darkness. Nonetheless the victory of Judas Maccabaeus would be vivid in the memory of many of the hearers of today’s exchange.
As a result of his victory, Judas Maccabaeus founded a priestly dynasty which would reign for about 100 years.
And it was this type of warlord like King that some people were hoping for now Jerusalem was under the rule of the Romans. Was history repeating itself? Was this what the Jews were looking for, a person who would become their warlord like leader?
Especially as in biblical imagery a shepherd is often used as an image and metaphor for a king. Was this what Jesus was saying? Because when Jesus says He is the good Shepherd, many would have interpreted this as Jesus saying He was their new king.
But as we see, for Jesus, as kingly as He was, sheep were those people who heard and understood kingdom differently. Eternal life for them was not some philosophical image or model but a time when wrongs were righted, sins were forgiven and God kingdom would come in all its fullness.
The exchange in today’s gospel reading comes at a time of escalating conflict between Jesus and the Jewish authorities. John makes clear at the beginning of his gospel who Jesus is and the cosmic significance of his incarnation. There can be no doubt.
Through the gospel His words, pronouncements, teaching, miracles all underline the fact that God has come into the world in the form of Jesus. But the Jews still keep asking who Jesus is. Jesus replies, indicating that all he says and does testifies to who He is but those who are not His sheep cannot hear him.
He then states quite clearly that ‘I and the Father are one’. There can be no ambiguity.
But this then raises the question as to why the so called experts in religion could not hear him, could not recognise him?
Was it perhaps that until now they’d managed to keep God at a distance? God came to them on their terms rather than them coming to God on His. They’d managed Him as they wanted and understood Him as they thought best.
Anything that challenged this challenged their comfortable lifestyle, their status and their importance. They were part of the structure which they wanted to keep safe and secure.
So perhaps they really want not to believe Him and His outrageous claims. What would this do to their own credibility if He was to be believed and was right?
Because to believe in Him means that lives will be changed. Things can’t stay the same. It’s not just a matter of paying lip service, it’s about real service too. It’s as if they’d been inoculated with a bit of religion which would keep them safe but stop them from actually catching the real thing.
And that’s sometimes how people today see religion. They are not unsympathetic or openly antagonistic but they’ve had an inoculation when they are young and that’s enough to keep them safe.
They are happy for others to practise religion, even sometimes on their behalf, but they don’t want more engagement or involvement themselves. It may upset their lives and routines.
And yet, when they take stock, or something happens to make them think about the greater meaning of life, or when things begin to overwhelm them and look seemingly hopeless, they too look for a greater meaning in life.
They long to hear the voice of the shepherd calling them home. But because they have not been used to listening to is they find it difficult to make out, difficult to hear among the jarring noise of today.
Perhaps that’s how the recipients of Revelation felt.
Things had seemed so hopeful when Jesus was around but now, some 50 or 60 years later things seemed lost. The Roman Empire was in control, it had destroyed Jerusalem and what had seemed so hopeful now seemed so hopeless.
It’s a situation many face today. They look at the world with fear and despair. The powers of the world seem to be in control. Wherever they look there seems to be no real hope of a lasting future, of peace and of harmony.
We may not be in the same situation as the people the book of Revelation was written to with all their anxieties and dashed hopes. We certainly don’t face the same kind of persecution that many of them faced.
But we do interact with a people in our society who, for many, they feel life is without purpose and without hope. Jesus calls them as He called us. And sometimes He uses us to call to them and speak to them. Be the voice which they recognise as authentic and as caring. As living out the love which Jesus embodied.
We may not feel the same prophetic calling as John, who wrote Revelation but we do have the same prophetic calling to speak and live out God’s word and show God’s real purpose and hope for the world.
We have the same responsibility to be able to speak out about our faith with clarity and coherence, speak about what God has done for each one of us. Speak with a vocabulary and experience with which those we live with can understand and begin to catch a glimpse of the God who cares for each one of us.
It may never be as dramatic as the early believers, we may never, like Peter, raise people from the dead physically. But we are called to raise people to new life in Christ by speaking out God’s word into a world which often seems hopeless and over run by worldly and evil powers.
But God does prevail. Good does overcome evil. Light does overcome dark. And Hope does overcome despair. The Good Shepherd calls to His sheep and invites them to hear and follow Him.