by Jason Micheli
Psalm 82, John 10 (click to see Scripture text)
What began as a political fight turned into a trial by combat.
They stormed the gates.
They breached the walls.
They broke down doors.
They shattered norms and artifacts.
And those in their way they beat with the poles from the flags and the banners with which they had marched upon the hallowed site.
Once inside, the invading would-be usurpers hunted down those who represented the people and desecrated the sacred place, the monument that symbolized the nation, its system of law, and the promise that this particular people is a providential blessing to the world and a light to the nations.
Such a violent incursion into the citadel hadn’t happened in centuries— and then, it was by foreign enemies not their own fellow citizens— and though it seemed unthinkable it was entirely foreseeable.
A little over a century and a half before the birth of Christ, Israel was riven by a bitter, partisan divide that put them on the brink of civil war.
On one side of the conflict were the traditionalists, conservatives allied with Ptolemy, the Pharaoh of Egypt.
On the other side of the fight were the Tobiads— progressives— those Jews who sought to synthesize their covenant customs with the practices and views of the wider pagan world.
The traditionalists ousted the Tobiads from Jerusalem in 170 BC and the Tobiads found exile in Syria under King Antioches Epiphanes.
No soon had they arrived in Syria the exiles began lobbying Antioches to invade Israel and restore their party to the power and authority that had been stolen from them.
Those who ginned up the incursion got more than they anticipated. At the leader’s incitement, the Temple was stormed and looted. The proceedings in the Temple were halted. The chief priests at work there were hunted and beaten and killed.
As the ancient Jewish historian, Josephus, writes in the Jewish War:
“The king being thereto disposed beforehand, complied with the Tobiads, and came upon the Jews with a great army, and took their city by force, and slew a great multitude of those that favored Ptolemy, and sent out his soldiers to plunder them without mercy. He also spoiled the temple, and put a stop to the constant practice of offering a daily sacrifice of expiation for three years and six months.”
In the aftermath of the violence, Antioches erected an altar to Zeus inside the Temple where the ark of the covenant had once resided.
He banned the sign of the covenant, circumcision, and, in the holy of holies— where only the great high priest was clean enough to come— Antioches slaughtered a herd of pigs and smeared their entrails and blood upon the mercy seat.
The breach of the Temple crossed a line.
And it ignited a large scale revolt led by Mattathias, a Jewish priest, and his five sons Jochanan, Simeon, Eleazar, Jonathan, and Judah.
A year after the desecration of the Temple, Judah Maccabeus took the mantle from his father, becoming a guerrilla leader, earning the nickname “Judah the Sledgehammer,” and winning the title מָשִׁיחַ.
When his father commissioned him to lead the movement, Judah pledged to “avenge the wrong done by our enemies and to pay back to the Gentiles what they deserve.”
Judah the Sledgehammer kept his vow, defeating Antioches two years later and deposing the seditionists. Upon victory, jubilant Israelites showered Judah the Sledgehammer with shouts of “Hosanna!”
And they rejoiced that perhaps the Sledgehammer was the Shepherd, the Good Shepherd, the Messiah of Messiahs, prophesied by Ezekiel.
As it turned out, no.
After defeating Antioches Epiphanes, Judah turned around and signed a treaty with Rome. The Sledgehammer suffered a failure of imagination and traded one kingdom for another just like it.
But not before he became the prototype for the kind of Messiah Israel expected.
Upon his victory over Antioches, over eight days and eight nights, Judah the Sledgehammer cleansed the Temple, turning over the tables of the pagan altars, and instituted a festival to commemorate the Temple’s restoration.
Or, as the Gospel of John puts it in today’s text (as a FLASHING RED LIGHTBULB CLUE of you, dear reader), the Festival of Dedication.
Conspicuously missing from Jesus’ litany of “I am” sayings in the Gospel of John is a straightforward, lay-your-cards-on-the-table “I am the Messiah.”
There’s “I am the bread of life.”
There’s “I am the light of the world.”
And there’s “I am the resurrection and the life.”
I am— like the Lord says to Moses from the Burning Bush.
“I am the true vine,” Jesus says in John’s Gospel.
“I am the way and the truth, no one comes to the Father but by me.”
But there’s no brass tacks moment when Jesus gets down to business and makes it plain, “I am the Messiah.”
Still, though, Jesus’ hearers are a quick study and they’ve been taking notes.
After all, they’re stuck in some political unpleasantness of their own and they’re anxious to take up the sword and to lay down their hosannas on the next Sledgehammer.
It didn’t escape their notice, for instance, that Jesus kicked off his ministry by pitching a temple tantrum, weaving a whip of cords, turning over tables, and screaming that what the collaborators had done was every bit as bad as what Antioches had done, “You’ve turned my Father’s house into a den of thieves.”
And as the sheep and oxen scatter and the money-changers nurse their wounds, what does Jesus promise to do?
He promises to cleanse the Temple, once for all.
Just like the Sledgehammer.
He never comes out and says it, “I am the Messiah.”
But for any with eyes to see the signs are all there.
When Jesus reveals his Jewish deli powers, feeding five thousand with just five loaves of challah and two herring, how does the crowd respond?
They want to take him by force, John says— not because he makes such fine sandwiches.
They want to make him מָשִׁיחַ.
There’s seven “I am” statements in John’s Gospel.
But there’s no big reveal “I am Messiah” statement.
Nevertheless, the crowds are wise to him.
At the Festival of Booths in John 7, while Jesus teaches in the Temple, some who heard him asked, “Can this man, whom they seek to kill, be the Messiah?”
Now, two months later, in John 10, it’s Hanukkah, the festival that celebrates the rededication of their desecrated monument and the armed restoration of their people to power.
And once again Jesus is teaching in the Temple.
This time he’s teaching in the portico of Solomon whose thick walls serve as a windbreak from the winter cold.
And Jesus creeps so close to the edge his toes are curled over the side.
He doesn’t divulge it totally, “I am the Messiah.”
I am your Sledgehammer.
But he steps to within a hair’s breadth of it, gesturing back to the prophet Ezekiel. “I am the Good Shepherd,” Jesus says, “the thief comes only to steal and kill and destroy. I came so that my sheep may have life and have it abundantly.”
His hearers, though— they’re tired of the long, slow tease.
They want their freedom back. They want their enemies defeated. They want their political power returned. They’re ready to enlist, to take up arms, to roll up their sleeves and carry a righteous banner.
They just want to know, “Are you the Messiah, already?!”
Quit being coy.
“How long will you keep us in suspense?” they ask him in today’s text, “If you are the Christ, tell us plainly.”
Because if you are, we’ve got to get home and sharpen our swords.
In other words, put up or shut up, Jesus.
Jesus’ response has to be the most disappointing recruitment pitch in the history of enlistment campaigns.
There’s no “Be all you can be.”
There’s no “We’re cancelling the apocalypse.”
There’s not even a “Today is our Independence Day.”
Henry the Fifth’s St. Crispin’s speech Jesus’ reply is not.
Jesus doesn’t rouse them to do anything, in fact. “My sheep listen to my voice,” Jesus says, “I know them, and we walk together.”
Again, remember the prophet Ezekiel.
Shepherd and sheep— this is messianic, martial imagery.
The Good Shepherd is the Christ, promised by God and prophesied by Ezekiel, which makes the flock his Christian soldiers.
But the responsibility he gives to his army is aural.
“My sheep listen to my voice.”
And just in case you’re tempted to dismiss Jesus’ rally speech as a throwaway line, note how John has placed it right at the very center of his Gospel.
“My sheep listen to my voice.”
The only responsibility this Good Shepherd gives to his army is aural.
Almost as important as the task Jesus gives to his flock are all the other tasks he does not give them.
Jesus doesn’t say:
My sheep do whatever is necessary to achieve their vision of society. My sheep resist evil and oppression in whatever forms they present themselves. My sheep stand up and fight to protect their values and their nation.
No— and that’s what they expected him to say.
He doesn’t even say My sheep love their neighbors, or care of the poor, or give to good works.
The only responsibility this Good Shepherd gives to his army is aural.
“My sheep listen to my voice.”
As New Testament scholar, Frederick Dale Bruner says of this text, what comprises discipleship is Christophonics. What constitutes the Church and her task is deceptively simple. The Church are those who listen to him, who hear what God says in the gracious Word that is Christ.
Or, as Luther says, to be a Christian is to cling to Christ’s word, the Gospel, for dear life.
The sole responsibility the Good Shepherd gives to his army is aural.
Our task is simple.
And whenever the flock shuts their ears and complicates it, believing the Shepherd has given them more responsibilities than that one, they wander off and they get lost.
Last Wednesday, before they marched upon the U.S. Capitol, members of the far-right group, the Proud Boys, stopped to kneel in the street and pray in the name of Jesus.
They beseeched the Lord to bring “reformation and revival” to the land, and they gave thanks to God for “the wonderful nation we’ve all been blessed to be in.” They prayed for the restoration of their “value systems,” for the “courage and strength to represent Christ and culture well.”
They closed by seeking divine protection for what was to come.
When they finished, they rose and their leader shouted into a bullhorn at the journalists nearby, “Get the hell out of my way.”
As Ruth Graham wrote in the New York Times and as David French argued in the Dispatch, Christian imagery and speech so suffused the seditious riot at the Capitol that, to those who participated in it, it was a Christian insurrection.
Contemporary Christian music, for example, played at the place a gallows was being erected. Interspersed with allusions to QAnon conspiracy theories, Confederate flags and anti-Semitic T-shirts, there were “Jesus 2020” banners in blue and red, “Armor of God” patches on a men’s fatigues; and white crosses declaring “Trump won.”
Pastors belonging to the “Black Robe Regiment” spoke about the mission to “save the republic for Christ.” One man, Emma Green reported for the Atlantic, held a sign begging passersby to say yes to Jesus. “Shout if you love Jesus!” someone yelled, and the crowd cheered. “Shout if you love Donald Trump!” The crowd cheered louder.
A forty-year old woman from Texas flew to Washington after receiving what she called a “burning bush” sign from God to help “stop the steal.” “We are fighting good versus evil, dark versus light.” she said, declaring that she was rising up like Queen Esther, the biblical heroine who saved her people from death.
Work obligations got in the way of Adam Phillips, a forty-four year old contractor from North Carolina, who had hoped to participate. “It has been obvious for a while that Christians are under suppression,” he told a reporter, “they are under scrutiny by everyone. All of the things the country was founded on are under attack, they are trying to get the name of God out of everything, especially the name of Jesus.”
“This is what we must do as members of Christ’s flock,” another rioter explained on Facebook Live in real time during the insurrection.
“This is what we must do as members of the flock.”
Um, no, says Jesus, “My sheep [must only] listen to my voice.”
Of course, we should remember that we risk wandering and getting ourselves lost from the flock just to the extent that we attempt to correct the mistakes those self-proclaimed Christians made on the National Mall last week by adding other oughts and shoulds of our own, works that we think are necessary for faithful members of the flock to perform.
The theologian Ken Sundet Jones writes that we hack God’s election of us in Christ whenever we convince ourselves that we need to add to Jesus’ recruitment pitch, whenever we think we’ve been drafted to be anything more than an aural army.
My sheep listen to my voice and they also_______ and they also_______….
“The hacking of God’s electing work comes when the world, the devil, and my sinful self get me to think that I can’t count on God’s promises in Jesus. Divine election hacking happens with the proposal that God’s Word is irrelevant. This little Word that the hymn says subdues all the enemies of the Gospel comes to be seen as powerless, weak, and impotent. Christ alone is not enough, and something needs to be added to the cross. Usually what gets added is a moral program, a social benefit, or a political cause that the hackers in this election say is really worth your time. The opponents to the Word move in from both the left and the right. We get divided into camps…At best, these hackers want you to serve many noble causes and not-so-random acts of kindness that make the world a better or more moral place. But like Russian operatives, the result is always that you take your eye off the ball to serve your own autonomy. Your attention is pulled away from the one single thing you need for your salvation, the one thing that is required for the existence of the church and the redemption of the world. What’s missing from this picture is the promise of the Gospel, Jesus Christ, and him crucified.”
The crowd gathered around Jesus on Hannukkah— They’re ready to enlist, to take up arms, to roll up their sleeves, carry a righteous banner, and make_______ great again.
If you’re the Messiah, already, give us marching orders!
“Listen,” Jesus responds sparingly, “My sheep listen to my voice.”
The sole work the Shepherd asks his flock to do is to abide in the promise, the promise of the Gospel, returning to it again and again, to hear and receive it in Word and Water and Wine and Bread.
If that doesn’t sound like much to you, you’re right.
There isn’t much for you to do but listen and trust because one day— on the last day— Jesus Christ is going to present us all to the Father on account of his righteousness— his permanent perfect record— and not at all in the power of our own totally inadequate records, good or bad, no matter if we’re part of the ninety-nine who think we’ve never strayed too far from the flock or if we’re one of those sheep we all saw on television last week, wandering, lost and stubborn, on the grounds of the Capitol.
The Good Shepherd’s sheep are those who gather, over and again, to listen to his voice. Period. There’s no addenda. If that doesn’t sound like much to you, you’re right. It’s not.
The life of grace is not an effort on our part to achieve a goal we set for ourselves nor is the life of grace an effort to achieve our vision of how the world ought to be.
The life of grace is instead a continually renewed attempt simply to believe that someone else has done all the achieving for us that is needed and to live in relationship with that person, whether we achieve anything or not.
The life of grace is the ongoing attempt simply to trust that someone else has and is and will yet rectify all that is broken in our world.
“My sheep listen to my voice.”
On the one hand, it doesn’t sound like much.
On the other hand—
In a nation riven against itself, in a culture at war with itself, in a “Christianity” where so many lost sheep have been lured away by lies, perhaps what the conflict needs more than anything else is exactly this aural army, a flock who know, no matter what others tweet with black and white certainty, the Shepherd says to us all, “None is righteous, no, not one…For there is no distinction: for all have sinned and fallen short of the glory of God.”
Maybe what the pitched partisan battle needs is this aural army who know the Shepherd says, “Take heart! I have already overcome the world!” and, therefore, we do not have to act in this world as though the future is up to us— because when sinners think the future depends on us alone, we will justify any means necessary to that end, and thus we tarnish our witness.
In light of our intractable, othering divide between “Us” and “Them,” maybe what our cultural antagonism needs most is an aural army who’ve listened enough to the Shepherd to know that all of us are included in the them when the Shepherd promises, “I will remember their sins and their lawless deeds no more. Where there is forgiveness for them, there is no longer any expiation necessary for sin.”
Perhaps it’s no small thing at all that our Lord Jesus Christ has called forth a little flock who, by listening to his Word, know that it’s not a battle between good versus evil, light versus dark, for the line between good and evil runs through every human heart. We are all those whom choose the darkness that the Light nevertheless loves to death.
With so many of us trying to save the republic from the rest of us, it’s not a little thing that the Good Shepherd has conscripted troops who know one thing: That the only friends Jesus has are sinners, and, no matter what they’ve done or left undone, he is ever ready to eat and drink with them.
And if you’re not ready to join them at the table…well…
Jesus calls that hell.
With so many wracked with anxiety, afraid of the next disaster around the corner, it’s much indeed that the Good Shepherd has called forth a flock who’ve heard and trust the promise he speaks to us today that “Nobody— not the devil, not the world, not the flesh, not even ourselves— can take us away from the Love that will not let us go.”
The promise is not that we will be saved from all earthly trials and tribulations but that we will saved no matter what trials and tribulations befall us. And, in a world of trials and tribulations, that promise frees us to be his non-anxious in the world.
I was not called by the Risen Christ nor ordained by his Church to opine on politics in the pulpit, but as a preacher, called by Christ and commissioned by his authority alone, I do know that just as we will not become a more perfect union through conspiracy theories, lies, or violence, neither will we become a more perfect union by anathematizing one another— shunning and shaming those who do not agree with us.
I know this because, well, because I’ve listened to him.
God has taken his place in the divine council; in the midst of the gods he holds judgment:
“How long will you judge unjustly and show partiality to the wicked? Selah
Give justice to the weak and the orphan; maintain the right of the lowly and the destitute.
Rescue the weak and the needy; deliver them from the hand of the wicked.”
They have neither knowledge nor understanding, they walk around in darkness; all the foundations of the earth are shaken.
I say, “You are gods, children of the Most High, all of you;
nevertheless, you shall die like mortals, and fall like any prince.”
Rise up, O God, judge the earth; for all the nations belong to you!
22 At that time the festival of the Dedication took place in Jerusalem. It was winter, 23and Jesus was walking in the temple, in the portico of Solomon. 24So 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.’25Jesus answered, ‘I have told you, and you do not believe. The works that I do in my Father’s name testify to me; 26but you do not believe, because you do not belong to my sheep. 27My sheep hear my voice. I know them, and they follow me. 28I give them eternal life, and they will never perish. No one will snatch them out of my hand. 29What my Father has given me is greater than all else, and no one can snatch it out of the Father’s hand.* 30The Father and I are one.’
31 The Jews took up stones again to stone him. 32Jesus replied, ‘I have shown you many good works from the Father. For which of these are you going to stone me?’ 33The Jews answered, ‘It is not for a good work that we are going to stone you, but for blasphemy, because you, though only a human being, are making yourself God.’ 34Jesus answered, ‘Is it not written in your law,* “I said, you are gods”? 35If those to whom the word of God came were called “gods”—and the scripture cannot be annulled—36can you say that the one whom the Father has sanctified and sent into the world is blaspheming because I said, “I am God’s Son”? 37If I am not doing the works of my Father, then do not believe me. 38But if I do them, even though you do not believe me, believe the works, so that you may know and understand* that the Father is in me and I am in the Father.’39Then they tried to arrest him again, but he escaped from their hands.
*After submission, a confirmation email will be sent to the email address you provided. Please click the link to complete your subscription. You can opt out of receiving emails from us at any time.