In Andrew Lloyd Weber’s Jesus Christ, Superstar, King Herod sings a mocking song to Jesus – “Who are you, Jesus Christ?” It is a question that people have asked for two thousand years. Who is this Jesus? Is he a great teacher or a fraud? Is he a sage or revolutionary or miracle worker? Is he “just a man,” as the Mary Magdalene figure sings in the musical play or is he something more? Is Jesus the Messiah, the Son of God, the Savior?
We often imagine that had we lived at the time of Jesus, seen him and heard him, it would have been easier to believe in him. It may or may not have been.
In our Gospel text, Jesus is confronted by his fellow Jews. The time was December, the feast of Dedication, Hanukkah, and the place was the portico of Solomon at the Temple in Jerusalem. They asked Jesus, “How long will you keep us in suspense,” literally, “raise or take away our souls,” “Are you the Messiah?” They had heard Jesus’ words and seen Jesus’ works and still did not know whether Jesus was the promised Messiah or just another rabbi. They did not understand who Jesus was.
After two thousand years, we have the witness of many believers, the stories of many, many wonderful things done in the name of Jesus by his followers. We also have our doubts and wonder whether these ancient stories have something to say to our modern, even post-modern world. I remember hearing one of my graduate school teachers, Dr. Martin Marty from the University of Chicago, on public radio being asked about the growing interest in religion today but also the challenge of religious pluralism – so many different belief systems. Marty was asked whether he believed there was an objective truth. He replied, “Yes, and there were things he believed in so strongly that he hoped he would give his life for them,” but that in a pluralistic situation, one could not necessarily prove objective truth in a public situation. He also described the opposite position that held truth to be relative, sort of a common idea today that something may be true for me but not for you. He said,
“Relativism is like one foot on a banana peel and the other foot… on a banana peel.”
Our faith rests on what we believe but cannot prove, what we confess but cannot explain very well. And nothing is harder to prove or explain than Jesus, who and what he is or even why we have come to believe in him.
Even Jesus speaks to our dilemma. He explains to the Jews who were questioning him – and in St. John’s Gospel, when the questions are put to Jesus they are often in the form of a test rather than an open, honest seeking-after answers. Here it is as if the Jews were trying to test him so he is not free to answer openly, but rather responds to them by saying,
“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.”
Not only do we have Jesus giving an oblique answer to the question of who he is, but also to the next question we may have of why some believe and others do not. Jesus simply says that those who believe are those who hear his voice and follow him. They are his sheep; he knows them and he brings them through times of trouble to eternal life. Those who do not know him or love him, who do not believe that he is the Messiah, the Son of God, are somehow not his sheep at all.
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When I was serving as interim pastor at a little village church I became fond of the old-fashioned altar painting they still had behind the ornate altar at the front of the church. I found out that Central Lutheran Church when it was called Trinity Lutheran Church, in the old church, also had an altar painting of Christ looking at the cross. Well, First Lutheran Church, in Audubon, Minnesota, still had its altar painting – Jesus the Good Shepherd with little lambs all around him. All were white except one – there was even a black sheep with Jesus and he carried one little lamb in his arms. My wife’s second cousin, Laverne Jacobson, was a member of that congregation and he told me that he had always thought of the little lamb in Jesus’ arms as someone in special need. When we were there, Laverne was diagnosed with terminal cancer, melanoma, and he told me that when he got that report from the doctor he began to think of himself as being the little lamb carried by Jesus.
The theme for this Sunday is Jesus as the Good Shepherd and we as God’s people, the sheep of his flock. How did we come to recognize the Shepherd? How did we get to be Jesus’ flock? Most of us did not come to faith because we set out to deduce meaning for the universe. Yes, there are those three a.m. questions – what is the meaning of life, what is my purpose for living, is there a God?
But most of us came to know and love Jesus because we had Christian parents and grandparents, Christian friends and neighbors. Most of us went to Sunday School and Vacation Bible School where we learned we were Jesus’ little lambs. We can be thankful for that. It has been said the Christianity is not so much taught as it is caught, and we can be thankful if we were taught as children to know and love God and caught the excitement of the faith from other believers.
As Kathleen Norris, the noted author has put it, one of the greatest concerns today is that many of our young people are NOT being trained in a religious tradition and are growing up spiritually rootless. They may very well believe any old thing because they have not been taught something specifically. The very best thing, Norris said, is simply to read and tell Bible stories to children so that they have some background in religious faith. They may reject it when they are older, but at least they will have something to reject.
Yet we can never really give faith to someone else. We can know the truth for ourselves – the way, the truth, and the life which is Jesus Christ. We can confess that Jesus is the Messiah, the Son of God, because we have heard his voice. We have come to know him and love him and believe his promise to us that believing in him we should never perish but have eternal life. We believe because we are Jesus’ sheep; he is our good shepherd and has promised that no one will snatch us out of his Father’s hand.
Who is Jesus? What do I believe about him? Why do I believe and others do not? I read a story recently about an evangelist who went to a rally in California. There he met a man who told him, “I was at your meeting last night. How about having a few moments of Christian fellowship with me?” The evangelist liked the way the man said that so he took time from his busy schedule to be with the man. The man said, “I love Jesus. I wonder if he has done as much for you, as he’s done for me.” “He has done a lot for me,” the evangelist said. “For me, he has done everything,” the man replied. “I tried so hard to change myself. I wanted so much to be different and I used all the willpower I could muster to change, but I was still the same. Then I went to a revival meeting and the preacher said, ‘The only way you can ever be changed is to surrender yourself to Jesus Christ’. So I went home and got down on my knees in my bedroom and just said two sentences to Jesus: ‘Dear Lord, I don’t want to be this way. I can’t change myself; You change me’. And in that moment, I had a wonderful feeling of his presence. Then I found that those things that used to have power over me didn’t anymore.” He grabbed the hand of the speaker, “Isn’t Jesus wonderful.” We have come to know and love Jesus because of what he has done for us. We may not be able to answer all the theological answers – no one can. But we can know Jesus. We can be Jesus’ little lamb. We can be like our children or grandchildren who can sing, “Jesus Loves Me, This I Know,” even though they do not understand much of the nuances of theology or be able to argue with the cultured despisers of religion. But they can know the love of Jesus in their own way and want to follow Jesus as they can. When the disciples would have prevented the children from coming to him, Jesus said, “Suffer the little children to come unto me, for such as theirs is the Kingdom of Heaven.” The Kingdom of God comes to little ones who know Jesus, who are Jesus’ little lambs of whatever age or station or condition. They hear the Savior’s voice and follow. He knows them and gives then new and abundant life forever. We can’t prove it or even explain it, but we know it is true. Amen.